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DM Stith: Sufjan’s Kindred Spirit

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Yes, Sufjan Stevens performed a headlining show at Toronto’s Massey Hall on Wednesday. But there’s another artist deserving of discerning music fans’ attention, and he had a big hand in the Toronto gig’s success.

 

Sufjan Stevens and DM Stith.

 

That artist is David Stith, Sufjan Stevens’s friend and Asthmatic Kitty label mate. Also known as DM Stith, he is both a gifted singer-songwriter and an accomplished visual artist, whose work has been featured in cover art for the albums of fellow musicians such as My Brightest Diamond. On this much-anticipated tour, Stith serves both as the opening act and as a member of Stevens’s 10-piece backing band.

As a member of Stevens’s cohort, Stith is more than a complementary fit.  His voice–while similar in timbre to that of Stevens–has a slightly nasal edge, with the ability to switch effortlessly between chest voice and head voice.  When Stevens goes into his falsetto, it’s more noticeable.  Where Stevens has had a softer vocal lilt that can seeem cooly detached somehow (particularly during theIllinoise era), Stith projects a singular instrument of piercing vulnerability.

As a solo artist, Stith presented himself much more than admirably on Wednesday.  His brief four-song set showcased above all his remarkable voice, and his ability to craft songs with a potent emotional core  that swells and grows vivid before the listener’s ears, but somehow is slightly beyond  our earthly grasp.  His music represents something “other.”

While I generally disapprove of making overt, obvious or heavy-handed comparisons between artists, I’ll take the risk here with the hopes of providing a greater context for where Stith finds himself in the current indie singer-songwriter landscape.  Stith’s guitarwork, melodic choices, and vocal phrasing are all similar to that of Grizzly Bear’s Daniel Rossen.  But Rossen almost always sounds timid, like you’d have to beg him to let the song out.  In stark contrast, Stith possesses a quiet presence, but clearly has something to sing about and needs no coaxing to convince him to let it out.

And as a vocalist, Stith has astonishing control.  In its fullness, his voice is as joyously combustible and melismatic as Dave Longstreth of Dirty Projectors.  Stith’s falsetto is stiff competition for Sigur Ros’ Jon Thor Birgisson in terms of sheer ethereal ecstasy.

Compounded by his use of a looping pedal, Stith amassed a veritable chamber choir by stacking his own voice on top of itself in harmonies that evoked a hallucinatory mix of sorrow and hope.  This effect was perfectly exemplified in his performance of “Thanksgiving Moon”:

It’s interesting, though–as I listen back to that clip, he sounds a lot like Robin Pecknold of Fleet Foxes. With all those comparisons now floating around out there, Stith still sounds distinctly like himself. I would contend that his “otherness” is quite singular. I’d love to hear others’ thoughts on the matter.

Here at the end of this post, however, I do have a definitive conclusion: Like Sufjan, David Stith is a truly gifted songwriter who channels his artistic savvy into heartfelt and sincere expression.

 

A kindred duo.

 

Written by winebrick41

October 15, 2010 at 4:51 am

Sufjan Stevens Live at Massey Hall, Toronto 10/13/10

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Here it is–the Sufjan Stevens concert, in review:
  • A quick disclaimer: Before I begin with my recounting of the Sufjan Stevens concert at Massey Hall last night, I must preface it with a little background on how Stevens and his devoted fans have gotten to this point October 13, 2010–the beginning stage of his first real tour in support of his first “real album” (quotes emphasized) since 2005. Proper context is definitely needed in order to understand the importance/implications of the concert. And as you’ll read later in my review, Stevens seems to think the album and tour need to be contextualized for his audience as well.
  • Very special thanks to Richard Mah, a fellow concertgoer who has kindly contributed his  bird’s-eye view photos of the concert from our seats in the gallery for the purpose of this concert review.
  • Also, I’ll be devoting a separate post to DM Stith’s opening set.

 

Stevens's 2nd tour stop in support of his first "proper" album in 5 years.

 

THE PREFACE

Sufjan Stevens is not who we thought he was. We, the general music public and followers of his artistic career, had by and large pegged him as a gentle singer-songwriter with the hushed melodic voice and penchant for writing chamber pop songs with grand orchestrations to embellish his folk-influenced tunes. He was the musician who leapt into the independent music spotlight during the middle of the last decade, captivating listeners-by with the prospect of the impossibly grand delusion of grandeur commonly known as “The 50-State Project.” His goal–to create one album for each of the 50 states in USA–was simple enough to understand, but in practice, it was surely a painstaking process.

Stevens was the songwriter who, after the release of his second “states” album, Come On and Feel the Illinoise in 2005, and the subsequent b-sides record The Avalanche, temporarily set songwriting aside to complete a symphonic song cycle/film for chamber ensemble called The BQE, which was commissioned by the Brooklyn Academy of Music.

Subsequently this same Stevens shocked his fans when he revealed on more than one occasion that The BQE project had effectively drained his desire, and perhaps ability to write songs. One notable, somewhat infamous quote from the man himself during a 2009 interview he conducted with fellow musician Shannon Stephens on the Asthmatic Kitty web site is as follows:

I’m at a point where I no longer have a deep desire to share my music with anyone, having spent many years imparting my songs to the public. Although I have great respect for the social dynamic of music—that it should be shared with others, that it brings people together—I now feel something personal is irrevocably lost in this process. Now, while I refuse to act wholly on this impulse (I refuse to take my audience for granted in spite of my mood), I’m still trying to find the value of the song in private. Having spent ten years in private (not sharing your music), can you offer some wisdom on this matter? Does a song have any meaning even it’s not shared?

By the time an album called Run Rabbit Run by the string quartet named Osso– a re-imagining of Stevens’s 2001 electronic song cycle/ode to the Chinese zodiac Enjoy Your Rabbit–was released in the fall of 2009 on Stevens’s own Asthmatic Kitty record label, the once-prolific musician’s future in songwriting was still in serious doubt. But Run Rabbit Run (a collaborative effort between several musicians, composers, and arrangers, commissioned and curated by Bryce Dessner of The National, and sanctioned by Stevens himself) also signaled that the Michigan native created music that aspired to be more than just a collection of catchy songs.

With the release of the nearly 60-minute “EP” All Delighted People and The Age of Adz (pronounced ODDS), his first “proper full-length album” in five years, Stevens demonstrates that he is actually a contemporary composer (of the indie-classical persuasion, if I have to put a label on it, which I don’t, but will for the sake of basic identification) of high order, who happens to use songs as his principal medium. If I recall correctly, Gustav Mahler also picked song cycles as his compositional poison (just a sidenote of interest).

There are those who have followed Stevens since the 50-States Era who seem somewhat dumbfounded, perhaps perturbed at the prospect of The Age of Adz, an electronics-laden fantasy which has been interpreted by some as a huge departure from the acoustic guitar/banjo-driven songs of much of Stevens’s earlier catalog.

I couldn’t disagree more with this opinion. When placed within the larger context of the songwriter’s entire catalog, The Age of Adz is the perfect amalgamation of Stevens’s focused yet grandiose folk-influenced songs and his quirky electronic bliss-outs. Because this is not an album review per se, I will leave it at that.

 

Massey Hall, dimly lit.

 

THE REVIEW

First order of business is the setlist, which was as follows:

  • All Delighted People
  • Heirloom
  • Too Much
  • Futile Devices
  • Age of Adz
  • I Walked
  • Now That I’m Older
  • Vesuvius
  • Get Real Get Right
  • Enchanting Ghost
  • The Owl and the Tanager
  • Impossible Soul
  • Chicago

Encore:

  • Concerning the UFO Sighting Near Highland, Illinois (Sufjan solo piano)
  • John Wayne Gacy, Jr. (Sufjan solo acoustic guitar)

*If anyone has any corrections  in regards to the setlist that I may have missed, please let me know.

 

Stevens and band basking in full light.

 

Stevens opened the set with “All Delighted People,” a nearly 12-minute epic that officially heralded the songwriter’s return to form when it was released this past summer. Immediately, the chills hit me. From its choral a cappella beginning to the earnest emoting of Stevens’s voice, newly imbued with yelps, cracks, and a front-and-center vulnerability (one central lyric plainly states, “I’m still afraid of letting go of choices I’ve made”), to the bombastic collision of razor-sharp strings, screeching electronic distortions, triumphal brass, and the unabashed pounding of drums–this track shows Stevens at the height of his powers, able to cultivate deeply intimate and personal moments alongside uber-epic textures that make even Stevens’s past work seem small in comparison.

The performance itself was imperfect in its delivery, but that in no way detracted from the power, humanity, and immediacy of the work. At one point, the line “I love you from the top of my heart” escaped from Stevens’s mouth with a poignant croak. Meanwhile, countless suns, planets, stars, comets and other nondescript celestial bodies bounded across the scrim via video projection behind the band.

It was clear from the start that Stevens’s focus had gone cosmic, way beyond the quaint close-ups of U.S. state locales and stories of historical interest.

Second on the set was the acoustic guitar-centered “Heirloom.” “This is to lift up your spirits after all that drama,” explained Stevens. It is here that I would like to note perhaps the one weak characteristic of the set. While Stevens, to his credit, courageously focused almost exclusively on new material, he seemed insistent on alternating the more upbeat electronic tunes or loud, grandiose numbers with the quieter songs, so that by the fourth song, “Futile Devices” the patterning of song sequences became repetitive and predictable. That being said, if that’s the only aspect of the concert to take issue with, then ultimately, there’s nothing about which to complain.

In an abrupt change of moods, the band quickly fell into the groove of “Too Much” with exuberance. Here the audience was treated to a live music video of sorts, as a rapid-fire succession of images depicting Stevens and others dancing and rocking out the hipster-chic cool factor.

Thanks to trendaway for this excellent video footage of Stevens and co. performing “Too Much.”

 

"There's too much riding on that."

 

By the end of the song, both music and video have devolved into a kind of trance ritual that felt primal and animalistic. Stevens would later relate that “Too Much” was riding on the prospect of love–what he called “the great theme…the great migration of the human heart.”

Indeed the explanatory between-song talks Stevens had with his audience were frequent and heartfelt, all the while seeming to function as exculpatory evidence that the composer was not in the wrong for taking so long to produce new music on a new, more personal theme for himself-love.

Stevens expounded on the overall concept of The Age of Adz:

“The drama queen that I am…I’ve confused heartache with the end of the world. The apocalypse is the end of the heart. Thankfully, the heart is a very strong muscle.”

Title track “The Age of Adz” felt nothing short of prophetic. Unfortunately, this isn’t the place to elaborate on what I mean by that. It will have to wait for another post, in which I’ll point out the correlation of the above song and the album for which it is named to a book by Jacques Attali called Noise: The Political Economy of Music.

I will say that the song “Age of Adz” is indicative of the entire album, in that Stevens has reclaimed his familiar backing choruses and festive chamber-band instrumentation, and transported them to a more immediate, jagged and imposing musical landscape. The song is also emotionally brazen: “When I die I’ll rot/But when I live I’ll give it all I’ve got…Gloria/Victoria.”

The live performance of Stevens and company, like the studio performance, is somehow both existential and cosmic, personal and intimate but also infinitely large and overwhelming. The sonic textures are filled to excess with distortion, an utter cataclysm of sounds.

“Vesuvius” started out quietly but with insistence and later builds as static keyboard riffs pierce the chorus at the song’s climax, where recorders lend a provincial yet empowering sense of the human spirit. “Sufjan, follow your heart,” the song implores.

It should be noted that both the thematic content and visual look of both the new album and the resulting tour owe much to Royal Robertson a 20th century sign painter from Louisiana whose lived a tortured life as he succumbed to his all-consuming artistic obsession with the apocalypse, time travel, and alien creatures. Stevens studied the artist and the twisted reality he made for himself, and created The Age of Adz in part as a tribute to his influence. But as Stevens told the Toronto crowd at Massey Hall, Robertson’s story is also about the potential “disease of the imagination.” He dedicated the song “Get Real Get Right” to the deceased visionary artist.

 

Imagery from The Age of Adz.

 

Another highlight of the night was “The Owl and the Tanager,” perhaps the most gorgeous, deeply sorrowful song in the Sufjan Stevens catalog (which is saying a lot)

Near the end of the set, Stevens led the band in 25-MINUTE “song cycle” called “Impossible Soul”. In addition to being a frontrunner for most excessive Sufjan song ever, the live rendition last night gave me the opportunity to witness something I never dreamt I would see, hear, or write about: SUFJAN STEVENS USING AUTOTUNE! (it’s also on the recording) But don’t despair–it was fun, and in the context of the song’s indulgent pop aesthetic, it was perfectly appropriate. It seems almost obligatory these days for every recording artist to do at least one song with AUTOTUNE. Hell, if Justin Vernon of Bon Iver can get away with it, so can Stevens.

Before ending the evening’s set with “Chicago,” the only song representing the Illinoise album up to that point, in a heart-to-heart with the concertgoers, Stevens confessed with sincerity and humbleness, “It’s a great privilege to bring my bizarre vision of song and dance to you.”

In response to a resounding and incessant call for an encore, Stevens returned to the stage alone to perform two more favorites from his 2005 breakthrough record Illinoise. “Please forgive me as I cover my own songs,” he entreated the crowd. And the crowd readily obliged him, as he delivered a touching version of “Concerning the UFO Sighting…”

 

"Concerning the UFO Sighting..."

 

Somewhat puzzlingly, Stevens ended the night on a dark note, closing with “John Wayne Gacy Jr.” an utterly macabre but startlingly beautiful song about the infamous serial killer. It surprised me that he would choose to have that song be the last thing his fans heard before they walked out into the rainy Toronto night. Perhaps, it was a reminder to both himself and his audience, that in the end, “I am really just like him/ Look underneath the floorboards/For the secrets I have hid.”

Ultimately, I think it was a subtle ego check, a way to put things in perspective. Illinoise and the charming acoustic albums that immediately preceded it seemed to cause an organic response among Stevens’s fans to indulge in the myth of Stevens as the consummate, epic songwriter who could do no wrong and would always continue writing, until each and every U.S. state had an album devoted in its honor. Perhaps we projected unreasonable expectations on the artist, we pegged him as a savior of sorts for indie music, the de facto leader of grandiose, no-stone-unturned pop songs that were exhaustively researched and impeccably written.

Now having rediscovered his compositional voice, Sufjan Stevens seems to be taking personal ownership of his craft, and not hiding behind gimmicky 50-state concept albums (the artist’s own opinion) or third-person accounts. No, this is Stevens, the composer of  beautifully complex, meaningful songs and master of his own creative destiny.

 

Sufjan Stevens during the encore.

 

Written by winebrick41

October 14, 2010 at 10:49 am

Toronto Roadtrip/Sufjan Stevens

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The only activity I enjoy more than going to live concerts is taking a roadtrip to see and hear live music out-of-town.  Much time has passed since I’ve done both, so I was totally due for a last-minute, mini-roadtrip.  Tonight, Sufjan Stevens will play the magnificent Massey Hall and Toronto, with singer-songwriter/visual artist DM Stith opening.

Image from Wikipedia user Nephron.

My grandfather used to say that “it’s all in the anticipation.”  That’s only 90% true.  The 10% comprising what actually happens, and how that does or does not live up to said anticipation–well, that’s pretty important too.  I’ve attended a show at Massey Hall before (the incomparable Sigur Ros), but I’ve never seen an official  Stevens show.  I’m pretty sure a screening of The BQE hosted by Stevens himself doesn’t count, I don’t think.

Anyway, a review is definitely forthcoming.  I’m looking forward to it, and I hope you are too.  I won’t go into the details of Stevens’s career or why the gig is special right now, but I’ll hash it out in the upcoming post.

As a really intriguing sidenote, Osso’s 2009 debut release Run Rabbit Run–a collaborative reworking of Stevens’s electronic cycle Enjoy Your Rabbit for string quartet–has become ballet music.  Specifically, the New York City Choreographic Institute (co-founded by New York City Ballet’s Peter Martins) will present a new Justin Peck Ballet at Columbia University’s Miller Theatre in November.  That’s remarkable news, and I just might have to find my way down there for that.  Further proof that great art is great art, no matter what label, genre, or time period it which it finds itself encased.  The glass will be broken sooner or later, and there’s no telling what will happen once the priceless piece gets into the hands of the public at large (metaphorically of course-no actual theft is being advocated here).

Once again, Pitchfork has proven itself to be an excellent source for independent music news, even if I don’t always agree with their reviewers.

Also, I wrote a feature story for The Brooklyn Rail last year about Osso’s album Run Rabbit Run and what the whole creation process was like. You can find that article, “Rabbit REDUX: The Music of Sufjan Stevens for String Quartet” here.

Catch you all after the Toronto gig.

Arcade Fire performing at Toronto's Massey Hall.

Written by winebrick41

October 13, 2010 at 4:52 pm

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