While perusing some of the new releases a few weeks ago, I came across the comforting sounds of Doveman, a concert pianist who has worked with the likes of Grizzly Bear, Antony and the Johnsons, and David Byrne. As the first song “Breathing Out” unraveled, I was instantly brought back to the first time I heard Sufjan Steven’s “Greetings from Michigan”. All the pieces are there: the soft plink of a piano, the ghostly strum of a banjo, and the whispering tenor voice pouring out his soul. “The Best Thing” continues the same vibe, building to a dramatic finish of harmonizing voices and the elegant banjo being picked by none other than Sam Amidon, offering his skills to Doveman’s work. By the third song, “Memorize”, I was already multi-tasking, listening to the upbeat, spacey song while visiting Insound.com to order my new discovery. “Memorize” shows Doveman’s chops, exploring new environs with a muffled drum machine and vibrating organ, pushing the song along.
Once I received the CD, my original love of the album continued…for the first four tracks. It’s not that the second half of the album lacks anything that the beginning features. It’s just that by the time “From Silence” arrives, Doveman’s continuous whispering voice wears thin. While Sufjan is able to balance between his intimate, soft storytelling and celebratory glee choir, Doveman stays planted in the same, depressing tone, despite efforts to go elsewhere on songs like “The Best Thing” and “Memorize”.
I realize I’m being too hard on Doveman. To compare him to Sufjan is like comparing Busch Light to Dale’s Pale Ale: it’s just not fair. “The Conformist” is an excellent album if you’re in the mood for songs that inspire self-reflection. Maybe Sufjan is to blame. His last album “Come On Feel the Illinoise” came out four years ago, and it’s getting to the point where I can’t help but wonder when he’ll return to the limelight.
Speaking of Sufjan…
Sufjan Stevens “The BQE” Asthmatic Kitty Records
“The BQE” is a documentary Sufjan made about, well, the BQE (Brooklyn-Queens Exchange), a stretch of helter skelter highway running through New York City, inducing headaches to commuters on a daily basis. The DVD documentary comes with a CD of the soundtrack, a large narrative booklet on the BQE, and a Viewmaster slide featuring photos of the BQE (I actually went out and bought a Viewmaster to view the pics…yes, I’m an über Sufjan fan). It seems like a strange project considering he still has 48 states to write albums about (or is he now going to attempt to write an album about every major U.S. interstate?) Needless to say, Sufjan likes to take on strange, thematic projects (one of his earliest albums, “Enjoy Your Rabbit”, is a song by song run through the Chinese zodiac). Yet, this focus on what seems to most as mundane is what makes Sufjan’s work so refreshing.
The album begins with lush, Gershwin-inspired orchestration. As I listened to the opening fanfare and the first few movements that followed, I was brought back to my childhood, watching a Disney documentary on the Grand Canyon, with phantasmagoria orchestra leading you through one of America’s most prominent landmarks. I’d venture to guess that is what Sufjan was going for. He has a penchant for making the dull seem significant, as if a disheveled New York interstate deserves the same respect as the Grand Canyon in some demented way.
Most of the soundtrack sounds alien to what you usually expect from Sufjan. Parts sound like an excerpt from “The Peanuts”, others like left-overs from the “Pee-Wee’s Big Adventure” soundtrack. Only on “Movement III: Linear Tableau With Intersecting Surprise” do we hear hints of the Sufjan we know and love. The familiar leads into the strangest song on the album, “Movement IV: Traffic Shock”, an electronica bleep fest, lost amidst the grandeur of classic Americana. I have a feeling this is just a hint of things to come from Sufjan, sounding very similar to the new song he leaked this summer at a concert in Ithaca.
I could respect his efforts but while listening to the soundtrack, I kept finding myself disinterested. I soon realized what was missing: Sufjan’s voice. Not necessarily his singing voice, but his voice: his storytelling, his insight, his aura. I made it through the whole soundtrack, begrudgingly, wishing for the Sufjan of old.
A few days later, I decided to throw in the DVD to see what his movie was all about. Once again, I was disappointed. The first ten minutes featured slow moving traffic, with boats floating in the forefront. It seemed like a movie a film school student put together at the last minute after a night at a kegger. I became so bored with the visuals, I turned my attention to the booklet, reading Sufjan’s words as the film continued rolling footage of cars. And then I heard the voice.
His words mesmerized me; his writing craft instantly put me to shame. Two paragraphs into the essay I was hooked. Who knew the history of an interstate could be so interesting? As he drew me in more and more, I looked up at the TV, and what once seemed amateur, suddenly exuded significance. Using three frames, side by side, the three videos of cars somehow melded into one, looking like what Henry Ford might have seen while tripping on acid. The roving traffic, the shimmering lights, the ocean-like motion of the cars: I no longer needed Sufjan’s storytelling. The video held the aura; the BQE held the stories.
Like most of Sufjan’s work, “The BQE” requires your undivided attention. The only difference is with albums like “Greetings From Michigan” and “Seven Swans” you can also just listen to the music for enjoyment, while you can’t truly enjoy “BQE” without the visuals. As much as I respect and envy Sufjan’s skills as a film maker/writer, I still like the familiar singer songwriter best of all.