Nick Drake

Review: Sufjan Stevens – Carrie & Lowell

After the experimentalism and bombast of The Age of Adz, Sufjan Stevens has returned with the stripped-down, heartbreakingly beautiful Carrie & Lowell, a nakedly intimate album that is possibly his greatest work yet.  Stevens attempts to come to terms with the myriad emotions resulting from the death of his birth mother (the “Carrie” in the title), with whom he had an unusual relationship; present-day stabs at attempting to comprehend their relationship are intertwined with memories of childhood summer visits to Oregon, often accompanied by only a delicately finger-picked guitar and Stevens’s soft cooing voice.  It is easy to get wrapped up in the emotional turmoil of the lyrical content, but despite the often dark subject matter, the record never succumbs to the potential to overwhelm the listener, because Stevens preserves a delicate balance through his carefully constructed arrangements and beautiful melodies.

For the most part, the easiest reference points to Carrie & Lowell are to early-Elliott Smith/late-Nick Drake records, a fair comparison because of the shared connection of hushed vocals and acoustic guitars.  However, the high points of the album are when Stevens channels other influences.  One can hear shades of The Antlers in the album’s finale “Blue Bucket of Gold” and especially in “Fourth of July”, with its soundscapes providing an elegiac ambiance and its simple keyboard chords delivered in a brisk eighth-note rhythm; the shift in musical style also complements the shift in the narrative, as “Fourth of July” details the events of his mother’s death in painstaking detail.  The song builds to an agonizing climax, with the dramatic haunting line “we’re all gonna die” lingering in the air as the music drops out.

“The Only Thing” follows, switching back to the soft treble tones of a finger-picked guitar but maintaining the same devastating narrative; if it was backed by heavily distorted lead guitar, it would be a perfect siren song for a Victory Records band, especially with lyrics like “Should I tear my eyes out now before I see too much?  Should I tear my arms out now?  I want to feel your touch.”  The difference is that Stevens delivers these nakedly personal lines with such a deft touch that it only invokes empathy in the listener, and avoids the possibility of falling into self-caricature.  This adroitness extends to other brilliant sonic details, such as the end of “John My Beloved”–as Stevens ends the song with the line “in a manner of speaking, I’m dead”, the tape keeps rolling for a few moments, and one can hear a short breath before the tape is cut, creating an extremely powerful moment.

While Stevens abandoned the “Fifty States” project, the subtitle for Carrie & Lowell could easily be “Oregon”, as references to state landmarks and historical events are peppered throughout the album.  Hearing mentions of The Dalles, Spencer’s Butte, and the Tillamook burn, among others, helps ground the album to a specific time and place, as well as provide a personal touch to the universal emotions explored throughout the record (and as an Oregonian, it definitely keeps my attention as a listener as I keep trying to spot the different references with each listen).  The album is an often harrowing listen, but Carrie & Lowell is never a slog; with the aid of his gorgeous and elegant musical arrangements, Stevens is able to probe difficult questions about love and relationships without leaving the listener in a depressed and miserable state.  It may be Sufjan’s best work to date, and possibly the most beautiful album you will hear this year.

Catching Up On The Week (Nov. 28 Edition)

Some #longreads as you awaken from the Thanksgiving food coma…

We’re going to put the spotlight on Seattle this weekend, since we have multiple articles discussing the city’s place in music history.  First, Seattle Weekly talks to Bruce Pavitt, co-founder of the now-legendary independent label Sub Pop.  Next, the Seattle Post-Intelligencer has a profile of Dave Grohl as the Emerald City episode of his Sonic Highways is set to air.  And finally, Kim Thayil of Soundgarden talks to Loudwire about the band’s new rarities release Echo of Miles.

Seattle, though often grey, is still pretty.

Seattle, though often grey, is still pretty.

We’ve been enjoying the latest album from TV on the Radio these past couple of weeks, and before we unveil our official review on Tuesday, read up on the making of the new album with profiles in both the New York Times and Consequence of Sound.

The Atlantic has an article about how the internet helped spark a revival of interest in Nick Drake, far more than he had enjoyed in his brief life and career.  While we mentioned the seminal Volkswagen ad in our “Pink Moon” Covered feature, this piece helps fill in some additional interesting details.

In the past we’ve looked at different aspects of the streaming debate, mainly focusing our attention on Spotify and their payout model.  East Bay Ray of the Dead Kennedys sheds some insight on another service we’ve neglected, YouTube, showing how the company pays even less to artists than its competitors.

Though he’s mainly known for the off-center comedic empire he’s built with partner Tim Heidecker, Eric Wareheim has had a successful side-gig as a director of music videos.  The AV Club interviews Eric for its Random Reels feature, and he sheds insights on such videos as the frightening “We Are Water” video he did for HEALTH (and cited in our Scariest Videos list) as well as the weirdly gorgeous “Wishes” video from Beach House.

And finally, Pitchfork has multiple articles worth checking out this weekend.  Be sure to read this pleasant interview with Pulp’s Jarvis Cocker, then check out this analysis of the importance of Top 40 radio and the significance of different genre stations.  And finally, proving that the publication actually has a sense of humor, here’s “The Most Crucial And Yet Totally Overlooked Releases of 2014 and a Pre-Emptive Guide to 2015.”

Covered: “Pink Moon”

Covered is a feature where we examine the merits of various cover songs, debating whether or not they capture the spirit and intent of the original, if the cover adds anything new, and whether or not it perhaps surpasses the original.  If we fail on those counts, at the very least we may expose you to different versions of great songs you hadn’t heard before. 

For this edition, since we’re in the middle of “Beck Week” here at RIJR, we’re going to be using him as a pivot in this feature.  In other words, we’ll be examining both a cover done by Beck as well as another artist covering one of Beck’s songs.

Initially, I was going to analyze Beck’s cover of Dylan’s “Leopard-Skin Pill-Box Hat”.  I first heard this cover at a live show on the Modern Guilt tour, back when I was in New York.  I remember how energized Beck was for that particular song, which was a marked contrast to his demeanor for most of the rest of his set (I also want to pin some of the blame on the audience, who were pretty indifferent to much of the set, even when it dipped into Odelay-era rarities like “Minus”).  I wasn’t sure how much the lackluster performance could be blamed on doing a multi-night stand, or on the venue (the United Palace Theater is a pretty stunning venue, but while it’s perfect for acts like Sigur Ros, it’s not as conducive to a full-on rock show), or just general malaise from doing yet another tour.  In subsequent interviews, I learned that Beck had severe back pain during that era, which makes me feel a bit bad for being generally disappointed with the show.

To keep a long story from going any longer, I decided to go with a different cover, because while I enjoy Beck’s version, I feel that it’s a little too close to the original to be worth further analysis.  It’s pretty much how you would imagine a Beck cover of a Dylan song would go–it’s got the ragged feel of the original, slightly more uptempo, with a fuzzier bass and electro-country leads.  In other words, it’s not exactly like Death Grips taking a lyric from the song and going in a completely different direction.  Instead I’m going to look at a cover that I only learned existed recently, that of Nick Drake’s “Pink Moon”.

Like many of my generation, I am not ashamed to admit that I first heard the song in a Volkswagen ad.  It’s not as if I had a huge knowledge of the English folk scene from the 70’s back in high school, so please pardon my ignorance.  But I was touched by just the pure beauty of the song, from the soft vocals, the churning acoustic guitar, and that delicate little piano melody that somehow in one line ties the whole thing together.  The album would soon hold a dear place in my heart, most notably as a soundtrack to my first couple of semesters of college.

Beck does a great job of capturing the same atmosphere and emotional feelings of the original, and is definitely faithful in that regard.  It’s interesting how it is distinctly Beck’s voice, but he is still able to evoke the memory of Nick Drake’s vocals.  The difference between the two comes from the guitar parts, which leads to a focus on different rhythms in each version.  Most people don’t realize the technical complexity of Nick Drake’s guitar playing; it is an example of how sometimes the most difficult things to do sometimes appear easy to the untrained eye.  He used a lot of alternate tunings that allowed him to play a lot of complex rhythmic and lead parts at the same time, often interacting with each other in the same measure.  That’s why there’s a consistent drive to the rhythm in the original.  Beck (wisely) chooses to not imitate the complexity of those guitar lines, and instead emphasizes certain beats with strummed chords, giving the song a more laid-back feel, and in turn making it somehow even more melancholy.  This even extends to the famous piano melody, which with this extra bit of drag conveys an even greater sense of longing.

Now we have the slightly more difficult task of looking at those who have attempted to cover Beck.  Surprisingly, there are not that many from which to choose.  On the one hand, Beck has composed hundreds of songs, dabbled in dozens of genres, and been around for over two decades now, so you’d think there would be a wide variety of artists that would attempt to cover his work.  But even through all those various detours and musical experiments, there is the singular persona of Beck that shines through, and he leaves a specific stamp on each song that he does.  But it makes sense that it’s from his album Sea Change, in many ways his most straight-forward singer/songwriter record, that we see at least an attempt by others to try out.

“The Golden Age” kicks off the record, and in many ways after those opening lines (“Put your hands on the wheel/Let the Golden Age begin”), it’s all downhill from there, at least emotionally speaking.  I’ll never forget that when the Boston Red Sox won the World Series back in 2004 that the network broadcasting their victory decided that this was an appropriate song to mark the occasion, making it one of the best examples of an executive green-lighting a song without ever hearing the whole thing.  Who doesn’t love celebrating with a song whose chorus goes “These days I barely get by/I don’t even try”?

It’s hard to even call this a cover, since the Flaming Lips toured with Beck shortly after Sea Change came out.  So you know they at least do a faithful job of covering the music.  I do appreciate the rumbling low-end that the Lips manage here, but I miss the slide guitar parts from the original, which added a great counterpoint to the melody.  Wayne Coyne adds a bit more fragility to his vocals, but he doesn’t get the same longing feel that Beck conveys in his part.  What I find most interesting though is the fact that they omit the second verse, which is actually the one that I prefer.  This may be due to the live nature of the performance for a radio show, but it’s an interesting comment if it’s intentional.

Another cover of a Beck song that I think is worth sharing is The Cinematics performing “Sunday Sun”, also from Sea Change.  Already one of the more uplifting songs on the album, The Cinematics turn it into a genuinely happy song.  It’s not just in the attitude and tempo, but through each part, from the drums (the sixteenth-note hi-hat rhythms help drive the song), to the guitar tones, to the vocals themselves which are simply cheerier.  Beck’s original is much more dramatic, and does a great job in building and building over the course of the song.  But even when the melody soars, Beck maintains a certain tension with his vocals over the course of the song, which makes the collapse at the end fit perfectly.