Sufjan Stevens’ SevenSwans (SoundsFamilyre).Withlast year’s Greetings From Michigan ,Mr. Stevens-his first name is pronounced “Soof-yahn”-was hailed by many critics as the second coming of Elliott Smith. Little did they know that Smith would actually need a second coming. Influenced by Jim O’Rourke andStereolab,Mr. Stevens rooted complex harmonies and unusual time signatures in a Northern folk aesthetic to paint a stark, despondent portrait of his home state. With Seven Swans , his fourth album, he strips down and bucks up. Though it was recorded around the same time as Michigan , which featured Mr. Stevens playing more than 20 different instruments, Swans is built around little more than a banjo and an old-timey spirituality that references the Bible and Flannery O’Connor’s A Good Man Is Hard to Find , but also evokes a William Blake–like mysticism.
The opening track, “All the Trees of the Field Will Clap Their Hands,” a biblical reference to the coming of the messiah, features a gently plucked banjo and finds Mr. Stevens at a spiritual crossroads. “I heard from the trees a great parade. / And I heard from the hills a band was made,” he sings, wondering: “Will I be invited to the sound?” Although some listeners may find Mr. Stevens’ earnest religious views off-putting, his oboe-like voice, the record’s sparse instrumentation and deceptively simple lyrics, grant the material a sincerity that should temper even the most cynical Williamsburg heathen.
The folk-rock stylings ( must … never use … that … word … again ) of Sun Kil Moon at the Bowery Ballroom on March 21. Although the moniker evokes images of a Korean dictator with aviator shades and a Nehru jacket, it’s actually the latest solo project of former Red House Painters frontman Mark Kozelek. On their first and only album to date, Ghosts of the Great Highway (Jet Set Records), S.K.M. seamlessly blends folk with the distorted guitar riffs, xylophone noodlings and violin accompaniments that alternative rockers love. Mr. Kozelek’s nostalgic and melancholy visions of Americana often veer into Neil Young territory, so bring the Xanax or a big spliff.
Why Spin had to tout the Vines as the “Next Big Thing” for the second year in a row when the Walkmen and the Cansecos are out there. The Walkmen have the dubious distinction of being the Strokes even before the Strokes were the Strokes. But apart from their respective prep-school backgrounds and arrogant senses of entitlement, the comparison should end there. Composed of former members of the Recoys and late90′sflameouts Jonathan Fire Eater, the Walkmen manage something on their new album, BowsandArrows (Record Collection), that the Strokes seem to lack entirely: emotion. “The Rat” opens with a discordant organ intro, wailing guitars, ratatat high hat and lead singer Hamilton Leithauser’s screams of “Can’t you hear me?! I’m calling out your name / Can’t you see me? I’m pounding on your door!” The Walkmen have expanded the post-punk form to include a number of ballad-like numbers on which Mr. Leithauser makes like a cut-rate Bob Dylan.
The Cansecos’ eponymous debut album has been hanging around since 2003, but this band, composed of two Toronto natives, is poised to replace the Rapture as the rock/dance hybrid that everyone’s mooning over. Their opening track, “Are You Lonesome Tonight?”-which bears no resemblance to the Elvis Presley song-is worth the price of admission alone. Its tight, syncopated chorus and menacing lyrics are sure to get the glutes moving like J. Lo’s rip-off of that Flashdance video. If these guys put their minds to it, they could probably resurrect the Electric Slide.
The April 6 release of Modest Mouse’s Good News for People Who Like Bad News (Epic). Hailing from the seedier parts of Washington State, Modest Mouse could fill the void left by the death of Kurt Cobain and the dissolution of Nirvana. With guitar riffs that sting and an attitude that smells like teen spirit, not like the latest big-label marketing ploy, the Mouse makes it fun to be angry again. As you might guess from the lyrics (“From the top of the ocean / To the bottom of the sky / well, I get claustrophobic”), this 10-year-old band does tend to attract pseudo-intellectual college students, but the reckless heart of Nirvana and the Northwest backwoods beats within them-and when the mainstream finally catches up, neo-grunge may not be far off. While you’re waiting, check out the Mouse’s Moon and Antarctica , which Epic just re-released with four bonus tracks.