You’re not likely to hear a Sufjan Stevens song floating out of the tinny hidden speakers next time you step into an elevator or a waiting room, but it wouldn’t be surprising to catch some of his music playing at the coffeehouse or spliced between segments on NPR. Despite his serious artistic ambitions and undeniable musical talent (he plays a bewildering array of instruments), last year’s indie singer-songwriter darling has an inoffensive and accessible signature sound (mild acoustic arrangements embellished with orchestral flourishes)—it’s nice background music.
Mr. Stevens acknowledges as much on his latest release, The Avalanche (Asthmatic Kitty), a vast collection of outtakes, most of them entirely new songs, left over from the sessions for last year’s justly acclaimed Illinois (the second in his plan to record 50 albums devoted to each of the 50 states). In the middle of The Avalanche, he throws in what he labels an “adult contemporary easy listening version” of “Chicago,” one of the standout tracks on Illinois. But though the whispery delivery of the lite-rock rendition is somewhat exaggerated, it’s otherwise not that different from the original or from the rest of Mr. Stevens’ work.
That’s not necessarily a complaint. His sketches and interior monologues are written mainly in domestic-confession mode and punctuated with resigned sighs. In the state of Sufjan, everyone’s always having an epiphany about human imperfection, crying about something or murmuring, “Oh my God.” But though his melodramas are often overwrought, they can be wrenching, too. And they mesh well with the gently haunting melodies he decorates with simple banjo, guitar and piano, buoyant strings, winds and brass, and lush hypnotic pulses.
It’s a tender, fragile sensibility, bittersweet and melancholy, pretty enough for a big audience. Predictably, a few critics have assumed a permanent-backlash position with respect to Mr. Stevens. Which makes releasing a full-length album of outtakes a weird career move.
In the old days, a performer in a similar situation (adulation in the press, a hungry fan base) would have put out an E.P. of four or five songs. These days, a band might give away the leftovers for free on their Web site—something Mr. Stevens says he considered doing. But he decided instead to make the whole trove available on an album that’s even longer than its predecessor. What, me overexposed?
There’s a great E.P. buried in The Avalanche. The rest feels unfinished, unrealized. Many of the shorter pieces are insubstantial—“Saul Bellow” is basically a two-line chorus repeated over and over. And the longer tracks lack the epic sweep that carried Illinois.
There are moments on The Avalanche—discordant outbursts of sloppy electric guitar, parts left unpolished—when it feels as though Mr. Stevens is trying to break out of a style that’s grown too polite for him. The most convincing of these comes at the end of “Pittsfield,” a tearjerker narrated by a latchkey kid, delinquent—but sensitive, of course. Hushed intimacy builds to a stirring pageant of trumpet and overdriven drums but then dissolves into abrasive noise (the sound of an engine in winter, unable to start) before suddenly slipping back into a few quiet solo piano chords. It’s sentimental, but it’s also moving and transcendent, and it might point the way to another state on the map.
JUST BEFORE THEY RELEASED THEIR LAST ALBUM, The Wedding (2005), Oneida announced to the press that they were constructing the “largest music-box on the east coast,” with over 70 saw blades. It was a hoax eagerly swallowed: The band is notoriously “unpredictable”—they live, after all, in Brooklyn.
ZIP-code zaniness aside, Oneida are now certifiable veterans: Happy New Year (Jagjaguwar) is their eighth full-length in nine years. Skilled Oberlin-trained musicians who’ve worked tirelessly on their previous seven albums, tweaking the minutiae of their measured, rather intellectual sound, they’ve acquired a reputation for chaos and spontaneity in part because of their eccentric monikers—Fat Bobby, Kid Millions, Double Rainbow and the splendidly bald Baby (Hanoi) Jane—and a Web site featuring a mostly unreadable blog. Their supposedly eclectic sonic mix—the sound palate and phrasing of 70’s drug rock and the rhythmic discipline of Krautrock—is hardly different from that of their label-mates Black Mountain.
And yet Oneida are standouts at Jagjaguwar—not a distinction awarded for effort. Their fictitious music box was more than just an annoying publicity stunt (all the more infuriating because it was such a great idea)—it was a mental exercise in making music. The music Oneida actually makes can sound much simpler than it is: They play a range of instruments so hard and so well that the instruments assume percussive functions. Massive, muscular guitar work resolves into walls of vibration; on “The Adversary,” from the new album, chords pulse fuzzily, emerging from sonic depths along the drum line with hypnotic, high-pitched flourishes.
The first half of Happy New Year, which climaxes with eight minutes of “Up with People,” is sweatier, more aggressive and more satisfying. The second half has more acoustic instrumentation and a markedly slower tempo. Though often mesmerizing, it lacks the momentum and grit of the band’s stronger guitar work. Even the jarring bells and insistent, high-pitched piano clangings of “History’s Great Navigators” sound as much short-circuited as subtle.
The album’s opener, “Distress,” adopts a technique familiar to Oneida: distill the album’s agenda into one song, then slow it down. We get a contrast of tempos and textures laid bare. The vocals, slow, rich, almost medieval in their tonality, summon a solemn percussive march over the sparse, arrhythmic void—the sonic equivalent of squiggles. It’s not so much a battle as a slow grind of ultimately impotent opposites, and the resulting tension marks the apotheosis of Oneida’s powers.
Slowing down Oneida’s tracks has the unfortunate side effect of revealing their primary weakness, which lies in the content of the hypnotic, compelling chants. “Distress” repeats a four-line ode to the seasons: “So fades the lovely blooming flower / Frail, smiling solace of an hour / So soon our transient comfort flies / And pleasure only blooms to die.” In an album of texture, technical experimentation and sweaty guitars, tombstone lyrics are little more than a campy gesture.
Happy New Year is meant to mark a new beginning for the band. The trio has found a fourth member in Double Rainbow; they’ve started their own record label—Brah—and this album marks the 100th release by Jagjaguwar, their rightly adored Indiana label. But the album is more remarkable as a diversion into one small subset of Oneida’s noise than for its overriding ambition or scope.
Crank them up and they’ll play it again.