All Delighted People EP

by Sufjan Stevens (2010, Asthmatic Kitty)

Raise your hand if you saw this coming, because I sure didn’t. Earlier this month, Sufjan Stevens announced an October/November tour—an announcement that I admittedly didn’t pay much attention to because he’s not really coming anywhere close to my neck of the woods (and I just don’t have much time for concertgoing these days). And what’s more, I’d become a little Sufjan’d out, particularly after the indulgent BQE.

And then Asthmatic Kitty broke the news: a nearly hour-long EP of brand new material that was free for the listening (and that could be had for a nominal fee). The promise of new music from the man was too much to pass up—the old Sufjan fan inside of me dies hard, I guess—and so I hoofed it on over to Bandcamp to check out All Delighted People. And suffice to say, I’m hanging my head in shame, for I should not have let my faith in the man slip. (If that makes me sound like a fanboy, then so be it.)

At first blush, All Delighted People seems like classic Sufjan. It’s sprawling and epic, musically and thematically, but quite poignant and intimate at the same time. However, careful listening will reveal subtle breaks from the Sufjan releases of yore. For starters, the production is thinner in places, even brittle. Sufjan’s inimitable arrangements are compressed and more surface-level, which means the EP sounds more “in your face”, relatively speaking. Which seems apt because musically speaking, this is some of the most adventurous music that Sufjan has put to tape yet.

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Bonfires On The Heath

by The Clientele (2009, Merge Records)

Clientele albums have always been full of ghosts—ghosts of childhood, of past relationships and lovers, and so on—as well as a sense of the impermanence of this mortal coil. And Bonfires On The Heath continues on that spectral track—indeed, it wouldn’t be the Clientele if the songs weren’t somewhat unsettling amidst the sublime pop beauty. But this time around, the Clientele’s songs feel even more crowded than usual, more unsettling, more impermanent.

While Alasdair MacLean still sings about past lovers and childhood, he also taps into imagery that is more ancient and otherworldly, referencing the passing of time, old traditions and rituals, and other things that feel far removed from the urban climes that often serve as the setting for his songs. This time around, it feels like MacLean and his bandmates are journeying deeper into the old country, deeper into the undergrowth, farther out into the rural landscapes.

As a result, Bonfires On The Heath is probably the most primal Clientele album to date. That’s not to say that the music is ever anything less than elegant and refined. But it is spookier and more ephemeral than ever before.

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Brush Away The Cobwebs

by Ronald Of Orange (2009, Velvet Blue Music)

For the last 15 years, Ronnie Martin has been obsessed with writing the perfect synth-pop song. Actually, it’s been longer than that, if you include his work in Dance House Children and other pre-Joy Electric projects. But ever since 1994’s Melody, the man’s obsession has become especially pronounced.

This is most clearly seen in his production methods: throughout Joy Electric’s history, Martin has continually refined his craft, paring his music down to the barest, most necessary elements (the most recent Joy Electric albums, such as The Ministry Of Archers and The Otherly Opus, have used little more than his voice and a Moog).

This devotion is certainly laudable, but it’s easy to imagine how limiting such self-imposed restrictions could become. Which probably explains the numerous side-projects that Martin has become involved with in recent years—e.g., Shepherd, The Brothers Martin, The Foxglove Hunt, and now, Ronald Of Orange. But unlike those other projects, Ronald Of Orange is essentially a one-man operation. But it’s still an attempt to explore new music avenues not allowed by Joy Electric’s particular aesthetic.

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By Hearts+Horses

by Park Avenue Music (2008, Clairecords)

Several years ago, a friend gave me a copy of Park Avenue Music’s For Your Home Or Office, and I found myself instantly enamored by the duo’s blend of atmospheric, slightly glitch-ified electronica and female vocals. True, it’s a formula that’s been used many times over on countless albums, but For Your Home Or Office did it incredibly well. Indeed, that little release still holds up remarkably well, four years after the fact, when it could be argued that the glut of similar acts has, in no way, diminished.

Well, it’s now 2008, and the Sacramento-based duo of Wes Steed and Jeannette Faith have released By Hearts+Horses, which finds them exploring moods and tones similar to those on For Your Home Or Office, only they’re exploring them in a slightly different fashion.

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In Ghost Colours

by Cut Copy (2008, Modular Recordings)

Going into this past week, I was fully prepared to label M83’s Saturdays=Youth as the finest “shameless ‘80s appropriation album” that I’ve heard so far this year. But as much as I like Saturdays=Youth—indeed, it’s my favorite thing that Anthony Gonzalez and Co. have done to date—the simple fact is that Australia’s Cut Copy outdoes M83 at practically every turn.

However, one can really only describe the band’s latest—In Ghost Colours—as a “shameless ‘80s appropriation” at the most cursory level.

There’s no denying that Dan Whitford, Tim Hoey, and Mitchell Scott have a great and undying love for the likes of Depeche Mode, Erasure, The Yaz, Human League, and of course, New Order. You can hear said love singing out in every arpeggiated synth line, every gorgeous call out, every ghostly wisp of a vocoder, every perfectly programmed beat, and every time Whitford sings in that delightfully deadpan voice of his about unrequited love, youthful lust for life, and the joys of exorcising and fulfilling such things out there on the dancefloor.

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