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The Best Songs of 2017: Honorable Mention

Of the thousands of songs I heard this past year, narrowing a list down to my favorite 50 was exceptionally tough. There was plenty of heartbreak and disappointment upon the realization that some great songs were being left off of that final list. So in the spirit of giving attention to even more great music, please take these extra 25 tracks and give them a listen if you aren’t familiar with them already. They’re listed in alphabetical order so as to not prioritize any one over another. The only rules are that the tracks must have been part of a 2017 album, soundtrack, or single release. While you can click on the play button below any song title to hear it streaming (via YouTube), there’s also a Spotify playlist embedded at the very bottom of this post should you prefer to listen that way. Cool? Cool. And make sure to keep an eye out for my Top 50 Songs of 2017, which will immediately follow this post.

Pitchfork Music Festival 2016: Saturday Recap

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Saturday at Pitchfork was the best day. The sort of day that makes you believe in the power of live music. The sort of day that makes nine hours spent in hot conditions feel like two. It’s a grand reminder of why the Pitchfork Music Festival is one of the best places to see and break new bands, as well as celebrate the classic ones. There’s so much to cover and I don’t want to waste much more time expressing general platitudes with this intro. So join me after the jump for a full recap of all the artists I saw at the festival on Saturday. As a reminder, there will be plenty of photos to share at the end of the weekend. But if you’d like some live reports straight from the grounds along with a few visuals, check my Twitter and Instagram for all of that fun stuff. Onward and upward we go!

Album Review: Ben + Vesper – HONORS [Sounds Familyre]

Ben + Vesper are also known as Ben and Vesper Stamper, a married couple that makes beautiful music together. They follow in the tradition of many other husband and wife duos from Mates of State to Handsome Furs and one of this year’s hot new buzz bands Tennis. What sets Ben + Vesper apart from similar acts? The first and most immediately noticeable thing about them is their extremely liberal use of vocal harmonies. Every single track is a duet in one form or another, and Ben’s deeper, more baritone voice matched with Vesper’s velvety one usually results in inspired beauty on its own. It’s a far cry from the way Mates of State tend to do it, with lots of playful energy that often borders on annoyingly chipper. The harmonies are better compared with the couple records that Isobel Campbell and Mark Lanegan did together, though Ben’s voice isn’t nearly as rough or world-weary as Lanegan’s is and Vesper’s voice isn’t nearly as high and fragile as Campbell’s is. Beyond mere voices though, Ben + Vesper have lovely melodies to work with, some very sparse with maybe only 2-3 instruments total on them, what you might expect from a duo such as this. For their new album “HONORS” though, most of the songs are more vivid and fully realized thanks to a whole lot of extra instrumentation, courtesy of a brand new three-man backing band. There’s also some small bits of orchestration, always played in the most subtle manner possible, and guest performers contributing what they can, including the always wonderful Sufjan Stevens on piano. The final product is something that’s sometimes catchy, frequently weird, but always beautiful.

Vesper takes lead vocals on opening track “Adult vAcA”, a winner right from the intro with its woozy electric guitar and relaxed percussion. Once the first verse begins the melody shrinks thanks to some quiet piano chords, light bass and some cymbal taps, but picks up nicely for a gorgeous chorus that features descending guitar and highlighted vocal harmonies. The lines, “Tomorrow is working out much better today/Notice the thought and date the day” stick well in your head from the first time they’re sung and only cement themselves further the more they’re repeated in the chorus. For the bridge Ben’s vocals are treated with an echo effect that is fascinating unto itself before some ascending guitar and keyboard speed things to a solid conclusion. The bright and energetic way the piano opens “My Father’s Eyes” hints towards the explosion of the full band that comes in mid-way through the first verse. The song winds up having great pacing, along with a well-placed guitar solo and more wonderful harmonies, but it ends up lacking memorability. For all the things it does right, there’s no easy hook or clearly defined structure to the song, which is just a tiny problem when trying to remember what it sounded like hours later. Much better are the soft rock stylings of “Knee-Hi Wall”. Between the shimmering keyboards, funky bass lines and small chorus of backing vocals, the track has a huge 70s vibe to it that turns out to be one of the best moments on the entire album. Minimalism seems to be what “Find Your Friend” does best, beginning with Ben taking his vocals sans-backing melody to a deeper and darker Nick Cave-like range for much of the song. When the instruments do come in, they keep a very low profile, quietly going about their business with only the 60s-style keyboard doing the heavy lifting when it comes to melody outside of the vocals. There’s a subdued beauty to the song that really shines through in the last 90 seconds when the singing stops and the piano comes in to guide everything to a quietly fitting conclusion. “Sugar Song” also holds steadfast with an instrumental contribution so small it almost doesn’t matter if it’s there at all. The vocals are front and center as a piano and guitar are very lightly sprinkled about, though there is a brief moment near the end of the song where a small battalion of violins rises up and ratchets up the intensity for one loud peak of a moment before settling back down into oblivion from whence it came. It’s a rather impressive display of talent, that Ben + Vesper are able to do so much with so little. The final two songs, “Understruggle; Yay, Win” and “HONORS” are both fuller songs instrumentally, but also break out a few things you won’t hear in any other spots on the record. Vesper is back on lead vocals for “Understruggle; Yay, Win”, and there’s a Sufjan Stevens-inspired banjo (perhaps played by Sufjan himself) mixed with some basic acoustic guitar and a touch of organ that bring a folksy charm to the ballad, only aided by a choir of backing vocals. After some twinkling keyboards begin the closing song “HONORS”, it ducks out as the vocals come in and guitars take over. The song itself holds a steady and relatively normal melody until the final minute when multiple keyboards and organs send things soaring into the stratosphere with a whole collection of voices singing triumphantly in unison for one last blissed out moment. It’s a fitting end to a record that thrives on atmosphere and the collective vocal power of Ben and Vesper Stamper.

One of the most unique things about “HONORS” and Ben + Vesper in general are their lyrics. Weird is a delicate way of putting it. Take a song like “Holly Home?” as an example, which begins with a back-and-forth conversation between Ben and Vesper that goes something like this: “Hi, is Holly Home?/No, I mean yes, well she is sleeping/Oh, okay who is this? Is this who I think it is?/If you are guessing this, then you are right in thinking this”. Ben tells a childhood story about how he made a “totally inspiring, and most succinct/it was ahead of its time” movie, but then it got erased when his dad recorded a rerun of “The Fugitive” over it. Um, ok, sounds tragic. And the title track goes on and on about the apocalyptic destruction of our planet due to a massive meteor (or something like that), and somehow celebrities are involved. “High time to hire the balding Bru/Bruce Willis shoots the flame/Goodbye, Shatner sun machine/Hello swarming dreams” is just a snippet of the oddities that song has to offer. Despite such unconventional and nonsensical wordplay, Ben + Vesper sell it with the utmost sincerity, and most of the time succeed in making us believe it’s not a problem. There are other small issues with “HONORS” though, the most notable of which stems from weak song structure. Outside of gems like “Adult vAcA” and “Knee-Hi Wall” are songs that sound pretty nice but drift aimlessly towards a conclusion. There’s not much in the way of repeated choruses with sharply developed hooks or even dynamic pacing to help the record drift by faster. And the majority of the standout moments typically come from some smart use of vocal harmonies rather than the overall composition of the songs. If these seem like pretty big things, well, that depends on how forgiving you’re willing to be, and what about a track appeals to you most. There’s definitely much more good going on with this album than bad, and this is definitely a step forwards for Ben + Vesper in terms of their overall development for the future. Of course so much of this also screams “transitional record”, so the hope is that they reach another plateau rather than spend any more time pushing that heavy boulder up a gigantic hill. “HONORS” may not be worthy of what its title suggests, but with a touch more work they’ll get there soon enough.

Ben + Vesper – My Father’s Eyes
Ben + Vesper – Knee-Hi Wall

Buy “HONORS” from Amazon

Show Review: Sufjan Stevens [Chicago Theatre; Chicago; 10/15/10]

Here’s what’s fascinating: when tickets for Sufjan Stevens at the Chicago Theatre went on sale a couple months ago, it had been a few years since he’d released any new music. Sufjan had gone on the record saying he wasn’t feeling particularly productive and began to question whether or not the album was a viable form of releasing music anymore. In other words, Sufjan announced tour dates and sold thousands of tickets, all on the assumption that he’d be playing virtually 100% old material. How quickly time flies. Less than an hour after tickets went on sale for the Chicago date of his fall tour (one week after most other cities), there was suddenly a spark of life that came in the form of the hour-long “All Delighted People” EP, immediately released in digital format via Bandcamp. So, suddenly the chances of Sufjan playing some new material on this tour increased exponentially. Then came the second surprise, the announcement of a new full length album, “The Age of Adz”, the release date of last Tuesday perfectly coinciding with the start of the tour. And so it was, over 2 hours of new Sufjan music released before his date at the Chicago Theatre, with the show pretty much sold out before most anyone was aware it existed.

So it was with another collection of very good album reviews and a certain measure of excitement that crowds packed into the Chicago Theatre last Friday night to see what Sufjan Stevens would do. With a sheer screen lowered at the front of the stage to somewhat hide the band, they emerged and launched right into an incredible version of “Seven Swans”. Given it’s extremely precious and sparse arrangement on the record of the same name, the full band rendition gave the song an entirely new life that was at least equal to, if not greater than, the original. Shapes and objects were projected onto both a screen behind the stage and the one in front of it, which was raised near the end of the song. Post-“Seven Swans”, Sufjan greeted the crowd and noted how he was excited to be able to perform some new songs for all of us. Whether or not the crowd was equally excited to hear them was another matter. What followed was 10 songs in a row, 8 of them from “The Age of Adz” and 2 of them from the “All Delighted People” EP. There’s servicing a new album, and then there’s SERVICING a new album. Sufjan chose the latter, and with the likely possibility that at least half the crowd hadn’t heard the majority if not the entirety of it. If you bought a physical copy of the album, you only had a couple days to become familiar with it, unless you streamed it online in the couple weeks prior to its release. Basically, this show was your full introduction to the new stuff, and Sufjan was more than happy to shove you in the pool without any life vest on.

While a majority of confused faces looked on, song after song passed by and Sufjan did his best to keep things lively and interesting. There were about 10 people in his backing band, two drummers, two horn players, two or three guitarists, a keyboard/piano player, and two women singing backup vocals and dancing. Sufjan himself switched around between banjo, electric guitar, keyboards, piano and a couple other instruments, and at one point simply grabbed the microphone and wandered around the front of the stage just singing. There were projections on the screen at the back of the stage the entire time, and occasionally the sheer front stage screen would come down and add more projections. Shapes and space and planets and UFOs all flew around haphazardly, and as Sufjan explained mid-set, it was all inspired by the little-known artist Royal Robertson, whose art graces the cover of “The Age of Adz”. Apparently during the last couple years when he was “creatively challenged”, Robertson’s art spoke to him and snapped him out of that slump. The guy was a paranoid schizophrenic and had some wild ideas about the end of the world, aliens and numerology. It also made for some interesting musical choices on Sufjan’s part, and either listening to the album or simply seeing it performed live will prove that to you. And though there was a clear disconnect between what the music happening on stage and the audience filling the seats, a few moments really did strike home. “I Walked”, the first “single” and a free download from “The Age of Adz”, hit hard probably for those exact reasons. Also, the sheer shock of thet 25.5 minute “Impossible Soul”, complete with Auto-Tune breakdown, caused an intense burst of enthusiasm from the crowd with applause and cheering that was at the level of about 5 songs combined, because that’s essentially what it was. If you’re going to play the city of Chicago though, and you’ve got a song with that exact title that turned into your biggest hit to date, people would have been near-riot angry had Sufjan not played it. Naturally, he saved it for the end of the set, and everyone got out of their seats and sang along. It was a rendition virtually verbatim with the one that appeared on “Illinois”, but when you’ve got the crowd eating out of the palm of your hand going off script into an extended version of a classic song isn’t the best route to take. So with the two older songs sandwiched at the beginning and end of the set and everything else new in between, Sufjan Stevens and his band said goodnight…but not without an encore first.

As Sufjan came out by himself for the encire, he played the lovely but brief “Illinois” piano track “Concerning the UFO Sighting Near Highland, Illinois”. That was another straight version, before he brought his two backup singers out to do “Decatur”. As an introduction to the song, Sufjan pretty much said, “I hate this song, it’s a real tongue-twister, but we’re here so we have to do it.” That turned out just fine too, as did “Casimir Pulaski Day” right after that, The really questionable move he made was to play “John Wayne Gacy, Jr.” solo to end the night. As great as that song is, part of the also-great “Illinois” album and a historical legacy of the state, one can’t help but wonder if there was a better, less depressing serial killer-ish choice that could have been made before walking off the stage. Instead it was a somber end to a night that in an ideal world would have been far more upbeat.

If you haven’t noticed by now, this isn’t a rave review praising Sufjan Stevens for his musical brilliance both on and off the stage. The fact of the matter is, the guy is so prolific and talented that he’s raised the bar to a point beyond which even he can reach. The one thing he’s failed to realize in this tour so far is that while people are excited to hear your new stuff, they’re still more passionate about the old stuff. In some recent interviews, Sufjan made some comments about leaving the “cutesy” days behind and presenting a far more mature show than he ever has before. Back in 2005, touring for a few months after the release of “Illinois”, he had cheerleaders and wore a train engineer’s cap and played the banjo. It was such a joyous and happy experience – clearly one he has no intention of repeating anytime soon. As nice of a guy as Sufjan is, and as great as his music might be, he’s very much started to take on the temperament of the tortured genius. Whether it’s the enormous pressure he’s felt from all the critical acclaim and mainstream success he’s achieved thus far, or it’s simply a matter of burnout, the smile seems to have been erased from his face. There was nothing technically wrong with his show at the Chicago Theatre last Friday, everything sounded exactly as it should and the new stuff is pretty excellent as well. A set list where the majority of the songs are from “The Age of Adz” and the “All Delighted People” EP isn’t necessarily frowned upon, but at these early stages when the new material is still seeping into people’s brains, perhaps more of a balance would leave the crowds more satisfied. Then again these are the perils that come from being a relatively popular musician, the pressure to give in and “play the hits” rather than try something new. Sufjan Stevens gets credit for largely ignoring what could have been a very eclectic and satisfying set by challenging the audience with all this new music. That doesn’t give much excuse for the relative disdain for which he played songs from “Illinois” during the encore, but better to play them halfheartedly than not at all. Once “The Age of Adz” and its companion EP have been around long enough to earn some genuine sing-alongs, Sufjan’s live show will reach solid ground once again. At the moment though, he’s running far ahead of the pack and refusing to slow down with the hope that everyone else will catch up with him eventually. Let’s hope that’s sooner rather than later.

Set List:
Seven Swans
Too Much
Age of Adz
I Walked
Now That I’m Older
Futile Devices
Get Real Get Right
The Owl and the Tanager
Impossible Soul
Concerning the UFO Sighting Near Highland, Illinois
Decatur, Or, Round Of Applause For Your Stepmother!
Casimir Pulaski Day
John Wayne Gacy, Jr.

Buy “The Age of Adz” from Amazon

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