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Photos: World Premiere of Sufjan Stevens' "BQE" [Brooklyn, NY; 11/01/07]

Photos by Kathryn Yu, words by Daphne Carr

Nostalgia for modernism + urban planning + indie rock + Brooklyn reference + orchestra = Sufjan Stevens' "The BQE"

Constructed between 1937-1964 as part of infamous city planner Robert Moses's master vision for New York City's social reality, the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway rose as 11.6 miles of neighborhood-severing, money-eating, limited-access overhead highway grimness. The book about Moses's modernist cruelty and obsession with cars over human needs is called The Power Broker, a relentless, detailed portrait of one man's egomania in urban planning.

Which is part of the reason why, when Sufjan Stevens said he had written a symphony about the BQE, people got so excited. Maybe Stevens would, through the power of art, convey this bleak inter-borough piece of citywide dismay as something majestic, the way he had transformed Detroit or Decatur.

Known for his chamber-pop miniatures about humble white working-poor life, Stevens has become indie's populist orchestrator. But he's also enough of a fool to try his hand at large-scale composition, having boasted of writing 50 albums extolling the dignity of local culture. Fans who celebrate his outsider ("indie") ambitions to excel in academic forms clap for his being at the Brooklyn Academy of Music's Next Wave festival regardless. Given classical's lust for young flesh and filled seats, the crossover of Stevens' rapt fan base into three nights of sold-out crowds already deems the event a success.

So how to judge such a thing?

Let's start with the music. The music was not a symphony in either the Classical or Romantic version-- let's call it a suite, an ordered set of instrumental pieces meant to be played together. Like Stevens' arrangements for his smaller tunes, these seven pieces were built with modular movements of melody and rhythm connected by fanciful scalar runs, mostly in the woodwinds. They were like minimalism, but not as subtle (not even as "subtle" as Philip Glass, his nearest comparison). Stevens has not yet learned that classical musicians cannot follow the energy of the piece to their own ends, but instead need expressive markings-- louds and softs, keys to accent, and phrasing that shapes each line in the texture of the piece. Because of this, the ensemble was static, unnuanced, and, in full-on mode, painfully loud.

Stevens has a gift for interlocking compound rhythms that sound joyously simple, and the movement from these grooves into other sections was full of playful writing that showed promise. Unfortunately, his sprightly rhythms were often articulated by an over-mic'ed trap kit, and thus rendered "rock musical," helped by occasional wails of guitar that reminded me of the scene in The Crow where Brandon Lee solos his Fender on the roof.

Stevens introduced tenderness through the sonic and visual metaphor of the circle. (See his musings on the hula hoop here.) Feminine, repeating, mystical-- the musical circle in "The BQE" also implied melody's constant return and rhythm's constant motion, at the sacrifice of Stevens's other gift: moments of free-flowing tenderness.

The orchestra's t-shirt logo was a stylized hubcap, a circle of unrepentant modernist motion fetish and part of a growing Matthew Barney-esque homemade masculine mythology system. Stevens did look pretty buff in his extremely tight white pants and matching black hubcap shirt. He sat at the grand piano, turned to the childlike celesta for color, and nodded to the conductor occasionally. He looked stressed out.

But we weren't supposed to be looking at him. A three-channel video screen split the stage in two, showing 8mm movies of the BQE and surrounding neighborhoods. Like minimalist artists, Stevens played with repetition. Deceptively close shots of windows and highways panned out to reveal their places, long glances at skyline and bridges messed into one of two central visual systems in play: kaleidoscope point repetition or mirrored symmetry. People were scarce and cameras lingered on "ugly" intersections, vernacular street elements, and the occasionally half-hearted whimsy of a giant inflatable gorilla.

The visuals were interwoven with still and film shots of hula hooping women-- those feminine circles again, mixed with mid-50s nostalgia-- in body-hugging raver costumes. They came out several times, accompanied by two male hula hoopers, to dance, hoop and toss in time to the music, first in slow, ballet-like daylight scenes, and then later in glowing nightclub abandon. The several minute-long uses of strobe on their lithe forms went from poetic to circus-like pretty quickly. Très "new music" spectacle.

When it was all over, Stevens got a standing ovation. He came out hula hooping and made a joke about the audience's civic pride in looking at the grand project of the expressway. It revealed either discomfort in the reach of his metaphor, his choice of subject, or his attempt in general. Yes, yes, yes, he did fail to find something more human, redeeming, or majestic in that pile of overhead concrete that socially divides his home place. Insteady, he visually fetishized its nude ugliness and the noble poverty of its surroundings, and sonically rendered its nearly unquestioned modernist motion metaphor.

The only moments of discord were mere traffic woe, not the larger psychic wounds of the road's construction or the crush of oil-dependent vehicles on it. It was as if Stevens had not attended to many of the messes his sounds and visions were making, their ignorances and inconsistencies. It's a lot to ask of a newcomer, but not too much. He joked that it took him "the length of a pregnancy" to put "The BQE" together-- it took Moses longer and it wasn't all right either.

For the second half of the performance, the orchestra stayed, Stevens' band kicked in, and he played songs from his albums. Starting with "Seven Swans", the set juxtaposed Stevens and his instrument (banjo, piano) against the full force of all the instruments. It was crashing, banging, big-budget cinematic Romanticism, like gut-wrenchingly melodramatic John Williams or frivolously busy Danny Elfman. The intimate moments were best, when My Brightest Diamond's Shara Worden harmonized with Stevens' falsetto while a sax scrunched or when, on "John Wayne Gacy, Jr.," the ensemble sat out and he played piano with spare acoustic guitar accompaniment.

Pathos was lacking almost everywhere else. When, in the final cadences of the show, Stevens kicked back his piano stool while banging out two hands of block chords, I felt like I was watching indie's own Franz Liszt-- a Romantic virtuous showboater treating formerly human-scale vernacular melodies with egregious pompousness. When Stevens-- called "boy wonder" or "wunderkind" by the press in spite of his man age of 32-- came out to speak, he did his best return to sheepish "gee whiz" indie guy by thanking "my friends, my band," and then with that Mephisto smile, "... my orchestra." [MORE...]


Dominik Eulberg to Issue Bionik in December

Bionik isn't just German producer/DJ/blipmaker Dominik Eulberg's third LP; it's his second disc of the year, following this spring's field recording-inspired Heimische Gefilde.

takes things back indoors this time out, gathering ten cuts melding pure techno with elements of house and trance. Analog junkies and digital diehards alike, take heed: the LP and CD versions feature different tracklists and running orders, though everything on the LP also appears on the CD (which gets three extra tracks besides). Whatever your pleasure, Bionik is out Stateside December 11 on Cocoon Records.

While you wait, you can hop a plane and catch the Bionik man on any one of his current string of European dates. [MORE...]

Dirty on Purpose Decide They Like Bees on New EP

What's like bees? Wasps? Hornets? More bees?

No, silly: Like Bees is the next EP from the shoe-glancers of Dirty on Purpose. Like Bees manages to pack in four originals, a cover of Aussie new-wavers Real Life's "Send Me an Angel", and guest appearances from the Jealous Girlfriends' Holly Miranda and New York folkie Jaymay.

You can net Like Bees when it emerges January 15 on North Street Records.

Having recently wrapped a spate of shows with those Fujiya & Miyagi gents, the Dirty dudes have but one gig to their names at the moment. It's not one to be slept on, however: Tomorrow, November 3, they play an all-night "Takeover" party at the Brooklyn Academy of Music (post-Sufjan) along with Be Your Own Pet, Antibalas, Heartless Bastards, and the Exit.

Once rested up, the band plans to record some new tunes (four, apparently) to be released through RCRD LBL next year. [MORE...]


Stephen Malkmus and the Jicks Name New Album
Also diss Stockton California

So that Stephen Malkmus and the Jicks album that's coming out in March on Matador now has a title. And it is...drumroll please...

Real Emotional Trash

That's got a nice ring to it.

Looks like they're going to tour the United States in the spring, and then Europe and Asia. Right now, they've only got two shows scheduled: December 19 at the Great American Music Hall in San Francisco and on December 21 at the Doug Fir in Portland, Oregon. Both shows feature Blitzen Trapper opening.

All of this was posted yesterday on the band's website, along with a strange rant against the city of Stockton, California that involves Todd Haynes' new Bob Dylan movie I'm Not There. (As you know, Malkmus contributed to that movie's soundtrack.)

* (FYI, Matador Records hasn't confirmed any of this information yet, so don't be too surprised if the album title changes.)

UPDATE: It's confirmed!

Full rant below. And thanks to Colin Loustalot for noticing it! [MORE...]


Photos: Ted Leo and the Pharmacists / The Pogues [Los Angeles, CA; 10/31/07]

Photos by Akmal Naim

Ted Leo and the Pharmacists joined their spiritual brethren the Pogues on Wednesday night for a Halloween show at Los Angeles' Wiltern. Shane McGowan, reunited with his classic crew, assumed the guise of a mariachi band in celebration of the holiday, while Leo and the boys dressed up as, um, Ted Leo and the Pharmacists. Great costume, guys!

More photos and tour dates below.





Everything You Wanted to Know About Sufjan's "BQE"
Sort of

Right at this very moment, an opera house full of some very lucky New Yorkers is taking in the premiere of Sufjan Stevens' orchestral piece "The BQE" at the Brooklyn Academy of Music. The rest of us are patiently waiting to find out what the hell "The BQE" actually is.

Lucky for us, the Asthmatic Kitty website posted today a tractor-trailer-load of information about the piece.

Want a brief overview of Sufjan's fascination with the hippest highway in indie rock? Go here. How about Sufjan's thoughts on how the hula hoop is related to the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway? There ya go. Or a list of things Sufjan and the NYPD found on the side of the road? (Choice quote: "4. Your cane. Why walk, when you can drive the BQE!") The official bird of the BQE? The House Sparrow, of course.

What about, you know, the actual music thing? Oh, that. Here's a list of everybody who's performing with Sufjan. Looks like My Brightest Diamond, Marla Hansen, and members of Crystal Skulls, Clare & the Reasons, Antony's Johnsons, and many, many more.

So what did we learn here? Well, Sufjan is a very good writer. And a funny guy! Also, we should all move to Brooklyn.


Chamberlin Sick, Pumpkins Reschedule Dates

Photo by Shervin Lainez

Another cancellation today? Nah. It's just a postponement for the Smashing Pumpkins, who've moved a handful of dates on their current tour due to the illness of drummer Jimmy Chamberlin. Experiencing chest pains, Chamberlin was taken to an Atlanta hospital Tuesday where he was diagnosed with a partially blocked artery. He was released yesterday, but due to his recovery, the band was forced to shelve their last two shows and the next three, all of which have been moved back a few weeks starting November 11. All tickets will be honored for the rescheduled dates.

Quoted on the band's MySpace blog, Chamberlin says, "the good news is that my heart checked out. No damage. Basically a small build up of plaque on one of my arteries. This combined with stress, fatigue, and all of the other good things that go along with being on tour was the cause of my pain. So obviously we had to postpone the end of the tour while I recover. It should only be a week or so until JC is ready to rock again." For a full message from, um, JC, go here.

Just to recap: Jimmy Chamberlin refers to himself in the third person, by his initials. This band, I tell ya. [MORE...]


Daniel Johnston, Lightning Bolt's Chippendale Show Art

In ten years on planet Earth, Philadelphia's Space 1026 gallery/venue/cooperative/ gathering place has pretty much seen it all. Diplo, Lightning Bolt, Daniel Johnston, Mirah, Bahamadia, and Need New Body have all played there. Plastic Little call the space home. MF Doom laid a bunch of tracks for the Viktor Vaughn Vaudeville Villain album to tape at 1026, and a nascent Man Man recorded in the space as well. And that's to say nothing of all the art, some of which looks pretty damned awesome.

So in tribute to ten solid years of creative mayhem, Space 1026 will dust off some of its finest work and put it back on display for "Never Forget! Do It Yourself With Other People". The exhibit, which opens November 2 and runs through December 20, gathers pieces from the musician/artist likes of Johnston, Lightning Bolt's Brian Chippendale, Brendan Fowler (aka BARR), and Plastic Little's Jayson Musson, plus Dischord affiliate Cynthia Connolly, OBEY/Zeitgeist guy Shepard Fairey and tons more.

In conjunction with the celebration, there will also be an art auction on December 7. Here's to ten more inspired years, guys!

Darnielle Writes About Sabbath, Drew Daniel Writes About Throbbing Gristle, Plus More 33 1/3 Series News

For people who like their music criticism lengthy, in-depth, and focused on one album at a time, Continuum Books' 33 1/3 series is the place to turn. There are currently over 50 books in the constantly growing series, and chances are good there's one about your favorite album just waiting for you to read it. (As previously reported, previous volumes have included the Decemberists' Colin Meloy examining the Replacements' Let It Be, Joe Pernice of the Pernice Brothers writing about the Smiths, and tomes about Prince, Sonic Youth, Nirvana, My Bloody Valentine, the Beastie Boys, David Bowie, and many, many more.)

Pitchfork's own Associate Editor-in-Chief Scott Plagenhoef is responsible for one of the most recent entries in the series, about Belle & Sebastian's If You're Feeling Sinister. Check out an excerpt here. Pitchfork contributor Amanda Petrusich's book on Nick Drake's Pink Moon just came out as well; an excerpt is available here. Stephen Catanzarite's take on U2's Achtung Baby is also out now.

Several other Pitchfork contributors have books forthcoming in the series. December holds the release of Forker Carl Wilson's book on Céline Dion's Let's Talk About Love and Forker/Matmos half Drew Daniel's book on Throbbing Gristle's 20 Jazz Funk Greats.

Lest someone suspect Pitchfork staffers of stealing the show, David Smay's book on Tom Waits' Swordfishtrombones also comes out in December. Then in March and April, the series will reload with books on albums by Black Sabbath (by Mountain Goat John Darnielle), Slayer (by DX Ferris), and Patti Smith (by Phil Shaw).

Or, if you've got a short attention span (or prefer singles to albums-- zing!), there's 33 1/3's Greatest Hits, Vol. 2, which compiles excerpts from many titles in the series.

Now, if you just read over that list of forthcoming titles, you may have noticed that Carl Wilson's choice of a Céline Dion album is, perhaps, less traditionally canonical than the rest of the series' subjects. But wait! The book isn't just about Céline Dion. It's subtitled "A Journey to the End of Taste", and according to the book jacket, "As Wilson strives to understand Céline's immense global popularity, he faces the question of what drives personal taste-- and whether it's possible to change it."

The folks at 33 1/3 are convinced that the book is so good, they will send PDFs of the first two chapters to anyone who sends an email to You can also read an excerpt from the book's third chapter at the 33 1/3 blog here. It's just like the library!


Decemberists Cancel Rest of "Long and Short of It" Tour

Sad! Just two dates into their fall "Long and Short of It" tour, the Decemberists have announced that they are calling the whole thing off. It looks like the sickness that befell a member of the band a month ago, resulting in the cancellation of their British tour, just hasn't gotten better.

Here's the statement from the band:

"With much regret the Decemberists have cancelled the remainder of 'The Long and Short of It' tour.

"One of our band members has been ill for a while but we thought all would be well in time for these tour dates. After a couple shows, though, it has become clear that the illness is much worse than we had initially realized. We need to return home so our friend can mend.

"It saddens us to disappoint our fans. We hope everybody understands it is only because of an extreme situation that we had to cancel a tour we've all been excited about doing since the idea was originally hatched.

"Our deepest apologies but at this time no plans are being made to reschedule the dates. Ticket holders should seek refunds at point of purchase."

Get well soon, guys! [MORE...]


The Rumble Strips Come to America

The Rumble Strips, those English lads with the tremble-causin' moniker and the loads of punky, horn-y hooks, are coming to the U.S. at last. On November 27, Kanine will issue the boys' first Stateside release, the Alarm Clock EP. In addition to a half-dozen hot slabs of British rock and/or roll (including a cover of Thin Lizzy's "The Boys Are Back in Town"), the disc comes with videos for both "Alarm Clock" and "Oh Creole".

The band will harness that Rumble of theirs on a handful of plotted live appearances both at home and abroad, including a number of rare Stateside gigs in late November and early December. And on November 19, they'll release new single "Time" in the UK. [MORE...]


Michaels Showalter & Ian Black Tour Together
My buddy, my buddy/ Wherever I go, he goes...

Photo via Chicagoist

Michael Ian Black and Michael Showalter share more than just a first name and a knack for absurd humor. For starters, their resumes both include "The State", "Stella", and Wet Hot American Summer. They also both have new albums (Black's I Am a Wonderful Man is out now, Showalter's Sandwiches & Cats comes out November 13 via JDub). And now, the Michaels have decided to share a handful of U.S. stages in support of those records.

Though three dates of the tour have already passed, there are still six remaining. Their next show is November 14 in Cleveland Heights, Ohio. [MORE...]

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Do you have a news tip for us? Anything crazy happen at a show you attended recently? Do you have inside info on the bands we cover? Is one of your favorite artists (that's not somebody you know personally) releasing a new record you'd like to see covered? You will remain completely anonymous, unless we are given your express permission to reveal your identity. (Please note that publicists, managers, booking agents, and other artist representatives are generally exempt from this rule, but will also be granted anonymity if requested.)

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