SUFJAN STEVENS – The Age of Adz (2010)

Review by: Mark Maria Ahsmann
Album assigned by: Francelino Prazeres de Azevedo Filho

Sufjan Stevens gives you constipation of the wrong kind. The right kind is constipation caused by for instance Phil Collins; when you hear the music and you instantly know it’s bad shit. Your body cramps up and it takes you a few days to get it out of your system if you just set your mind to it.

The Sufjan Stevens constipation is different. It consists of a lengthy inability to figure out if you like his music or not and if is his music is good or not. It might be best to avoid this kind of constipation altogether but you agreed to write a review of “The Age of Adz” so you had to deal with it.

So you listened to the album. You heard an album by an acclaimed multi-instrumentalist singer-songwriter who for a change used mainly electronic instrumentation to accompany vaguely confessional reflections on love, sex, life and death. You heard some things you liked, more things you disliked and many things that made no sense to you

You listened not once or twice but fifteen to maybe twenty times over a couple of weeks. And it was a strange experience because the album appeared to have the properties of some old fashioned psychology test, like a Rorschach test but not quite similar; the album seemed to reflect your mood in such a manner that on alternate listens you would either like it or severely hate it. You did not hear anything new or different in it and you could definitely pinpoint some things you loved or hated in it but you could never predict what your emotional response to it would be. Let alone analyze it or summarize in one sentence what informed your judgment. Add to that the fact that even after several hearings you could not reproduce a single detail of the album in your head; even “The Division Bell” performed better on that score.

You developed a mild obsession with “The Age of Adz”. You thought about it and the review you had to write all the time and in your mind you had already written a dozen different versions of the definitive review you are about to write. You knew what you liked about it but you were anxious that you would never figure out what you disliked about it so vehemently. 

Nor could you really decide if this would be a “Recommended-Album-Despite-All-It’s-Obvious-Flaws” or “Seriously-Flawed-Album-With-Touches-Of-Brilliance” type of review.

And you put off writing until the very last moment. And you fear that your Sufjan Stevens obsession will become a lifetime occupation.

Awful constipation.

Then finally you set out to write the review. You start off by mentioning the things you like about it and the thing you like the most about it is the beauty that can be found in the details of the arrangements. As one would expect of Sufjan Stevens the album is meticulously crafted and multi-layered and he uses a many sometimes unusual but often pleasant instruments to adorn his pieces. And when that approach works it is really quite good. Instances of this are strewn across the album; for example the horn coda on “Get Real Get Right” is really beautiful. Also the big-fartin’ electronic drum and bass foundation and the glitchy, slippery synthesizer sounds are at the very least fun. And you should mention the celestial female backing singers on many of the tracks but especially on “I Walked”; they are really delicious. As the sum of all it’s different parts “The Age Of Adz” is really a unique album. But that doesn’t necessarily make it a good album. In fact you have a number of problems with it that one by one wouldn’t be so disastrous but when you add them all up you are stuck with an album that is only partially palatable, in small portions.

The biggest problem is that even for a Sufjan Stevens album there’s a lot of Sufjan Stevens on it. Too much, in fact. One has to, for example, like Sufjan Stevens’ voice to fully appreciate this album because on this album at least there’s no escaping it.

You dislike his voice. He sounds so sincere and introspective that after listening to it for a while you think Lemmy and Antony are the same person. It’s so intrusive and all over the place that it reminds you of Freddie Mercury. And you don’t like Freddie Mercury, to put it mildly. Furthermore, Stevens sounds so sterile, sexless and dorky that it’s like he lived in Mike Love’s throat for a long while. And he has a tendency to crack into falsetto all the time.

You dislike the density of the sound. It’s so stuffed to the brim with little cosy, well crafted, pretty ornaments on top of ornaments on top of bombastic or——————————————————————————————————————————————————————————————————————————————————————————————

THE MOTHERFUCKER’S ELUDING ME

Look, it took me too long to write this review and that’s because so far I don’t understand what I like about it. It’s quite obvious what I don’t like about it. The voice annoys me. The album is overcooked like somebody produced a cherry pie with not just cherries but also apples, kiwi’s, strawberries, pineapples, pears, peaches and etcetera and what have you.

I think “Less Is More” is a valid principle but I can appreciate a certain lushness, for instance on Pet Sounds, if the embellishments at least serve decent songs. This album, however, lacks memorable hooks and the one song that sticks in my memory “I Walked” is uncomfortably similar to Dido’s “Thank You”, of all things. Many pieces consist of repetitive chord sequences with varying instrumentation, chanted phrases and with Stevens’ voice to the fore that can be very off putting. Take for instance the title track; it is just awful.

Stevens’ lyrics do nothing for me and I am non-plussed by the combination of supposedly intimate lyrics and very bombastic arrangements. On “The Age of Adz” Sufjan Stevens comes across as too eager to please and impress. He reminds me of a guy I once worked with who would, at the mere mention of the word coffee, jump up and get you a cup. Awful, servile creep. Seems like Stevens strives for beauty but never achieves more than prettiness. And thereby he leaves nothing to the imagination of the listener.

And what’s sorely missing is anything that really kicks ass or lays down a groove. Yes he applies a disco rhythm in a section the overlong (25 minutes), seemingly pointless and tedious album closing suite “Impossible Soul” but it does not take me to Funky Town.

So all in all there are so many things to dislike about this album for me that I would obviously dismiss it completely and put it in the trash bin of my mind. If it weren’t for I don’t know what.

And for me that’s the most intriguing thing about “The Age of Adz”; that in a certain light and at certain times I quite like it. Like a guilty pleasure, maybe. A very annoying guilty pleasure though. It is something about the atmosphere, and yes , of course some bits and pieces are quite beautiful. But in the end I just can’t figure out what’s the up side to “The Age of Adz”.

And frankly, at the moment I just don’t feel like delving any further into it. I’m tired (of it).

So, there it is: a failed review attempt.

When I was a kid my family used to own a jigsaw puzzle which was insolvable. The last piece would never fit. My mother promised five guilders to the kid that could finish it. Of course no one ever earned that money. Until I took a hammer and forced the piece into the puzzle and my mother, exasperated and because I was the youngest of the eight, paid the sum.

If I were to think any more of Sufjan Stevens I would like some money first.
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UNIVERS ZERO – Heatwave (1986)

Review by:Tom Hadrian Kovalevsky
Album assigned by: Eric Pember

Save for the topiary, everything shifts and changes at random within my line of vision. Outside, the heat rises from the ground and makes everything seem almost liquid, as though I am dwelling underwater in a glowing palace of glass and gold. The world stretches and distorts and makes itself into new shapes without my influence and I am caught up in the rhythm of the funeral march once more, stretching eternally, seemingly without end. Ah, to say that it were painless would be to lie and pretend that nothing had happened; to smile and pretend that it was over, the chairs packed away, the curtains drawn, but from here, I can see everything as it becomes due to me. The music draws to an unnatural lilting halt, and somewhere a woman laughs and a glass is dropped, for these are indeed dangerous times.

EISLEY – Currents (2013)

Review by: Alejandro Muñoz G
Album assigned by: Nina A

Eisley is a Texan band formed by four siblings and their cousin. They seem to put a lot of effort upon each song’s textures, and that’s one of the strengths of the album. The overall sound strongly reminds me of Florence + The Machine, especially in songs like “Real World”.
There are some really delightful moments in the album. Take for example the superb opening track built upon different layers of acoustic and electric guitar lines; the melody of the “come lay under my wing” line in “Drink The Water”, mimicked by a piano all along the song; or the gorgeous piano arpeggios in “Shelter”.
I’m usually a big supporter of “albums” as integral works of art which should be listened from beginning to end to understand each song in its context. However, in this case the fact that most of the tracks share the same mood and tempo means that, when listened thoroughly, the album may appear quite unexciting at some point. This problem is accentuated by the limitations of the singing: while the lead singer (or are there more than one lead?) is a perfectly capable one, it’s not a particularly versatile or dynamic voice. For these reasons, I believe these songs are much better appreciated when listened apart from the album, isolated or alternated with other artists contrasting songs.
Overall, Currents is a beautifully crafted indie pop-folk-rock album; a nice listening experience, and I would surely return to some of its songs.

PAU RIBA – Dioptria (1970)

Review by: Andreas Georgi
Album assigned by: Jaime Vargas Sánchez


This one is a bit difficult to review. I honestly had never heard of this album, Pau Riba, or anything in its genre. I have mixed opinions of it, but it’s not without its charms and interesting points. The first thing that stands out obviously is that it’s sung entirely in Catalan (or is it Mallorqui?). I do speak Spanish, and that helps me understand at least a bit of the song titles and the lyrics, though honestly not enough for me to get a true sense of their meaning. The language barrier is not a problem – I listen to stuff sung in various African and Asian languages which I don’t understand at all! I like the sound of Catalan being sung, which is a nice distinguishing feature. What I am lacking completely, of course, is the lyrical, cultural, and musical context for this music. It was released in 1970 and sounds very much like a product of its time (good and bad). On some of the tracks I get the impression that the vocals are delivered in an ironic, tongue-in-cheek out of tune fashion, but I don’t know what that’s about.

The music itself is basically folky psychedelic rock. I said it was a product of its time, but quite honestly I think even by 1970 standards the rock stuff sounds somewhat dated and clichéd sounding. The slower stuff is much better and more distinctive, and seems to draw on sources beyond just Anglophone rock and folk, which I would be interested to explore. “Noia de Porcelana” is one the songs that comes to mind as a highlight, though it’s hard to write in more detail about individual tracks. Overall it was an interesting listen. There’s a big world of music beyond your comfort zone – go explore it.

This review is also posted on Amazon here.

NELLIE MCKAY – Get Away From Me (2004)

Review by: Rodrigo Lopes
Album assigned by: Dominic Linde

Nellie was only 21 years old in the release of her debut album, and it shows, but not in a bad way. She purposely go from one genre to another tapping on jazz, pop and hip hop with a joyful yet sarcastic attitude that carries with it how young she is. The two-part album is vibrant and quick witted and soars through a myriad of themes that goes from an obsession with herself in ‘clonie’ – where she proudly elects her clone as the best companion she could possibly find – to the dull image she portrays of a traditional marriage in ‘I wanna get married’. She has a good clear voice, and overall the arrangements of the songs are quite nice; nothing fancy, but tasteful, very ‘singer-songwritery’ if you will.

But the album is not without flaws. While I consider the CD to have very few filler songs, the fooling around with all those different styles and the mockery and cynicism in almost every lyric sometimes felt just a little bit too much, like she was trying too hard to make those transitions seem effortless and also to show how different of an artist she was.

Despite that, I found the album to be on the most part coherent, even though the themes and genres were so diverse. I think that her youth both helped and got in her way in this record. This has ‘debut album’ written all over it, it almost sounds experimental, and sometimes her inexperience ends up showing, but for me, a some part of the album’s charm was exactly there. Her goofiness and lighthearted approach makes this a very fun album to listen to. This also made possible for her to tackle deeper and more serious subjects while maintaining the carefree aura of the album.

This album is definitely not for everyone but I believe that it would resonate with quite a few people. 

DREAM THEATER – Metropolis Pt. 2: Scenes from a Memory (1999)

Review by: Graham Warnken
Album assigned by: Victor Guimarães

I never really feel qualified to analyze prog music, because I’m not really knowledgeable in musical theory. As a pianist of some eight or nine years this really shouldn’t be the case, but time signatures and key changes and whatnot aren’t something I’ve ever really been able to internalize. All this basically to say that I can’t really speak to the technical intricacy of anything on this album.

That said, what I go to prog albums for is an atmospheric listening experience. I listen to The Dark Side of the Moon or Pale Communion or In the Court of the Crimson King when I want to get into a certain mood, when I want to passively let sound wash over me rather than actively engage with the music. And in this respect, I quite enjoyed Scenes from a Memory.

It was always gonna be love at first sight, because the cover art is done by Dave McKean, the man who created the covers for every issue of Neil Gaiman’s Sandman comics. The Sandman connection is indicative of the thematic material that is to follow: dreams, altered consciousness, the thin line between reality and illusion, etc. etc. Of course, as with pretty much every rock opera, the story is melodramatic and preposterous when examined under scrutiny, but as that’s a given it’s easy to move past. The lyrics are also nothing particularly special, but again, that’s not why I’m here by and large.

The music, then: I listened to the album as one long suite on YouTube with no divisions between songs, so I can’t really isolate moments on a name-by-name basis. The whole, however, was remarkably pleasing. The adjective “dreamlike” is too abstract to use, and bears connotations of hazy, misty ambience that isn’t really appropriate, but the music definitely does communicate the multi-layered perceptual maze that the album is all about. Twisting, intertwining instrumentals, reminiscent of Opeth’s more recent stuff but not as heavy, feel like water trickling through one’s ears or a helix spiraling upward in the brain. It’s an album to get lost in, to be experienced in total rather than in drips and drabs.

I thoroughly enjoyed this listening experience, and look forward to returning to Scenes from a Memory and Dream Theater’s other offerings. Here’s to a proficient, enveloping musical experience—even if the story is still kinda silly.

АКВАРИУМ (AQUARIUM) – Сестра Хаос (Sister Chaos) (2002)

Review by: Jonathan Hopkins
Album assigned by: Dinar Khayrutdinov

Before I get to the review, let me tell you that finding any information on this album or this band is borderline impossible. Aquarium has exactly one album entry on RYM, and isn’t this one. Sister Chaos wasn’t on Spotify in my country, nor was it anywhere easily available online. I was very lucky that exactly one person had it up on Soulseek, and that the mp3s were good quality.

Broadly speaking, Sister Chaos could probably be described as art-pop, but it’s fairly difficult to nail down. I have no knowledge of Aquarium outside of this, but here, at least, their greatest asset is their unpredictability. None of the songs really sound like each other, and the surprising moments scattered throughout the songs tend to be the best parts of the album, such as the suggestive slide riff that pops up occasionally in the funky “500” (I used to play bass for the Funky 500) or the lovely piano break that appears out of nowhere in “Fording.”

Aquarium have quite a lot of influences on display, and strangely, its diversity might be a weakness. Most of these songs are good, but none of them have much of an identity of their own. They have a few defining quirks, but in many ways, “Brother Nicotine” is a Beck song, “Fate’s Foot” is something off Harmonium’s first album, “500” largely feels like The Stone Roses (albeit with very different instrumentation), etc. That’s not to say that it’s bad. The pastiches are good. I just have a difficult time grasping exactly who Aquarium are as a band, other than that they like their trip-hop rhythms and psychedelic tinges here and there.

The album seems very even to me, but if I had to pick a couple of highlights, I’d go with the slightly jazzy, slide driven “Psalm 151,” “Fording,” which combines its groovy verses with a, unexpected catchy upbeat pop chorus, and the bright piano pop of “Cardiogram.” The only thing that doesn’t really hold up for me is “Rastamen from Hicksville,” which is an amazing title wasted on a rather bland stab at reggae. While I basically enjoy Sister Chaos, nothing stands out to me much, and nothing ever strikes me as great or brilliant. It’s a pretty good album, certainly invested with a lot of craft and talent, and worth a few listens, but I’ll probably never feel like pulling it out again.