Words of Mouth
How I Heard About the Best Album of the Year

If there’s one thing I’ve learned over the past couple of weeks, it’s that sometimes the system works.

Now, don’t worry, I’m not going to go all rainbows-and-puppy-dogs optimistic on you here, but I have been oddly pleased with the recent fruits of a couple of independent investigations. First and foremost, there’s the Karl Rove thing, in which it was brought to light that the Deputy White House Chief of Staff was responsible for the public outing of a CIA agent. Whether or not it’s eventually proven that Rove undertook this leak with malicious intent (perhaps to get back at the agent’s husband, who decried the Iraq war and debunked some of the false evidence used to launch it), the revelation of his involvement puts King Bush II in an interesting position.

I hope everyone remembers that two years ago, Bush promised to fire anyone in his administration that was found to have facilitated the leak. He’s now amended that to anyone in his administration that is “found guilty of a crime,” which goes beyond Clintonian doublespeak into historical revisionism, but I think we should hold his feet to the fire. Make him keep his word, because honesty and trust are real American values, and our freedom depends on them.

Closer to this column’s purview, however, is the recent settlement by Sony BMG in one of the largest payola scandals since the dawn of rock ‘n’ roll. (Here, read all about it.) People call me cynical for saying this, but of course this sort of thing happens all the time. I’m surprised that Sony would resort to such blatant and obvious payola – there are numerous corporate back room ways to achieve the same results – and I’m also surprised to see that they got caught, but otherwise? No shocking developments here.

Hopefully, though, this is just the first step in a larger investigation that will expose just how entrenched the big labels are within the hit-making machine. Popularity now equals popular immersion, and if you control the airwaves, the video channels and the chain stores, you control what gets heard, and how often. The labels have known this for a long time, and the big radio networks are only too happy to play ball, since guaranteed popularity means guaranteed ratings and guaranteed ad sales. You wouldn’t want to leave that sort of thing up to the whim of the public, now would you?

Anyway, the homogenization and consolidation of radio annoys me to no end, because radio used to be the means by which music fans heard new songs. It just doesn’t work that way anymore – DJs can’t play what they want, and stations are locked into their record-label-devised formats. That’s not yet true of XM or Sirius, but just you wait – they can’t stay corporate-free havens for long. The only recourse is the internet, which I hope will be the Great Leveler that many think it will be. And what’s to stop the labels from paying off iTunes, or other download services, to give their artists prominence? Nothing. They will sue the developers and users of file sharing software while re-making the legal download sites in their image, if we let them.

$10 million is a good start. Keep digging.

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People ask me all the time where I find new music worth hearing. In the absence of good independent radio, it’s a fair question, but it is a little like asking a writer where he gets his ideas. The answer, the real answer, is never satisfying – writers, if they’re being honest, will tell you that they write all the time, and the good ideas are difficult to develop. Similarly, finding good music amidst the ocean of crap the labels pump out year after year is hard work. Okay, it’s not as hard as, say, digging ditches or cleaning sewers, but the good stuff doesn’t just fall into your lap, and I can definitely understand not wanting to put the time and energy in to exploring what radio, MTV and your local Best Buy ignores.

Sadly for me, I am like a crack addict when it comes to good music. The amount of my weekly paycheck that goes to CDs is pretty astonishing, especially when you consider that I haven’t had a real weekly paycheck since October. But I’ve been doing it long enough that I have cultivated avenues of information, and networks of like-minded people, all of whom get excited by good stuff and want to share it. I am often practically swimming in recommendations, most of which pay off.

Now, granted, sometimes folks have to bug me and bug me to give something a chance, especially something that strikes me as unlikely. (But then, I bother those same people the same way – “Kip Winger’s solo stuff is actually very good! No, it is!”) Take Dr. Tony Shore, for example. He runs a blog called ObviousPop, and he and I trade tidbits and recommendations all the time. Shore has been after me for a couple of months now to hear a band called the Dissociatives, and I’ve put it off, for a couple of reasons. One, Dr. T.’s track record is not unblemished with me – he is known to become intensely excited over albums I find forgettable. (And vice versa, to be fair.) But more importantly, I steered clear of the Dissociatives because of their frontman.

Daniel Johns was the lead singer and guitarist for Silverchair, a band whose debut album was so derivative of early ‘90s grunge that I won’t even respect their pretentious lower-case-S spelling. They had a major hit (“Tomorrow”) and faded, and shame on me, but I didn’t even bother to keep track of them after that. My bad, because apparently the last two Silverchair albums (Neon Ballroom and Diorama) found Johns maturing into a surprisingly good songwriter. And doubly my bad, because no matter how much Shore tried to convince me, I couldn’t accept that the “Tomorrow” guy could make a great record, no matter what he called the band.

I’m not alone, apparently. The Dissociatives’ self-titled debut came out in Europe and Australia last year, but Astralwerks and EMI dumped it onto these shores in March with little fanfare. The reviews have been amazing, but no one has heard of the band or the record. Which is pretty unforgivable, in my eyes, since this is one of the coolest pop records I have heard in ages.

The Dissociatives are Johns and British techno producer Paul Mac, and what they have done here is nothing short of the perfect electro-pop synthesis. The melodies are classic, catchy and tuneful, but the production is astonishingly modern – the record clicks, clacks and whirs around Johns’ guitars and pianos, and nothing is safe from Mac’s folding, stapling and mutilating, but the songs are never sacrificed. This is not a dance album, this is not a cheesy pop record, but it is one that places its Beatles and Brian Wilson melodies in utterly unfamiliar settings. And my God, does it work.

If you wondered what Radiohead might have sounded like if they’d ventured into electronic textures but kept the songs, wonder no more – opener “We’re Much Preferred Customers” is Kid A done right. If you hate that sound, hold on, because no two of these tunes sound alike. “Somewhere Down the Barrel” is a rocker with some Wilson-esque backing vocals, especially in its grand final third. “Horror With Eyeballs” (what a title) is a 6/4 psychodrama that revolves around the line, “All of this time on my hands so far has gone to feeding my animals.” (Yeah… what?) The song is amazing, twisting up one melodic tunnel to come free-falling down another.

“Forever and a Day” is more traditional, but no less incredible, as Mac uses his bag of tricks to steer the song clear of ballad country. This album has such a surplus of melody that even the instrumental “Lifting the Veil From the Braille” is indelible, which is why the occasional mediocrity (“Thinking in Reverse”) and filler (“Paris Circa 2007slash08”) is unfortunate. But before the album’s end, they score with an epic (“Aaangry Megaphone Man,” with three As) and a prickly lullaby (“Sleep Well Tonight”). All told, this is probably one of the most focused experimental records I have ever heard, with Johns’ strong, clear voice and layered harmonies keeping everything grounded while Mac explodes the world around them.

If you couldn’t tell, I love this record. (And yes, Tony, you can quote me.) I hope this isn’t a one-off, but the start of a fruitful collaboration, one that will completely eclipse Johns’ past. I have the sinking feeling, though, that The Dissociatives is destined to be one of those forgotten classic pop records, like Toy Matinee or Human Radio, loved by a devoted few and never afforded the credit it’s due. For me, this album does what very few others have managed – it updates the sound of classic pop without losing the melodic brilliance that makes it classic pop. It’s a tough little record to get into, but it’s superbly successful at a very difficult trick. I didn’t think it could work as well as it does here, and credit to Johns and Mac for proving me wrong.

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Usually, successful recommendations come from one or two people, but sometimes, my whole network buzzes about an album or an artist to the point where I have to check it out, just to see what all these musical minds I respect are going on about. I don’t think I’ve ever felt that buzz as much as I have in the past few weeks, surrounding Sufjan Stevens and his Illinois. Man, people just won’t shut up about this thing, which is funny because the mainstream isn’t coming anywhere near it.

Nor will they, I think. I had never even heard of Stevens last month – the first time I can recall hearing his name was at Cornerstone, over the July 4th weekend. How I missed this guy is beyond me, but I feel amazingly stupid. Stevens is an undeniable talent, and, bucking the trend, his album is worth every ounce of indie hype it has received. I will say this now – I don’t believe I will hear a more ambitious or successful piece of work this year.

Ambition is certainly pretty high on Stevens’ list of traits. Two years ago, he embarked on a ridiculous, impossible project – a 50-album travelogue of the United States, one record for each state. Illinois is the second installment (his home state of Michigan was first), and at this rate, the project as a whole will take 100 years. It’s doomed to failure, but it aims high, and I respect that, and perhaps his children and grandchildren will finish it up after he’s gone. I hope he sticks with it, though – I can’t wait to see how he fills a whole album about Delaware, or Rhode Island.

As lofty as this project is, the sound and scope of the record matches it. Illinois (the front cover announces it with the superior title Come On Feel the Illinoise) is 74 minutes long, full of six and seven-minute songs adorned with strings, horns, pianos, choirs, and what seems like a hundred instruments credited to Stevens alone. The record works as a massive suite, almost Rick Wakeman-esque in its grandiosity, but not nearly as pretentiously goofy as Wakeman often gets. It was impeccably produced and arranged by (guess who) Stevens himself, and stands as the work of a major songwriting voice.

It’s also pretty silly at times, with song titles like “They Are Night Zombies!! They Are Neighbors!! They Have Come Back From the Dead!! Ahhhh!” (All punctuation preserved, of course.) The lyrics are chock full of Illinois history, opening with a UFO sighting in Highland and closing with a reference to Chicago’s rich jazz and blues heritage. In between, it touches on Andrew Jackson, Superman, Carl Sandburg and Abraham Lincoln. But the real genius of the lyrics is that no matter who he is referencing, Stevens is almost always talking about himself. Illinois is an incredibly personal record.

Musically, Illinois never skimps. You might think that somewhere, in 74 minutes of material, Stevens would slack off and coast, but no. Every song is a wonder, whether it be an enormous, orchestrated powerhouse like “The Tallest Man, the Broadest Shoulders” or a sad, folksy ballad like “Casmir Pulaski Day.” Every moment of this gigantic work is captivating, and perfectly arranged. Just check out the horn section that disintegrates into strings and piano on “Chicago.” It’s fantastic. At no point during this long and winding road have I yet found my attention wandering, and I’ve heard it five times now. Not many 74-minute albums are in that club. (Hell, not many 34-minute albums are there.)

It’s not all sturm und drang. One of Illinois’ most affecting pieces is “John Wayne Gacy, Jr.,” which, in the end, becomes about the secrets we all keep: “And in my best behavior, I am really just like him, look beneath the floorboards for the secrets I have hid.” That song is all acoustic guitar and Stevens’ aching voice, and while you’d think it would be overshadowed by the massive monoliths that surround it, it stays with you.

By the time it wraps up (with a superb instrumental called “Out of Egypt, Into the Great Laugh of Mankind, and I Shake the Dirt From My Sandals As I Run” – really), Illinois has accomplished what so few records even try for these days: it has taken you somewhere, and made the trip worth your while. It is theatrical, yet heartfelt, a grand, sweeping opus full of dozens of magical little moments. It is this year’s SMiLE – not in the same league melodically, but it is a perfectly sequenced suite, with Wilson’s sense of dynamics and instrumentation. I will go out on a limb here and say that if Illinois is not the best album I hear this year, I will be stunned. Believe the hype. It really is that good.

That a composer/performer of this stature escaped my notice for so long is just inexcusable. (Illinois is Stevens’ fifth album, and he was in the band Marzuki before his solo career.) But that’s half the fun – now I get to go back and buy his other albums, and compare them to Illinois, and try to trace his evolution. And, of course, I can’t wait to see if he tops this one next time out. (Likely Indiana, if he sticks to the upper midwest.) But his other records notwithstanding, Illinois is a flat-out masterpiece, a project of breathtakingly singular vision and voice. It is community theater performed on a grand celestial stage, quintessentially American music to be sung and shouted in the streets. It is dazzling, flawless, eccentric, sophisticated and amazing. I cannot recommend it highly enough.

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Next week, the returns of Michael Penn and Bob Mould.

See you in line Tuesday morning.