The Sundresses, Sufjan Stevens, Shelby Lynne and Jimmy Eat World

It's difficult for me to retain any semblance of journalistic objectivity when it comes to The Sundresses. My first exposure to their special brand of madness was at my first South By Southwest in 2004, which happened to be the band’s first SXSW, as well

Oct 29, 2010 at 2:06 pm

As previously stated, the weekly release sheets get pretty lean this time of year, so I’ll be taking the opportunity to dig through the stacks in the bunker that rise like poorly built Roman columns to nearly the ceiling in order to shed some light on the numerous titles I didn’t have time to expound upon when they were freshly released days, weeks or even months ago.

It’s difficult for me to retain any semblance of journalistic objectivity when it comes to The Sundresses. My first exposure to their special brand of madness was at my first South By Southwest in 2004, which happened to be the band’s first SXSW, as well, and only their eighth or ninth out of town gig at that point. Based on their summery, sugar Pop name, I had an idea in my head of how they would sound; I couldn’t have been more wrong if I’d envisioned them with lederhosen and Alpine horns playing Polka covers of Guns ’N Roses songs.

In 45 sweat-soaked minutes, The Sundresses reordered my musical universe and won me over completely. In the six years since that unexpected set in Austin, whenever I have stood in an audience and faced the Sundresses in a live setting, they have not disappointed in any way.

Perhaps it's fitting then that the new Sundresses album, Sundresses Off, is a live offering that showcases the band’s performance gifts with the visceral wallop that can only be achieved in front of their amps. It’s also proof that the ’dresses work straight from the gut, as they begin their set at Asbury Lanes in Asbury Park, N.J., with Jeremy Springer’s playfully ominous introduction (“We’re The Sundresses from Cincinnati, Ohio, and you’re about to find out...”) and follow it with the emotional powder-keg of “Strange Fruit,” the quiet Jazz classic that poetically details the horror of racial intolerance and which the band has rearranged into a top-volume hellbilly Blues screed.

Off is ironclad evidence of The Sundresses’ power as a live entity, as every track they present on stage is an adrenalized, bug-eyed evocation of the adrenalized, bug-eyed song they conceived in the studio. From the crazed Blues howl of “House of the Drowning Sun” to the psychotic swing of “Heater 5:00” to the slinky throb of “King Killer of Murder Town,” the two-headed guitar/drums/vocals monster of Springer and Brad Schnittger and the primitive sophistication of Makenzie Place, the little woman with the big bass (and trombone). Don’t ever forget that sweet trombone, transforming even their quietest musical moments into flailing exercises in demonic possession and chaotic control.

The second set on Off was recorded at Northside Tavern on New Year’s Eve five years ago when the band was, according to Springer, blackout-altered on a variety of ingestibles, and yet they nail every track from their eponymous debut with hellhound authenticity and scuffed-note passion.

The disparity between Off’s two sets is slight, proof of how subtly The Sundresses have improved since they formed eight years ago and how good they were right from the start, a scalding live testament to the ethos of The Sundresses and the contention that they are one of the best bands to rise from the local scene in a good many years.

Since his debut album a decade ago, Sufjan Stevens has defined his career by trying to become everything to no one in particular. Very few artists in the modern age have been able to do whatever they want to do creatively, rarely if ever making the same album twice and seemingly abandoning one audience for another with each new release. Stevens has been a Folk singer, an Electronic dabbler, a bold experimentalist, a poet, a surrealist, a romantic and a spiritualist, and through it all he somehow has found a fanbase that has generally ridden all the rides in the amusement park in his head right along with him.

Unfortunately, all this unfettered creativity apparently took its toll, as Stevens revealed last year that The BQE, his 2007 orchestral passion play and 2009 album, had drained him of the ability to backtrack his way to the song structures and methodology that first attracted listeners to his work.

A lot of Stevens’ fans must have swallowed hard at this revelation but they needn’t have worried. Whatever was blocking his creative path, he found his way around it and released the teaser EP All Delighted People in August, following it up in October with the full-length The Age of Adz, the title a reference to the disturbing art of schizophrenic painter Royal Robertson. With The Age of Adz, Stevens does the nearly impossible; he indeed finds his way back to his song structure and he does so while incorporating a good deal of the intricate and fascinating little bits and bobs that he’s utilized over the years.

As far as songs are concerned, there are many tracks on The Age of Adz that, in different arrangements, would fit perfectly on Michigan or Illinois, the two (and now admittedly only) entries in his abandoned 50 states album project. As far as arrangements are concerned, Stevens becomes an even bolder sonic theorist, returning to a song architecture and then theorizing within that context, sometimes sounding like a fascinating convergence of Donovan (“Futile Devices”), Brian Eno (“Now That I’m Older”), Philip Glass (“All For Myself”), Polyphonic Spree (“Vesuvius”), eels (“I Want to Be Well”), Beck (“Get Real Get Right”) and Kanye West (check out the overly AutoTuned vocals on parts of the 25-minute epic closer “Impossible Soul”).

The beauty and brilliance of Stevens’ accomplishment on The Age of Adz is his ability to find the overlapping areas of tradition and experimentation and create diverse material that coexists in that rarified atmosphere.

If you were to pick an artist and an album concept out of separate hats, it might be the only way that the name Shelby Lynne and the idea of a Christmas album would wind up on the same table. Lynne’s dusky voice and downcast arranging style is a perfect fit for her tales of heartbreak and its aftermath, and Christmas is the most joyous time of year. There seems to be a sizable gulf between those two realities.

And there is. On Lynne’s first Christmas album, appropriately titled Merry Christmas, the Country/Soul chanteuse tackles a handful of traditional holiday favorites and throws in a couple of seasonal originals to spice the egg nog. Lynne’s catalog tends to steer closer to the darker, more melancholy end of the spectrum, so naturally Merry Christmas is most engaging when Lynne plays to her strengths, like her take on “Christmas Time Is Here,” the wistful Vince Guaraldi classic from A Charlie Brown Christmas, and her readings of the majestic “O Holy Night” and the elegant “Silent Night.” She gives a similar twilight feel to “Silver Bells” and invests “White Christmas” with the appropriate long-way-from-home longing.

On the peppier side, there’s Lynne’s Bluegrass turn on Tex Logan’s “Christmastime’s a-Coming” and the laconic Country/Blues lope of her original “Ain’t Nothin’ Like Christmas,” a muted romp that wouldn’t have been out of place on the Grinch soundtrack. The wheels on Lynne’s Christmas wagon wobble a bit more when she mixes her melancholy mood with more festive tunes — her swingy “Santa Claus is Coming to Town” is just OK and her spin on “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer” stops just short of the unintentional parody of Dean Martin’s boozy version.

Most surreal is Lynne’s second original, “Xmas,” a Stax-meets-Countrypolitan Blues/Soul ballad that definitely taps into the darker side of the holiday, balancing the warm memories of family and gifts with the reality that daddy (or you) might get loaded and knock over the tree. It’s a pretty good song, but it’s most assuredly not destined to be a holiday classic.

Overall, Merry Christmas is an average addition to both the Christmas album concept and to Lynne’s catalog. Given her natural creative slant, it might have been more advantageous to do a winter-themed album and throw in a few of the Christmas tunes for flavor. Maybe next year.

On Gram Rabbit’s fourth album, Miracles & Metaphors, the Joshua Tree, Calif.-based outfit assembles a set that plays like the sonic equivalent of a pointilist painting; listening to just one part of the album would be unenlightening and confusing while standing back and hearing it all reveals a much clearer picture. Dissecting Miracles & Metaphors a song at a time separates the album into standalone segments that, at first blush, seem somewhat disconnected but which actually flow together in an oddly logical and cohesive manner.

Gram Rabbit’s particular gift on Miracles & Metaphors is the ability to synthesize a broad variety of genres into their general creative vision, soaking up styles like a thirsty sponge and squeezing them all into their big bucket of contemporary Pop where they mix and mingle into a potent solution. Gram Rabbit veers from a jittery and quirky New Wave that suggests Oingo Boingo to breezy Synth Pop that nods in the direction of OMD and the Thompson Twins to propulsive and expansive balladry that accesses Prog and Pop and even touches of the Joshua Tree twang that have hung in the air since Gram Parsons’ cremation.

Lead vocalist/multi-instrumentalist Jesika von Rabbit (references don’t get more ’80s than that) has a voice that quivers in the range between Lene Lovich and Kate Bush, but she clearly possesses a contemporary edge that hints at her very real potential of launching into Lady Gaga mode. The rest of the band (vocalist/guitarist/bassist Todd Rutherford, guitarist/bassist Ethan Allen, drummer Hayden Scott) matches her step for musical step.

Like an English-to-Japanese-and-back-to-English translation that makes a weird sort of sense based on its own internal logic, Gram Rabbit channels their myriad influences through an obvious appreciation for the eras from which they arose while applying a modern twist on those influences. There may not be a single name for Gram Rabbit’s sound but the diversity and executional prowess assures that, for the time being, “music” will do just fine.

From Jimmy Eat World’s 1994 birth, there is very little about the Mesa, Ariz.-based quartet that has followed the standard Rock template. The band released two singles and a full-length debut on a micro indie label, sowing the seeds of melodic Emo Pop in the process, and then signed with Capitol for 1996’s Static Prevails and 1999’s Clarity. In between, the band shot out an EP for Fueled by Ramen and sprinkled their catalog with a variety of split singles. When they recognized their non-existent label status, the Jimmys opted out of their Capitol contract, bought their albums back from the label, booked a five-week tour of Europe and distributed the albums themselves, all without label or management assistance.

The Jimmys’ big (and perhaps notorious) break came with their DreamWorks debut in 2001, originally titled Bleed American but rechristened and re-released eponymously in sensitivity to the 9/11 attacks that occurred just weeks after the album’s release (a 2004 re-release reclaimed the album’s original title). The single release of “The Middle” broke the Jimmys wide open, inspiring a host of similarly toned Emo Pop rockers and setting the stage for the band’s wild success in the new millennium with 2004’s Futures and 2007’s Chase This Light.

Invented, Jimmy Eats World’s latest album, is clearly poised to advance that success. Reunited with producer Mark Trombino, who produced Static Prevails, Clarity and Bleed American, the Jimmys (Adkins, guitarist/vocalist Tom Linton, bassist Rick Burch, drummer Zach Lind) have imbued Invented with the spirit of their earliest work (the visceral impact of “Evidence”), the power of their breakthrough years (the fist-pumping anthemics of “Coffee and Cigarettes”) and the hard-won maturity of their 16-year history (the acoustic beauty/electric heart-punch of “Movie Like” and the smoldering title track).

Invented also marks the first time since Clarity that Linton provides lead vocals on a track. Based on the adrenalized outcome of “Action Needs an Audience,” Linton should step up a little more often. The consistent appeal of Jimmy Eat World in general (and Invented in particular) is that the band doesn’t take a calculated approach to the creative process, allowing their smartly structured songs to develop organically and without any kind of manipulative deliberation. As a result, the Jimmys connect on a cerebral as well as a visceral level rather than merely jacking up the listener on a sonic sugar rush, growing with their aging audience while still energetic enough to attract the young demographic that propelled them to success in the first place.