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The little secret behind the Illinois record is that it was originally conceived as a double album, culminating in a musical collage of nearly 50 songs. But as the project began to develop into an unwieldy epic, common sense weighed in as did the opinions of others and the project was cut in half. But as 2005 came to a close, Sufjan returned to the old, forsaken songs on his 8-track like a grandfather remembering his youth. Sufjan gleaned 21 useable tracks from the abandoned material, including three alternate versions of Chicago. Some songs were in finished form, others were merely outlines, gesture drawings, or musical scribbles mumbled on a hand-held tape recorder. Most of the material required substantial editing, new arrangements or vocals. Much of the work was done at the end of 2005 or in January the following year. Sufjan invited many of the original Illinoisemakers to fill in the edges: drums, trumpet, a choir of singers. The centrepiece, of course, was the title track The Avalanche a song intended for the leading role on the Illinois album but eventually cut and placed as a bonus track on the vinyl release. Often some of the most interesting material can be found in an artists sketchbook the incidental pencil marks that turn into great panoramic landscapes or simple figure drawings that allude to greater, more mysterious things. The songs on The Avalanche pry open the sketch pad of a musician who considers himself more a technician than an artist, who often regards the process of songwriting even more gratifying than the song itself.
Sufjan Stevens' plan to release an album titled after each of the 50 American States goes a little off course on The Avalanche, although it should be noted that this is a collection of outtakes from Stevens' 2005 album, Illinois. Clocking in at an impressive 21 tracks, it's clear this Michigan-born Christian folk-rocker doesn't lack the inspiration to tackle such an ambitious task. Part psychedelic bluegrass, part extra-terrestrial electronic ambience, and part tribal percussion-fest, The Avalanche is every bit as piecemeal and confusing as you'd expect from an outtakes disc. A couple of enjoyable electronic numbers (see: 'Dear Mir Supercomputer') prove Stevens is working on another dimension from more traditional folkies like Devendra Banhart or Joanna Newsom, but what's really startling here is how so many excellent, lyrical songs have been carried over for this disc: the elegant, minor-key 'Springfield, Or Bobby Got A Gadfly Caught In Hair', or the serene, acid-folk vision laid out on the title track. Meanwhile, fans of Illinois should be delighted by three mischievous alternate versions of 'Chicago' - a acoustic version, a syrupy, Coldplay-style version titled 'Adult Contemporary Easy Listening Version', and the electronic-tinged 'Multiple Personality Disorder Version'. --Louis Pattison
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So, outtakes from another album. Sounds like it would just be an album full of sub-standard rejects from the, frankly, brilliant Illinois album. However, The Avalance could easily stand as an album in its own right, and if it wasn't for the fact that on the cover it says "Outtakes and extras from the Illinois album!" in fairly large text, it probably would.
If you like Illinois then, obviously, you're going to like this. That's it. End of story. I just wanted to say that some of the material on this disc is as good, if not better, than the material on Illinois. And some of it isn't. But hey, that's life.
For me, the heart of the CD is sequence of tracks 7-10, songs that CSN&Y (and their various combinations) would have killed for. For example Springfield - despite its infamous guitar solo.
Later in this CD comes the upbeat and tuneful No Man's Land, featured in the movie Little Miss Sunshine, and the very touching (and personal?) Pittsfield.
If you liked Illinoise, don't hesitate to acquire another 76 minutes of this most vital of modern American songwriters.
The Avalanche is all the music ideas/quirks/tropes he didn't have time to develop. It's a bit like discovering a long lost twin for the Illinois album. Ideas from Illinois get developed further, some of the songs start to make sense. And there's some wonderful acoustic stuff too. Check it out.
That's where "The Avalanche" comes from -- it's all the worthy leftovers from Sufjan's opus "Illinoise." While there are some that were cut for a good reason, most of them are delicate, original and well-written. Even the worst of Sufjan's scraps are better than whatever is playing on the radio.
It opens with the title track, a folky little number that blossoms out with the inclusion of tense piano and a woodsy flute. It's a basic little song about homesickness and travel, which becomes something slightly odder by the end. "Come on, Snow!/Come on, Car!/Come on, Hands!/Come on, Feet!" Sufjan exhorts happily.
Then we get some new twists and turns -- he dabbles in electronica-edged pop in the peppy "Super Computer" and the shimmery "Inaugural Music," effervescent folkpop, quirky indiepop to dance to, bluesy balladry, and some concept tunes such as the eerie, spacey expanses of "Pluto." They ought to use that in a sci-fi movie.
The most amazing song on here is the delightful horn dance tune of "Henney Buggy Band," where you can only imagine people frolicking in the streets. It just overflows with fun. "Let the bugles play the sermon on the raid/I kissed you on the face/I kissed you on the playground!"
Sadly, not every song on here is a masterpiece. Most of them are excellent pieces of work, sweet and musically adept. But there are some that just noodle around, like the ambient "Kaskaskia River." It starts, never goes anywhere, and just fades out. And it's not the only one that just sort of rambles.
With a few songs trimmed off, however, this would be a glorious collection of oddments. And for stuff that didn't make the cut, these songs are very polished musically and lyrically -- we get ripples of blippy synth, little acoustic songs, and all of it is trimmed with horns, banjo, tambourine, deep piano, flutes and other instruments. Who knows what else is in the mix?
Stevens himself sounds like he's having fun in many of these songs, especially "Adlai" and "Henney Buggy Band." His soothing voice croons, "Oh life, with your colorful surprises/Eleanor, how you put one on disguises/Oh Father John, you cannot tell me/What's right and wrong/You cannot tell me!" And he's backed by some very pretty backing vocals.
"Avalanche" is not on the level of the album it springs from, but it comes close enough to be worth treasuring. A little gem, with some flaws.
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