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The Avalanche: Outtakes and Extras from the Illinois Album

July 11, 2006 | Format: MP3

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1:49
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4:59
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By Cale E. Reneau on July 11, 2006
Format: Audio CD
Objectivity. Oftentimes it is an easy ideal to attain. Jean Piaget would claim that objectivity is something that is acquired by age and is an indicator of formal operational thought, and as such it is not possessed by all people. I, for one, have the ability to be objective from time to time. However, despite by conquest of objective thought, I find it increasingly difficult to remain objective when reviewing Sufjan Stevens. Why? Because he is my absolute favorite musician; possibly ever, but definitely currently.

For those unfamiliar with the "legend" of "The Avalanche," I will explain. Sufjan's 2005 release "Illinois" was a brilliant, moving piece of artistry that made dozens of top 10 lists across the globe (including my own). According to the Asthmatic Kitty website, the album was originally planned to be a double album, but was scrapped well into the production of the album. "The Avalanche" are the songs that did not make it to the final cut of "Illinois" plus a few extras. However, do not dismiss this album as a B-Sides album (Even though Sufjan humbly labels it a "Outtakes and Extras" collection). "The Avalanche" is an album that can stand entirely on its own.

The title track, "The Avalanche," is also the lead-off song on the album. For those fortunate enough to have obtained a copy of "Illinois" on vinyl, this song should sound extremely familiar, mostly because it's the same song that was featured on that release. For those of us who are without a vinyl-player, however, "The Avalanche" is a brand new song filled with precise instrumentation and beautiful lyrics. As a lead-off track, it serves its purpose in enticing the listener to hear more. What comes next only makes the listener happy that they did. "Dear Mr.
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Format: Audio CD
I'm a little unhip to the zeitgeist, being a mostly stay-at-home mom, infrequent (lapsed) family physician, and perpetual community nuisance. Until today, I was blissfully unaware of the critical acclaim for "Illinoise." However, I listened to it incessantly after my husband brought it home, and wound up with a copy of "The Avalanche" for Christmas.

That being said, I put on the title track of "The Avalanche," on Christmas Day, and was blown away by the beauty and complexity of its opening. This album has entered the pantheon of those I listened to daily for weeks or even months after their discovery, which puts it in the league of Emmylou Harris's "Angel Band," the first "Trio" album (featuring Emmylou Harris, Linda Ronstadt, and Dolly Parton), the Dixie Chicks' "Home," Billy Bragg's and Wilco's "Mermaid Avenue," Bob Dylan's "Good As I Been to You," and the "O Brother, Where Art Thou?" soundtrack, which is pretty serious company.

Moreover, I cannot say enough about "Springfield, or Bobby Got a Shadfly Caught in His Hair." This tune, with its rich harmonies, stands up against the greatest CSNY songs.

I enjoy the three alternate takes of "Chicago;" as a jazz fan, I'm accustomed to hearing different versions of the same song back-to-back on archival recordings. But I'm aware that the casual listener may find this sort of thing perplexing.

I take exception to the notion that Sufjan Stevens revels in the sameness of his sound: I think that criticism could be directed against Lennon and McCartney, Brian Eno, k.d. lang, Lyle Lovett, Elvis (Costello or Presley), Ray Charles, or any of the above mentioned artists. I would not have it any other way.
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Format: Audio CD
Sufjan Stevens' "Illinois" seemed to come out of nowhere and capture the fancies of critics and listeners alike last year, even though the artist had been churning out albums from his tiny label for some time. It ended up on many "best-of-the-year" lists, including #1 on the Pitchfork Media list. And the accolades were well-deserved, as "Illinois" was a big-sounding, musical tour-de-force that can be mentioned in the same breath with Brian Wilson's "SMiLE". Now, a year later, comes a collection of "shamelessly compiled" (in the artist's own words) leftover tracks from the "Illinois" sessions, which seem to be released for the benefit of avid fans who can't get enough of the guy and are eagerly awaiting the next full-blown album. There are at least half a dozen songs here that would have been worthy of inclusion on "Illinois" (though this would have pushed it into 2-CD territory). The standouts are the title track, "Dear Mr. Supercomputer", "Adlai Stevenson", "The Henney Buggy Band", "The Mistress Witch from McClure", and "No Man's Land". There are also three alternate versions of "Chicago", the centerpiece song from "Illinois", all of which are interesting takes. After that, most of the tunes sound and feel like filler: some of them seem half-finished, demo-like, and often devolving into semi-inspired noodling, dissonance, and in one case, what sounds like radio static. But that shouldn't be surprising in a CD that's advertised as a collection of "outtakes and extras." It is still worthwhile, at least for fans, but for those who haven't become familiar with Stevens' work yet, I suggest you start with "Illinois".
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