Thursday, December 13, 2012

Pop stuff: Sufjan Stevens live concert review; Polyphonic Spree's holiday album

Surfjohn Stevens Christmas Sing-A-Long: Seasonal Affective Disorder Yuletide Disaster Pageant on Ice. This traveling extravaganza featuring the very talented Sufjan Stevens (not sure why he's calling himself "Surfjohn" on this tour) came through town the other night, blowing minds, provoking laughter and otherwise making spirits bright.

Stevens started recording Christmas songs several years back as a way to help himself appreciate the holiday more, and he's released several holiday albums and EPs of traditional and original holiday tunes.

The show starts at over-the-top and takes off from there: Musicians dress in costume -- Superman, snowman, angel, etc.; there's a huge game show wheel used for choosing sing-along Christmas songs; inflatable Santa Claus and unicorn (yes, unicorn) toys are hurled into the audience; there's a bubble machine, confetti and tinsel all over the place.

It's a simultaneous send-up and celebration of Christmas -- all the things that make the holiday,  or at least the way we celebrate it -- overwhelming, stressful, crazy and wonderful. It was an exorcism of holiday angst.

Stevens is a brilliant musician and arranger -- maybe even his generation's Brian Wilson. His original  holiday music is filled with great melodies and harmonies (his band is also great) and sometimes hilarious, sometimes heart-breaking lyrics.

It was a fun show, with wonderful music performances by the band and plenty of opportunities for audience participation. Members of the crowd were selected to spin the  "Wheel of Christmas" and we all sang-along to seasonal favorites -- they'd even handed out a book of lyrics.

I came away more relaxed and amused about the holiday, but appreciating its significance and meaning. I'm better-prepared to really enjoy Christmas this year with friends and family, which I think was Stevens' aim. No matter how annoying, how crazy and how overwhelming this season can be, we're all in it together. It's ridiculous and fun, and we're all going to be ok.

The tour is still on. Catch it if you can. Here's video from a recent performance, to give you a taste:



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Holidaydream: Sounds of the Holidays Vol. One by the Polyphonic Spree. In a similar mode to Sufjan Stevens musically, this album is full of classic and original holiday tunes performed by Tom DeLaughter and his alt pop choir.

The thing that's great about the Spree is all those voices. DeLaughter, formerly of Tripping Daisy, takes the lead vocals backed a huge array of backing vocalists. It sounds great on the Spree's exuberant, sunshine pop-influenced original songs, and is a natural fit for Christmas music -- really bringing out the spirit and joy of the holidays.

The only tune that didn't click for me was the super slow take on "Silver Bells," which drains the life out of the song. Thankfully, the group does an up-tempo "reprise" of the song, which sounds fantastic.

Other traditional songs covered include John Lennon's "Happy Xmas (War is Over)" (as timely as ever, sadly), "Silent Night," "Little Drummer Boy," "Winter Wonderland" and a trippy, psychedelic take on "Do You Hear What I Hear," which sounds awesome.

I don't know if it'll become a seasonal favorite, but this is certainly a nice addition to my holiday music collection.


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