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Sufjan Stevens - Enjoy Your Rabbit

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Artist: Sufjan Stevens

Album: Enjoy Your Rabbit

Label: Asthmatic Kitty

Review date: Apr. 22, 2002

I never really thought much of the Chinese Zodiac outside of something interesting to look at while waiting for my order of General Tso's tofu at the restaurant down the street from me in New York. Sure, the whole twelve year cycle is intriguing, and on more than one occasion I have thought it quite odd that I was born under the same sign (monkey) as people like Diana Ross and Harry S. Truman, perhaps somewhat explaining my love of "Reach Out And Touch (Somebody's Hand)" and middle initials that stand for nothing. New York by-way-of Michigan native Sufjan Stevens puts a little more thought into them however, as evidenced by his album Enjoy Your Rabbit, a diverse series of "programmatic songs for the animals of the Chinese Zodiac". While not a newcomer musically, his second release for the Asthmatic Kitty label is a marked departure from the stripped down four trackings of his debut album A Sun Came and his work with folksters Marzuki. The emphasis this time out is on a wide variety of instruments, blending the electronic trickery with the acoustic mastery to create an album full of diverse sounds and textures that always manages to adhere to a pop format.

While the album begins proper with "Year of the Monkey" and "Year of the Rat," Stevens doesn't start to build any sort of momentum until the fourth track, "Year of the Ox." Whereas the former tracks seem a little too content to just either meander back and forth sonically or rely too heavily on a Danny Elfman-meets-Tim Burton type of cartoon melody, "Ox" does it well right from the start. Carefully layering more and more sounds over a muted electronic beat and an ascending keyboard line, Stevens sends the melodies here skyward, adding more and more instruments to the track until it's almost impossible to discern what anything outside of the guitar and keys are (is that a steel drum I hear?). The track shifts halfway through, trading the naively upbeat melody for a slightly darker one, and adding more noise to the track before segueing into "Year of the Boar." This track is far more urgent, careening by on a driving drum roll and a simplistic yet tense melody before breaking it down and allowing hushed electronics to work their magic in the background. Once again, however, this all gives way to circus-like melodies that whir past your ears in a frenzy. "Year of the Tiger" switches things up again, this time slowing things down until it resembles a warped cousin of Mum, adding gentle vocals to the mix and a beat that steadily increases until it reaches its near-disco apex. Those same heavenly melodies return again for most of "Year of the Snake," although this time layers of fuzz are buried somewhere in the mix as well adding to the dizzying effect. "Year of the Dragon" sounds like a distant cousin of space rock, using odd instrumentation to work the quiet-loud aesthetic to a surprisingly fulfilling effect. The peak of this record, however, is the epic "Year of the Horse." Working a sparse melody that goes from slightly ominous to completely urgent, with a beat that builds to a skittering climax, Stevens uses the track's thirteen minutes to incorporate textures featured elsewhere on the album, although this around with infinitely more satisfying results. Veering from forlorn melodies, to mellow ambience, then again to simplistic vocals, before finally dropping into a terse electronic workout, this track is the manic highlight of this peculiar record.

Make no mistake about it - not only does Sufjan Stevens know how to write a song, but he also knows how to record one intricately all by himself. While his talents certainly lie in the areas of diverse instrumentation, the major drawback for this record comes from the almost formulaic approach that the songs seem to develop after repeated listenings. Rather than ever attempt to harness the subtlety of tracks like the almost ambient "Year of the Sheep," he almost concerns himself too much with making things as outlandish, cartoonish, and over the top as possible. This makes for interesting songs the first couple times around, but it gets old fast and becomes simply a matter of waiting for each successive layer of instrumentation to be added to the mix. The best way to make a record is not to look around and see how much you can add to a particular track, but rather to see how make a few of these elements work to their fullest potential. There are a couple of clunkers on this record that just don't work so well, too. The aforementioned "Year of the Rat" is more annoying than anything else, and tracks like "Year of the Rooster" head nowhere fast.

If anything, though, this is a great record because Stevens displays the commitment to trying to make things sound as weird and overindulgent as possible. And when it works, it does so with excellent results. The instruments all collide to produce melodies that are uplifting, catchy and memorable. It remains to be seen, however, if Sufjan will learn that the most elaborate path from Point A to B is not necessarily the best. All in all, however, this record shows enough promise to make one keep their eye on what Sufjan Stevens will concoct in the future.

By Michael Crumsho

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