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Sufjan Stevens: Illinois

By Jenny Bootle

A few weeks ago my sister and I were lounging on the sofa and chatting when she asked me: “What’s the best concert you’ve ever been to?” I thought for a moment and then replied: “Sufjan Stevens at The Barbican. 2006.” My sister’s response was to silently reach into her pocket and pull out a raised finger, turning it round to face me. I had won the game because, for those who know his music, Sufjan is the trump card, cutting paper, blunting scissors and wrapping stone. (She later remembered that she’d been to the original “Live Aid” but I told her it was too late to add that in!)

Sufjan Stevens doesn’t do music videos, his website lacks a lot of information you’d expect on an artist’s site and he rarely does interviews; yet he sells out concert halls, has a dedicated following, gets a mention in a Snow Patrol lyric ("Hands Open"), and prompts this reaction from my sister. So it’s clear that he's no run-of-the-mill singer-songwriter-musician. The man even does Christmas albums…5-disc box set Christmas albums! If you haven’t heard Sufjan Stevens yet then I envy you, for all this is yours to come.
Sufjan Stevens
In 2008, I moved from England to Wisconsin, to a town an hour away from the Illinois border. I packed my belongings into two suitcases and went to join the one other person I knew there. On the plane I listened to the song “Chicago” on repeat and over the next couple of years “Illinois” was my driving soundtrack as I watched the highway pass beneath me. One day I drove over a bridge named after Casimir Pulaski (see track list for significance) and it felt like stepping into somebody else’s footprints. It means that now the album "Illinois" will always feel like a part of myself.

In 2003, Stevens released "Michigan" and announced his intent to write an album for each of the 50 states. So far, only two of these state albums have been forthcoming - "Illinois" was the second installment - and it’s still not clear if more will follow. Every so often a tantalising rumour of the next state album will surface (Oregon? North Dakota? Arkansas?) but Stevens remains illusive about the subject.

It’s hard to describe Sufjan’s musical style to the uninitiated – for really he’s like nothing else. He plays several different instruments and individual tracks will often feature a mixture of brass, strings, woodwind, drums and piano, creating a symphonic sound. Songs on "Illinois" range from just 6 seconds long to over 7 minutes and the album manages to encompass spirituality, history, industrial landscapes, local folklore, biblical allusions and references to the World’s Columbian Exposition, Frank Lloyd Wright and other noted Illinois residents.

So many tracks stand out in different ways. The hauntingly beautiful song “John Wayne Gacy, Jr.” tells the tale of Chicago’s most famous serial killer whilst the story in “Casimir Pulaski Day” will break your heart in its exploration of the complications of faith and loss (“Oh the glory…” “And he takes and he takes and he takes”). It’s impossible not to tap your foot to “Decatur, or, Round of Applause for Your Stepmother" and the soaring trumpet notes that follow the galloping chorus of “Chicago” manage to make you feel both excited and sad at the same time. And really, who couldn’t love an album which includes a track titled: “They Are Night Zombies!! They Are Neighbors!! They Have Come Back from the Dead!! Ahhhh!”

"Illinois" is an album unlike any other and if you haven’t heard Sufjan Stevens yet, then I envy you, for all this is yours to come.


Melissa Czarnik: Doing Her Best To Never Be Forgotten

by Lisa Adamowicz Kless
© 2011 Hyperdrive Motivator Productions
“I was born an MC/ Check the initials”, challenges the tag line for Melissa’s Czarnik’s Twitter account, and far be it for me to argue that point. If there’s any one word that I’d use to describe the Milwaukee, WI based artist, it's 'genuine'. It comes across in the self-described emcee and poet’s work, and carries through when you meet Czarnik in person. 

Czarnik turned up the heat on claiming her MC birthright when she was a teenager, writing poetry during her high school years, though not taking it very seriously at first. Then, she got a mic in her hand.  At parties, people would freestyle and pass the mic, and Czarnik took her talent for rhyme and flow and jumped right in. The rest, like they say, is history. Except in this case; that was just one of the first sparks igniting Czarnik’s future, and now it’s blazing brighter with each passing year.

Moving in the circles of Milwaukee’s underground hip hop scene, providence seemed to step in when Czarnik met her current producer, frequent collaborator and partner, Eric Mire.  A classically trained pianist with a degree in music composition, he was producing a hip hop group at that time.  Even after meeting, Mire wasn’t able to collaborate with Czarnik on any music at that point though, because he was still working with the other group. She was, however, able to use some of his equipment to play around and create her own beats. Their collaboration took root when circumstances changed and he was able to produce beats and music for Czarnik himself.


While it’s one thing for artists to preach social change and a positive message, it’s a whole different situation to go out and actually live it once the spotlight is off and the crowd has gone home. So back we go to my earlier statement that Czarnik is the real deal all the way. It was during her work in AmeriCorps that she released her first album, Strawberry Cadillac. AmeriCorps is a youth program in the United States that operates on a principle similar to the Peace Corps. Czarnik’s work was concentrated in education and environmentalism, focusing on alleviating poverty through education, and using music to address more serious issues.  That first album took social issues head on, with rapid fire lyrics talking about the portrayal of women in rap, hip hop and the media, political commentary, and back down the spectrum to more personal topics.   The beats and instrumental aspects of Strawberry Cadillac (and its follow-up) remind me of the pure joy of dipping into watercolors and mixing the shades just to see what will happen.  There's a hint of Latin influence, streaks of jazz, bold rhymes, and softer touches where Czarnik's voice mingles with the delicate sound of a piano's keys.

After the release of Strawberry Cadillac, Czarnik played local shows, with the Eric Mire Band sometimes backing her and lending their soulful jazz influence to her sets and some recorded songs.  When the opportunity to do shows in places like New York and even venues in Europe came up, she hopped on a plane and used some of the experiences as inspiration for material for her next album, Raspberry Jesus, the title of which actually comes from a conversation she and Mire had during one of those trips to Europe.  Czarnik's desire to speak up and inspire positive change shone through again on that album, with more glimpses into the artist's life, thoughts, struggles and perseverance.  In April, she'll be heading back to Europe once more, this time with the unique opportunity to live as an artist in residence in France for two months, where she'll work on her third album, Non Merci.

If you scroll down the song list on my iPod, you'll find a few hip hop and rap songs (besides Czarnik's), but I'll admit that they're not my top favorite genres.  Czarnik's music has resonated with me since I first heard it though.  Genuine.  Yes--that word again.  If I had to limit my reasons for being a Melissa Czarnik fan, I'd choose that one over any others.  She doesn't shy away from talking about pain in her past (a frequent topic in her songs is the loss of her brother, Aaron, who passed away when she was eighteen years old), self doubt and the fleeting desire to give up when it all feels like a little too much to deal with.  But with Czarnik, hardship becomes a catalyst to reach out and inspire others to use the challenges in their lives to create positive change.  When she sets foot in Europe again next month, I can't imagine a better artistic ambassador from the U.S. than Czarnik.  Embodying some of the best qualities that we as a whole can possess---kindness, strength and compassion, among others---I'm glad that her music and its messages have expanded  beyond the local area to stretch out across the ocean.  In her song "Been This Way" from Raspberry Jesus, Czarnik says "...how do you know if you've been to the top if you ain't never touched the bottom? Doin' my best to never be forgotten...".  If the progression of her career so far is any indication, Czarnik doesn't have to worry.  All she needs to do is hold tight to the goals and dreams she's already been turning into reality and keep on enjoying the ascent.

To see more photos, watch additional videos, read her blog, get information on upcoming shows and more, go to www.melissaczarnik.com.  You can also find her on Facebook at www.facebook.com/melissaczarnik and on Twitter.


Hard Boiled

by Tony Ramos

After I first watched the film Hard Boiled, I felt I had seen the greatest crime action film of all time. Years later, and with many more criminal action films under my belt, I still stand by that opinion. Hard Boiled truly is an amazing symphony of bullets with a great conductor (director) beautifully orchestrating all of the intense action we witness onscreen.

Yes, the action sequences in Hard Boiled are over the top and very stylized but that's what makes the film a joy to watch. It doesn't expect you to question why the good and bad guys in the film never seem to run out of bullets (except at opportune times to heighten the tension) or how the main characters in the story seem to defy death with so much chaos around them. It is a film that asks you, the audience, to come into this violent world of make believe mayhem and simply enjoy the ride, like one might a roller coaster.

Hard Boiled is a 1992 action/crime/thriller film directed by John Woo, who is considered by many filmmakers the greatest action director of our time, possibly of all time. The film stars Yun-Fat Chow as Inspector "Tequila" Yuen who is working a case, investigating mobsters who are smuggling guns into Hong Kong. The other main protagonist of the film is Tony, played by Tony Leung Chiu Wai. Leung plays an undercover officer who has gotten deep into the mobsters criminal world as a new hot shot enforcer whom the two biggest gun dealing mobs want working for them.

Tony (Tony Leung) and Tequila (Yun-Fat Chow)
The film's big time action begins at a tea house where Tequila and other officers have set up a sting operation on mobster gun smugglers. All hell breaks loose after the policemen let themselves be known and many innocent people are killed, as is Tequila's friend and partner. The death of his friend becomes an even bigger motivation for Tequila to not simply sit back and wait for the mobsters to make a mistake but to literally attack them; single handedly, if need be.

Tequila (Chow)
Tony meanwhile, works directly under the mob headed by Mr. Hoi (Hoi-Shan Kwan). Tony, being such a good enforcer, is recruited by Hoi's rival, Johnny Wong (Anthony Wong Chau-Sang), a younger, more ambitious and violent mobster. He sees Tony as a great asset and would like nothing better than to have him betray his old boss by coming over to join his side, thus wiping out his main competition at the same time. 

Tony (Tony Leung)
Suffice it to say, that even though both of these men essentially have the same mission, their methods and personalities are different. Do they kill each other before bringing down the gangsters, or do they eventually join forces and succeed together? 

Tequila (Chow) and Tony (Leung)
The action and the stunt work in the film are enough to entertain all action fans, but what also makes this film work is that it is a classic buddy film. The two main protagonists couldn't be more different. Yes, they are both cool, calm cats under pressure, but Tequila is the “hard boiled” impatient cop who needs things done yesterday, while Tony obviously has greater patience being an undercover cop.

Despite their obvious differences, however, they really are the same.  They both acknowledge the deaths they have witnessed or been a part of, even if in their own personal way. Tony makes paper cranes for each life he has taken, while Tequila writes music for every fallen comrade.

Tequila (Chow)
Yun-Fat Chow plays Tequila very smoothly, and Fat's charismatic personality shines through in every scene. It is no wonder that he is such a superstar. Tony Leung has the more complicated role, but he pulls it off in an extraordinary way, his many different emotions all clearly visible in his eyes. He essentially plays two roles: that of a mobster hit man, and that of an undercover officer. Tony's dual life causes him to be a somewhat lonely figure that one could easily see as someone who might never find inner peace after all the violence he has been a part of. Interestingly, Tony lives on a boat, and what better place to live for a person who does not really have any connections than on a boat, which, unlike a building or tree, has no foundation or roots.

So, I leave you with this thought. If you're the type of person for whom the soundtrack of many bullets firing is music to your ears, and you love buddy action flicks with great stunt work and beautiful camera movements, I recommend Hard Boiled. Once you get ahold of it, just remember to buckle up for a fast moving ride.

For more information visit their IMDb page: http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0104684/


Hem: A Seamless Band

By Jav Rivera

Sometimes a tune hits your ears and triggers something in you that cannot be described.  Maybe it's the singer's voice, maybe it's the melody of a chorus, maybe it's the combination of chords and notes; something about music can reach a listener that makes them absolutely connected to the artist.  Several years ago I was connected to a tune entitled "The Pills Stopped Working" by the band Hem.  And for me it was everything: the voice, the melody, the notes.  This was a band whose music and voice were completely seamless, a group of musicians that, without a doubt, belonged together.

Steve Curtis, Gary Maurer, Sally Ellyson, Dan Messé
Hem is an indie folk-rock band from New York City whose core members include Sally Ellyson (vocals), Dan Messé (piano, accordion, glockenspiel), Gary Maurer (guitar, mandolin), and Steve Curtis (guitar, mandolin, banjo, back-up vocals).  The extended members include George Rush (bass guitar), Mark Brotter (drums), Bob Hoffnar (pedal steel guitar), and Heather Zimmerman (violin).

The distinct voice comes from the magical vocal cords of Sally Ellyson.  There's no mistaking her voice. Her range alone is amazing, and what she contributes to a song is pure magic.  A simple line becomes extraordinary through her heartfelt voice.

Sally Ellyson
And, fortunately, Ellyson is backed up by one of the most flawless bands.  Together they create music both humble and elegant.  Categorized as a folk-rock band, Hem eases into progressive country music.  They're able to perform country standards and make them their own, as well as produce original tunes that would dumbfound any country super star.

They also have an incredible ear for choosing music to cover.  Listening to their version of "South Central Rain" (originally written by REM) is something to awe.  Ellyson's voice accompanied by the band is heartbreakingly beautiful; they bring an authenticity to this track that makes you wonder if they were the actual authors.  This natural authenticity is evident in all of their music, helping make them universal enough to play in any relaxed setting but innovative enough to study.

studio album covers
To date, they've released four studio albums, three EPs, and several compilations including Twelfth Night, an album written for a stage production during the annual Shakespeare in the Park (in New York's Central Park).  Because of their consistently strong releases, there really is no one album that should be a starting point for new fans.  Pick any of their albums at random and you'll be amazed.

Teaming voice and band so perfectly can be a near impossible task.  Many settle on what they can get. How Hem was able to work so well so easily is perhaps a mystery, or fate.  And to think the band found Ellyson simply by placing an ad in The Village Voice (a free weekly newspaper based in NYC).  Months later, after the core band had given up hope, Ellyson called in response to the ad.  And in a humbling note, warned the band that she was not really a singer.  Whatever the reasons for the ease of their formation, the stars were aligned and as a devoted fan, I couldn't be luckier.

Hem is truly a thing of wonder.  Below is a list of suggested tracks from their studio albums.  Keep in mind that their entire collection is worth listening to but this is a starting point for newer fans.

Suggested tracks from the album "Rabbit Songs"
Half Acre
When I Was Drinking (album: Rabbit Songs)
All That I'm Good For
Stupid Mouth Shut

Suggested tracks from the album "No Word From Tom"
Idle (The Rabbit Song) - Live
Oh No
Tennessee Waltz - Live
Betting On Trains - Live

Suggested tracks from the album "Eveningland"
The Fire Thief
A-Hunting We Will Go
The Beautiful Sea

Suggested tracks from the album "Funnel Cloud"
Almost Home
He Came To Meet Me
Not California
The Pills Stopped Working

For more information on Hem, visit their official website: www.hemband.com.

TRIVIA: In 2006, Hem received a career boost when the song "Half-Acre" was featured in a television commercial for Liberty Mutual insurance.