Essential tracks: Sufjan Stevens' 'Carrie & Lowell' hits a personal chord

Randall Roberts
Contact ReporterLos Angeles Times Pop Music Critic
Sufjan Stevens plays with fact, fiction in a personal way in 'Carrie & Lowell'

Sufjan Stevens, "Carrie & Lowell" (Asthmatic Kitty). Over his decade-plus as a working musician, Stevens has tackled a range of impressively big-ticket projects, including a series of album-length odes to states in the Union, a giddy, joyous dance-rock record called "The Age of Adz" and multimedia art projects. His roots, though, are as a guitar-based songwriter, the kind searching for beauty amid strummed chords and counterpoint arrangements.

"Carrie & Lowell" are the real-life names of Stevens' late mother and stepfather, so these 11 songs have an autobiographical tint to them, even if Stevens has long played with fact and fiction (see his mysterious "Concerning the U.F.O. Sighting Near Highland, Illinois") and avowedly does so throughout.

Among the best is "Fourth of July," a heartbreaking snapshot set on his mother's deathbed. As a simple few chords echo, Stevens sings of him "sitting at the bed with the halo at your head," of his mother transitioning into "my little star in the sky." It's a breathtaking work that, like much of "Carrie & Lowell," suggests inspiration from Simon & Garfunkel, Joni Mitchell, Belle & Sebastian and Elliott Smith. Percussion is sparse, mostly a few bells, and on "John My Beloved," the occasional repetitive tapped-out rhythm.

Various artists, "Love Is King" (Soulection). A few weeks ago in celebration of surpassing 200,000 followers on SoundCloud, the Los Angeles-based Soulection beat and rhyme collective offered a heavy trophy: its entire discography as a free download. The crew, founded by beat producers and visual artists, operates a growing empire from its Highland Park hub, and music is the glue that makes it all stick.

Soulection, which regularly packs the Regent in downtown Los Angeles at its monthly party (including April 4), also celebrated by honoring one of its tribe's spiritual godparents. The smooth soul singer Sade is the center of a beat-based batch of reworkings called "Love Is King." Featuring wildly divergent takes on her candlelighted jams, the dozen tracks by producers including AbJo, Jo Def, Oshi, StarRo and the (defiantly named) Chris McClenney update the sensual nuances of the Nigerian singer's vocal melodies.

Jo Def blends synthetic Roland 808 beats, complicated snare runs, much frantic thump and through it all, the longing tone of Sade, sampled, mixed and matched. On "Get Out on Your Own," Lakim snips sharpened Sade tidbits and spreads them out in geometric patterns, working four-on-the-floor stomp, jumpy British and American R&B and U.K. garage. On "Bringing Out the Best in Me," J-Louis mixes wobbly fake bass kicks and high-end synthetic conga runs with the crawling Sade vocal line from "The Sweetest Taboo."

Tony Allen, "African Man (Ricardo Villalobos and Max Loderbauer remix)," (Jazz Village / Harmonia Mundi). To further draw attention to Nigerian drummer Tony Allen's highly regarded 2014 album "Film of Life," its label commissioned a pair of remixes, the most striking of which lasts a dozen hypnotic minutes.

A collaboration between the minimalist techno producer Ricardo Villalobos and Berlin techno veteran Max Loderbauer, their remix of "African Man" pulls, stretches and curls the key Afrobeat ingredients of Allen's original, elasticizing them each before weaving them back together with delicate grace.

Allen is best known for his work with the late Fela Kuti, so skeptics could be forgiven for doubting that a pair of rigid, focused technicians could accomplish much more than mussing an already fine Allen groove. But the two, whose double-disc exploration of the ECM Records catalog was one of my favorite records of 2011, know not to mess with such a masterful rhythm. They just add more, and more, and more of it.

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