Wednesday, December 10, 2008

The Welcome Wagon- Welcome To The Welcome Wagon

Rating: 6.5
Released: Dec. 9, 2008, Asthmatic Kitty.

My generation isn't known for being plain-spoken.

Irony is our most devastating weapon, and indie-bands employ it to wax eloquent on our society and its pitfalls.

Rest assured; there is no irony intended with the Welcome Wagon, talented Michigan folker Sufjan Stevens' latest brainchild.

The album comes with a hokey cover designed like a 1950s LP you'd find stuffed in a ratty, old box in your grandmother's attic. The collection is purported to offer "pastor and wife join(ing) voices in sacred folk songs."

It's nothing new for Stevens, who packaged a Christmas set like an old caroling book last year, complete with new classics penned by the whimsical singer and multi-instrumentalist. He has also recorded a dynamite Christian allegory, 2004's Seven Swans.

You never could tell if Stevens was completely serious about the old-time religion. Wonder no more, he's not kidding.

His latest project, producing a 13-song set of non-secular shuffles from a New York minister and his wife, looks and smells like Stevens, minus the humor.

The fussy arrangements, delicate melodies and layers upon layers of music are all here (just as Stevens perfected his trademarks with 2005's Illinois), but Stevens is bringing the Rev. Thomas Auito and his wife Monique to the forefront.

It's a pleasurable listen. Songs like "Up On A Mountain" and "Sold! to the Nice Rich Man" breeze by, peppered with banjos, harmonicas, glockenspiels and Stevens' typically ornate horn arrangements.

The guitars sometimes encroach, uncomfortably, on well-tilled muzak soil, but the Auitos plain-spoken (there's that word again) performance is not tongue-in-cheek. As the reverend and his wife said, they just want to make their own hymns.

Religion and indie-pop rarely mix. Hymns haven't been hip since Johnny Cash and June Carter duetted over traditionals four decades ago.

But the Welcome Wagon and Stevens have created something unique in this oft-snarky music scene: a sincere, unpatronizing reflection on God.

Most of the lyrics avoid directly Christian lyrics, save for the Christ memoir "He Never Said A Mumblin' Word." There's no condemnation of society and its sin, as many have come to expect from religious mouthpieces, just warm songs.

"But For You Who Fear My Name" is pure fun, thanks to an infectious, singalong chorus (with an impromptu indie choir), unadorned banjo and hand-claps. It sounds ready-made for a youth group camping trip.

Stevens, like Bowie's 70s projects with Iggy Pop and Lou Reed, often does little more than make his proteges sound like, well, Stevens. The results can be, at times, grating, especially if the songs aren't up to the quality of Illinois masterpieces like "The Predatory Wasp of the Palisades."

Yet the Welcome Wagon's debut is hip hope for the warm-hearted spiritual folks out there. No kidding.


Tomorrow: A new EP from talented Charlotte band The Lights, Fluorescent.

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