Most people would be hard-pressed to come up with a one-sentence description of each of the 50 states. But songwriter Sufjan Stevens began a much more ambitious project in 2003: crafting an album about each state. He started with Michigan and continues this year with the second installment, "Illinois."
Stevens executes "Illinois" with the precision such a monumental project requires. He invokes famous Illinois residents from Abraham Lincoln to John Wayne Gacy, whose serial murders in the 1970s are described in intricate -- but thankfully not grotesque -- detail. He even references Superman's home town of Metropolis, and the first version of the album's cover depicts the Man of Steel flying over the skyline toward Al Capone. (Due to legal issues with the artwork, Stevens's label, Asthmatic Kitty, will reissue the album without Superman's image, although the original version can still be found in stores.)
But the strength of "Illinois" rests more on Stevens's narrative lyrics and elaborate arrangements than on his thorough research of state history. He drops Stephin Merritt-esque rhymes in "Decatur" ("Our stepmom, we did everything to hate her / She took us down to the edge of Decatur") and leads a backing choir through a percussive spell-along on "They Are Night Zombies!" But while such rowdy ensemble numbers as the jubilant "Come On! Feel the Illinoise!" are the album's most instantly conspicuous pieces, Stevens's mellower folk songs (notably, the guitar-driven "Casimir Pulaski Day" with its lush Simon and Garfunkel-style harmonies) are its most memorable.
With such intelligent, elaborate songwriting, it's difficult to imagine Stevens's states series ever growing tedious, even if he makes it to album 50.
-- Catherine P. Lewis
Bucky Pizzarelli and Frank Vignola
"Moonglow" is something of a rarity: A collection of jazz guitar duets that not once features the players volleying back and forth like the Williams sisters. No lightning-fast exchanges. No dovetailing improvisations. Not even a whiff of competition.
Instead, the mood is romantic, the tempos relaxed, and the virtuosity, though always evident, is unusually subdued. The 79-year-old Pizzarelli and 39-year-old Vignola aim to seduce listeners, not dazzle them, and the duo consistently hits its mark.
"Whispering," the first of 16 pop standards on the album, establishes a collaborative strategy that rarely changes: Vignola, playing a six-string archtop guitar and favoring a bright, crisp tone, eloquently tends to the melodies. Pizzarrelli, on a seven-string electric, focuses on warmly voiced accompaniment and displays a sensitive, pianistic touch. Thanks to the tonal contrasts, it's easy to isolate each player's artful contributions as the pair moves from one enduring melody to another.
Vignola's performances are notable for their sparkling lyricism. He proves wonderfully adept at sustaining the melodic allure of "Moonlight Serenade," "P.S. I Love You," "My Ideal" and other sentimental favorites. While blue notes, Latin accents and chromatic flurries sometimes color his interpretations and help personalize them, even his most intricate thematic variations are in keeping with the album's emphasis on unabashed moodmaking.
Pizzarelli is no stranger to guitar duets; the recordings he's made with his son John prove that he can swing at breakneck tempos. But his role here is strictly self-effacing. Almost always heard in the background, he generates moderately paced swing rhythms and produces a subtle array of harmonies, fills, vamps and turnarounds. In quiet synch with Vignola's inspired handiwork, he makes the music on "Moonglow" glow.
-- Mike Joyce