Sufjan Stevens

Illinois (Asthmatic Kitty)

Say it with me: SOOF-yahn. Last year, one could get away with mispronouncing the symphonic-folk songwriter's first name. His previous two records -- the sprawling Greetings from Michigan and the religious, banjo-filled Seven Swans -- were gorgeous works that, in spite of critical praise, never received the nationwide attention they deserved. But after releasing Illinois, Detroit's Stevens shouldn't have to worry about people getting his name wrong. Illinois follows Michigan's semi-symphonic path with loads of strings, horns, pianos and choruses on nearly every song. But this time, great songs are more important than great sounds. Case in point: The older "Detroit, Lift Up Your Weary Head" had a sweet, stair-step melody full of pianos and guitars, but its beauty didn't jell the way the largely similar "Come On! Feel the Illinoise!" does. Quiet, folky songs and instrumental numbers break up the 74-minute run time, and after so many dizzying six- and seven-minute tunes, those breaks are welcome. Anyone turned off by the orchestral overreaching of the Polyphonic Spree would be wise to give Stevens' restrained take on the style a shot.

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