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TWO DOWN, 48 TO GO

When I first heard that Sufjan Stevens had decided to make Illinois the subject of his second installment in his planned series of 50 albums--one about each state in the United States--man, was I excited. My hometown of Springfield, Ill., is so loaded with historically important stories just waiting to be documented by an awesome songwriter from Michigan (the subject of his first in the series, 2003's Greetings From Michigan: The Great Lakes State [Asthmatic Kitty]), that I couldn't wait to see which details he picked to include in his fawning opus "Talkin' Abe Lincoln Donner Party Vachel Lindsay Fucked-Up Race Riot Blues Again in Springfield."

Alas, the song doesn't exist, but the album does. Illinois (or Illinoise, depending on who you ask; also on Asthmatic Kitty), the second step in what may be the most ambitious long-term musical goal I've ever heard of (will he finish it before he meets his maker?!), was finally released on July 5. (It should be noted that Stevens took time out from the project between his ode to Michigan and his salute to Illinois to release Seven Swans, a collaboration with the Danielson Famile--the most awesomely bizarre Christian rock band you'll ever hear--last year.)

So, yeah, I was bummed to read the song titles from the forthcoming album on Pitchfork back in April: Not even a mention of Springfield! Fucker! Oh, sure, hick towns like Decatur and Jacksonville get some play, but The Town Where Abe Is Buried don't get no love? Whatevs, Suf.

OK, so there are enough references to things with which I've had firsthand experience that I'm not totally pissed. Carl Sandburg is in there, as is the Sangamon River, in which I've canoed and fished. And on first listen, it all sounded charmingly like nothing so much as a version of "Red, White and Blaine," as performed by the makeshift community theater group in Waiting for Guffman--except about Illinois, and performed by pros.

Well, I'm here to tell you, I've listened to this thing an awful lot of times since then, and Springfield's exclusion or not, it really is incredible. You've probably read how great this album is by now, as every publication everywhere has proclaimed its excellence. Listen to it a few times, and you can't help but agree.

Stevens doesn't take the easy route in any way. If he's gonna make his goal of 50 albums, he'd better do the next few with just an acoustic guitar and some maps or something. He's taken far too much care here to get it right. There are gorgeous, huge string sections, vocal choirs, odd time signatures, vibes, flute, handclaps--you get the idea--and songs that betray the sum of research, pathos, personal experience and abundant talent. It took me many listens to make it through the whole thing (it's 22 songs long), because I kept finding myself saying things like, "I wanna hear that song about John Wayne Gacy again. It's so creepy and pretty and sad." How many albums can you say that about? Hell, there's a suite called "Come On! Feel the Illinoise!," a five-word joke/pun title that references both numbskull metalheads and the tendency to mispronounce my native state's name.

Everything from Frank Lloyd Wright, Casimir Pulaski Day and the Cubs, to Superman, Ronald Reagan and Peoria are referenced, and amazingly, nothing sounds like he's stretching to include it. Stevens has written an ode to Illinois that in its scope and ambition can only be compared to such equally reaching endeavors as Brian Wilson's Smile. There are haunting guitar and banjo ballads sung in Stevens' sweetly disarming wisp of a voice ("Decatur" and "Jacksonville" being two highlights) interspersed between a joyous choir ode to the Windy City that sounds a bit like the Polyphonic Spree with the Brady Bunch creepiness sucked out ("Chicago"), and a vibes-heavy lounge jazz slinker that makes room for disco strings ("They Are Night Zombies!! ..."). Illinois is a truly remarkable achievement that's delightfully fun to listen to.

Sufjan Stevens performs on Tuesday, Aug. 2 at Plush, 340 E. Sixth St. Liz Janes opens at 9:30 p.m. Tickets are $10 and may be purchased in advance at virtuous.com. Call 798-1298 for more information.


AFTER THE BEATDOWN

A few years ago at Austin's South by Southwest music conference, I accidentally stumbled upon a co-ed quartet performing in the small room at Emo's that blew me away. The band was Detroit's Von Bondies, who I later learned had managed to pack the room based on an association with the White Stripes' Jack White. (It turned out he had produced their debut album, 2001's Lack of Communication, released on Sympathy for the Record Industry--onetime home of the Stripes.) By the time of their next album's release in 2004, they had signed to major label Sire Records, were playing at the enormous outdoor patio at Stubb's, and head Bondie Jason Stollsteimer had been subjected to the beatdown heard 'round the world--at the hands of none other than Jack White, following a falling-out.

While it certainly would have been difficult to reproduce the thrill of that first, small show I caught, I found their Stubb's set uninspired. (The lack of intimacy at the bigger show could also have been a factor.) But listening to the album they were promoting, Pawn Shoppe Heart, makes me remember why I found them so thrilling in the first place. The album's dozen tracks (13 counting the buried bonus cover of "Try a Little Tenderness") combine the proto-punk swagger of their hometown heroes, the MC5 and the Stooges, with elements of glam rock, '60s girl groups and the serrated guitar-funk of the Blues Explosion. You've heard "C'mon C'mon" on car commercials, but don't let that get in the way of your enjoyment of its call-and-response vocals and general hard-charging yumminess. "Been Swank" is a creeper based around a nifty bass line and descending guitar chords, "Mairead" is an atmospheric, bluesy slow-burner, while bassist Carrie Smith's winning lead vocals on "Not That Social" will make you lament her subsequent departure from the band. Though the album begins to wane towards the end with a few unmemorable tunes, its bulk bodes well for the band's (intimate) show this week.

The Von Bondies perform on Friday, July 29 at Club Congress, 311 E. Congress St., with The Sweat Band opening at 9 p.m. Tickets are $8 in advance, $10 on the day of show. For further details, call 622-8848.


ROCKIN' WINKS AND NODS

Though they've been peddling their patented brand of trash-rock in clubs around town for a few years now, Tucson's Wasted Aces this week finally get around to releasing their eponymous debut album on Twin Dragon Records. Recorded with producer Jim Waters at his Waterworks Studios, the album is a fine document of all those odes to booze and rockin' that we've all come to love in the live setting.

Comprising scene veterans Kristina Bohn (guitar, vocals; Flavor Cage, Clovenhoof), guitarist Mike Bushey and bassist/singer Darren Johnson (Helldriver, Great American Tragedy, Thunderosa, Molton Leather), and drummer Jeff Mann (Sonic Titan), the Aces, like the Supersuckers and Winelord, rock mightily even as they don't take themselves at all seriously. One look at the song titles here will tell you that much: "The Kid Knows How to Rock," "Pootie," "My Name Is Ace," "God Made Lightning," "Touch Me Where I Pee." Their band bio mentions the Stooges, Motorhead, the Ramones, KISS, Aerosmith and the 'Suckers as influences, and that's right on the mark. They meet convincingly at the intersection of '70s hard rock and pre-punk, and the incessant winks and nods don't get in the way of their main mission: rockin' you, and rockin' you hard.

Wasted Aces hold a CD release party at 10:30 p.m. on Friday, July 29 at the Surly Wench Pub, 424 N. Fourth Ave. Also on the bill are The Earps and Punkture. Your $4 cover entitles you to be eligible for prizes that will be given away throughout the show, including a band-autographed Flying V guitar. Questions? The number to call is 882-0009.


ON THE BANDWAGON

Performance art-lovin' eclectic noise oddballs Need New Body bring their fabulous live show to Solar Culture, 31 E. Toole Ave., this week in support of their latest album, Where's Black Ben? (2005, 5 Rue Christine). Also appearing on the Friday, July 29 all-ages bill are Pit er Pat and Jeff Grubic's The Ad Nauseum Project, which will kick things off at 9 p.m. For additional info, call 884-0874.

Suzanne Vega may be best known for "Luka," her biggest hit, but she boasts an extensive and impressive body of work that will sadly be relegated to opening status for real-life one-hit wonder Marc Cohn this week ("Walking in Memphis," anyone?). The pairing hits the Rialto Theatre, 318 E. Congress St., at 8 p.m. on Tuesday, Aug. 2. Tix are $35 for reserved floor seating, $25 for reserved balcony. For more details, call 740-1000.

There are plenty more worthwhile shows to check out this week, so be sure to give a gander to our club listings.

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