Arts & Entertainment
3 min

CD reviews: Sufjan Stevens & Girl Monster

Silent night, monsters unite

CHICKS ON SPEED. No males would ever record such smart, fearless material.

With every passing Christmas comes innumerable new albums featuring old beloved classics and bad new schlock fests (Il Divo, Aimee Mann — oh, please). There’s always a special one, and this year it’s Sufjan Stevens Presents Songs For Christmas Sing-along (In Stereo Hi-Fi).

This lovely packaged box set contains the full collection (five extended play CDs) of yearly Christmas recordings that Sufjan Stevens began in 2001 as gifts for family and friends. The booklet includes sing-along lyrics, chord charts, an animated video, essays, short stories (by Stevens and Rick Moody), a comic strip and stickers. It’s lovely.

“What did the angels renounce in the wake of the shepherds’ trepidation?” asks Stevens, a devout Christian, in the liner notes. “‘Have no fear,’ they petitioned with trumpet blasts and a garish display of constellations. But that’s like waving a gun in a bank lobby and demanding, ‘Everybody stay calm!’

“Music, of course, works much differently. The most discriminating of chord progressions can disarm the most arrogant of men, including myself. It intersects a supernatural phenomenon (the incarnation of God) with sentimental mush of mortal lives (presents, toys, Christmas tree ornaments, snow globes, cranberry sauce), leaving in its pathological wake a particular state of mind one can only describe as ‘that warm, fuzzy feeling.'”

Stevens has chosen lovely classics like “Silent Night,” “Amazing Grace” and “Away In A Manger” and some long forgotten favourites like “The Friendly Beasts.” He does them all soft and gentle, harmonizing with friends, acoustic guitars gently strumming along with banjo-picking that just gives me tingles. It’s stripped down and personal.

He has also written some of his own beauties —17 in fact. On “Did I Make You Cry On Christmas Day? (Well, You Deserved It!),” Stevens duets with Bridgit DeCook. They’re all whispery and romantic accompanied by banjo and sleigh bells. “I stay awake at night after we have a fight,” they sing. “I’m writing poems about you/ And they’re not very nice.”

My favourite is “That Was The Worst Christmas Ever!” Stevens has a way of conveying melancholy. His obscure descriptive vignettes slowly and dramatically reveal the emotional impulses of characters or the situations that compel them to do something, to feel something. There’s always a sense of wonder. What’s going on? You’re never quite sure. “Our father yells/ Throwing the gifts/ In the wood stove/ My sister runs away/ taking her books/ To the schoolyard/ Schoolyard.”

Songs For Christmas is comforting and complex. Stevens isn’t just making pretty music. He’s also questioning his faith (as he always does) and what better way for him to do it than with Christmas music. The last lines of “Worst Christmas” say it best.

“Silent night/ Holy night/ Silent night/ Nothing feels right.”

In their captivating essay for the glorious new three CD compilation Girl Monster, writers Pil and Galia Kollectiv state that female artists can be one of two creatures — fembots (think male- manipulated girl groups of yore or today’s Britneys and Jessicas) or girl monsters (The Slits, Peaches, Patti Smith and the like).

“If oppression is merely a means of dealing with that which escapes repression… then surely the road to dealing with the former lies inletting loose the latter. The final showdown between the erotic robotic and that thing we thought we’d locked away won’t be a mud-wrestling match but a cold fusion, an explosive meeting of matter and antimatter when the monsters of the world unite and take over.”

This CD set is a celebration of the girl monster. It features 61 tracks (three and half hours of music) by 1970s punk gals to ’90s riot grrrls and beyond. It’s an alternative history and the future of women’s creative output rolled into one.

This is Alex Murray-Leslie’s baby. She’s a member of Berlin’s Chicks On Speed and founder of their namesake record label. All three CDs are winners. Crunchy electro, acidic rants, abrasive guitars and dreamy dance beats hang together, dripping with complex emotions and sexual fire. Even a few boys (the first CD features Kids On TV) are invited in on the fun.

The great thing about Girl Monster is that 40 of the songs are exclusives. Björk’s “Storm” is quite a refreshing thing. Former Talking Head Tina Weymouth’s “Incognito” proves that the woman still has it. Even Deee-lite’s Lady Miss Kier shows up on Mignon’s “Demons Of Love.”

There are a lot of well-loved and familiar artists (Le Tigre, Erase Errata, Lesbians On Ecstasy) included. But the unfamiliar will blow your mind. Kevin Blechdom’s “Shut the fuck up and fuck me” rant on “Me Saw Me Mamma” and Cobra Killer’s dazzling “Mr Chang” are insanely good party starters.

Listen to Chicks On Speed’s urgent “Plastic Surgery” or The Slit’s live version of the classic “Typical Girls” — this is stuff guys would never think of writing or performing. That’s what makes Girl Monster so vital. It’s a party album chock full of fearless female brains and hearts.