artist

Twenty-one years after his death, Kurt Cobain’s music still resonates with audiences. On Monday, HBO premiered “Kurt Cobain: Montage of Heck,” the only documentary about Kurt Cobain made with the cooperation of his family. Cobain’s widow, Courtney Love, first approached director Brett Morgen about the project in 2007.

During the film’s production, the Cobain family provided Morgen with Cobain’s unreleased recordings and home videos. The result is a thoughtful journey through Cobain’s life, taking audiences from his childhood to his years as the front man for Nirvana.

Through Cobain’s home videos, Morgen tracks his transformation from a cheerful, exuberant child into a tormented musician battling drug addiction and insecurities. The two bright spots of his life were his wife, Love, and his infant daughter, Frances. Audiences see Cobain’s genuine self, not his onstage persona — Morgen gives us the man, not the artist. Morgen amplifies the tragedy of Cobain’s suicide by shedding light on his too-short life.

“Montage of Heck” features Morgen’s interviews with Cobain’s parents, his sister, former Nirvana member Krist Novoselic and Love. Their anecdotes reveal that Cobain wanted to build and sustain a family to make up for the failings of his own parents. Behind the apathetic image Cobain built for himself, he was a man who deeply cared about having people who loved him.

Morgen also gives snippets of Cobain’s many doodles and journal entries, allowing unfiltered, intimate access into his thoughts. Cobain’s hopes, dreams and demons become most visible during the scenes in which his handwriting fills the screen and his grotesque drawings of monsters and corpses are crudely animated.

As time passes, his journal entries shift from planning his band to expressing his anger at the press for humiliating him and his family. Cobain’s regression climaxes when Morgen shows us a wall of text which repeats “kill yourself.”    

The film plays archived recordings of Cobain’s interviews about his life, accompanied by Morgen’s hand-drawn animations. Those scenes are some of the film’s most effective: They capture Cobain’s loneliness after his parents’ divorce when he was 7 and his frustration with virginity as a teen. Instead of merely hearing about Cobain’s rebelliousness and his delinquent behavior, audiences get to see a boy struggling to make sense of his life.

At the same time, these animations are also used to show small moments of joy. One animated sequence includes Cobain’s unedited home demo of “Been a Son.” The scene demonstrates the happiness he found in songwriting and depicts him answering the phone mid-take, emphasizing how raw the documentary is when using Cobain’s personal recordings and writings.

Background music plays a crucial role in creating the tone of the film. During its coverage of “Smells Like Teen Spirit,” the movie features a children’s choir’s performance, creating a melancholy moment. Of all the songs in the documentary, Cobain’s cover of The Beatles’ “And I Love Her” is the most heart-wrenching. The song’s agony captures Cobain’s battle with fame and drugs.    

“Montage of Heck” spends too much time on Nirvana’s live concerts, which could’ve been cut in favor of footage from Cobain’s childhood. Nirvana’s performance of “Territorial Pissings” at the Reading Festival in 1992 shows an immobile Cobain, contrasting with his more jubilant style pre-Nevermind.

At the end of the performance, Kurt lashes out, ramming his guitar and knocking over the on-stage amplifiers. Although this moment reveals Kurt’s state of mind, more exclusive footage of Cobain and his family would have worked better in establishing his depression.

“Montage of Heck” is an insightful documentary that explores Cobain’s humanity with never-before-seen footage and rare interviews with his family. Morgen avoids eulogizing Cobain, presenting his strengths and flaws in equal measure. We leave the film not quite sure about what Cobain the artist was trying to say, but we do leave understanding the man.

Title: “Kurt Cobain: Montage of Heck”

Score: 9/10

MPAA rating: Unrated

Running time: 132 minutes

Griffon Ramsey wields her chain saw among her recent creations in her East Austin studio. Ramsey uses chain saws and various other woodworking tools to carve intricate sculptures from wood.
Photo Credit: Griffin Smith | Daily Texan Staff

Cascades of flying wood chips and sounds of chain saws grinding against wood are common sights and sounds in Austin artist Griffon Ramsey’s downtown studio.

Ramsey makes a living carving elaborate sculptures out of wood she finds scattered throughout Texas. Since she started woodcarving in 2011, she’s created a YouTube channel — which currently has more than 60,000 subscribers — where fans can see how she turns large pieces of bark into recognizable icons of pop culture, such as Groot from “Guardians of the Galaxy” and Bender from “Futurama.”

A 2008 graduate from Texas State University, Ramsey studied theater and worked as a set designer. In fall 2011, she decided to use her skills working with lightweight material on wood through chain-saw sculpting. Before starting, however, she had to learn to handle the potentially dangerous tool and how to work with her new medium. 

“I had never used [a chain saw] before, so it was a scary learning curve to get over the fear of it,” Ramsey said. “I also had to learn about wood, sculpture and kind of all of it.”

New carvings sit among some of the earliest works in Griffon Ramsey's East Austin studio. 

Ramsey said chain-saw carving has fascinated her ever since she was a kid. As she began learning the trade, seeing the work of woodcarver R. L. Blair, who’s credited for carving more than 150 statues found throughout Disney theme parks, played a huge part in getting her started in woodcarving as an adult.

“She stopped by one day and eventually she started to carve periodically,” Blair said. “She’s a sweet, young lady who’s good at what she does.”

Ramsey carves the majority of her work at the FORT, a warehouse art studio that she shares with other artists. She said she enjoys using wood as a medium despite its heaviness and unstable nature.

“Wood is finicky — it cracks, and holes, and other surprises like bugs,” Ramsey said. “I’ve been focusing on wood because I want to get better as a carver. I do plan to incorporate other materials and collaborate with different artists who work with metals and glass.”

Ramsey, a former production designer for Austin production company Rooster Teeth, uses her editing skills to create videos that highlight the process behind each individual carving.

Her videos aren’t just paint-by-numbers explanations about how she makes the sculptures. She also explains the motivations behind each piece. In one video, she creates a sculpture of Elsa from the Disney film “Frozen” while explaining how her daughter’s love for the character and her appreciation of the growing trend of animated films featuring strong, female characters inspired her.

Griffon Ramsey uses a chainsaw to work on a project.

Although Ramsey originally planned to use her channel as a place to experiment with a wide range of art forms, it remains a home for her carved creations more than anything else.

“My idea was that every video would be different techniques and different materials depending on whatever I was making,” Ramsey said. “But then I started using the chain saw, and I just fell in love with it.”

Ramsey works actively to increase the channel’s popularity by creating sculptures based on fan requests. She said the channel helps her sell her art, which she puts up for auction on her website, griffonramsey.com.

“I’ve had carvings, after the videos go up, sell within five minutes,” Ramsey said.

Ramsey said she hopes she can transition to larger projects and public art for the City of Austin.

“I just hope I get better and do larger scale projects,” Ramsey said. “The nice thing about carving is that you can do large scale relatively quickly.”

Behind every music genre is a dynamic female artist who is further developing the genre’s sound. Check out four female musicians challenging the status quo.  

1) Brittany Howard

Looking back on Brittany Howard’s brief but impressive career as the lead singer of blues-rock band Alabama Shakes, it’s almost comedic the song that made her famous featured the lyrics “I don’t know where I’m gonna go / Don’t know what I’m gonna do.” Howard’s career might have seemed uncertain in 2012 — the year she released the Alabama Shakes’ first album, Boys & Girls — but, three years later, the Alabama Shakes has three Grammy nominations, spots on the “Silver Linings Playbook” and “12 Years a Slave” sound tracks, and two Saturday Night Live performances under its belt.

Howard’s beautifully androgynous voice serves as the foundation of the band’s deep blues-rock sound. She effortlessly explores octaves most female artists can’t reach and certainly can’t maintain without strain. The band’s April 21 release of its sophomore album, Sound & Color, relies on her vocal abilities more than Boys & Girls did. Howard, an Alabama native, takes listeners on a loud, emotional ride through issues of desire, loneliness and the struggle for power.

Artist you might like — Nina Simone, Janis Joplin, The Rolling Stones

Listen to Alabama Shakes' "Sound & Color" here:

 

2) Florence Welch

Florence + the Machine is arguably the most commercially successful female-led band to emerge from the U.K. since the Spice Girls. By age 28, lead singer Florence Welch will have recorded three full-length indie-rock albums with the band. The festival-favorite’s third album, How Big, How Blue, How Beautiful, will be released June 2.

Welch’s dark, daring sound successfully revitalizes the rock subgenre baroque pop that emphasizes the use of string instruments not common to popular music, including violins and cellos.

The three singles the English singer-songwriter prereleased — “What Kind of Man,” “Ship to Wreck” and “St Jude” — reflect her brooding style, spooky vocals and affinity for dance music. If the singles are any indication, this album will be performance ready, making this tour a must-see.

Artist you might like — Lykke Li, Annie Lennox, Belle and Sebastian, Regina Spektor

Listen to Florence + the Machine's "What Kind of Man" now:

 

3) Niia Bertino

Niia Bertino, 26, may be the least commercially accomplished artist on the list, but she certainly has the most musical training. The classically trained pianist, who goes by “Niia,” learned from a number of Juilliard vocalists, attended The New School for Jazz and Contemporary Music and won a National Foundation for Advancements in the Arts award for her jazz vocals.

Bertino’s appeared on the scene in 2007 when her vocals were featured on Wyclef Jean’s hip-hop single “Sweetest Girl (Dollar Bill).” Seven years later, Bertino released her first and only solo record, Generation Blue. The six-track EP is short but sweet. Her jazzy vocals and expert piano skills shine on the track “Body.”

Bertino is an emerging artist who speaks for her generation. The single “Telephone” is a beautiful ode to the role communication plays in a modern relationship with lyrics such as “I love it when you text me first / I love it a little too much” and “Yeah my line’s wide open / You just keep me holding.”

Artist you might like — Fiona Apple, Björk, Nina Simone

​Listen to Niia's "Body" here:

 

4) Mackenzie Scott

A decade from now, Mackenzie Scott, the singer-songwriter behind Torres, might be the poster-child for southern rock. Born in Macon, Georgia, Scott moved to Nashville, Tennessee, to attend Belmont University, where she graduated from in 2012. After graduating, the 24 year old recorded her debut, self-titled album, which nails the indie-rock-meets-folk sound so many southern artists attempt to achieve. Music publication site Pitchfork named her debut single, “Honey,” best new track and gave her album 8.1 out of 10.

A master of pacing and clever lyricism, Scott writes and records songs that are guitar heavy with minimal production. Whether she’s performing a solo acoustic set or with her band during South By Southwest, Scott commands listeners’ attention thanks to her deep, raspy vocals, quintessential to southern rock.

Scott’s second album, Sprinter, comes out Monday. Torres will perform at The Mohawk on Saturday. Tickets are $10 and doors open at 9 p.m.  

Artist you might like — Sharon Van Etten, Cat Power, Waxahatchee

Listen to Torres' "Honey" now:

 

Photo Credit: Jack DuFon | Daily Texan Staff

There was no guarantee the late Austin artist Sam Coronado would make it out of Vietnam alive. But after he did, he spent the next few decades of his life dedicated to the arts. His last project is “Hard Fought: Sam Coronado’s WWII Series.”

The series features narrative prints depicting the stories of Latino-Americans during World War II. The exhibit draws inspiration from the “VOCES Oral History Project,” a collection of more than 650 interviews and ephemera that give voice to the American Latino experience in World War II, Korean War and Vietnam War.

“Hard Fought” will be on exhibit at the Benson Latin American Collection through May 15.

“Sam Coronado brought his own eye to something we’ve been looking at for several years,” said Maggie Rivas-Rodriguez, journalism associate professor and director of “VOCES.” “We would never have seen what he saw, what he selected, what color he used. He really lent it his vision, and we’ll always be very grateful for that.”

Exhibition curator Tatiana Reinoza said she believes that through this exhibit, Coronado, who died in 2013, conveys the pride he had for his people.

“A lot of Latinos are really proud that they served, but they haven’t really been given credit for that honorable work,” Reinoza said. “That’s why this show is called ‘Hard Fought’ because it’s a hard-fought battle to gain that recognition, to gain that validation and to know that their sacrifices are valued in the end.”

Reinoza said Coronado created the prints through the serigraphy process, also known as screen printing. Some prints in the collection are mixed media, which incorporates collage elements in the piece. The narrative prints are coupled with oral elements such as interview excerpts taken from the “VOCES Oral History Project.”

Reinoza said Coronado enjoyed serigraphy so much that he opened his own studio in Austin in 1991.

Coronado, a Vietnam veteran who identified as Chicano, knew firsthand the struggle to feel validated for his services to this country. This prompted him to collaborate with Rivas-Rodriguez in 2006.

Julianne Gilland, associate director of scholarly resources and special collections curator at the Benson Latin American Collection, said it has been interesting for viewers to relate to the exhibit.

“This is true whether as American families, who remember their service and sacrifice in wartime with pride, [or] as Latinos, who have had to reconcile those proud histories with some of the social justice and racism that their families have experienced,” Gilland said.

The exhibition resonated with Reinoza, who said she thinks it is vital for young Latinos to understand the importance of their historical presence in this country amid the current immigration debates and anti-immigrant rhetoric.

“Young Latinos need to understand that we have a long history in this country, and we have been a part of that special fabric,” Reinoza said. “I think that’s really important for young Latinos to learn and acknowledge.”

Photo Credit: Topazia Hunter | Daily Texan Staff

Beyoncé, Rihanna and Madonna rake in hundreds of thousands of dollars every month from Spotify, while lesser-known artists are left struggling for commercial success.

Gary Powell, composer, producer and senior lecturer, said this struggle is not uncommon for most artists. Since licensing his work to Spotify, Powell has received 50 checks, amassing around a dollar in revenue. That figure is then split up between labels, producers, songwriters and artists. Powell said streaming services are just the music industry’s latest enemy.

“In the old days, a hundred purchases of a song paid the owner $90, and now it just gets you a penny,” Powell said. “That model is what we [musicians] are up against, and until it changes, it will continue to add to our demise. It only works for the companies.”

In an attempt to give artists more control over their music, Jay-Z recently purchased the music streaming service Tidal. Jay-Z, along with 15 other big-name acts, such as Kanye West, Coldplay and Alicia Keys, attended a press conference March 30, intending to use Tidal to regain control of their music. The service doesn’t offer a free option, so subscribers must choose between the $9.99 or $19.99 plan.

The service provides users with songs, artist-made playlists, videos, exclusive content and, for premium subscribers, higher-quality sound. Unlike Spotify, Tidal will not rely on ad revenue to pay its artists. Without a free tier, the company claims it will pay its artists more in royalties, but, as it recently revealed, artists are only paid more when premium listeners stream their songs.

While the artists behind Tidal set out to bring value back to music, critics express concern for the future of smaller artists on the streaming service. Currently, the 16 artists who attended the press conference have equal share of the company. Many critics boiled this down to rich artists asking for more money. Mumford & Sons frontman Marcus Mumford recently spoke out against Tidal, saying the service shouldn’t make ownership exclusive to big-name musicians.

“I think smaller bands should get paid more for it, too.” Mumford said in an interview with The Daily Beast. “Bigger bands have other ways of making money, so I don’t think you can complain. A band of our size shouldn’t be complaining. And when they say it’s artist-owned, it’s owned by those rich, wealthy artists.”

Some artists are unconvinced that controlling streaming is the root of the problem. A recent study by record label trade group SNEP revealed that major labels walk away with almost 50 percent of revenue made from Spotify, while artists get 7 percent. Artists enter these contracts with the promise of having their music played worldwide, but Powell said artists are the ones who lose in the end.

“The myth is that streaming will help get your music worldwide,” Powell said. “The likelihood of that is very low for many musicians. There just isn’t a mechanism in place for them to find any prosperity. If you were hungry or starving, you would eat anything; you’d do whatever it took to stay alive, and that’s what musicians have to do now.”

While the city of Austin has no specific prevention methods to keep well-known murals from being vandalized, it invests money to clean up graffiti if it occurs. The Graffiti Abatement program removes much of the graffiti around Travis County.

Photo Credit: Ellyn Snider, Jack Dufon and Xintong Guo | Daily Texan Staff

The city has no specific prevention methods to keep murals in Austin from being vandalized, but it invests significant funding to clean up graffiti when it occurs, according to city officials. 

Carole Barasch, communications and community development manager of the Austin/Travis County Health and Human Services Department, said although the department has a hard time preventing graffiti, some murals are protected and preserved to a degree by a clear paint coating applied by the artists.

Artist Kerry Fitzgerald, known as Kerry Awn, painted the murals in the courtyard of 23rd Street and Guadalupe Street with two friends from the University’s art school in 1974. After the murals were seriously tagged with graffiti two years ago, security cameras were installed and the artists made repairs and applied the coating, Awn said.

“Supposedly [the murals are] sealed now,” Awn said. “You can take graffiti immediately and wash it off. It’s anti-graffiti coating, and there’s also cameras up there. There would have tapes if anyone did it. It’s a little better, they’ve got better lighting — they’re aware now that people will vandalize it if they can.”

While the Graffiti Abatement program removes much of the graffiti around Travis County, Awn and the other artists who originally painted the murals did the restoration work themselves after they raised $25,000 through a Kickstarter campaign, Awn said.

Awn said he realizes the danger of having artwork continually displayed in public, but said mural graffiti should still be considered vandalism.

“Vandalism is vandalism,” Awn said. “Just like you wouldn’t go to a statue and spray-paint a statue or something like that.”

Barasch said the Graffiti Abatement program received $516,219 from Austin’s 2014 budget to clean up graffiti around the city. The program, housed under the Austin/Travis County Health and Human Services Department, is the front line of graffiti removal in the city, Barasch said.

The program cleaned 7,694 sites, a total of 1,438,583 square feet of graffiti in 2014. 

“There are two full-time crews that go out to all parts of Austin and Travis County to clean graffiti,” Barasch said. “Our department cleans the majority of graffiti, but we work closely with the Downtown Alliance cleaning crew, [and] there is also a cleaning crew from Downtown Austin Community Courts program.”

Barasch said the Graffiti Abatement program does not clean up pieces that are beloved by Austinites, such as the ‘Hi, How Are You?’ and ‘You’re My Butter Half’ murals, that may have started out as graffiti.

“There are certain graffiti, murals or what are considered iconic renderings that we steer away from that have kind of informally deemed iconic — like that ‘I love you’ one,” Barasch said. “So we don’t take that down. People have graffitied over it, but that is not something we would remove. Sometimes, it’s a judgment call. There are lovely murals around town, and we wouldn’t remove those.”

Studio art alumnus Lakeem Wilson said he believes graffiti artists should be respectful of other artists’ space.

“It took an artist [hours] to paint a mural, to put in their time and dedication, and [they] thought out their image and brought this manifestation to a larger scale,” Wilson said. “Graffiti art is not as time-consuming. I feel like graffiti artists should find other areas.”

Photo Credit: Amber Perry | Daily Texan Staff

What do Sam Smith, Michael Bolton, Johnny Cash and Vanilla Ice all have in common? They’ve all been sued for copyright infringement.

Plagiarism accusations occur every day in the music industry, yet very few lawsuits come to fruition. The complexity of proving the similarity between two pieces and that an artist has access to the allegedly infringed work is a difficult task because songwriters muddy the line between inspiration and plagiarism.

Oren Bracha, UT law professor and intellectual property expert, said the key to proving plagiarism is finding a similarity between the notes and basic composition of the piece.

“If the original recording had a very distinct element that is just in the performance and not composition, and this is the only similarity, then there’s no case to be had,” Bracha said.

UT music composition professor Bruce Pennycook said the similarities between songs are often obvious, but songs designed to become hits follow a formula, which makes the difference between influence and copying hazy.  

“Almost anyone could hear the similarities between two songs,” Pennycook said. “It’s just that there are thousands of songs with those chord progressions and sounds; simply hearing it isn’t enough. You have to have proof in melody and lyrics.”

“Blurred Lines” performers and writers Robin Thicke and Pharrell Williams recently forked over $7.3 million to Marvin Gaye’s family after they lost a trial over copy infringement. To ensure the jury didn’t make a decision based on superficial similarities, the court limited their evidence to stripped-down tracks of both songs. 

To avoid controversy, record labels often use software to analyze a song before releasing it. Pennycook said record companies created the program Music Information Retrieval to avoid modern music copyright cases and ensure the protection of their own music.

“The software automatically searches for copyright infringement, comparing the most basic of elements in songs,” Pennycook said. “Companies want to make sure their property is not only original, but protected from infringement by other record labels.”

The hardest part of the case, Bracha said, is proving the artist has heard the alledgedly infringed work at least once. He said many artists aren’t aware they have copied a song because it was in their subconscious.

“When courts find the case of subconscious copying, it’s often a guess at the most plausible story,"  Bracha said. "Under the rules of copyright, unintentional copying is infringement.”

George Harrison of The Beatles lost a court case to infringement over his song “My Sweet Lord,” which resembled The Chiffons’ “He’s So Fine.” The court ruled that Harrison internalized the work, forgot he heard the song and wrote and recorded a similar tune.

Petroleum engineering freshman Shaunik Bhatte said every artist should have the right to their creation, but writers aren’t using their influences to help create original work. Rather, they mirror previously recorded music.

“It seems like the music industry doesn’t distinguish between influence and actually stealing someone’s material,” he said. “Almost every pop artist has the same sound. It would practically be impossible to distinguish the songs without lyrics. They just all sound so similar.”

Time will tell whether cases like Thicke’s and Harrison’s will continue to be brought up in today’s music industry. But writers have blurred the line between influence and plagiarism to a point that it almost feels inevitable.

Christine Sun Kim is creating work that challenges people’s perception of sound. She will have two exhibits in Austin this week — Bounce House and Calibration Room.
Photo Credit: Stephanie Tacy | Daily Texan Staff

You are in what looks like a storage room, and you are entirely alone. You hear a collection of sounds — scissors slicing through the air, people sucking their thumbs. You see numbers being projected on the wall. You aren’t dreaming — you’re in the Calibration Room, an art installation in the Visual Arts Center.

Christine Sun Kim, the sound artist behind the Calibrating Room, has been deaf since birth. Her goal was to redefine the way people understand sound and silence.

“I want people to leave feeling less fixed on the notion of sound and what it means collectively,” Kim said. “Sound doesn’t mean only receiving through the ears.”

Kim, who is currently an artist in residence at the VAC, collected a variety of sounds for the project, ranging from feet walking in sand to the sound of a maxi pad being ripped from underwear. She said she deliberately avoided asking other people if the recordings she collected sounded “right.” 

“It’s important to use a sound that empowers my work, so I haven’t asked anybody for help,” Kim said. “I get these from my own voice by using objects, parts of the body or hitting things and from sound samples I find online.”

When a visitor walks into the Calibration Room, they hear a variety of sounds played at a custom volume. A technician outside the room is responsible for setting the decibel level, and that technician factors each individual visitor’s hearing level into the experience. Kim said it was important to her that the work be accessible to people who can hear sounds at a variety of levels.

“Each individual’s hearing level is very personal,” Kim said. “It’s just like vision; everyone’s vision is different, and everyone requires a different prescription if they have glasses. It’s the same thing with our ability to hear.”

The sound being played at any moment, and the decibel level at which the sound is being piped into the room, are projected onto the wall as part of the installation. Kim said she tried to get the broadest range of sounds possible, and some are less pleasant than others — visitors can expect to hear anything from an airplane taking off to a person giving birth. 

Although conversational speech takes place at about 60 decibels, Kim’s recorded sounds measure anywhere from two to 115 decibels. Technicians can adjust sounds up to 50 decibels above a participant’s natural loudness comfort level without injuring anyone’s hearing. Kim said the installation centers around personal relationships people have with sound — hearing is not a collective or communal experience in the way people might think it is, she said. 

“The concept is that no matter what your decibel level is, you won’t miss anything in that space,” Kim said. “In that space, I’m not considered deaf. I’m accessing all the sound.”

In planning her project, Kim worked closely with the VAC’s Sound + Vision program and with the Church of the Friendly Ghost, a community organization working with experimental sound and music.

Xochi Solis, director of events and public programming at the VAC, said the staff at the VAC collaborated extensively with Kim to organize the technical aspects of the Calibration Room and to repurpose the storage space effectively.

“This ambitious project has challenged some of our own perceptions of sound,” Solis said. “It’s been very exciting to learn new things about ourselves alongside our artist.”

Kim will host a talk Thursday at 4 p.m. in the Art Building to discuss her body of work, including the Calibration Room. The installation is free and open to the public.

Sufjan Stevens’ new album, Carrie & Lowell, bursts at the seams with the most valuable resource for singer-songwriters: human feelings. By the end of the record, Stevens has covered an extraordinary amount of emotional ground. There’s nostalgia, there’s love and, above all else, there’s anguish.

This anguish, which Sufjan expresses in plain, simple language, never feels cheap or affected. Stevens, a Brooklyn-based artist, named the album after his mother — a schizophrenic drug addict who left him when he was a toddler — and his stepfather. After her death in 2012, Stevens was thrust into a spiral of grief, substance abuse and despair. Carrie & Lowell is the unflinchingly autobiographical product of his mourning.

Carrie’s ghost envelops these songs like a thick fog. Stevens sings of grief, death, blood, God, drug addiction, mental illness and suicide. “I’m chasing the dragon too far,” he sings despairingly in the album’s penultimate track, “No Shade In the Shadow of the Cross” — a declaration of his hollowness in the aftermath of his mother’s death. This kind of darkness isn’t all-consuming, however, Stevens weaves his sadness into his childhood memories of sunny summer visits to his mother in Oregon. The album’s constant dialogue between past and present creates a rich tapestry of memory, loss and reconciliation.

Upon first listen, this richness isn’t immediately apparent. Despite their emotional urgency, the songs themselves are slow, brooding, even plain. They are stripped bare of the literal bells and whistles of his previous albums. Gone are the whimsical orchestral arrangements of 2005’s Illinoise. Gone is the blaring techno-folk chaos of 2010’s Age of Adz. The few instruments featured have a tingling quietude about them. This sparse sound departs from his previous work, and it works. The skeletal nature of the instrumentation allows the honesty of his lyrics to breathe.

Stevens’ voice shimmers at the forefront of every song, giving shape to his pain, sounding more nude and vulnerable than ever before. It retains a gentle, crystalline beauty throughout the album, even with lines as confessional as “You checked your texts while I masturbated.” He scatters these kinds of unembellished confessional lyrics generously throughout the record. They pull the listener further into the record’s intimacy.

In “The Fourth of July,” he repeatedly croons, “We’re all gonna die,” a fact Stevens never lets his album’s listeners forget. The effectiveness of moments such as this cement Stevens’ status as one of the great, super-sad guitar boys of our time. These moments prove there’s a reason he’s so commonly compared to sad boy masters such as Nick Drake and Elliot Smith. Stevens, like them, is capable of distilling roiling oceans of beautiful pain into simple snippets of language and melody.

These snippets, along with the bracing minimalism of its instrumentation, give Carrie & Lowell its strange and shimmering kind of power. These songs hover in that gorgeous space between body and soul, mystery and enlightenment, anger and forgiveness. “I don’t know where to begin,” he sings in the opening verse of the album. But he has already begun, and he continues going for another 10 songs. This is his journey. We’re lucky to be able to take it with him.

Artist: Sufjan Stevens

Album: Carrie & Lowell

Tracks: 11

Rating: 9/10

Photo Credit: Lydia Thron | Daily Texan Staff

The time between an album’s announcement to the tour’s final show used to be fairly standard: advertise the album, release a few singles, drop the record and promote the album with videos and a tour. 

This standard is undergoing major revision as many popular artists ignore it completely by implementing spontaneous album releases. Years of experimentation have led labels to abandon extensive PR and instead rely on hype and social media to drive an album’s sales, avoiding the undermining effects of a potential leak.

Staying relevant has always been crucial in music sales, but few acts have perfected this. Although social media was not prevalent when the White Stripes toured, Jack White and Meg White performed seemingly random day shows — playing on a boat, a public bus or even a bowling alley — before their concerts to promote their concerts and sell tickets.

This trend trickled over from live performances to album releases, such as Beyoncé’s surprise release of her self-titled fifth album. The impact of the release was massive; social media buzzed for days about the release and the album received critical acclaim and debuted at number one in the U.S.

Social media was at the core of the success of Beyoncé’s album. Spreading the news of an artist’s new album is as simple as hitting the retweet button. Dave Junker, advertising and public relations lecturer, said the crux of social media is that it costs almost nothing for a PR group to use; the user does all the advertising.

“Beyoncé is a prime example of how this model works,” Junker said. “The surprise release of her album allowed the loyal fan base to help promote the album. It becomes an organic thing, a bit of a sensation.”

Junker said when users’ Facebook and Twitter feeds fill up with comments on a new album, people are more likely to purchase the record. 

Other artists have followed suit. Drake mirrored Beyoncé’s model: He released his mixtape via Twitter, received more than 110,000 retweets and sold almost half-a-million albums in three days. 

Junker said piracy plays a major role when considering how to announce and release a record. 

“The main reason labels are pursuing these quick releases is to minimize the potential impact of some of the albums getting leaked,” Junker said. “As artists and management struggle to handle how quickly the industry is evolving, these quick releases help avoid major pitfalls.”

If people get word that an album was released, Junker said they are more likely to support the artist by purchasing a digital or actual hard copy than downloading an illegal copy. Piracy is unavoidable once the album is released but eliminating the possibility of an accidental release or leak before the album formally releases increases sales.

This trend may or may not be temporary, but one thing is for sure: it works.