Sufjan Stevens, "All Delighted People" (Asthmatic Kitty)
Stevens took the Internet by surprise this month when, on the same day, he both announced and put on sale (for $5) this eight-song, hourlong EP. The multitalented Brooklyn songwriter and conceptualist thereby left no time for his fans to wonder whether this release is the full-fledged follow-up to 2005's "Illinois," the second chapter in his acclaimed "50 States" series.
It isn't. It is, however, highly ambitious in its own not-so-focused way. The title song, which is included in both an 11-minute "original" and an eight-minute "classic rock" version, employs many trademark Stevens elements -- chorales, shifting time signatures -- while pushing his folk-baroque style in more experimental, prog-rock directions and quoting Simon and Garfunkel's "Sounds of Silence" at several junctures.
When Stevens sings, "I know I'm still afraid of letting go of choices that I made," he may or may not be expressing ambivalence about ever saying he was going to make albums about all 50 states. But he makes clear here that he has plenty of nongeographical ideas. The most colossal cut is "Djohariah," a 17-minute, truly epic guitar jam full of gnarly improvisational excursions to make Neil Young envious. If that sounds too hard to swallow, "All Delighted People" also includes compact gems such as "Enchanting Ghost" and "Heirloom" that hark back to his earlier work. Stevens performs Oct. 16 at the Orpheum Theatre.
DAN DELUCA, PHILADELPHIA INQUIRER
Ryan Bingham, "Junky Star" (Lost Highway)
In "Strange Feelin' in the Air," a crooked guitar riff stalks, offering a feeling of apprehension as sure as the shifty outsider bursting through the swinging doors of the townie saloon. It's pure Bingham, a conjurer of atmosphere, a gift that he put to good use for "The Weary Kind," his Oscar-winning song in "Crazy Heart."
The Los Angeles troubadour wrote the movie's theme with roots maestro T Bone Burnett, who produced "Junky Star," Bingham's third album of dirty-fingernail Americana.
Unlike Bingham's last outing, "Roadhouse Sun," in which his native windswept Texas dominated the proceedings, California creeps up in the margins. His voice still sounds like a gut-shot animal dragging itself across the road. It can bend toward a moment of relief, like when he sings "Hallelujah," or it can fold into sorrow, as it does on "Yesterday's Blues." Burnett wisely stands back and lets Bingham, the former bull rider, bleed or buck in the spotlight.
The only quality that's sorely missed on "Junky Star" is Bingham's sense of adventure. There's nothing here that approaches the meltdown of "Change Is" or the spitfire of "Hey Hey Hurray" on "Roadhouse Sun." Bingham might be in a new land, but he shouldn't forget his pioneer spirit.
MARGARET WAPPLER, LOS ANGELES TIMES