Review: The Welcome Wagon – Welcome To The Welcome Wagon
(Originally Posted at TheFourOhFive.com)
For those of you who are mournfully wondering just what Mr. Sufjan Stevens has been getting up to in his four year hiatus after 2005’s acclaimed ‘Illinoise’, ‘Welcome To The Welcome Wagon’ should be a welcome reprieve from a Sufjan-less universe.
Signed to Sufjan’s own Asthmatic Kitty label, The Welcome Wagon’s story is almost as quaint as their ramshackle folk music – Pastor Vito and Monique Aiuto began playing music in their living room (Vito on guitar and Monique playing toy glockenspiels or harmonicas) before being adopted and signed by Sufjan Stevens, who incidentally, produced and wrote the liner notes for ‘Welcome To The Welcome Wagon’ – all in all, ‘Welcome To The Welcome Wagon’s closest neighbour is Sufjan’s ‘Seven Swans’, who’s quiet tales of loss and faith made many critic’s 2004 end of year lists, although on ‘The Welcome Wagon’ religion is dealt with in an altogether more joyous way – the stomp and clap of ‘But For You Who Fear My Name’ is pure exaltation, there’s a gloriously effective cover of The Smiths ‘Half A Person’ (Adding to their already sky-high indie credentials!) and ‘I Am A Stranger’ rises to a soaring, choir-driven climax.
On some tracks, Sufjan’s influence is far-too heavily felt: the soulful ‘Sold! To The Nice Rich Man’ is weighted under too many musical elements – the organ, the trumpets and the choir clash awkwardly, and the operatic crooning on the cover of Velvet Underground’s ‘Jesus’ is slightly over-the-top – but often these out-of-kilter human mistakes retain the album’s homespun charm, and add to it’s frilly, slightly-camp feel.
The Welcome Wagon fare better when stripped down to their living room beginnings: ‘On Top of A Mountain’ is delightfully sparse, showcasing The Welcome Wagon’s greatest weapon – Monique’s voice is sweetly demure and as clear as a bell, it has more in common with Gregory & The Hawk’s Meredith Godreau than any off-key warbling you’d find in an average church – and the wistful ‘American Legion’ shows us that Vito can write a good love song when he wants to – his cries of ‘When you smile/ There’s no reason to say goodbye’ are genuinely, hopelessly touching.
The album’s closer is the best example of the band’s humble, DIY ethic – the gently-plucked guitar and Vito’s soft, slightly flat voice blends perfectly with his wife’s keening peal, and Monique’s whispered admission of ‘Um, I screwed up – twice!’ towards the end make the couple seem even more endearing.
Those of you not as joyously religious as the Aiutos shouldn’t be put off by the religious aspect of the album – this could be the best folk album released this year, and Sufjan fans will revel in The Welcome Wagon’s lush prettiness.