The Welcome Wagon

Welcome to the Welcome Wagon

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Although the Welcome Wagon roll their wheels over familiar territory, the band's debut is still somewhat bewildering. At their root, these songs flaunt little more than homespun melodies and basic chord progressions, featuring 12 gospel-influenced narratives in the folk tradition. Such minimalism forms the basis of the Welcome Wagon, whose two members -- the husband-and-wife duo of Rev. Vito Aiuto and Monique Aiuto -- are content to keep things short and simple. On the other hand, collaborator/producer Sufjan Stevens rarely abides by those rules; instead, he designs towering buildings out of the Aiutos' simple structures, adding flourishes to all the surfaces and strengthening the foundation with layers of horns, choirs, and pianos. At its most ornate, Welcome to the Welcome Wagon simply sounds like Stevens' own record, leaving the Aiutos with little identity of their own. This is especially evident on "Sold! To the Nice Rich Man," a knockout song that nevertheless sounds like a reheated leftover from the Illinoise sessions. Full of minor-key soul and brassy trumpets, it's one of the most appetizing songs here -- yet it's also indicative of the producer's authority, which doesn't quite augment the Welcome Wagon's sound as much as commandeer it. That's not to say that Stevens always occupies the spotlight; on tracks like "He Never Said a Mumblin' Word" and "Deep Were His Wounds, and Red," the Aiutos regain control with an emphasis on stark, gospel-gothic lyrics. These are songs of crucifixion, of loss, of Christianity's melancholic side, and they sound worlds apart from the orchestral, summery numbers conducted by the producer. So while Welcome to the Welcome Wagon admittedly sounds its best when peppered with swelling strings and choir crescendos, the Aiutos' heart seems to rest in the simpler numbers, creating an album that's often strong but nevertheless conflicted.

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