A Musical History Of Cairo, IL

By Scott Smith in Arts & Entertainment on Dec 27, 2005 3:01PM

This year, Sufjan Stevens solidified his status as an indie critic’s darling with Illinois, the second album in his Sisyphean “50 States” project. While Illinois did plenty of name-dropping, it left the history of the state largely unexplored. Operating on a smaller scale, recording artist Stace England focused on just one Illinois town: Cairo (pronounced kay-row) to create an album that’s more accessible and just as satisfying as his indie rock counterpart.

2005_12_27_cairo.jpgEngland spent five years researching Greetings From Cairo, Illinois by talking to the people that live there and “generally hanging around” the southernmost town in Illinois (the liner notes alone offer a substantial history lesson). But it’s not necessarily an album that the Cairo Chamber of Commerce will be endorsing anytime soon; the songs on Cairo are unsparing in their treatment of the town that has been a haven of corruption, racism and the kind of women who “don’t treat you kind and sweet/they’ll grab your hand and knock you off your feet” ("Cairo Blues").

While most of the lyrics paint a dire picture, there’s an underlying optimism in the music. Though England’s previous work has been in country rock, the album makes room for a full choir on the opening track (“Goin’ Down To Cairo”) and incorporates aspects of blues (“Buy My Votes”), and even Curtis Mayfield-style funk on “Jesse’s Coming To Town,” a somewhat tongue-in-cheek tribute to a certain civil rights leader.

Cairo is an honest—not mean-spirited—referendum on a town in decline. With the final track “Can’t We All Just Get Along,” England looks to the future by acknowledging the town’s troubles and clinging to the hope that “together we could be so strong.”

Though the album’s received accolades from as far away as Italy and the Netherlands, critics here in the U.S. (with the exception of the Village Voice’s Robert Christgau) have largely slept on the album, which is a shame. Rarely has an album so enjoyable also functioned as an advocate for social change.