Tuesday, October 21, 2014

The Last Bison: VA - Album review by Kirk

Album: VA     (Virginia)
Genre: Indie Jamboree Parlor Jazz  (Describing this stuff is half the trick)
Release: September 2014

VA (Virginia) : I see what you did here.

Quick Spin:  VA,  Depending how you count, this is either The Last Bison's second or fifth recording (two of the five count are EPs, while one of the long plays is a rougher hewn "pre disk" that was massaged into their first major release.  As for me... I count this as three point five. And how sweet it is.  Kinda what you might hear if Vincent Van Gogh could sing while painting the Aurora Borealis over the Chesapeake Bay while riding an antique big-wheeled bike through the parlor of Thoreau..  (If that didn't make any sense, you are just gonna have to listen for yourself.)  

The Last Bison are: Dan, Teresa, Ben, Annah, Amos, and Joel
For the unacquainted, The Last Bison is a multi-instrumentalist troupe (comprised of family members and friends) who together, weave sounds both elegant and jarring, round the continent-of-a-voice that is Ben Hardesty.  This is a band that should be heard live… but if not, this album is like stepping into a sonic sunrise.

It goes without saying that people who make music like to listen to sounds, but then, not all music is about sound in the same way.  When I think of the Last Bison, I think of a band that is simply in the love with the very color of sound, then twining those vibrant hues together in a deep aural tapestry.  

Stylistically, The Last Bison share common elements with the Lumineers, Mumford and sons, and now a little more of Eisley.  That is, they work from a largely acoustic palette and sometimes sing together like pirates,  but have -- with VA -- opened up to the prospect of electricity and Steinways.   Even so, I am worried that those comparisons may not really give you a sense of the vitality, range and imagination of this music.

(hear some TLB here:)   or see and hear here.

As is, I wrote a longer review  of the Last Bison’s earlier albums, Quill and Inheritance, so if you are wholly unacquainted with the band, you can get somesense of them here…But no words of mine are really adequate to describe this band’s unique approach to sound and voice.
And now it is that much more uniquer…

The album VA takes the same recipe that made their earlier works so lively, but now drives the sound in a slightly different direction.    The band has described its earlier music as Fall-Winter, this as Summer-Spring.   (I guess these guys are not from Arkansas where we think of summer as sweating in front of you air conditioner.)

But I get the picture.   More color, more fluid,  more May-poles and picnics…slightly less jagged yet full of texture and turns. The strings paint rivers, and singer Ben Hardesty still manages to throw in a heavy dose of bull elk, But what’s this… Could it be a jazz singer under those Viking horns?  And Oh… who is this female vocalist I hear climbing into more of the mix?  (I simply love the haunting female vocal at the end of “End View.”)  

When I hear the last Bison, I really do hear paintings.   Perhaps it is the shtick… The Last Bison dress like they just came from the Little House... and pull instruments from the great frontier… So naturally,  When I listen to older works I see Moran… Yellowstone… French Fur traders etc.   This time… More like Degas or Van Gough…  Laughing French girls in their bloomers or high hated men riding bicycles and smoking cigars at the circus. The whole is just a little more civilized… But not tame.  Never tame.

for illustration:  Barn Dance by Clyde Singer

Truth is, I am hearing something akin to jazz.  Not the instruments, but the freedom.  Ben’s voice is all over the place: Barking, bending swooning, pulsing between hyper masculine and falsetto.  The strings too dip and swoon.  Chimes, bells, jubilant bombast   And now with added electric bass and piano. Some of the aural-scapes are downright expansive.

It may be harder… if the Last Bison continue in this trajectory to keep their old school look.  Certain songs here call for togas, tights and laurels in the hair.

I haven’t said much yet about the lyrics.  That is because the lyrics are about as impressionistic as the music style.  They kind of make sense when I hear them… then I read them and think… That doesn’t make a lick of sense.   So I am content to hear the words and phrases as snatches that kind of feed into a larger aural dream.   I hear of roots, and tattooed lashes.. deep molasses…eternal light… I hear too of a calling card beyond this world.   “All who are weary, come lay your burdens down.”  (My personal fave.)

It is strange to listen to a music where I am not as aware of specific content… but when I come away, I feel gladdened and refreshed… and alive with life.   Like I have just come from a good swim.  Unburdened.

And then there is that final song… so plaintive so simple and filled with beauty and grace.  The album just ends with a sigh.. and way too soon.

I will be honest, VA took me a few more listens than might be standard to climb onto my Best music in the History of the World – list.   Why?  Because the compositions are just complex enough that it takes a while to cut grooves through this aging grey mass.  I will also agree with another reviewer who found this album only gets better as you get farther in.  I highly suspect that the second track “Every time” with its swelling chorus, will get the airtime (If such a thing exists anymore.) but it is the freeform latter half of VA that just dazzles my sense of music.  How do people even hear this stuff inside their heads?

At this point, I really don’t know where to go.  Other people have written better reviews. (Sample 1:Daily Press)  (Sample 2: PopMatters)  But I am listening and cannot think too much.  I am listening to the song called Sleep, and moonlight and shadows and curtains are pouring thru my soul and my heart is too in love with the sounds to pay much attention to what I write.

Ps.  I almost forget.   As a kind of fringe friend of the Band (Members stayed in my house a couple years back when they hit Wackarusa, an Arkansas based hippy-fest)  and having shared back and forth on Facebook, they asked if I might supply a photographic illustration for the lyric book that goes with this album.   So happens the song “Come What May”  is a song about siblings.   So I furnished a picture of my two neighbor boys, fraternal twins Matthew and Neil.   And this is what I came up with for the book.  (The book I now have, but cannot find on your web page:)

Thank you Bison….. for making my brain such a fun place to live.  You have filled me with good sounds.

Saturday, September 13, 2014

U2: Songs of Innocence; an unsettled Review by Kirk

Artist:  U2
Album: Songs of Innocence
Genre:  Indie Pop /Rock laced with techno dallies
Release: September 10, 2014

JUST a NOTE   I have considered erasing this review.  My thoughts about the music have changed over a week of listening.   I now very much like this album as a sonic product, even as I find myself ill at ease in promoting U2.  But that would take a bit to explain.   So I am just leaving my initial review and an addendum, in all of its unsettled glory.


Fun Fact:  I hear kids under 20 are wondering about the U2 Virus that showed up in their I-tunes account.   How do I get rid of this U2?

Quick Spin.  In case you haven't heard, U2  -- in collusion with Apple Computer (Iphone 6/the Iwatch and Itunes) has just unleashed its 13th studio album....at no cost to consumers.  You can find the album ready for listen in your Itunes Purchase file, uploaded ready to roll.

As for sound, in comparison to other works by U2- this work seems to lack certain edge.   Literally. I mean, it seems that the role of Edge, U2's jagged guitarist has been toned down.  Plenty of thumps and blats, but not so much chisel.  What we get instead is energy and rainbows.   Indeed....Pulsing, soaring, splitting, splashing liquid color.  And while I will admit, I am beginning to dig the sound, I find this recording rich in sonics, lean in soul.


I have an enigmatic relationship with U2.  I have never fully recovered from my first listen to WAR. Startling, bombastic, nervy and fused with spiritual intensity.   Since that time I have listened to U2 with lurching ears.  I love them. I like them. I don't always trust them.  They are spiritual, They are carnal.  They rage against the machine, even as they are the machine.

I am drawn most fully to War,  Boy and The Incredible Fire; I eat piecemeal of other works.
When U2 speaks with the voice of Christian mysticism, I am intrigued.   When they speak as high decibel pagans - I check my heart (lest I too go running naked through the woods) and when they speak with the voice of corporate/spiritual syncretists... I am cautious.  very very cautious.

I have just looked the gift horse in the mouth and find it wanting. 

My little review is all over the map, kind of like my thoughts about this album.

Over the years I have made an interesting discovery.  The greater the number of people who listen to any given artist, the fewer the people who read my reviews of the same.    When I write a review of an obscure singer (Like Mo Leverett), I get thousands of “hits” – When I cover a famous act I find that I am just one small voice in the din.  So when it comes to reviewing U2, I am inclined to think… why bother.

First, whatever anybody's response to this album, it will never, never, never, measure up to another album of similar name (Knowledge and Innocence) by Terry Scott Taylor.   From what I read, Terry T. and Bono both draw inspiration from each other…. And William Blake… But Terry Taylor's album is one of finest albums of this history of the world, while this must rank somewhere in the top 10,000.

It’’s only a couple of hours old (as I write this) but Rolling Stone has just released their review of U2's Songs of Innocence, giving it its big 5 out of 5 stars… to which I reply.  Really?

And the kickback is pretty immediate too.   Consensus,  Good, not great.….give it 3.5.
But what does that mean, and why the push back?

Were I to review this album for just its sounds,  ---  I too might give it a pretty high mark…. But I find, when it comes to something that stays with me, lives in me, jars me at the inmost being, I remain un-jarred.

So, now I am trying to decide…. Am I depressed, or does this music simply lack soul?

Have you ever had this experience?-- The world is a living color wheel, spitting out wonders right and left; You see the colors but they don’t seem to register with any emotive force?
I have just listed to “Songs of Innocence through some three or four times.  I am hearing all kinds of ear candy.  

I take in the sonic landscape, the experiments, the singing munchkins...  all those rainbow colors, the big rubber band base, but without the edge.

 My ears are happy (in a kind of generic way) even as my soul absorbs the sticker price. Free.  Hmmm.   Something is missing.  And I think Bono feels it too.

And I am a long long way from your hill on Calvary,
And I am a long way from where I was and where I need to be.
(Song for Someone)

Perhaps it is a case of “the Medium is the Message” but when one of America's richest companies, using one of Americas most popular music services dumps a free album on the public, following a highly anticipated corporate announcement, featuring beautiful, but unnecessary gadgets ... well, 
it all feels kind of fake and corporate.

Content at this point is secondary.  The very medium (or method of delivery) is part of the package…. And I am receiving this, feeling like a pawn in a corporate game.  Don't get me wrong, I love my Mac, and lean Apple design. I don't even mind that idea that U2 would play a song used in an Apple commercial... but something here crosses a comfort line.

I like the Bible.  I like the American flag.  Wrap the two together and I get nervous.

I like Apple... I like U2.... but suddenly when music, the language of transcendence, is linked in such a wholesale way to the language of gadget sales, I feel like something more vital has been sold.


I used to think that the end of the age might be characterized by a fervent rejection of religion.  I am now thinking it more likely that religion, consumerism, science and art will dance in one seamless whole.

Songs of Innocence may speak to childhood, but it does not speak to innocence.


Addendum (One week later)

For whatever reasons, I cannot stop writing.   Turns out the free, but but not chosen, feature of the Itunes download has not played well.  Seems people like free.. but not imposed.

Outcry has been such that I tunes has offered a removal tool.      Strangely comical.   A company gives out a free product, then must scurry to come up with a way for non fans to rid themselves of the unwanted freeness..

As for the sound I agree with my former self that this recording is somewhat less ragged, less live, less fragile than earlier works.   Btu I must disagree that this music lacks  pashion or "umph."    Think instead of rock thrown in a tumbler.   Not to the point of liquid polish, but  some of the edges are worn off, but what we get instead are luminosity, layers and depth.  I have now grown to fully love some of these tunes... Most decidedly, Iris, Volcano, and Sleep like a Baby.

I am too taken by several of the lyrics.  (Some are so esoteric or personal that I cannot do much with them...but I am intrigued by the theological components Song for Someone, but also wonder, does the song (to be continued.)

Truth is, my soul seems to be a wrestling match.   Is this music I should like?   I am sure this next line of thinking will not connect with some who read this...but I see my heart as a temple, a place where God should fully make his home.   Is this a music that makes for good communion?

I am not afraid of the physicality of this music.  Our God has made a physical creation, and I accept the idea that music can be loud, pulsing, jarring and holy.  Even so, I  know when I listen much to U2, I feel a spirit of worldliness setting in.   Into my soul.

I will leave it at that.   I can like the aural power of this music, but when it comes to what I recommend....I know of better food.

Tuesday, August 26, 2014

Winnowing by Bill Mallonee, interview by Kirk

Artist: Bill Mallonee   (sometimes frontman for the band Vigilantes of Love)
Album: Winnowing
Genre:  Alt Country, or Americana-rock of the dust-bowl hue.
Release: August 22, 2014

Muriah Rose and Bill Mallonee

Quick Spin:  First 10 seconds and my heart is sold.  My whole being is filled with emotive color.

This is one of those albums about which all my efforts to categorize the sound fall apart. Too country for jazz, too ambient for folk, too melodic for rock… Wrong cords for the blues, too genuine, too beautiful for the world in general.  All I can say, is that from those spare opening notes, I am fully drawn in.  I am hearing the very song of the rose dusted desert at sunset, fed by a gladdening stream.

I understand Bill has put out near 60 albums. I own, in some form or other, near half that collection. His works cover the stylistic range from Beatlesque rock and thrashing-acoustic punk to dusty-road folk, and his own special blend of countrified Steinbeck blues. And I must say… this one stands out. It is a special album: Aged, regal, reduced in pace… feeling at once both fresh and golden. 

In commenting on Winnowing the first time thru, I used the world “slow” – but that has all the wrong connotations.

Nothing plodding here.

Think instead of the triumph of the rising moon, the rising the spangle of stars. Like all things Bill, there is certain sadness here, even dallies with pathos and cynicism, but I hear deep tenderness within the weave. 

 Bill himself says it best.

Winnowing is a very personal/religious record for me. Lyrics and sound intertwined. 
 It was inspired by the vast, open places of the high deserts of New Mexico, similar to last year's the more acoustic based "Dolorosa." But, this one was very different.
Winnowing is about things I needed to say. 
It's an Autumn record. The diminishing play of light, the signs of Earth going dormant, and the smell of wood fire suggest, to me anyway, a withdrawal, a strategic "retreat," a tucking in of dreams. And an inventory to be taken of the past.  
The intensity of sun-drenched, barren-blue skies diffuse & give way softer vistas. The light becomes a water-colored light. Even the "desert acoustics" contour the sounds here. It all folds back on itself, this Autumnal experience.
All that was "good, bad or ugly" has left its mark. Doubt/incongruity/loneliness is the modern stigmata.
All that came and passed, all that was birthed or died. Whatever may have disappointed you, broken you, wrecked your faith or established & inspired you. What ever compartments (or coffins) you choose to place such things in there's no doubt that it has changed you.  And, if by grace, it was some hand of God has seemed to pull you through...well, that's what this album is about.

I will be honest. I don’t always get Bill. He speaks a different language. He is a poet with a guitar;  His world -- at least as pertains to things of the spirit --  is less concrete than the world in which I dwell.  I live in dynamic tension between the worlds of hard doctrine and mysticism, Bill seems more at home in the latter.  

When I listen to bills lyrics I cannot always tell how much is confession, how much is observation, or even how much is theater. (Beyond that some of his songs are just so personal that you might have to be Bill to get them.... But should Bill’s songs be a guide, we know that Bill has not only railed against a broken world, he has added to its breaking, and been broken by it.

When I look at the pictures of Bill some ten or twenty years ago. I see a taunt muscled man who could ride a jackhammer, wrestle gators or bend a guitar neck like a sapling. Today I look and see a man who (forgive me for saying this) looks worn to the bone… like he could use a good meal and a warm fire. Indeed, the second song on Winnowing ushers in the Locust Years. I have no doubt that Bill has truly lived much of the dust-bowl, Steinbeckian world to which he relates.

There are times when I could wish that Bill had a fat wallet and a struggle-free life I am wishing that he had been spared moral, emotional, relational and economic confusion.  ( I am guessing at these thing given certain lyrics) But then, perhaps, he would not be winnowed.  

There is a depth and color to Bill's writing that could only come through failure, struggle, anger and disappointment … and the  sometimes unsearchable grace of God which holds damaged pilgrims. But that is enough of me guessing. I should now probably self edit, let me stop and let Bill step in.


Kirk: I’ll start with a softball… Opening notes. What are the instruments? I think I hear a stand-up bass… and something all ghostly and electric… I see your wife plays piano… Are you and wife the primary musicians… and who are the “Darkling Planes?”

Bill: well, here's the album's instrumentation.

"WINNOWING" by: Bill Mallonee and The darkling Planes

(Bill would elsewhere share, the "darkling Planes" is something of an inside joke. It plays off the Dover Beach poem, but there is no band for this album save Bill and Wife.)

Bill Mallonee: Electric, acoustic & high-string guitars, vocals, bass, drums, organ, piano, harmonica

Muriah Rose: piano, voice, organ, electric piano

String arrangements: Mallonee/Rose

The best way to explore this is to tell you that we live way out in the high deserts of New Mexico, up in the mountains. I cut my musical teeth in Athens, Ga and lived there a long time. But, I got so weary of the stress driven, anxiety diet of the East Coast that I needed a change. The Southwest is still pretty wild and remote in places. Rent is cheap and inspiration is always present. There's a reason so many visual artists & writers moved out here in the 40's, 50's and 60's.

Now, that being said, there's a dearth of utility players, at least where we live, so that alone has stretched me to become a better guitarist, bass player and drummer. Muriah is just a great keyboard player with a great ear for the melodies I gravitate towards, so we've got all we need in terms of a "band." As a played, I go for the "right" part, not the flashy stuff anyway. The whole point of a song is to create a world and then invite people into it. I live for those golden, transcendent moments where lyric and delivery and sound collide.

I write about 50 songs a year, sometimes more. You can't have a guitar in your hands that often and not start to unlock some of it's "secrets." The last few albums, The Power and The Glory (2012,) Amber Waves (2013,) Dolorosa (2013,) and now Winnowing all rely on very melodic and often intricate interplay of guitars. Like I said above: I live for those golden, transcendent moments. That's where the "thin places" show up. I keep it anchored in the Americana realm. That's my soul, my back story.

Kirk: Related…. I am hearing what I call lots of “chimey” notes… cascading rainbows of sound….Beyond that, the pace here is decidedly slower, either brooding or majestic. Were you consciously striving for a different audio vibe on winnowing?

Bill: We're talking the sonic structure of the album?

Well, I try to not over-think anything. Whatever serves the song, you know?
Be direct and simple and know when you've made it too busy or complex.

Yes, Winnowing has lots of guitar interplay & melodic statements re-inforcing the lyrics.

I think it's elegant. It seems to possess a certain folk-rock majesty. I can listen to it now as a listener and less as a composer and say: "Nice! Wow, that's takes me somewhere!"

A "rough-hewn-elegance" is the phrase I'd use to describe it.

Winnowing, to my ears anyway is a lovely balance of sound and lyric. It's a very dark" Autumnal sort of record; a very prayerful sort of record.

You learn to let a certain spaciousness have its say.

Kirk:   I know from the things that I read on Facebook that this album started out with a different title. (Hall Full of mirrors) and now it seems to have at least two other titles…

The Winnowing…. And Dover Beach. What is that all about? (To me the hall of mirrors title seems darker… more carninvalish…. Tell me a little bit of the process behind this album… Its evolution. Did you start with a song or two… how did the end product differ from what you first envisioned?

Bill: Well, for starters it's just "Winnowing," not "THE" Winnowing!

Hall of Mirrors/Room of Woes was the initial working title. We'd hope to employ the Kickstarter folks, but a security breach compromised the fundraising after we'd gone public about a week. we decided to shut it all down and just reach out to the fan base directly, just like we've always done. 

Dover Beach, named after the famed poem by Matthew Arnold was my 2nd choice for a title. It's an amazing poem, so very modern. The song, Dover Beach (Out In The Cold), is the lead off track. It does set a certain tenor of the record, I think. That song's themes and why I wrote it are at the Bandcamp site, so I'll pass on those details here.

But, the longer I worked on the album, the more I realized that it was "bigger" than just that one song. The whole record and collection of songs was becoming the most personal and "confessional" album I'd ever written. And, believe me, I'm known for writing "confessional" lyrics already. "Winnowing" is very immediate, full of the tensions and inner dialogues we all have with ourselves. It's also probably the most "religious" album I've ever released, as well. But religious in the sense of it being something of a "Doubter's Church," or an "A Skeptical Seeker's Prayer."

These (songs) are scraps of all those incongruous and disparate parts that make up our lives and bring before God...

I had 20 plus songs ready for this album. When I go on "writing sprees," there are certain themes & subjects that surface. They just manifest on a consistent basis around a group of songs. That makes the record delightfully "conceptual." That's why making an album for me is like an emotional/philosophic auto-biography. Good therapy, I suppose?

With 20 plus songs, we could have easily made a double album. However, I was doing all the writing, most of the playing/recording, all the engineering and mixing. We're talking 12 hour days for 8-9 weeks straight. I think, after a while, I would have distrusted my ears. Audio burn out. you have to take breaks to hear thing afresh.

SO: We recorded 12 songs and decided to keep it to an even 10. It clocks in just under 50 minutes. That's the perfect ride in this day and age. (We included some of the demos and out-takes, so you can hear just how the songs grew and morphed here and there.)

Kirk: Have you ever found that the album you end up with is an entirely different product than what you had in mind?

Bill:   No. Honestly, no.

Sure, there are always wonderful surprises to be found along the way of making an album. In the case of Winnowing, there are a few guitar loops that stand out and led as transitions into the next song. That reinforces the conceptual aspect of the record. But, because I write in these massive sprees of say 10-25 songs at a time and those songs all tend to be "sisters and brothers" with similar "looks," I generally have a good idea of "how" they'll translate once I hit "record." The recording becomes their "family portrait," you see?

Kirk: In looking at the poem Dover Beach it starts out with a note of beauty, then gives way to certain melancholy as Arnold describes the din of the retreating tide…

Listen! you hear the grating roar
Of pebbles which the waves drawback, and fling,
At their return, up the high strand,
Begin, and cease, and then again begin,
With tremulous cadence slow, and bring
The eternal note of sadness in.

I have listened to enough of your music to know the spirit of Lamentation is essential to your works. Do you ever feel that you are a spokesman for “eternal sadness?”

Bill: Good question. Well, here's the thing: I'd like to think I'm just saying what we all already know and feel. I'm just giving it some nomenclature.

I write with no audience in mind. I've kept at this writing thing almost solely to "save myself." That is, i am trying to make sense of the world, it's hallowed-ness, it's hellish-ness, it's transcendent joys and heart-rending griefs. How can all of those co-exist in one place? And it's not just existing "out there" in the world.

No, it goes a step further: How can all of these exist within our solitary spirits?

That's the raw data of our lives.  Yes, I try and cope with it all with a faith that sometimes seems to have a shelf-life of just that day. But, it's enough. enough to affirm the good, the golden and the Love of God, even when He seems absent.

So, while i would adamantly shun the "spokesperson for eternal sadness" moniker, I DO have the deep "suspicion," let's say, that we are ALL living in similar skin, with similar souls and similar spirits. We are all made out of the same clay. Our dreams, our hurts, our joys, our tears, our struggles and failures.  And so, I try to address such things, by slight removes, in my songs.

And for me? When you can sing about such things and make some sense of it, it doesn't get any better than that.


Final thoughts

I just realized I didn't say much about the particular songs. By contrast to most radio fare these songs run long… five to six minutes average..(That’s five to six minutes of audio bliss. Think of each song as a short story or play. Even a moving painting. I might say more,

And only screw it up if I did.  Best bet. Listen for yourself. winnowing is a a banquet for the ears that will start repeat play in your head.  (I am now hearing a fragment of Now You Know... over and over and over  again.  

I have other questions, waiting in the wings… that I might like to ask Bill down the road. (Arnold's Poem Dover Beach not only alludes to the din of a world at war and the singular saving power of romance; it also suggests a certain loss of faith.  So I want to ask if Bill if he relates to that part of the poem, and if so in what manner..."  I want to find out more about his life before God as it stands right now, and about the interface of faith, artistry, and doubt  -- but frankly, I feel too immature as a writer (or too limited as a Facebook friend)  to ask those questions rightly.   Maybe later.

In the meantime it is simply hard to fathom a more giving album. My mind is awash with smoke and vibrant autumnal colors. 

Thank you Bill. From the bottom of our stained and broken hearts.  You have poured yourself out like an offering.   May that which is noble and eternal in in your songs be separated from that which is chaff, and given back as a grain offering to Him who gave you voice.


Sometimes it is hard to put down the pen.   I would be slow to call any one of Bill's albums his best...There are many bests, and many betters.  But I do know that Winnowing will join "Audible Sigh" as the album of Bill or the Vigilantes, that I most recommend to others.   And now, after multiple listens, what is the one thing that stands out?  

The Voice.  

Whispering, yearning, reaching, basking, trembling or cracking .... the voice.

Tuesday, August 19, 2014

Joanne Hogg - Uncountable Stars. Review by Kirk

Artist: Joanne Hogg
Release: August 2014

Quick Spin:   I keep rewriting this little quick spin, cause I want to get it right.  What can I say?  This treasure of an album by UK vocalist Joanne Hogg is so utterly tender and lovely and good … even at times vivacious, that I feel like a portion heaven has been downloaded into my heart.   Were it in my means, I would buy this disk for everyone I love, and whom I would want to know the extravagant love of the Eternal Groom.  I am swooning within.


Do you ever open an album (or a trifold CD) literally jittery with excitement, because the PACKAGING  itself is just so lovely.  I am not sure how mere cover-art did it, but the before I ever heard a sound I knew that something here is -- or will be  -- extra magical.  (I don't mean to scare anyone with the ‘magic” word… I should say extra-ordinary glory spangled!)

First,  a Kingfisher… in suggested spray, which in turn, looks like the stars echoed in the album title:  Uncountable Stars.

Then I open the fold and spy the title poem.

Gazing Up at
Uncountable Stars
Unimaginable Glory
Unfathomable Mercy
Unconditional Love
Unhindered Freedom
Uncontainable Joy
Undeserved Favor
I am
Undone under the Unfailing
Arms of God

There’s is something in those very words that warms my heart like a love letter… I haven’t even heard a note, and I am already primed for rainbows round the throne room. 

As is, I own the larger body of Joanne Hogg’s works, most in her association with the band Iona.  I also own a couple of her solo works, so I kind of know what to expect when she sings with her band, or how her presentation changes when she sings solo…I am expecting something, minor, sober, elegant, refined and pensive…decidedly acoustic, build on a foundation of classical piano.

I start the disk…

What’s this?  
Utter surprise.

Wonked out.


This is working.
Really really working.

Sheer extra-ordinary glory saturated sounds… but with a MUCH different feel than anything I have heard sculpted by Joanne’s gifted vocal chords.

The music has all the sophistication and beauty I would expect, but it is charged.  Like  -- with electricity.  (Literally and Metaphorically).   I am hearing passion …  and play, Beauty with a capital B… even something bold and strident.   Can we use the world Amorous?   I am not sure I will get the right string of adjectives, because the moods and vocal approaches from song to song vary substantially, and  I would have to make a list for each song.

Ps.  I am writing this live, even as I listen.  I just hit track 8, Mountain of Debris… and I am stunned.   My mind is racing with all kinds of visual images.  Surreal images, dark and swirling… I want to use this track for a time lapse… I see images of deserts and death… and healing and things which are broken coming together… but mostly., there is one big idea hidden here, and behind these many tunes.

I am hearing in each song, saturating this disk… the extravagant mercy of God.


Not sure I want to do a song by song evaluation, and I am hoping there are places you can go to sample this music if you are unfamiliar.

But let me cut to the chase.

This album offers things I have never heard before. (Sometimes in Joanne, sometimes ever)

First... New vocal treatments, sometimes brassy or charming... the softness is still here, but with all kinds of new colors in this collage.

Another reviewer compared the tilt in sound on a few tracks to something like "Florence and the Machine."  I hear that edge, but I hear too, billow clouds.. and a track the feels almost Indian) 

The poetry is earth bound (anchored in creation) but fused with heaven too.

The writing is first rate.  transparent, with flourishes of concrete detail.

The styles are genre defying, ranging from jazzy ballads to ambient pop to stage-musical  (Most of the tunes are asymmetrical, (meaning they don't follow a traditional verse chorus verse chorus style.)

I am hearing a freedom of expression I have never heard in Joanne before.  

I feel all glowy inside. 

There are some things (in the world in general) which are powerful, but not good.  This album is potent, amorous, sensory … and baptized in goodness.

I feel held.

This may be the best album in the history of the world.   (Make that in the top 20 anyway.)


Not much of a review.  But you get the picture.

Ps.  Now hearing second to last track.  Lay down.   Oh Oh my.  This is silky gorgeous.   I suspect it may just be a "regular love song"  but I hear in it kind a double edged application.  I have in my life heard many songs sung to Jesus.   And I have heard many more love songs sung by men and women to each other.

Now I have heard a song that sounds like Jesus singing to me.  (No Gender confusion here. I hear Joanne as the Male, and me  -- the male --  as the bride.)  I am wearing white, and we have just been married and Jesus is taking me on a picnic.   (Okay, that sounded weird….)

Now on about my fifth listen.  Hearing new things each time.   There is a darker hue to some of these songs than I heard in the initial listen.   New impression... A soul, waking out of heavy season of soul, into glorious light and freshness.

Ps. Ps.  I was going to say more about the writing, but I have already loaned out my disk.

Itunes: for sampling.. though best to order the disk from Jo directly.

Wednesday, August 6, 2014

Broken, Gazing by Jeff Johnson, review by Kirk

Artist: Jeff Johnson (and friends)
Album: Broken, Gazing: Songs and Chants for Pilgrims
Genre:  Sacred,  chamber-coustic, with a Celtic vibe.
Release, August 12, 2014

Quick Spin.   A "worship" album of extraordinary beauty.

Songs and chants for pilgrims composed and performed by vocalist/keyboardist Jeff Johnson with a chamber ensemble featuring Wendy Goodwin (violin), Janet Chvatal (voice), Brian Dunning (flute), Phil Baker (bass), Tim Ellis (guitar), Phil Madeira (accordion & guitar), Trevor Fitzpatrick (cello) and Mike Snyder (percussion). 

I am not sure how long this link will be active, but you can listen to Broken, Gazing here.

I have spent the last three or four decades listening intently to music.  I have sampled virtually every fad, and despite my commitment to a simple way have life (as an idea) have managed to surround myself with no small amount of music.   Should you break down my life you might find I own a tune for every day of my life.  But something is happening.    I find that my ear is filling up, I can hardly hold another song.   Christian radio is largely intolerable -- Mark Heard and Johnny Cash aren't  putting out like they used to,  even a lot of Indi-rock runs  cliché.    So I am tempted to hang up my ear and take a rest.


Monday, July 14, 2014

The Pastor's Kid by Barnabas Piper, Review by Kirk

The Pastor’s Kid.
Author: Barnabas Piper.
Genre: Non-Fiction (but not story) Spiritual Advice

  • Paperback: 160 pages
  • Publisher: David C. Cook (July 1, 2014)
  • Language: English

Quick Spin. Barnabas Piper, son of pastor and author John Piper, shares some of the strains, pains, and pitfalls common to the children of Pastors, even as he shares living advice on how to handle certain burdens of birth. While geared directly to the children of Pastors and those who know them, the Pastor’s kid is a good read for any who would learn how to relate to persons whose identity is tied to someone else. Beyond that, this “kid” has a pretty deep understanding of the human condition. 

Some years ago I read the book “Crazy for God” by Frank Shaeffer, son pastor/theologian Francis Shaeffer in which Frank sought to explain -- with full literary flourish, what it was like to grow up under the roof of an Evangelical legend. Frank has arrived at MUCH different place than his Dad, and now seeks in many ways to distance himself from both the theology and impact of his parents. “Crazy” is at once literary, passionate, angry, introspective, detailed, bitter, sensual, and jarring. It may make for a good read, but is also (for those of us who loved Francis) disorienting and ugly.

The book, the Pastors Kid, by Barnabas Piper is none of those things. It does not even attempt to be.

Barnabas would be the first to tell you. This is not literature. This is not an expose.

Barnabas does share personal anecdotes, we even get a whiff of dysfunction, but the spirit of his book is to engender understanding, not to tear down.

Indeed, Barnabas is not just telling his story. Over the years Barnabas has established a network of relationships with hundreds of PK’s. So think of Barnabas as a “representative” speaking to the needs and concerns of a community.

The writing is straightforward and descriptive, neither highbrow nor sappy. Barnabas has a certain phlegmatic charm and dry wit; He has written at a level appropriate to teens, but with wisdom worthy of a larger audience.


There is a certain irony in the very way I came to read this book and write this review. For sundry reasons I am well acquainted with the father of this author. I say acquainted, because I don’t know John Piper on any personal level. I have read at least a dozen of his books. I watch him on Youtube and sometimes reply to his Facebook posts. (He doesn’t reply)

My own interests in John are as multihued as the man. His book “Desiring God, Confessions of a Christian Hedonist” simply transformed the way I think about life. For the unacquainted, John pushes the idea that Christians should be given to the pursuit of unbridled pleasure and that to be found first and foremost in the Lover of our Souls. It’s a pretty big idea. Beyond that John Piper is most peculiar mix of sensibilities: part poet, part theologian, part zany arm waver… part lover of sanctified rap (really). He is a Baptist who talks about race and reconciliation and loving your homosexual neighbor and keeping sexually pure… and…. being knocked out drunk on the glory of God. (Those may be my words)

All of which is to say…I am much aware of the world of John Piper.

So…When traversing about the internet, I stumble across a blog, and later the social media presence of a certain Barnabas Piper I am intrigued. I deduce….This must be the son of Pastor John!

I cannot now remember what in particular tipped me off…But my first thought was… Hmm. This kid doesn’t come across so much like his dad. 

Barnabas doesn't seem to have the same gravitas… He doesn't speak like Jonathan Edwards … or his Dad. He is given to sports and movies -- he likes to joke and seems pretty relaxed. He is far less serious and isn't beyond posting a link to a silly You-tube video. As is, Barnabas runs a blog, and routinely features links to videos he finds entertaining. I have yet to see him post anything outright rank… but a few of his posts lean earthy. I remember after watching one such video and thinking…. Hmmmm. I don’t think John would have posted that video.

Which is precisely the point of this book. Barnabas IS NOT JOHN.

Without even thinking about it, I have fallen into some of the very thought patterns that Barnabas works to address. You see, I had expectations of who Barnabas should be…then, raised a brow when he did not fit that mold. And that is exactly why Barnabas wrote this book… Just for me. (Fast writing bud!)

Now take my expectations, multiply that by the many me’s out there, by every day of your life…and there you have it. A recipe for frustration or failure.

Barnabas’s first task is to let us just what it is like to be a Pastor’s kid. He speaks to living in the world of high expectations, and living in a fishbowl in which every body watches every your every move. Barnabas related how he was routinely called out for the kind of behavior that might have been overlooked in another kid.

This little anecdote made me laugh:

I was seventeen years old and rolling in my parents’ blue 1991 Chevy Lumina and pushing the factory-made stereo to its tinny max with
Linkin Park’s Hybrid Theory. Windows down, seat reclined, I cruised
into the church parking lot closely behind two friends in their cars
blaring tunes equally as loud, each of us competing for the title of
“most obnoxious punk listening to music he will later realize is rubbish.”
Boys will be boys, right?
Wrong. Not this boy. As soon as I sauntered into the church, I
was pulled aside and roundly chastised for my choice of both band
and decibel level. Those friends likely don’t recall this incident at all.
That’s because they weren’t chastised at all. They were just boys being
boys, while I was the PK being an idiot. Pg 27

Beyond the world of moral expectations, Barnabas reports that a PK is often expected to toe the specific theological commitments of his Pastor Dad --- as well as the specific commitments of the church community of which he is apart. Not only must a PK live right, he or she must “drive in the same lane.”

For whatever reasons, this part of the book most resonated with me. While I am not the son of a Pastor, my mom, while she was living, was a woman of fierce spiritual temperament. She was something of an itinerant evangelist, with strong opinions about everything. Mom had a very hard time when I rejected her particular school of “Left Behind” end-times theology -- And God have mercy if you ever drank wine or quoted a democrat. As is, mom tempered as she aged; She tolerated but did not accept my differing theological commitments. Which has nothing to do with this book, but… be it ever so little, I identified with the pressure that many PK’s must face. Tow the party line… or disappoint not only your parents, but possibly the local church.

I must confess then when I read maybe half way through the book, I thought… Okay, this clicks. I can really see how this speaks to the demographic, and I have been made to think about the particular plight of the PK. I even know two or three PK’s and will keep the things I have learned in mind.

And if that is all Barnabas had for us, he probably could have thrown out half the words, written a magazine article and been done with it. But about midway, we find ourselves walking with Barnabas… out of the shallows into the deep end. We plunge from the groundwork and practical advice… down into the very depths of grace and the human condition.

There is something funny about Barnabas. From his blog and other offerings a person might casually assume that Barnabas is more about fun than head-banging theology. (Wrong words?) but suddenly I am running into keen understanding of human nature.

First, Barnabas understands just how ridiculous … How challenging, and humanly impossible the task of any pastor is…

In the Western church the role of pastor has taken on responsibilities
and definitions it ought not. The pastor is seen as the spiritual
burden bearer for an entire congregation. He is the prophetic voice of
authority, the nearly infallible voice of God. He is the answer man for
questions on topics ranging from sex to stewardship to sanctification.
He is the figurehead of a religious institution, and often this means he
is a political pundit too. He must be an expert accountant, theologian,
psychologist, marketer, strategist, and orator. In short, he must exhibit
every spiritual gift God intended to be dispersed throughout the entire
church. The cultural expectations on pastors are mostly unbiblical,
entirely impractical, and generally downright stupid. We each expect
the pastor to meet our particular need with expediency and wisdom. It
is an untenable situation, a burden no man can bear.

Beyond that, Barnabas gets sin…. In himself, in the PK, in pastors and congregants.

Most Christians will accept that “mankind is sinful.” But sometimes sin shows up where we cannot smell it.  Sin can be found in raw rebellion… Or it can manifest itself in a loss of integrity as the PK puts on an act to satisfy the expectations of those around him. He can take on form without substance or follow rules without transformation. A sinful PK might look like a good kid, but not have deep relationship with Christ. Or.. a sinful PK might look like a sinful kid.  In short... PKs are kids of every stripe, born into conditions they did not choose.

On the other hand, sinful congregants can fail to extend to the PK the same grace they claim for themselves or those they love…

I bet Barnabas would agree with this quote from a musician friend of mine, Mo Leverett.

It is mystifying to observe that those who embrace brokenness and total depravity as the universal human condition - and thus grace as the only ontological hope - also appear surprised and condescendingly disappointed with other's failure - casting the proverbial first stone or shunning with hypocritical disgust. Thankfully God is neither surprised nor overwhelmed. Ironically - without brokenness and failure - we will never encounter God - or for that matter, our true selves.

And lest we let Dad off the hook, Barnabas knows that sin is a part of every Pastor’s life.

(While Barnabas works to honor his folks and family, there are some places where personal pain seeps through.  This could be some other pastor-dad but maybe not.  We see:  A dad much given to the needs of others… a Dad who has a hard time coming off his pastoral or theological high horse.. a Dad in need of a hobby…etc. 

Indeed, Barnabas points out…Pastors will readily acknowledge they are sinful – but rarely do they share their specific sins.!

What Barnabas gets more than anything else… is that the grace of God is far more than the forgiveness of sins… Grace is the very atmosphere by which we enter into communion with God and man.. It is freeing, it is empowering… the very means by which we are enabled to live honestly, authentically, and without living for others expectations.

But grace also knows that it is only God who can form the PK into anything at all, so it does not harangue, harass, or manipulate the PK. Grace will seek to assist and encourage rather than direct and command. It will point out strengths and possibilities rather than command actions and expect results. This is especially applicable as the PK grows older—through the adolescent years and beyond—and begins to seek independence. This is what I missed out on most growing up and even through college. I came away with no ideas of what God made me to be, what He gifted me with. I knew I wasn't dumb and that I was capable of lots of things, but what things? PKs need gracious guidance and freedom from manipulation in order to become the persons we are uniquely designed to be as reflections of God.  p93

I might write more here, but then… that is why you should read this book. That you too, will understand just how great the grace of God is, toward those who will find their identity in Him.

Final Thought. I started out this essay speaking to a form of Irony. I was made aware of Barnabas Piper because of his Dad, which in turn led me to read a book in which Barnabas Piper is seeking the right (for both himself and others) not to be defined in total by the household of their birth.

And now I add irony to irony.

I have heard nothing from Barnabas that indicates he has any desire whatsoever to be connected to the pastorate. He has crafted an independent identity and is responding to his own sense of personal responsibility before God. That said, I hope he will not find it contrary to his mission to say… I see in Barnabas a Pastor’s heart. It may not be the call of pulpit preaching, but when it comes to communicating vital truths that add grace to the church -- and minister in particular to wounded or disoriented hearts, Barnabas shows that he shares a pastor’s concerns. My bet: He has picked up more from home -- or even the pulpit than he lets on.


Monday, June 30, 2014

Home: Kim Walker Smith and Skyler Smith: an album review by Kirk

Artists:  Kim Walker-Smith and Skyler Smith  (wife and husband)
Album: Home (2013) Jesus Culture Music.

Genre:  Adult-contemporary with a neo-folk edge.    Home is rightly described as a Christian worship album, but if you listened without hearing the words, you might first hear it as a series of passionate love songs...And it indeed it is......aimed straight out of this world into the next.

My recent discovery of the music of Kim Walker Smith is a bit like Columbus discovering America.   I thought I had made a big discovery… but a whole lot of folks living on the continent already knew she was there.   ((And now... a couple of weeks later, I am simply shaking my head... How could I NOT have known about KWS..  Now, this review sounds kind of ignorant.:))

I confess, when I picked up the album “Home” by the married couple,  Kim Walker Smith and her husband Skyler Smith, I had never heard of either person (nor of  Jesus Culture Music)    All I knew is that the cover art said “This could be music you"ll like”  --  and it was on sale.

There is this adage, never judge a book by its cover. I thoroughly reject said advice, as I find the cover is part of what makes a book enjoyable.  Same goes for music.   Great music in a bad package is less good in total, and average music with a great cover is a tad bit better, as the package frames the experience.   But that is a different idea.

I bought Home, because the cover, featuring a couple on the porch of a country home… looked kind of arty and smart, minimalistic and rootsy.  I saw a subliminal nod to the painting “American Gothic.”   I liked the guy’s glasses… (they are kind of like mine.)   Beyond that,  I thought the female looked ever so lovely with her straight blond hair, minimal makeup  and Laura Ashley dress…  Her pensive look suggested this music might be thoughtful and restrained, while her dark roots under the blonde, suggested the possibility of an indie vibe :)

I was about 69 percent right. 

Smart, yes.   Restrained.  Sort of.    Rootsy. Just a touch.

Some folks might call this folk, but that would be a stretch.   The  instrumentation highlights strong piano throughout and includes dallies with instruments like the banjo and cello… but  the sound is just too big for folk and too "rockless” for pop.  All in all, the sound is what I call “Adult contemporary with a real-music underbelly.”  Or something like that.

And though the music throughout is excellent, that is not what drives Home over the top.
First, there is that voice.

Hers.  And His.   Of the two, hers is the knockout punch.  But there is chemistry when these two twine other that is simply magic.

(I am not sure if this is good form, but if you want to hear Kim and Skyler sample this Youtube upload: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=i-thXGxaCN8

When I think of couples who stand out in duet I think of Billy Preston and Syreeta Wright (With You I am Born Again), or… in more current terms… the music of Joy Williams and John Paul White (The Civil Wars) or Glen Hassard and Marketa Irglova (from the movie Once.)   These couples tap something primeval in the human soul. 

As is, I think Skyler sounds a little like the lead singer of Cold Play, or maybe Glen Hassard, (soft, earthy, heartfelt.)  however,  Kim does not sound like Merrketa.   Not a difference in beauty or skill, but a difference in volume and vibe.  Kim simply belts power and tenderness and passion.  I might even call hers a “Diva” voice, but it is without the saccharine silliness or sensual vibrato of many of our current sirens.   Perhaps it is the message, but her voice just sounds powerful and pure.  Like a river, out of the city of God….

All of which is a set up for the greatest strength of Home.

Home is a worship album.  It it not so much intended to be listened to, but to be listened with. Home reaches deepest when we (whatever our vocal skills) jump in the seat and drive with Kim and Skyler as fellow worshipers.   It took a few listened to have these tunes soak into my being, but it time, I was there with them, before the throne.

(Thoughts on the major themes: to be developed.)

Thank you.

I noted at the beginning that Kim is already known by a lot of folks. I had no idea just how many, but a quick survey on Youtube shows that Kim has been a vital leader in live, dynamic church worship for some time.and affiliated with a group called Jesus Culture*   In fact, if we looked at the number of videos in which KWS is  a part, then multiplied those videos by the number of folks who have watched them, we may find is that Kim is one of the most loved Jesus singers ever.   So what do I know.

You can hear a body of her work here:   (As is, I seldom listen to Christian radio, as I find much of it intolerable.   So I miss some things.  Vital things.  (but not much?)

I am also surprised that the Kim I hear on Youtube and the Kim I hear on Home, are slightly different women.   Kim on Youtube is sheer tidal wave of energy and passion.   Home shows Kim in somewhat quieter mode. Still powerful, but restrained.    There is even the hint of majesty.  (Note: Syler and Kim are much aware of how this music differs from Kim's larger body of work.  See their thoughts here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_br5RS5O07U#t=91

I suspect, given the compound name (Walker Smith) and the dominance of the Kim Walker name on Youtube, that "Smith" may be a more recent addition to Kim’s world.   But that union seems to have infused a maturity and beauty to what was already a passionate world.


There is one more thing I wanted to write about this album that I may regret later for its candor.  I hope it is not unseemly, but it is just what came to mind when I heard the song the Relentless Pursuit...

There is probably no more humbling and sublime words that a groom might hear from his beloved than “Do with me as you will.”   These are not words of licentiousness… but surrender in a climate of absolute trust (the groom will only ask that which is good. ) There are moments in this album that suggest that level of intimacy between us, the bride,  and Christ our eternal groom.  This is an invitation to be ravaged by the lover of our souls, with full confidence that our undoing will be our greatest gain.

Ps.  I heartily recommend this album.



In searching around the internet, I came across one group (Appraising Ministries) that is critical of the Jesus Culture (as a ministry) and the larger church community in which Kim Walker Smith and her husband operate.  I questioned whether I should even note the criticism, but I want to be rigorous, honest with self, and careful of what I put into my heart.   (The Critics of Kim Walker Smith work from a Reformed perspective, and  take issue with the strong Charismatic foundations of Jesus Culture and the Smith's  supporting church.)  As is, I am neither equipped, nor eager to get into that debate, but I will confess that I too am wary of things I have seen in the signs and wonders circles.    But here is the rub.   At what point, or upon what issues should I,  as a "patron of the arts" or as a consumer of gospel music, break ranks with others over very real differences in doctrine or ethos?  I suspect each person will have to make up his mind on where he draws his boundary lines.   I know for instance,  that I thoroughly enjoy and am deeply ministered to, by the works of Roman Catholic troubadour, John Michael Talbot.   I also know that I am critical of Roman Catholic theology at foundational points.  As for content, I do sometimes hear things in the music of JMT with which I might differ, but by an large his music is such that I, as a son of the Reformation, find deep nurture and common ground.  The same would apply to this music.   I simply do not hear anything in the music as presented that should cause me to pause.  Indeed, I hear things in this music that should be common ground for all who seek to love God with heart and mind.    So, while I will keep the concerns of Appraising Ministries before my eyes, I stand firmly behind my initial recommendation.