Friday, January 2, 2015

Greatest Albums 2014

Kirk's 12 favorite albums for the year 2014.   (You will see my tastes run gospel-centric - not so much as a sound, but as the fountain of inspiration.  

This was a very good year.

Uncountable Stars: Joanne Hogg   
Longtime frontwoman for the Celtic-fusion group Iona, Joanne Hogg strays from her normal sound territory (of incredibly beautiful, delicate and somewhat melancholy chamber piano) with an offering that is at once jubilant, amorous, and even frightening.  Joanne writes with a heart saturated with the very cheer and wildness of God.  See my earlier review here.   Or sample some of her music here.  (not my favorite song, but the only one I could find.)   Or find her on Spotify here.

(Should I pick my absolute fave of the year, this would be it.)

Winnowing: Bill Mallonee 
There are just SO many adjectives you can use to describe the music of Bill Mallonee -  tender, bitter, strident, vulnerable, faithful, doubtful, deep, dark, confessional, fully alive etc - cause over the course of many years he has tapped pretty much every kind human emotion.  Even so, the Winnowing is just extra dimensional.  I love the slowed-down almost regal pace of this autumnal work.   Review here:   Or hear the album on his Bandcamp site here.

Crimson Cord: Propaganda
Propaganda was introduced to the world as spoken word artist, Now he turns his attention to dallies with sound.  Man, do I love this guy's intensity.  (Propaganda manages to work through all kinds of novel themes, from cell-phone idolatry, God's management or purpose for evil, and even white-angst in the race arena.  I have yet to write a review but you can hear Propaganda's EXcellence here, or download his music from Noisetrade here.

All Creatures: Jacob Montague
A genuine "Noise-trade" surprise.   My mind, my spirit, go absolutely bonkers with creative possibilities everytime I hear this song: In Him was Light.  (This may be my favorite song of the year.   Read my mini review here, or hear more here.

There's a Light: Liz Vice 
Liz was born almost forty years late.  Except she wasn't.  We need a glorious re-discovery of the Mo-Town sound, made all the more lovely with gospel applications.  I simply adore this woman's voice, attitude and timing.   Read my mini-review here, or hear a glorious rendition of Empty Me Out. (Then download her album here.)

Instruments of Mercy: Beautiful Eulogy
Could it be that a 55 year old white man is listening to and loving rap.  Well sorta.  Not just any rap, but I have found a special niche inside of rap, with folks like Propaganda,  Sho Baraka, and Beautiful Eulogy - who specialize in bringing outside influences (jazz, choral, chamber insturmental etc) to the medium.   Instruments of Mercy is theologically rich (Augustinian) and given to a sound that is part rap, part Oregon coast new music upright pianno-grunge.  Watch a video clip here,
Or listen to the WHOLE album here:  or download it here.

Let us Run: Arthur Wachnik
This would be my only "praise album" of the group.  (Actually not,  but in the most immediate sense) But what Wachnik does is run his praise through some kind of gypsy, zydeco, klezmer, modern music filter, that just lifts this stuff to a whole new plain.   Think of David dancing in his underwear. Or maybe not.  This stuff will make kick your heals.  Video here.  NoiseTrade download here.  Mini Review here.

Broken Gazing - Jeff Johnson (of Ark Music) 
I tried to say this somewhere else, but sometimes I think of the liturgical church as producing works of great beauty, but which are sometimes lean of passion, while the low church is given to bold dallies of the heart, but not so much to transcendent beauty.   In this album, Jeff captures all exquisite beauty of the liturgical world, and does so with the heart of a revivalist.  I couldn't find any video samples of Jeff's new album to show you, but here are two links to earlier works that catch the spirit of his music.   Watching Clouds or,  Christ has Walked this Path  But then, you can sample quite a bit right at his own site:     Or read my review here.

These are the Days: Mo Leverett
Stripped down, autumnal folk, from a man who has been through the wringer... and now thanks the friends who have journeyed with him.  I think of Mo as part pirate, part old-world Puritan, and part gash in the tent of heaven.  He is a breath of fresh air, in a world of high production-pretty music.  No new music samples for Mo, so you get this medium-new one. It's Alright.  Review Here:

VA: The Last Bison
Should I pick one band for raw sound-craft -- passionate delivery, and period costumes - The Last Bison remains my favorite Mountain-jamboree New Music band.  Ever. This family and friends operation is the band I keep waiting to be discovered.  But I guess we are going to go for one discovery at at time.   Listen to a "bad" road song here.  Or,  You can read about the time the Bison folk stayed in my home here, or read and sample music in my review of VA, here.

It's Christmas Time: Carolyn Arends
Easily my favorite Christmas album of 2014, and made all the easier because Carolyn just exudes sanctified femininity.   (She is charming, funny, thoughtful, and sentimental (in the best of ways.)       This music shimmers with old world sound craft (ie, dulcimers, banjo's and such) and packs some big thoughts along the way.   Album review here.  Other folks who agree with me here:)

20: Jars of Clay
Twenty years in the business, Jars let the fans pick their favorite songs from 10 ten albums (roughly two per album) then performed the lot in a stripped down acoustic style with hints of jazz.   This is pure melancholy ambrosia (for those who are given to such) and lets me hear words in some of these songs that I never heard before.   (I started to say something about the spiritual journey of lead singer Dan Haseltine, then scratched it.)   Suffice it to say, I have deeply appreciated Dan's transparency as he wrestles with his place in the kingdom.  There is nourishment here, even for Dan.  No review yet, but you can read what others say here.

Mo Leverett: These are the Days: Album review by Kirk

Artist: Mo Leverett:
Album: These are the Days
Genre:  Folk/ Blues/ Singer Songwriter
Release: December 2014

I might have said that this is Mo's twelfth “studio” album, but there does not seem to be too much studio here.   “These are the Days” may just be Mo’s sparest offering ever:  Quintessential, autumnal folk -- One man with lone guitar or small ensemble, bearing his innards for dimes.    (I can see Mo wince… there is a LOT of skilled music craft here, and glorious contributions from a host of talented and giving musicians, playing everything from fiddles to organs to upright bass to chimes to...etc.  But with the one exception of “All the Same"  -- which simply blazes with blistering sound craft and BIG guitars  – These are the Days is an understated musical offering, given to honed simplicity in both word and sound.  

In contrast to his last several offerings (see reviews here and here and here),  These are the Days does not appear to have an overarching theme.      But then it does.  Only more subtle.  In the wake of a few years now marked by relative stability, Mo is marked by a thankful heart.   It creeps up through the arthritis and smoke.  


It is my sincere hope that Mo has many more albums up his sleeves.   But dollars and new-music challenges being what they are, Mo may be finishing a chapter.   I sense that Mo wants to thank the people -- and the Person -- who have held him through his tangled, detour pocked, road-trip of days.  Listen for the gratitude that he feels toward his wife, mother, brothers, fans, a church community, and those friends who walked with him through the dark hours of his soul.   This is an album soaked in appreciation.   This is an album given to the people who walk with him.

At this point in my “writing career” I am going to assume you know the name Mo Leverett.   Which may be a bad assumption; cause about as many people read my reviews as listen to Mo’s music.  All dozen of you.

Actually, I know that is a bad assumption, because (and this will surprise you) MO is the most sought after name in any of my music reviews!  I know this, because my blog has a counter and I get to see both what people read, and the words folks use to find my stuff.   As is, Mo gets far more hits than do my reviews of a  band like U2, and his “hit-count” is still much ahead of my second-place searched-for name --  Audrey Assad (who got a big boost when the other Assad was in the news).    And so, I try to figure, Why would a pretty much obscure singer song-writer get that many more hits?

I figure some of the Mo-popularity  is due to a kind of weird math.  The more popular an artist, the more people there are in the world to write reviews, and my little reflections don’t compete with folks like Rolling Stone.  So inversion sets in, and my lone Mo Review makes his work a much bigger target.

Mo Lookalike: aka Leonardo DaVinci
Then of course, there is that stuff of raw talent.  In the case of Mo, really raw.  As a vocalist, Mo sounds like part nervous breakdown, part pirate, and part gash in the tent of heaven.   I will get this more in a bit, but Mo brings to the table the gift of honest lamentation.  His writing is desperate, concrete, and treasured by folks like me, who yearn for writing that pushes past the glossy-fluff stuff that inhabits so much of Gospel world.

Actually there is a final reason that Mo gets more hits.  I hate to bring it up.  But several years after the fact, a conservative Presbyterian pastor who gets a divorce, then remarried  is still a source of concern or intrigue.  And lest I sound like your judge, I know that I too have looked up other artists, trying to get the skinny on what went down,  why so and so split, is there blame to toss –  have they acknowledged their sins etc.   I figure when a preacher-man with taint comes to town, folks wanna figure out the taint.

Or as Mo once said.   (Find Facebook quote.)  

find quote about how folks who believe in grace as their only ontological hope, are often the last to grant it to others.

Truth is I don’t know Mo’s full story, but I do know that Mo exudes… then, now and forever, one deep awareness of his own personal frailty.  And our profound need of extravagant mercy.  If this review ends up sounding like some other reviews, it is because Mo keeps singing about the desperation of his soul…the absolute bankruptcy of his being… then offering thanks to God, and the many folks through whom God works… to bring him into the completeness of his salvation.   (Personal note: I figure that there is part of our salvation that is instantaneous and outside of time, and another part that is all process, warts, community and finish line.)


Having spit out a few paragraphs,  Not sure how much more I have to say. 

I like Mo.   Should I ever meet him I know I will love him.    I love his music.  Everyone in the world should listen to it all the time.

I like this album.  In as much as it is a disparate collection, I find I respond more to some songs than I do to others.

I love Love  LOVE the third and somewhat atypical track “All the Same” with its snarly coal train rhythm, shark-tank  guitars, and that bad-boy crooning.   Kind of reminds me of Johnny Cash at his meanest.   What really puzzles me about this song, is its intent.   Is is a blessing... being poured out on an enemy, the self, or a truest friend?   The words seem to say one thing, the delivery another.

All the Same
mo leverett
June 18, 2013
Jacksonville, FL

May the longest arms defend you
And the strongestcharms befriend you
All the same, all the same
May a peaceful light attend you
And the darkest night amend you
All the same, all the same
May the heavens always send you righteous fame
May the thunder and the lightning be your name

May this sacrifice appease you
May these sacred spices please you
All the same, all the same
May my countenance remind you
And move your weaknesses behind you
All the same, all the same
May the masses always cast me in the blame
And the thunder and the lightning be your name

May bright mornings rise to greet you
In white royal dress complete you
All the same, all the same
May your righteousness commend you
And sweet benedictions send you
All the same, all the same
May the sacraments conceal your vilest shame
And the thunder and the lightning be your name

(Mo, Since I do not know who you are singing this to, I am claiming it for myself…J)

Second Fave.  My Brother.   What a splendid mingling of voices.  I see and hear the dudes' names, but is that you daughter in the first verse?  I don’t see her name, but I know that sound.  That is one glorious blend of kindred souls.

Oh, and that song: Only Love.  It is like the essence of boiled-down Mo.  Pain and love in one great dance.

Beyond that, I love the ongoing tenderness you express to Lori-Lee.  There are several charming songs here... but You Belong to Me just makes my heart ache with the depth of God's provision in your life.

Finally, I think the second-to-last song, a hymn to God “I Will Worship You Alone” is about as direct, personal and naked as a hymn can get.  It's like listening to David… or Mo.  (Cause God knows Mo’s name.)   I simply adore this song; I hope you do not mind if use it as a listening prayer.

I like that you closed with a song to your mom (though I would have switched tracks 9 and 10.)


Mo, Not sure where you are going from here, or how many songs you have left.   But you have left an indelible mark on my soul.  I feel blessed to count you as an audio friend and cousin in the soul.    Your audience may be small, but to the knowing, we find a treasure of great worth and beauty in your brokenness – and continual healing.

Ps.  Final Note.  If you do not yet follow Mo on Facebook, do yourself a favor and search him out.  He is a  songwriter’s songwriter, and the same craft he brings to verse, he brings to his “status” reports.   In fact, if Facebook ever figures out a way to monetize wit and wisdom, Mo will be a wealthy man.


For all things Mo, and to order.

Thursday, November 27, 2014

Smalltown Poets: Christmas Time Again

Album: Christmas Time Again
Genre:  Modern Rock with an acoustic underbelly.  Christmas Songs.
Release: Pledge Music November 25 2014

Quick Spin.  Genre bending.  A Christmas album and audio extravaganza that somehow manages to wed Christmas sensibility across several centuries.  There are times I hear the 1714’s catapulted to the now.   Decidedly sacred in focus, Christmas Time Again features some of the standards, a few obscure carols, and a handful of self-penned songs that are the equal of any ancient carol.  Outstanding musicality throughout.

Smalltown Poets are: Michael Johnston: vocals, guitars; Kevin Breuner: guitars; Miguel De Jesus: bass, guitars; Byron Goggin: drums, vocals; and Danny Stephens: keyboards and vocals.   (I am not going to list the cast but it is also obvious that there are lots of folks on other instruments from the cello to the panavox…an instrument developed in the 2020s.


Oh the wonder of Pledge Starter.  I “ordered” this disk some months back, followed the band as they put out newsy and sometimes cheesy stuff about the ongoing production (even wondered if they would make it.) then found the disk neatly in my mailbox on the delivery date. 

I was first made aware of Smalltown Poets what must be nearly twenty? years ago.  They have been off my radar for some years.  This represents something of a “reunion” disk as former members got together to ignite that old sound.  (Note:  the hiatus has not been that long, turns out I missed a disk or two including a 2011 Christmas album!)    For the initiated, Smalltown Poets are (or were) a modern rock band of Christian conviction.  I place them in the same box in which I store Jars of Clay, the Normals, and the Waiting.  (There are times the lead vocalist Michael Johnston sounds remarkably like Dan Hasteltine of Jars of Clay, but with a slightly rougher edge.  What made Smalltown Poets remarkable (given their compare with some very talented bands) was their spiritual desperation and authenticity.  Their first album will always play a special place in my heart, in that I sensed the band or lead singer was coming face to face with temptation, spiritual depravity, and our utter need of redemption.  That, and a certain choral/chimey sound I associate with the band.   When I listen to Small Town Poets I often have the sense of all the members singing vigorously… in a sea of chimes.

But back to the project at hand.

What does Smalltown bring to the table that warrants another Christmas disk?  A:  A deep commitment to the musical process, play - risk - sensitiviity --  and that same vulnerability of spirit which marks their early cannon.

I don’t know just how long it took Poets to record this album, but I have a sense it was on the order of many months.  And it shows up… in the layering, in the musical dallies and experiments, the multiple audio pallets.  You can tell these guys had a lot of fun.  They rock, they contemplate, they turn on a dime.  Christmas Time Again somehow manages to fuse musical idioms seldom joined:  Blue Grass, space music, 90s grunge and chamber music.   And what attention to sonic detail!

This may be an odd comparison.   Just a few weeks ago I watched the absolutely astonishing sci-fi move, Interstellar.  Interstellar plays with the idea of Pan-time (an idea that has been part of the Christian narrative for millennia, as we understand God to be a being outside of time.)

So what’s he connection?  Christmas Time Again is forged in “Pan Time.”   It contains elements that span from medieval Europe to Dickens to Kentucky 1920  to 2020… or something like that.   And it is not just that one song has this flavor… and another, another – Some songs span the distance with all the elements all at once!   Talk about whack… what a jarring an marvelous mash of sounds in the Wassil Song. And man, do I ever dig those spacey choral elements.

Of the offerings, at least ¾ are traditional carols or hymns.  A few more are songs that we have never heard and at least two are self-penned. The Song “This Day in Bethlehem, co-written by M. Johnson and D. Stephens captures the full marvel of Christmas – as an event outside of time, culminating in a great rescue act.  It belongs in our hymn books right beside Silent Night and Oh Come all ye Faith.

As for tradition.  My favorites: Patapan and Sing We  Now of Christmas. Man, I did love that musical mashing.  Sounds like old times.

Should I have any criticism of the disk it might be this.   Poets are at their pinnacle when they write their own music, or go all wonky with traditional tunes.  But there are few remakes of iconic standards that just sounded like modern noise adaptations.  Not many.  Just two.  Or maybe one.   And Now I wish I hadn’t said that. (Cause I think if I listened to it really loud, it would suddenly shimmer.

So, final word.  This is one to crank.  May not work for Grandma’s ears, unless she is really hip.  These guys paid attention to the details.   They had fun, they loved God and loved us by giving so richly of their musical talents and idiosyncrasies. 

Thanks guys, you blessed my ears… and thumped my heart  I feel captured by the marvel of it all.   I am so glad to be part of your community of support.  I heartily endorse this album!

Monday, November 10, 2014

Carolyn Arends: Christmas; The Story of Stories

Album: Christmas: the Story of Stories     (10/2014)
Genre: Adult/Family Contemporary with a vibrant rootsy base

Note: I  keep Carolyn’s albums in the same box that I do Andrew Peterson, Bob Bennett,  and Michael Kelly Blanchard  (If those names don’t help, you could put this in the box with  James Taylor and Mr. Rodgers.:)

The cover got it right: organic, whimsical, and pleasantly quirky.

Quick Spin

It is not often that you will hear the words “child-like” and “impeccable” in the same sentence, but when Carolyn Arends creates music, she twines child-like wonder and unbridled warmth, with an impeccable sense of sound and musical theater.

The Story of Stories is a Christmas themed album.  Three carols - one Rich Mullins classic;  everything else written by Carolyn on or about Christmas eve over several years… Even so. This does not sound so much like a Christmas album.

What it does sound like is a Princess-Mom handing out gooey chocolate chip cookies at the PTA -- while singing about complex algebra, in friendly terms, against a backdrop of utterly gorgeous music.  (That is, Carolyn is given largely to the Cosmic, God-in-the-flesh side of Advent – but writing about it in a such a way that this very big idea settles in our ears with ease. Beyond that Carolyn has a knack for looking at old themes from a fresh tilt.

About the Music:

Two times in the last three years, my wife and I have been privileged to visit the most glorious highway on Earth.  We speak of that ribbon of road between Banff and Jasper Canada, where mountains of unthinkable size, chase one another like beads on a string.  All of which has nothing to do with this review, except for one little detail.  When in Canada, we watch Canadian TV and news.  And Canadian TV and news is of a visibly different character than the over-stimulated world of state-side TV.

This picture has nothing to do with anything, but it was taken in Canada:)
When Canadian pundits discuss the news, they tend to talk. They do not scream, they give their counterparts time to respond.  When they speak of crisis, it is with measure, and even their beautiful talking-head women seem to be of a different breed.  Pretty, but not garish; The whole terrain just seems more human.

While there is little in the actual sound of the Story of Stories that is itself “Canadian”  Ie…   No angry French lumberjacks – the whole thing shimmers with Canadian sensibilities: 

The music is skillfully wrought, organic, and without all that American wiz-bang.

I may have heard a strain or two of electricity, but not much.  What we get is a rich tapestry of rootsy sounds, ranging from Appalachia to Hawaiian to Creole.... all delivered in a lush but very human landscape.  (Real musicians playing real instruments.)  I  am hearing all kinds of earthy vibes:  Mandolin, Mandola, fiddle, violin,  dulcimer, bells, cello, uke, bouzouki. piano, ukulele,  organ, glockenspiel, hurdy gurdy, gourds, tambourines, and assorted guitars.  (I did n't actually hear all those, I read them off the handsome linear notes.)   I also heard some primo singers doing the invisible angel thing.

There are times in this album where the fiddle or strings are just so melodic and sweet, that my whole being sighs.  And I absolutely love those big bells and chimes that show up in some of the carol like places.

The music throughout is simply superb.

(Since first writing, I have since learned a little more... to find out more about the process and the collaboration see:


If Story of Stories was just an instrumental work, it would be impressive in its own right.  But what makes Stories extra special is Carolyn's song craft, and the whole emotional vitality she brings through voice and presentation.

Like many Christmas albums, it was recorded in late Spring.  And despite her efforts to hide that fact by wearing a coat and scarf for her photograph.. those green trees are easy to see. 

This album – and Carolyn's voice are just plain sunny.  

And wholesome too.  (I think I said something like this in my last review of a Carolyn product, but sometimes we get so accustomed to female vocals that are angry, pensive or sultry,  that a woman with a joyous disposition is a novelty in itself.


Beyond the sound, the thing that makes Carolyn's music shine is her ability to take big ideas and boil them down into simple verse, and look at life from a different vantage point.  For example:

Oh little town of Bethlehem,
I think it is a lie, hat you were still or dreamless
On that first Christmas night,
Cause you has soldiers and politicians,
over crowding in your streets,
and there was chaos, and human cruelty
and never quite enough to eat
and then the baby came..
I think he cried the way that babies do,
I think his mama may have cried a little too...

or take this little factoid (the wise men arrived much later than commonly assumed by many) and dress it up in a much bigger idea.

Goodness gracious, man alive,
those kings had to drive, it was two whole years till they finally arrived ...
          Such a long way to go
People say that love has limits, People just don't know
How far the love the came at Christmas, is prepared to go.

I could bring, many other examples  -- like how Carolyn turns "No Room at the Inn" on its head -- but  I might lessen the discovery.

I will however, share a link.  From Carolyn herself.  This shows how Carolyn started with a pun, added some whimsy, then chased a really big idea....

So Final thought.

Story of Stores is really GOOD album.   And I mean that as both an aesthetic judgment, and a moral pronouncement.  Given as I am to a world occupied at by minor themes and discord, I find I need this full bodied affirmation of the Goodness of God.

When I listen to this my whole being feels flooded with sunshine, like what happens when you close your eyes on a bright day.   Only it is night and God is in the room.  Or something like that..

Thank you Carolyn (and all your uber talented musician friends!)

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 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.