Sunday, February 22, 2015

Dreams and Visions by Dennis Hendricksen: Album review by Kirk

Artist: Dennis Hendricksen (and friends)
Album: Dreams and Visions
Genre:  Instrumental, experimental jazz 0r …

Epic-Ambient, cinematic New-World Windham hallucinogenic parlor funk, served on a bed of acoustic-electronica with dabbles of Africana, 80s rock, Light, and coriander.   Or something like that.

Release date: 2013

Aurora Productions
Golden Flame Records

Quick Spin:

Multi-instrumentalist Dennis Hendricksen has teamed up with over half-a-dozen uber talented musicians to create a sonic ocean that is at once, tidal pool – brooding storm, raging sea --  and the luminescent space between the molecules. 

Some 21 years in the making (original idea to completion) - Dennis speaks of D&V as his Magnum Opus.

Indeed, Dreams and Visions is an audio opulence – an invitation to let your mind go totally bonkers with all kinds of colors, landscapes and lightscapes, even as you dream concurrently of creation, planetary wobble and devastation, flying zebras and cosmic restoration.

Should I ask you how to describe a mango, how would you begin?

It is kind of like a peach but more…trombonish  etc. 

The only way I know how to quickly describe Dreams and Visions to speak the names of a few persons or ideas and hope that gets us in the ballpark.   I hear the lone trumpet of Miles Davis twined with the chaos of a Coltrane; I hear the glow of Chuck Mangione and the keyboard avalanche of Philip Aaberg or the delicate touch of pianist Liz Story.  I hear the luminescent keys of Windham Hill’s Mark Isham, the key-play of jazz-fusionist Charlie Peacock - or the sinewy acid-violin of Hugh Marsh, long time player with Bruce Cockburn (Perhaps because this IS Hugh Marsh, long time player with Bruce Cockburn)  -- I hear the bold resolution of a storm in the tradition of Groffe and the Grand Canyon Suite; I hear the opening refrains of  TV's Survivor, a stint with a horror film, and the celebratory hues of The Lion King; I hear the lush, layered synth work of Hammock, or the vigorous chamber tunes of Nightnoise. 

I hear liquid rainbows, blue cities, raging Orcs, blooming blooms, and Eve singing with the dawn.

I hear a lot of other stuff too.

Long Play:

On its surface Dreams and Visions appears to be a musical product. That is, you can buy the songs that are apart of Dreams and Vision as a download, or go old school and buy the CD.   Of the two I TOTALLY recommend the latter, because Dreams and Visions – the CD, is a total package replete with sound, a 32 page book, art, photography, Dennis's own poems, inspirational quotes and a nifty metal box.  (See samples on this review)

Until now, I have associated nifty metal boxes with musical offerings like “The Greatest Music of the 70s” as sold by Wal-Mart in their dying CD section.  Now I know that the metal box (which will not allow me to place this CD in the file box with my other CDs) elevates Dreams and Visions to a single status.  It stands alone both musically, and as a total package with an illustrated story line.  

And what a story line. In short:  the History of the Universe from start and end.

You can certainly listen to Dreams and Visions "Unaided" - but the narrative takes on deeper form when we embrace it as a package.  The 32 page book tells about the history of how Dreams and Visions came to be.  It showcases "live paintings" that were created real time during live performances of early compositions.   Dennis drives the narrative even deeper with his poems and photographs, then spices the whole with quotes befitting a broken world, awaiting restoration. 

It might help to know that Dennis is a Lutheran pastor of Canadian hue, and some of his session mates were fellow seminary students. That fact has nothing to do with how they play, or even the sounds (which would be highly atypical for any church service) – but it does provide foundation for hope. Even as God heals individuals, we abide under the dream that someday Terra herself will be healed of a grand wound.

The Music

Dreams and Visions allows Dennis to explore the full range of his sonic repertoire. He croons or rages with piano keys… or lets us float in layers of liquid sound.  At first I thought the ambience was some kind of synthesizer; now I see he achieves those translucent tones with a combination of loops, Electric and Ebow Guitars, Fretless bass, an a sax.   

Dennis wrote, or co-wrote most of the compositions; But even more, he created a place where friends are allowed to shimmer with him in a community creation.

My first sense of the music was how utterly complex it is.  I was dazzled by both the process and the sounds, so I asked Dennis a series of questions on Facebook chat.  I started by asking about his collaborations...

Yes.  Hugh Marsh is the violinist on Cockburn's Christmas CD. Hugh played with Bruce Cockburn starting in the late 70's and stayed with him for over 2 decades (the most consistent member of Cockburn's band).

(As for the) other musicians - they are either local musicians I played with at various gigs over the years, or I connected with them while in Seminary (there are two other Lutheran pastors in the crew of musicians - Paul Sartison, who plays bass on some tracks, and David Hunter who is the didgeridoo player anytime that Australian instrument shows up). The trumpet player (Akira Murotani) was a student at Luther College which is right next to the church I serve - he was great as a high school student, he only improved throughout university. So I have been blessed to have connected with many excellent and creative musicians over the years, many of whom became good friends.

The Flow:

Dreams and Visions follows a certain presentation rhythm.  There are three “movements” followed by a final grand concluding sequence.

The setup goes as follows.

Dream 1

Vision 1
Hiatus 1

Dream 2

Vision 2
Hiatus 1

Dream 3

Vision 3
Hiatus 3

Dream 4 (extended) 

Dreams: As is, we often use the word dream to suggest edgeless and floaty.  But not here.  Instead, think of dreams as things which mutate.  The dream compositions are often the most dramatic, erratic and edgy, with musical movements that turn on a dime.  I heard several dreams that started in one place and ended on another planet.

Visions:  Highly Cinematic.

Hiatus: As suggested.  Audio rest between the storm, characterized by lush velvety Ambience.   Delightfully refreshing.

The Mix:

In reading the notes I find that Dreams and Visions is some 21 years in the making.  I assume that means from the ideas behind the tunes to the completion of the disk.  Apart from the raw collaborative synergy of the music, the thing that most intrigues me is the mix.  I cannot image writing this music down in the manner of a symphony… parts seem far too free-form.  Beyond that, I heard certain sounds that seemed to morph, either from one instrument to another, or from organic to synthetic.

I was perplexed, so I asked Dennis about both the complexity and the process.

The complexity of which you speak is one of the reasons it took so long for me to finish the project - I needed big blocks of time to pay attention to everything that is going on. I was involved in the final mixing, but I used some professional sound guys to do the final mixes because I do not have enough knowledge and experience with things like multiband compressors and EQs, and so forth.

Many tracks on Dreams & Visions began improvisationally. I would sometimes tell the musicians the mood, or the picture I was going for - other times (like the improvs with Hugh Marsh) they just happened. I would then use those improvised tracks as the basis for the composition - often editing them to create the essence of the image in my mind. Once these basic tracks were shaped through editing then I would get other musicians to overdub their parts. Sometimes I would write the part out for them exactly, other times I would give them some musical ideas then let them be creative with them. Then once again I would do more editing - shaping the overdubs into a coherent whole. One way to think of this photographically is to say each musician would bring an element of the picture, then I would position that element, light it a certain way, and enhance it in photoshop to bring out colour, or reduce colour. In this way I was using the recording studio like a musical instrument "playing" the contributions of all the musicians.

Other songs were structured right from the beginning, I would build the basic tracks in a very specific way and then have the musicians overdub their parts, often with detailed instructions as to what I was looking for. The first track was like that for example. An example of the other method is the final track which is a weaving together of two improvised bed tracks.

As for transmogrifying instruments -- I would need to know a specific place to tell you for sure, but what I can say is that the way I wove things together there are definite times when one instrument will blend into another - the transition being part of the "magic" of editing. I like that effect, and have used it often.

The vision(s):

About my fourth or fifth straight listen thru, I scratched out all the various images that flew thru my mind, given the dynamics of each tune.  (I was driving at the time, and now cannot read my notes:)   Suffice it to say, the moods and images are so varied, that I figure better to let you frame your own inner world.  There is one track however, that simply unleashes such of avalanche of images in my brain, that I dare say --   Do not listen to this track under any kind of medication.  It was potent enough as is.   The #2 track -- Vision 1: A Shadow Falls on the Garden -- swells with lush, then LOUD even startling ambience.

I assume, given the title, fragrant opening and the discord that follows that this composition narrates the  Fall, the biblical idea that our once harmonious home was plunged into ruin.   

Dennis elaborates:

You might be interested to know that track 2 is actually the oldest material on the project - the basic keyboards, bass and guitar were recorded in 1993 with early digital gear. The image is of the fall, but not right away - at first you are hearing what I think the garden might of sounded like. The middle eastern vibe is reflective of the traditional site of Eden - modern day Iraq (between the Tigris and Euphrates). The fall shows up later when the guitar begins to sound like a chainsaw, a symbol in a sense of the curse of having to toil with the land. However even in our fallen condition God's presence remains and so there are still echoes of Eden at the end of the song. That's what I developed the song to mean for me, but like most art I think it can mean different things for different people. 

As is, I heard much differently.   I did hear a blooming Lotus flower from Eden, but then… quickly traded my vision of Eve for the Bride of Christ, which (and I am almost afraid to put this in type) I envision as a bare-breasted woman from India, beautifully adorned for her husband in jewels and psychedelic silks.  

Then comes the dread.  Rather than snake in the grass or expulsion from the garden, I heard the very majesty and jolting Horror of the throne of God.  That may sound confusing to some, who associate God with only rainbows and clouds, but as for me, I am prone to want to re-claim the words… Terrible and Awesome, even Horrible as sacred-dread words, for the very full glory of God.  This music put me in the feet of Ezekiel, as he peeks on the open door of heaven, trembling.

Quick Notes:
Track 3 to 4:  seamless.  I could see the aural mist, even as it gathers into a rainbow...blows away in shattered butterflies...then deluge.

As for track 5:  LOUD. grungy. (This is where I see hurricanes and Orcs)

Track 7:  The Wilderness Path leads to the Mountain.

Addendum:  Given the centrality of the Earth in Dreams and Visions, I find I missed a vital theme.  Dennis offered this as we chatted about the story line.

The mountain is Calvary, the wilderness path is both the beginning of Jesus' ministry, when he was tempted in the wilderness as well as echoes of Isaiah's picture of the messiah and restoration of Israel coming through a path in the wilderness. Perhaps I was too obtuse in this poetic rendering. To me this track is actually the pinnacle of the project - both musically and thematically.

Oh, I also much liked track 8 with its speeding panthers and running gazelles. 

Or track ten (the final) with the title - The Radiant Abyss, Twelve Jewels and a Throne -  made me think of a huge jeweled amphitheater, with all the creatures of the world singing in unison - in the round.  Or something like that.   Modern anthropology traces the Human story to Africa.  Dennis goes full circle and closes the story line with robust African praise.

The recommendation:

Absolute.   Should I have any reservations it would be this. Dreams and Visions is sometimes brooding and erratic.  If you do not have an ear for dissonance, this is probably not your disk.

At the end of 2014 I picked my years favorite disks.  This would have made that list and more… but I listened late.  Now I add it to my list of best instrumental music in the history of the world.   

The small "c" creator:  
As mentioned before Dennis is a pastor… and a thinker and a writer.  You can follow him here on his Namesake blog, or his "thinking/worship/liturgical  blog"  (Mysterium) or listen to other tracks on his Sound Cloud site.

Final Final note:
Should I have any sadness, it is that music of this caliber is usually missed by the masses.   People who might connect with Dennis on a theological note, might not be willing to go with him distance as pertains to sound…and the world in general is hard place to market music, even when it is the best the planet has to offer.

Do a creative artist a favor, buy Dreams and Visions in some form… and share this review.  Thanks.

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, pocked, detour of days.  Listen for the gratitude that he feels toward his wife, mother, brothers, fans, and those friends and a church community 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 strongest charms 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!)