Thursday, December 31, 2009

Best Music: 2009

Okay, so I have only been reviewing music for a couple months now, and this site is attracting dozens and half-dozens of readers, but I thought I would go bold and announce the Wood-Between’s favorite music that showed up in our world in 2009.

Psalm 150 Award (the Best Instrumental Album):
Frio Suite, by Phi Keaggy and Jeff Johnson

Whatsoever* Award (most Edifying Album):
Love Was Here First: Carolyn Arends:

Best Album:
Fireflies and Songs: Sara Groves

Best Christmas Album:
In the Heart: Bob Dylan

Best Song:
Heaven is the Face: Steven Curtis Chapman (Beauty from Ashes)

Best Song Runner up:
Over the River, Jon Foreman (Limbs and Branches) Note: This is only runner up, because technically it came out in 2008, but it pretty much qualifies as the best song of the decade.

*Finally, brethren, whatsoever things are true, whatsoever things are honest, whatsoever things are just, whatsoever things are pure, whatsoever things are lovely, whatsoever things are of good report; if there be any virtue, and if there be any praise, think on these things.

Thursday, December 17, 2009

Anne Haley: Its a Beautiful Life / Christmas

Anne Haley: American Song writer and singer

Genre: Bluegrass/Folk/Pop-Americana

It's a Beautiful Life
LIVE -From the Old Theatre:  "An Evening with Anne Haley and Friends"

It’s probably a little late to do anything with this review-this season, but I wanted to highlight the music of friend who has made a warm and wonderful Christmas album, most worthy of family time around the table, tree… or manger.

My wife and I often have this discussion: “Is it possible to have real friends, which you have never met, except by way of Facebook or some other kind of digital chat?” I say "Yes.” Wife says “No.”  And of course, if we mean –can you have a deep abiding life transforming “digital” relationship, or the chat-group friend that you can call on in crisis -- my wife is probably right. But if we mean a friendship characterized by the a life enhancing relationship built around good conversation, mutual interests, shared photos- files-music, (or even disagreements), then the of course -- you can.

Case in point, Anne Haley. I’ve never met the woman, but given a mutual cyber-friend, status updates, and hanging around her Facebook page, I feel like I really know the woman.

And the woman who comes through on both Facebook and her music is both consistent and vibrant. Think of a renaissance farm woman or early pioneer, the kind of woman who can help birth a cow, mend a fence, then throw – and write the music for – a barn dance at the end of the day. A certain joy and optimism of the heart saturates everything she touches.

As is, I don’t really know if Anne mends fences, but she does live on farm in North Carolina, and we get updates about her late morns as she helps cow, goat, and dog-kind give birth. Beyond that, she tends to mend fences of another kind. I’ve kind of figured out Anne’s politics, but she would rather not make a big to-do about such stuff. She looks for common denominators in conversation and life.

Anne’s music reflects the same warm, pioneering spirit that I find on Facebook. The title track to first CD, “It’s a Beautiful Life” means what it says. No parody here. And though, as a folk singer Anne touches on some of the standard terrain of cloudy skies, she seems most at home when touting things gone good.

To date, Anne has put out three albums of which I have heard two. (The third a live disk) All are “home productions” (i.e., the kind of thing where you pay someone to produce your music for you.) But that has little to say to the quality. Or said differently, Anne -- with big voice and guitar, has teamed up with some first rate bluegrass musicians to produce albums that feel both sharp and live. The sound is neither “roots-primitive, nor Nashville gloss. I think I may have heard a few overdubs (for harmony) but Anne’s music sounds like what country should sound like – Real people with real talent on real instruments (mandolin, dobro, guitar, fiddle,paino) playing their hearts out --- live in your parlor.  

Note: In subsequent converstations, Annie shared that she once was headed down the Nashville path, but pulled out when she saw how her handelers wanted to package her.  "I didn't agree with the "power pop" country rootless music that was being cranked out. Soooo...a couple of "good music row lawyers, I was FREE. At that point, I made a rock solid decision that ANNE would produce herself. Period."

Anne’s voice matches her character (or helps define it) Her voice is bold, sometimes sassy, a little brassy, with hints of apple:) She sounds at times like Patty Loveless without the twang, or a crisper Allison Krauss at a lower register. Anne tells of time she was doing a show and someone came looking for the “black woman” - Overall, think “Big” (especially for folk) but with plenty of variation and feminine touches. (Or you could simply cheat, and listen to her samples,)

Album: It’s a Beautiful Life.

Disk opens with a tribute to her beloved….(supported on a cushion of soft fiddle and mandolin) Lighthouse:

Sometimes I lose a sense of my direction, I cannot seem to let love be my guide, Sometimes it doesn’t seem to be enough protection, from the howling winds and crashing waves that roll across my mind.

When the cold winds blow I will pull your love around me, and hold it close to my heart to remind me. When the storm clouds show how quickly light can turn to darkness your love will be the light house that guides me home.

There’s times my heart is like a raging ocean , twisting turning everything in me when there are those times you anchor me with love and devotion and the angry waves become a placid sea.

When the cold winds blow….

And as I near the rocks, I don’t know if I will sink or swim…then you enter my thoughts and your love will pull me safely in….

Song two, It’s a Beautiful Life (parts)

Covered lots of ground it seems in such a short time, takin’ offbeat paths along the road that might have lead us astray, shouted questions to the universe, then doubted all of its answers, wondering if we even make it anyway, but here we stand hand in hand, on this road that seems less traveled… and when it comes to love the answer is as simple as it can be.

It’s a beautiful life, good cup of coffee, and some lovely conversation. ….watching stars come out over God’s great plantation, we rise we fall, we’ve been through it all, Murphy’s law can say whatever it likes, caue when your eyes meet mine, I know… inside, baby it’s a beautiful life.

I’ll skip more lyrics, except to say that Anne, whether singing her own or others words, is intent on bringing the same joy she lives out on the farm or on her Facebook page to her total songcraft.  She wants to walk with you.  (And if you want to talk about lots of other folks music, she is game for that too.)

Disk 2: Christmas.

Anne’s Christmas album sticks to the same musical recipe of homespun folk found on “It’s a beautiful Life” – with perhaps a few changes. A few songs are less county, and it seems that Anne using a slightly different voice. It may be two years in between, or the very content, but it sounds like Anne has gone for a softer, less punchy --- more beautiful voice -- in keeping with the Christmas glow. These are traditional songs, sung with a reverence for tradition and family memories.

As is, I was hooked and surprised by the very first song. I’m not a real bluegrass devotee, but I own a disk called “Sugar Plums” put out by the bluegrass powerhouse label Sugar Hill. Sugar Plums is a superb disk that features a robust and diverse collection of Bluegrass, folk, and Primitive approaches to Christmas music. I was pretty sure I was the only one who owned this disk. Turns out Anne likes it too, and has borrowed a couple of tunes, one of which (Christ was born in Bethlehem) she sings with decidedly less twang. Anne’s opening cover of a song penned by Americanna Artist Tim Obrien, (Making Plans) really charms, and sets the stage for a loving, faith affirming romp through a wonderland of hearth and home, with Christ firmly at the Center. (In fact, Anne makes a reading from the Gospel of Luke the “centerfold” of her album, placing it square in the middle.

I don’t have a lot more to say about this album, for the simple reason that it simply works. Anne has opted not so much for innovation, but re-creation from a time tested cannon. But what she recreates she does with such warmth and sensitivity (and with clean lean country production) that this disk will easily make it into routine play around my house this December. I readily recommend it.

Addendum:  Shorty after publishing this, I sent word to Anne:  Her words in reply further illustrate why she is such a gem (and help clarify a few points.) She writes:

Anne Haley 17 December at 18:56

WOW..isn't this something! THANK YOU KIRK!! I just tried to pull a fast one and call you...BUT....according to the White Pages, your number has been changed. SO MUCH for your kind words. I really appreciate it. This seems "inadequate," as I wanted to give you a proper "thank you." Tell your wife I AM one of those you could call in a pinch! Might take me a little while to get there, but I'D COME! :)

As an aside, you GOT IT..."the REASON" I record as I do is because I WANT my recordings to be as much like my live shows as possible...relaxed, comfortable, IN YOUR PARLOR. The reason for the "change in voice" on the Christmas album is was also decided. I wanted to showcase a few different variations on what we "hear" at Christmas. I love to sing ALL styles and was able to perform those, again, in almost a quiet, piano bar (coffee or tea) setting!

Yes, indeed, Lighthouse is for my "beloved." It is for God.

It's a Beautiful Life resulted from a conversation that I was having with my "earthly beloved." We were driving thru Swansboro, NC...W said, "You know it's a beautiful life that we have." And I said, "Yep, W you're exactly right!!! NOW HOLD THAT THOUGHT!! And I wrote the song in the car immediately! LOL!

So, you foiled my plans to sneak a call in on you...and I have to say thank you via a typed message. "Not my style," but I suppose it will have to suffice.

I'm thankful for Pam Kemp and spirited discussions...I am so proud to have friends like you Kirk. You're a jewel...and like you I REFUSE to wish ANYONE a happy "holiday." "Holidays" are what Europeans do on "vacation," which also bugs me...coming from the derivative of HOLY. Go figure. I'm just as confused as you are! I'm guessing that's a good thing.

Again, thank you Kirk. I really appreciate your thoughts, opinion and most of all that you find enjoyment in what I love to share with others. THAT has been one of the MANY gifts that God has given me in order to connect with others.

My very, very best to you and yours!

Your VIRTUAL friend, (does that mean we are virtually friends?)


Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Sara Groves: Fireflys and Songs; Music Review by Kirk

Sara Groves: Fireflies and Songs, Released 11/17?/2009

Genre: Adult contemporary, piano driven balladesque Folk-pop with a touch of “atmospheric classical, blue-grass and blues – (as produced by Charlie Peacock;) by vetran Christian lyricist, Sara Groves

Sorry for the long label, but sometimes there is just no good way to describe what to me should be “normal” music, but is so uncommon. Some folks might call this folk, but the production values clearly set it outside of the realm of flower-child troubadour with guitar (or piano). On the other hand, the pace, grace, and understated syncopation exclude this from the stuff we commonly call pop. And while Sara sounds different from either artist, the music shares in the song craft and quality I would associate with the likes of Nora Jones or Tracy Chapman.

In one of those odd moments of cultural convergence, Sava Groves’ album, Fireflies and Songs, let loose on the same morning our local DJ was playing --for the umpteenth time-- “Fireflies” by the group Owl City. The shared title invites a little compare and contrast. Both tunes ring magical, touching stars and childhood, though one tune is sung by a dreaming multi-voiced robot, the other by a flesh and blood woman with of touch of melancholy. (I guess the guys of Owl city bleed too, but there blood looks more like transmission fluid, or something like that.)

Truly though, in this day of auto-tune and airbrush, my heart yearns for the stuff of vocal spit and pores, and especially the stuff of an unprotected heart – All of which Sara delivers with unflinching grace.

If you are unacquainted with Sara, you can find plenty to read at her own site, suffice it to say, I consider Sara Groves as one the few bright lights to have emerged in Christian Music in the last decade. Ms. Groves offers a perfect storm of song craft. She is at once a gifted pianist with a penchant for audio story. Her voice is at once deeply feminine and emotional, but without saccharine drippiness, diva breathiness, or gothic apocalyptictonics (I made that last one up.) Her emotions run real. And finally, she captures the terrain of her heart and her life lived out before God with concrete lyrics. In short, Sara uses words to paint pictures in the mind. The pictures she paints belong to a kind of road trip of the soul, complete with small town streets and clanking dishes, vagabonds and missions, circus tents, playgrounds, and moonlit paths.

In the linear notes for the album Fireflies, Sara notes that she was not constrained on this disk to work with an established theme. (find quote)

All of which is kind of funny, because fireflies seems very unified, both thematically and musically. (Actually there is one song, right in the middle that makes a pretty sharp “u” turn, but we’ll get to that in a moment.)

The overarching tie of Fireflies is relationships. And while most every song builds along a horizontal (human) axis, they are not only horizontal. These are songs about relationships lived out in the greater context of God’s presence and blessing. She and her producer Charlie took a real marketing gamble in that only one song on the disk fits thematically into Christian radio territory.

As is, the overall tone of Fireflies and Songs is one of a kind of “sad-happiness” or, if you will, sober reflection infused by an undercurrent of joy. Sara herself notes in song that there are “different kinds of happy.” And clearly, this album charts some of those various kinds. Folks whose primary music diet consists of Christian radio may find some of the tunes on this disk a little dour. (Or perhaps too candid.) Which speaks not of the tone, but of Christian radio, which is often given to artificially sweet up-beat renditions of the Christian life. Sara, on the other hand, is not afraid to let a touch of heavy heart saddle up with her joy. Nor is she afraid to expose some a little personal dysfunction.

"As I started writing, I revisited some things that have taken place over the last 15 years of marriage,” she says. “It wasn’t all exactly current, but it was stuff that I hadn’t written about yet, and it was good to do so.” Soon she had her first conversations with producer Charlie Peacock about the album and, at one point, asked if he had any early direction for her. “I want you to enjoy God and the gift of songwriting,” he replied.

“I just burst into tears,” says Groves. “I don’t think anyone has ever told me to do that. And that’s what I did. I cried like a baby as every single song came out. And as they did, I thought, I’m more grateful today that I get to do this than ever before.” Even now, as she recalls the experience, her eyes well with emotion”  (I think this is lifted from Sara's site but I found it here)

Truth is, I was surprised by the emotional terrain and confessional nature of several Firefly songs. And this is ironic, it seems that people outside of the Christian music industry are often far more honest about their troubled emotions or personal failures. Christian radio, in particular, places a premium on communicating our victory in Christ. But all the mess that belongs to our ordinary lives (those same lives in which Christ is working out our redemption) is often totally off screen.

While there is no undo wallowing, Sara wades into vulnerable territory.

you took a tone and I took offense
anger replacing all common sense
oh run for you life
all tenderness is gone
in the blink of an eye
all good will has withdrawn
and we mark out our paces and
stare out from our faces

but baby you and I are gone gone gone

incomprehensible layers of isolation
now your the man with a heart of stone
making me pay here by being alone
seemingly justified righteous indignation
now I'm the woman who holds all her pain
looking for somebody else to blame

we hold all the keys to our undoing
cutting me down in small degrees
you know my worst insecurities
I'm making no effort to understand
no one can hurt you like I can

deep down inside the girl's waking up
she's calling out to the boy she loves

On the other side, Sara offers a glimpse of the marvel of one flesh:

raise a glass to friendship and to knowing
you don't have to go alone
we'll raise our hearts to share each others’ burdens
on this road

with every burden I have carried
with every joy it's understood
life with you is half as hard
and twice as good

I know we're growing older
can you imagine what that will bring
it's all a mystery to me now
but this one thing
will be half as hard, and twice as good

(fragment from Twice as Good)
"At one moment, you're looking at each other with thoughts like, I can't believe I married you--what was I thinking? And you go from that place where there's no common ground to complete tenderness and the complete knowing of each other. (from an interview on her site)

Noted earlier, there is one song on this album that stands out for its “incongruity” – a kind of robust Dixie Chick toe- tapping bluegrass number with a peculiar theme - and now a video: (setting up pins and knocking them down.) But I found the variation served as a kind of intermission for the soul -- right there in the middle of commiseration and confession -- forging a delightful change of pace and mood. I think its inclusion lifts the album out of the mellon overcast. Then there is the final number, a kind of doxology which draws the dominating horizontal themes to a joyful close. As our creator, Christ is not only the author of the marriage, but the relationships through which he hones us. And we praise Him.


Having said very nice things about Sara, I’d admit that the production work on some of Sara’s catalogue leans a little “poppy” for my ears. The plush radio-ready quality of her album “Add to the Beauty” left me hungry for just a little more earth. (I let my bias slide given its stunning melodic lines and the power of the “I am the moon song”.) Even so, I regard her work “Conversations”, characterized by pretty much “one woman at a piano” as one of the great albums in the history of the world – Indeed, a disk I will take with me to restart civilization. It simply aches with beauty.

All of which sets the table for Fireflies. Would the production run lean--like Conversations-- or tend to the greater gloss of some of her later recordings?

Too be honest, I did not buy this album for so much for Sara, but for her producer, Charlie Peacock. I happen to own three- now four Sara CDs (out of 10?) But I own nearly a dozen of thirteen (?) Charlie P. releases. I follow him on Facebook, and always look forward to seeing what new and often quirky direction he will take his music or production. (Read a Charlie review here.) Even so, I was a little frightened by the prospect of Charlie Peacock producing a Sara Groves album. Why?

Simply, Charlie is given to the best of pop production, often with deep layering and forays into big quirky techno sounds. All of which works well with his own music or for groups with audio muscle, but left me concerned given Sara’s gentle side.

So how did Charlie do?


On my first listen I was too aware of the production.
Because I follow Charlie on Facebook, I knew that he was trying various things inside the production. (At this point in his career, Charlie P. has access to some of the best talent in Nashville. I heard that Matt Slockum (of Sixpence) would be playing guitar (or was that banjo.) I knew that Charlie was trying to dampen the sound of a bell (was that this album?) So I went into my first listen of Songs and Fireflies with an ear tuned to the production. And there were those moments I thought … “Charlie, pull back, pull back” But not much. Producer Peacock truly honored and highlighted the sensitive nature of the songs. The instrumentation is impeccable, and mostly earthy. He and his crew employed a range of supporting sounds, from staccato banjo, fiddle quartets, marimba, to accordion to some surprising steel lap-guitar. (Not too surprising for Nashville, but less common in pop-folk fare.) And they left her alone for long moments, just Sara and her piano. My sense: the instrumental variety and textures lift these songs without taking over. And by the second or fourth listen, my awareness of the production as a value in itself, faded into the background. Now I simply take it in stride as part of the total quality of the package.

While I don’t suspect Charlie did this work himself, this album shines on another level that may soon go the way of the LP jacket. The CD art itself matched the quality of the music, and carried the tone. Funny too… on the album “Add to the Beauty’ Sara herself is presented with model like beauty, thick brushed hair and soft colored lips. (Hey I am a guy, I notice these things.) But in Fireflies, Sara is presented with the candor of her camping face, and a tangle of hair... The art blends whimsy, earth, and the gentle beauty of worn things. Consider this a book where cover matches content.

Final thoughts. Sara has been credited over the years for her song craft, but what carried this album for my ear, had to do with just the raw pleasure of her voice. Now it helps if one is singing content worth hearing, but truly I heard glimpses of vocal artists Christine Dente, Emylou Harris, and even the elvin voice of Eisley. Sara took a kind of contemporary “dip and flow” with octave shifts and slowed it down, adding years and wisdom to the brew. She sounded at once both modern and ancient. Like a singing Velveteen rabbit.

Final final note: While I don’t think Sara is attempting what is sometimes called “crossover,” this is an album I would readily share with those who wouldn’t go close to “Christian music”. Its human themes are human themes. I highly recommended to all who hear “deep and slow” or who don’t mind beautiful melancholy melodies lingering in your soul for days.

Wednesday, November 4, 2009

David Crowder Band: Church Music

Church Music, by David Crowder Band is a full throttle, audio extravaganza that invites modern saints to fall (or dance) before God's throne as we praise Him for his power in --and over-- light, dark, and death --- even as we contemplate his startling nearness .  The sound is mostly elecronica, with forays into speed-pop, grunge – even disco, with an occasional pause from the noise so that you can hear the piano. (Actually there are more than a few pauses, however the overall sound is typified by a BIG dense sound wall.

Before I get to the disk itself, I wanted to set the stage and come clean. I am a part time David Crowder*Band fan. Not all of their music works for me. I am a geezer.  I hold a general bias against electricity:)

For the unacquainted, front-man David Crowder is an odd bird in any book. He looks like a caffeinated hillbilly, or Moses on Speed. (I figure that it’s kind of a cultivated kookiness that says-- here is what an old-time circuit rider might have looked like if blown by the wind of a hundred-and-eighty decibels, or chased by the Hound of Heaven with his jaws nipping at your back pocket. And David sings a little like he looks. His voice is kind of nervy, tinged with wild man and urgency. Beyond that, he - with band, have put out several albums which might be called Americana-praise-electronica. (Yea, those words don’t usually go together.) DCB has also been a key participant in the “Passion Movement” -- an effort to bring modern worshipers before the throne of God in dynamic arena praise. The Passion movement can rightly be credited for introducing modern worshipers to range of older hymns, presented with new music sounds.


To be honest, I had been introduced to the David Crowder Band only though some of their Passion Ministry works, I might have written them off. I like the idea of introducing old music to new audiences, even using new sounds, but when the new sounds are less beautiful than the old, or simply revved up for rev’s sake, I think the lyrics and the music lose.

But then a friend loaned me a copy of “A Collision” followed by “B Collision” – a maverick work if ever there was one. “A Collision” struck me for its rambunctious variation in both music and emotion. Then I listened to “B Collision”, an experimental follow-up, recapitulating parts of “A” though a Deliverance filter. At the time, I didn’t know that “B Collision” was atypical, even for Crowder, but it --with its blend of banjo, mandolin and smashing synthesizer – set the hook. Here was a guy with a wacked out sense of humor, willing to experiment and blend totally incongruous styles. Here was music firmly anchored somewhere between the 18th and 23rd centuries. The music of A and B collision, eclipsed so much what I call modern worship music that I sat up to take another listen. I was brought face to face with a “post-modern” worship maestro, putting out music that made me question my bias against all modern worship music.

Since that time I have acquired a couple of other David Crowder releases (Sunsets and Sushi, and Remedy). And I must say, nothing has of yet, caught my ear like “B collision” -- but then, there are those times when bluegrass doesn’t bring out my dancing shoes like full orbed electric honeycomb, or the heart catching lyrics “He makes everything glorious.”

---- Now back to the disk at hand. (And I apologize for some repetition, as I joined two pieces of writing.)

The title Church Music, comes with something of a smile; This is probably not the music most churches feature on Sunday Morning -- unless they come with a name which includes the word Rock, Creek, or Tree. The title is, like all things Crowder, idiosyncratic, and suggest that the worship offered by those who bend their knee and before the living Christ (the head of the church) are engaged in the stuff Church Music. Even when it calls for a disco ball.

Not of course, that all the saints will like this brew. Bill Gothard would condemn it; Bach might lift a brow, while a good many saints across the globe might look for the end of the age, or ask to turn the volume down.

Truth is, I might be among them. As a rule I like my music stripped down, and organic. I find much of modern worship music disagreeable, ….(It is) Sometimes un-singable, sometimes too mindlessly-emotive, often too abstract and poorly written. (By abstract, I mean using words like “holy” or “awesome” but without ever giving us concrete examples of what those words mean.) Beyond that, much of modern praise music is simply loud, poundy and repetitive, dishing melodic lines you readily forget.

So here comes David Crowder band, which is at once extra loud and extra poundy—often highly repetitive. And they repeat themselves. Their lyrics fit the bill, but they are often extra simple -- One line of verse for every minute of song. To top it off, DCB lyrics are sometimes abstract and highly emotive, and he (or they) sings songs in way that don’t invite my joining in. But I still really like this guy and his band.


First, these guys are a first rate quirks. Then, even with some checks in my minus-column, David and band present their songs with such fervor and conviction -- even desperation, that what might be a minus becomes a plus. This is hard to make sense of. -- I don’t like poundy music if it’s just kind of poundy in a way that muddies the melodic line. (as in some of the tunes on Remedy).  But turn that same pound into a pleading hemorrhage, a bell-chorus arsenal, or the Rite of Spring (by Stravinsky) and what once was just in the way, becomes part of the art form. Make no mistake, When David Crowder Band offers a song of praise to God or builds a multi-hued wall of weaving sound there is a sense that they -- and we -- are standing with arms raised before the throne, with the thunder of God echoing though the rainbows.

Now if you really are unfamiliar with DCB, you can find all kinds of their music on You-Tube. Here is a good start.

For the familiar, If you like Sushi or Remedy, think of the same elecronica with a bit more volume, and different words. Some folks call Remedy a “pop” sound, while Church Music is byond, both crunchier and dissonant. Church Songs is categorically darker in hue that earlier works. Gothic is an overused word, but when I spin this disk, I “see” the stuff of ravens and towers and light punching through a Middle Earth forest.

In a promo for the disk, DCB show that they have added a second drummer named Steve to their arsenal, but this one a true drumming robot. (Speaking of drum machine.) Think of each drum beat as a drummer, with a drummer of his own. Or something like that.

By contrast to the catalogue onr “A or B” Collision, Church Music is thematically constrained. (Actually, by contrast, most everything is.) But listen for the variation inside the sound wall. Beyond that, Church Music seems to build around a theme, echoed in repeatedly in a single track: God is Near. Past albums have highlighted the Kingly authority, the holiness, or the beauty of God; This one celebrates his ever present presence.

Quick notes:

I just listened again. Nix the word constrained in the above sentence.

17 songs or One? (there are no spaces between the tracks)

Personal Faves:

Track One: “Hail Gladdening Light” How utterly appropriate. Given the title “Church Music” why not start with a hymn almost as old as the church itself. Wikipedia sheds some light on the ancient lyric. “Phos Hilaron (Φῶς Ἱλαρόν) is an ancient Christian hymn originally written in New Testament Greek. Often referred to by its Latin title Lumen Hilare it has been translated into English as 'Hail Gladdening Light' or 'O Gladsome/Joyous Light'. It is the earliest known Christian hymn recorded outside of the Bible that is still being used today. The hymn is featured in the vespers of the Byzantine liturgy used by the Orthodox and Eastern Catholic traditions, as well as being included in some modern Anglican and Lutheran liturgies.”

Tracks 3/5/7/8 Truth is, these tracks sound a bit alike -- pulsing, deep textured and urgent. Like David the Psalmist dancing in his underwear. Invites mind, body, and imagination to join in full throttled worship of the King. The King who is near.

Brilliant bright, our salvation
Took the fall to hold us up
All the weight of our condition
Lifted away from us

We can feel the breath of the angels
See the walls bend and shake
The sky's in a tremble
Let the dead wake

To sing the songs of the heavens
See the dawn start to break
The bond starts to loosen
Feel the earth shake

Darkest night, brought redemption
Innocence' divine embrace
In the light of all creation
Heaven and earth start to twist

And the nearness of there
Feels more near

(from the track 3, the Nearness)

Track 9: (All around Me) My daughter pointed out that this is a cover of a song by some group called “Fly Leaf”. “They stole that song!” she cried. (I wouldn’t have known, but the brooding classical piano and raspy-rhapsodic presentation of this song (which I understand is much different than the original) is itself different than many of the other tunes on this disk. If your download one song, this is it. Astonishingly beautiful!

Track 16. (God Almighty, None Compares) Okay forget everything I’ve ever said about liking restrained acoustic. Not that I still don’t, but add to that category speaker melting apocalyptic praise, with a touch of 80s hair band, Crowder prog, speed violins (?) and some lunatic guitars. Brings to mind an Anthem by Kemper Crabb and the band Archangel that no one who will read this review has ever heard. It sounds kind of frightening and underworld in a good way, or like the book of Revelation in which even those thing under the earth are joined in one torrential praise.

Personal dislikes.

Title Track, Church Music.

Ps, I had written one concluding paragraph, but have scrapped it as my sense of this disk keeps growing. ( I compared this disk to eating 12 Reeces Cups.) and while it clearly is an audio rush,  the more I listen the more the content fills me with glorious thoughts.  I am not sure I want to re-write the review,  so here is a link from a guy who was pretty much blown away by Church Music -- even as I think this is the kind of disk I will play twice a year - LOUD.

Monday, October 19, 2009

Carolyn Arends: Love Was Here First

Carolyn Arends: Love Was Here First  Review 10/18/09
(Release: 10/20/09)

Synopsis: LWHF is an “Ameri-pop” extravaganza, featuring dallies with black gospel, blue grass, honky-tonk, even Broadway -- by Christian lyricist, singer, musician, film critic, Canadian and mom -- Carolyn Amends. This is Carolyn’s 10th album, and like her others, communicates spiritual insights with catchy lyrics, bent on feeding the heart and mind. The lyrics aim at Christian audience, but the quality dictates a larger hearing.

First, I’d clear up a misconception – My own. When I first saw the cover graphics for LWHF, then heard (Didn’t I?) that this album would have a slightly urban cast… I was expecting something gritty, perhaps even a poetically dark. (Might Carolyn try a Mark Heard Impression?) But while there may be some city sensibilities here -- namely the city of New Orleans, or wherever else they play Cajun colored Dixie-bayou-trombone-accordion bluegrass; this album brims with sunrise and grits. To be honest, I was having a hard time envisioning Carolyn sounding morose, though she does do “pensive” very well.

Interesting story, the title on the CD cover is not Photo-shopped onto the background building. Rather, she had her artists roller paint it direct on the wall, even as they checked to make sure there really was nothing crass in the existing graffiti.

As is, I own four of Carolyn’s nine, now ten music offerings. As an old Fuddy Duddy, who still buys CDs (and refuses to let people copy them) I had started to lose ground with some of my favorite music people over the last years; Given the shift to a download product, not everybody shows up in the record store they way they once did. But now… Presto, I find I am reuniting with my faves through Facebook.

So I was most intrigued when Carolyn, starting this summer gave us routine updates on her new music project, with details as she passed each marker in writing, song selection, recording process, and the final photo session. I wondered, would this be like her earliest folk-leaning records -- or more like her dallies with strobe-lights and mosh pits? Not really, but Carolyn does have at least one rock-out record. But I must confess, this review comes out of a vacuum. I haven’t followed Carolyn for several years, but after reading some reviews of earlier but recent albums, it appears Carolyn has been moving in a “Pop-Americanna” direction over the course of several albums.

So what is Love Was Here First?

It’s an album full of fledged quality, from the vocals to the instrumentation and production to the cover and inside graphics to the heart behind it all. Carolyn has worked hard to honor both God and her neighbor by giving us a product that is inventive, artistically challenging, and deeply encouraging.

For the uninitiated, Carolyn has what might be called a pretty voice, leaning cute. Or like a happy mom. But don’t misunderstand, I don’t mean saccharine, but rather kind of wholesome and funny and loaded with character. (Carolyn, I hope this doesn’t sound wrong, but I have always thought that you have the voice that should belong to a third-grade teacher; a little tough, a little sweet, with lots of play.) But teacher aside, Carolyn uses her voice in this album in some ways that are new to me. Think “lovely” as opposed to cute. Or bold as opposed to careful -- with moments of rhapsody. I’d almost bet she has been listening to indie pop singer Regina Spektor. (but that’s just a guess.)

Beyond that, the sonic textures and variety on LWHF push farther than anything I have heard in an Arend’s release. One or two tracks were a little over produced for my ear, but by-and-large, the production flat sizzles. The opening track begins with a gut-pleasing staccato “train track” guitar, followed later by a brass quartet and fiddle. The second track quiets down with Carolyn singing a pensive and soulful rendition of “Standing in the Need of Prayer.” She even gets to sing it with the Sojourners, an old- school black gospel quartet. Wow! Over the course of the next nine songs, Arends romps through multiple styles and moods, from gypsy to swing and Dixiegrass. Trumpets, fiddles, mandolins, yukes, and uilleann pipes fan an insturmental parade. (I think that was a uilleann pipe?) And did I hear a song fit for a Broadway musical? YES!  I wouldn’t be surprised if producer Ray Salmond listens to Bruce Cockburn, Tracy Chapman, or Sufjan Stevens.

As a lyricist, Arends works hard to craft lyrics that are honed and colorful, but ultimately understandable. She prefers simple, catchy lines, in keeping with “county song craft.” Even so, her writing is concrete and smart. Both her word choice and themes suggest that she is well engaged with the world of culture and ideas, and often turns to God to guide her through strange places and uncertainty. I wouldn’t be surprised if she keeps a spiritual journal, or works out some of her questions with verse.

I could pretty much quote several songs, but here are a some fragments I really liked.

You made the cosmos out of chaos, you made Adam out of dust, you made wine out of water , You’ll make something out of us…You made light shine in our darkness, you made life conquer death, you make children out of sinners, You’ll make something out of us.

Or, while questioning the finality of the grave…

‘Cause why beauty, why poetry, Why no! no! no! to every tragedy; Why laughter, why lullabies, and why this asking why?…A sculpture of a canvas can speak a private language, telling secrets hidden in the heart about a world of spirit -- I swear sometimes I hear it, Playing like a piper’ in the dark. It’s in love songs, in symphonies, in funeral marches and in liturgies. It’s in whispers, in rally cries, in dreams that won’t say die…

You have a body, but you are a soul, You see a fraction, it’s not the whole, I cannot prove it, but still I know, You have a body… you are a soul.

Then there is that title track. With a simple phrase “Love Was Here First’ Arends fuels a really big idea. There, in the beginning, before night-time or apples, or the unfolding of a world gone wrong -- God (who is Love) was with himself, in perfect union and bliss. And He still holds the cosmos, waiting the complete the story.

New sounds and vocal treatments aside, the thing Carolyn does best is quietly minister to her audience. She appears to have a gift for encouragement, and writes songs that should stick in your head. We might know that nothing can separate from the love of Christ, but having that dance in your head through song brings double joy. In the end, Carolyn has succeeded at giving us a record that really does feed our mind and spirit, even as it reaches for high standards of expression. And this is odd…

(Bunny trail) I am a photographer. I listen to a lot of music; I look at a lot of images. And I have seen something in the photo realm and with other art forms related to “sophistication.” Namely, as works move away from the amateur world of sunsets and roses, into the challenging world of “fine art” there is often a corresponding motion toward “darkness.” That is, we very often see that as works grow in art-verve, they also become bitter, sardonic, elusive, unsettling, uncertain, vicious, bizarre, morbid etc. (I am just trying to think of “dark” words, but you get the picture.) We esteem a fashion picture more sophisticated if it shows a sullen gaunt woman who has never had kids who looks like she is about to have a crack breakdown.

But Carolyn proves that your really can make music that reaches for high standards artistically, yet which is also comprehensible, original, and nurturing at the deepest level.

I highly recommend this record.
To order, check out her store at Feed the Lake


Final Final, Bunny. I have read two reviews of kid-films as critiqued by Carolyn in Christianity Today. (Up, and Where the Wild Things Are.) Given her status as mom, her “teacher’s voice”, and other child like attributes, I recommend that her next creative venture be a full blown soundtrack for a kid film. Really.

Friday, October 16, 2009

Jars of Clay: Redemptions Songs - 2005

(this is another review that, four years late, may not make a lot of sense, but I’m on a theme.)

Jars of Clay: Redemptions Songs - 2005
Modern music renditions of songs with “old words.”

Synopsis:  Thirteen covers of traditional and sometimes obscure hymns (with lyrics spanning several centuries), blending elements of folk, modern-rock, black gospel and “Jars-experimental-fusion”

(For the unacquainted, Jars of Clay is an acousta-rock phenomena, launched somewhere in the Christian world of the 1990’s, but moving (as of 2009) in an art-rock direction and toward broader “mainstream” audience. Early albums mixed elements of orchestral music, even tribal music into rhythmic folk. Later albums showcase a motion to Beatle-esque harmonies and harder edged modern rock, with attending lyrical ambiguity. As if to answer questions about who they are (or where they draw their vision) Redemption Songs is a clear statement by the Jars (2005) in which they clearly confess both their need of, and love for their Redeemer.


Of my couple dozen hymn-based CD’s this is one I spin less. Not for any lack of quality or spiritual vitality, but because the liberties taken with the hymns and the general styling make this more of a “listen to” than a “sing-with” CD… That, and the fact that several poundy-shrill “covers” kind of grate on my ears. Songs of Redemption isn’t really a rock album – I would call it heavy edged folk with a touch of the blues (reflective of Jars earlier albums) however, if you don’t have an ear for at least some rock, you probably won’t find home here. I personally found song three (God Will Lift up Your Head) too much of something. I might do better with the rock-dissonance in another album context, but find that I go to hymns for certain majesty and repose.)

That said, the delivery and tone of Redemptions songs goes a long way to driving home a message that might be lost to yesteryears piano. The stuff of sin and salvation (and nailing God to a tree) can be a bloody grating affair. And certainly the stuff of sorrow. “Redemption songs” isn’t bleak – indeed, it holds a great body of joy – however, a certain “heaviness of soul” infuses the album -- not unlike black gospel, where radiance flows from certain pain.

The “heaviness” is aided by lead vocalist Dan Haseltine’s multi-hued voice. He sounds at times like a pack-a-day tenor. How is it possible to have a voice that is at once high and melodic, muscled but thin, clear but rough, and tinged with a kind of frail desperation? I sense healing irony when I hear the voice of “nervy” little white man singing spirituals backed up by the very big black baritone voices of the Blind Boys of Alabama. It is as if two peoples, once estranged have found both common home and culture.

As is, Redemption Songs re-presents the songs of several centuries, beginning of all things with the Psalter, a 17th (?) Century adaptation of the book of Psalms, used by old Scottish Presbyterians, the Puritans, the Pilgrims, and even a few --very few-- contemporary assemblies. Later selections pick up with Charles Wesley and John Newton (author of Amazing Grace), both from the “First Great Awakening.” (Think of poetry-doctrine penned before the American Revolution.) Several other songs follow more directly from the Second Great Awakening (think of the fountain-of-blood revival tunes penned after the American Civil war and before World War One. Add to the mix several African American spirituals penned who knows when, and the closing offering – They will know we are Christians by our Love, penned (I think) somewhere in the 1960’s (?)


As a lover of hymns, I was surprised by how many of these songs I didn’t know. Jars of Clay went out of their way to choose a truly eclectic collection with songs off the beaten path. They chose songs with strong word craft, spanning source denominations and demographics. Even so, there is common denominator in the selection. These are songs for sinners, and the venue, whether new or old … is the rescue mission.

Beyond that, the tunes themselves represent a collage of old, semi old (or seeming new) and brand spanking new tunes. I am not sure of the exact count, but the greater number of the hymns employ “some part” or the original melody, but often reworked, so that we have some sense of antiquity and some sense of originality, twined. A few tunes emerge from the last decade. My favorite new tune – a surprising Beatle-esque adaptation of “It is Well With My Soul.”

Jars themselves do the best job of telling what they want to do with these songs (From a back cover excerpt) : I suppose if you dedicated your life entirely to the building of bridges your eye would be attune to notice things life rivers and canyons….You have in your hands a collection of very old words set to almost completely modern music. The music comes from a place of TRUE REVERENCE and appreciation for the RICHNESS OF OUR PAST and an attempt to leap across YEARS and articulate that the past in a language that could be embraced by 21st century of people of faith…..We hope you are challenged as we are by the unbridled praises that sprung out of the lives that were so deeply bruised with sorrow and struggle. We hope that you are blessed by them as well. Lastly, we hope your find FRESH orientation as your immersed in the rich grace the soaks these songs and that your HEART is ASTONISHED as they boldly and eloquently make that which has become old to us…NEW AGAIN.

I would heartily recommend this album to anyone who wishes to reap the creative and articulate passion of yester-years saints – but with one caveat. I would not give the album to my mom. By contrast to Jar’s other offerings, Redemptions Songs is toned down. It has yukes, flutes and cello. But it still has enough modern-rock sensibilities, that folks who don’t listen to some rock probably won’t like this record.

I do like this record, immensely, as much for the selection as the sound. Listening to Redemption Songs, I feel a deep connection with those who have called Zion their home across the centuries. Bravo Jars, for serving the saints with such skill and passion.

#Save the Hymns

Friday, October 9, 2009

Save the Hymns - Intro

In as much as I've been doing it in my head for years, I've recently decided download and start writing "visible" reviews about the music I love (or love less).  While I really should be reviewing new stuff, my budget is small, so I am pretty much starting with stuff I already own.  And what what a better place to start, than with contemporary recordings of of a body of music that has blessed folks, sometimes for centuries.

As a child turning teen in the 1970’s (b 1960) I was delighted when new forms of worship fuel by the Jesus Movement showed up at our church. On Wednesday nights my folks hosted a "flock group" in our home, consisting of our family and a dozen or so college kids, replete with big beards, maxi skirts, and longer hair for both boys and girls.

As is, my dad played strings (guitar, banjo, mandolin, and yuke) while others joined in with guitar and tambourine. (My Mom is a hand raising, toe-dancing tambourine shaker to this day, having “introduced” the instrument to several more reserved Baptist assemblies.) Back then, we sang a blend of hymns, simple choruses, and even spiritually inspired pop songs like “Put your hand in the hand of the man who stilled the waters.”

At the time, I didn't realize that we were part of a major cultural shift that would redefine worship in many of our churches. Now some forty years later, keyboards, guitars, and praise bands have replaced many a piano and organ. Overhead projection has taken the place of hymn books, and choruses are the mainstay of many a Sunday morning.

All in all, I am grateful for some of the changes that have come about with the new approaches: Many of our former testimonies ABOUT God, have been eclipsed by words of sung directly TO God, like a love song from the heart.

As for style itself, I once heard a pastor say: “Hymns can be living or dead...Modern worship can be fresh or stale. Either form can be done well... or very poorly.”

It is not much of an exaggeration to say, that in the last decade many hundreds (?) of artists have recorded hymn based albums (or albums with vital hymn content), and that if you were to listen to even a dozen offerings, you would hear more hymns over your speakers than you might in many churches over a year--- or even a decade. In fact, so many churches have tilted toward modern chorus and “praise” music, that hymns are often regarded as a part of antiquity, gone the way of the piano and organ.

(In kind of strange way, there seems to be two very different groups who have resisted this overall shift-- very conservative churches, characterized by cultural separation and a resistance to change – and liberal --often liturgical churches who resist change at a different level. (On a personal level, I most like liturgical worship when it is practiced with the fervor of conservative zealots.)

I would like to tell you that I go to a church practices liturgical zealotry…or at least works to blend rich amounts of yesteryear, with today’s “new wine” offerings. But I can’t. Now we do do some things very well. I am pleased to hear the growth of black gospel harmonies in our worship. I am thrilled to lift my hands (though I do so sparingly) in immediate “throne room” worship, and I am pleased to sing with those that understand your brain and soul comes with a body that digs rhythm. The fellowship I attend is served by several worship teams who bring an astonishing level of skill and passion to corporate worship. But there is part of my particular soul that feels undernourished, and is given to real sorrow as I hear how little of that which ministered grace and strength to the saints of yesterday is preserved for saints today. (I think in fact, we might be a little more saintly if we fed on some of our fore father-and-mother’s food.

Given the hunger, I want to look at just a few of the musical offerings I have turned to, sometimes to fill a void, and sometimes just for the pure pleasure of hearing music that ministers to my intellect and emotions on multiple levels. The Book of Revelation records that people from every nation, tongue and tribe will be gather before "the Lamb, the great I-AM to sing a “new song.” But after some of the new ones, I sure want to sing a few of the standards.

To see reviews in this series click SAVE THE HYMNS

Thursday, October 8, 2009

Jill Phillips: Kingdom Come

Jill Phillips: Kingdom Come
Fervent Records (2005)

Ten Hymns (Eight traditional, two original), presented in a stripped down folksy way -- using pretty much piano, guitar (Bozouki or mandolin), understated percussion, and bass. I found this album in the bargain bin. I liked the price, but it didn’t belong there.

Kingdom Come is refreshing for its apparent simplicity. I know even simplicity is often illusion, but the creators really are to be commended for what isn’t there. Husband Andy Gullahorn is responsible for the production and melodic finger-style guitar   --  which, in combination  with Matt Stanfield's delicate piano -- and Jill's mostly "quietish" voice -- define the overall sound. Jill is joined by a handful of sometimes prominent Nashvillites (?) on background vocals. I recognized the names of Christine Dente (Out of the Grey) and Derek Webb (a Christian folkster);  Even so, you have to listen closley for her parterns in duet.

Kingdom Come has accomplished something rare. While the overall instrumentation and vocal treatments are more akin to the coffee house than the cathedral, Kingdom Come isn’t casual. Think folk-classical. It maintains a reverence, even a sobriety that belongs to the heart of an earlier generation. Several of the hymns are delivered with alternate tunes, or tunings, but there is a never sense that the hymns have been hijacked or run through a ‘mak’em-modern' filter. I fully believe Jill when she sings these songs, and want to join her in the reverence.  My favorite: an alternate tune rendition of Fairest Lord Jesus, delivered with spare counterpoint piano in a minor key.

Jill’s voice is beautiful in a normal – slightly northern kind of way. (This is a Nashville Product, but you could have said Canada, and I would embrace it.) Jill doesn’t sound like a “performer” or somebody doing “arty stuff” with her voice. She sings understated and direct. (At times she does sound just a little like pop singer Cheryl Crow, or fellow gospel singer Carolyn Arends, though again, without much fanfare.

All of which make for a product I fully recommend. This CD feeds my inner man.

(Only complaint, the linear notes do not note the names of the hymnists (or publication dates) and only reference "Public Domain".   Thats the kind of stuff a hymn lover wants to know.)

I have recently added Jill as a Facebook friend (find her fan page here) and was amused by some other FB friend who quipped: “I see you (Jill) are on tour… I didn’t even know you sang!” Now I don’t know if that is because Jill’s friend is from years back, or if Jill fills her day hours with lots of other things. Kingdom Come, however, is Jill’s second (or third?) album out of five or six?. (Though you can't really see it in her lone hymns album, she is a first class lyricist.)  I own  “Writing on the Wall” and hope to acquire her most recent two soon.

Final Note: Jill and husaband appear to be part of  a circle of friends and literary types who not only support each other in music and other creative dallies, but read books and write about them.  I plan on visiting the Rabbit Room on a routine basis.



Monday, October 5, 2009

Jadon Lavik - Roots Run Deep; A collection of Hymns

(a Collection of Hymns) Bec Recordings, 2008
Style: melodic pop/James Taylor acoustic.

I discovered this CD playing audio roulette at Walmart (I liked the cover and price.) Turns out Jadon is a worship leader with a liquid voice and two albums under his belt. His third album Roots Run Deep features up-tempo renditions of classic hymns with mostly standard tunes, dressed in melodic acousta-pop production.

Roots features time honored "chart toppers": Come Though Fount, Blessed Assurance, Tis so Sweet, This is my Father's World, I Surrender All, Wondrous Love, Turn Your Eyes, I Need Thee, Take my Life, What a Friend, and Amazing Grace.

"It's definitely a departure from the first two records" he says. "I hope people dig it. It's not super polished or overly produced, but it's really raw, acoustic and real." Lavik says he's always wanted to do a hymns project, especially since he grew up in a traditional church in the state of Washington where he developed a love and appreciation for the standards of the faith. "I love old hymns," the 29-year-old troubadour confesses. "For me, this is not about making a strategic career move. I wanted to do it because I have a deep reverence for the songs."

As is, Jadon and I have a very different sense of what "raw" or un-polished means. Roots Run Deep features dynamic acoustic work and Jadon's beautiful vocal treatments, but this ain't no Americana. Think instead, of well executed Christian-radio fare, with a strong acoustic base. The production is first rate and deeply layered, and meant to buttress but not overpower the songs.

All in all, Roots runs a tad glossy to my ear, but certainly turns a cold room warm... It enlivens (sp?) my spirit as it introduces young people (or modern worshipers) to our rich hymn heritage. Surprisingly, my three favorite presentations take the greatest liberties with the standard tunes. Download recommendations: The very danceable, What Wondrous Love is This (A+) and Take my Life, along with a soft bluesy rendition of Amazing Grace, with alternate chorus.

Thanks Jadon!


Monday, September 28, 2009

Frio Suite: Phil Keaggy - Jeff Johnson

The Grand Canyon Suite: Ferde Grofé (1931)
The Frio Suite: Phil Keaggy and Jeff Johnson (2009) :)

Frio Suite: A new instrumental album (release 0ctober 6, 2009) showcasing the artistry of Phil Keaggy and Jeff Johnson, together with Kathy Hastings (visual artist) and Luci Shaw (poet). This album builds an audio poem built around the sights, sounds, and emotions of the Frio River, as it flows through the grounds of the Laity Lodge. In Leaky, Texas.

As a dedicated fan of guitarist Phil Keaggy and pianist/Keyboard/ambience man Jeff Johnson, (who collectively have put out near 80 albums spanning thirty years), I was ready to “sleep on the sidewalk and camp” when I heard these two were working on a collaborative effort.

For the uninitiated, Phil Keaggy is a world class guitarist who simply knows no genre borders. His instrumental works span the worlds of the chamber orchestra to blow-out-your-speakers psychedelic Rock. He dictates much of the audio track playing in my head! As a singer, Phil favors vocalist Paul McCartney, and many of his pop compositions carry Beatlesque overtones.

Keyboard/Ambience man Jeff Johnson may pull a smaller (but highly dedicated following) and has built a reputation around deeply layered instrumental works and “experimental” vocal albums with lyrics like poetry. Like Phil, he alternates between instrumental and vocal offerings (though in once sense every album either man makes is an instrumental.) Jeff’s music spans genres, but he has cut a deep river of works with an ambient-Celtic hue, or steeped in liturgical worship. Think of the music that should have been used for the Lord of the Rings series. Think of yourself exploring new worlds with singing sirens in the background. As is, Jeff has a special knack for teaming up with other talented singers and musicians (and authors) creating music anchored in another age.

This is a union that makes perfect sense; Both men are creating some of the best music on the planet, even as they delight in God and work to flesh out the meaning of Christ honoring artistry -- Even as they (happily) work outside the parameters of the Christian music industry. Both men fluctuate between instrumental and vocal releases. Both men have produced a rich and sometimes disparate body of music, but find common voice in experimental jazz and Celtic themes. Both men sport goatees. :)

On the critical side, both Phil and Jeff have thinner tenor voices that some (like my kids) aren’t keen on. I thoroughly enjoy both, and find their vocal treatments delightful, endearing and very human. (At one point in Frio there was a soaring wordless vocal. The linear notes say “Jeff” but I sure couldn’t tell. Could have easily been either.)

Anyway, back to the Suite.This union has produced everything I would hope for -- an utterly beautiful concept album full of hidden melodies and textures. It may be that some fans of Phil’s rock’n side won’t ride with this one. The guitar is sometimes restrained, in the best kind of way.

Truth is, this should be called a trio (or even quartet) production. The art of Kathy Hastings -- album cover and overall inspiration, and a particular poem by Luci Shaw are key to understanding the work.

I will confess a bias. You say Texas and I think tall-grass and steers or the Dallas/Houston sky line. But from what I see from the Frio Suites video this river so unlike what I think of when I hear of Texas. And seeing that river really set the stage for hearing the album and understating the Kathy Hastings’ illustration. I was most familiar with Hastings’ work showcased on many of Jeff’s albums -- exquisite, “crisp” illustrative work, but I had not seen the kind of raw globby and expressive approach to painting that I see evidenced on the Frio Suite Cover. I liked the painting, but assumed it to be something of an “emotion” explosion. Then I saw the video and realized that Kathy’s cover painting is almost photographic in detail (or may be an altered photo) as she illustrates the curved, worn, multicolored rock of a canyon wall. And that canyon and the water that flow through it set the parameters of the album. Add to that, Luci’s poem, and the meaning of place takes on form.

If Jeff and Phil were working the Hudson, or the Mississippi, or the crashing cascades of Colorado River as it cuts through the Grand Canyon, this would be a different album. It appears however, that the Frio is gentle and ancient, sometimes deep and sometimes trickley … The kind of place where light bounces all around. All of which goes to feeding the sound of Frio. The cliff walls are chiseled, the river small but fluid. We are treated to melody followed by impression and free flowing improvisations. The music swells, fades, and allows for moments of silence. There is a sense of wind of warbling under the water. There are hypnotic patterns in keeping with an undulating, reflecting channel. There are cloud days and subdued tones… a touch of melancholy. There is dissonance - and drama – but contained drama, in keeping with an intimate place. There is the sun rising and echoing thought the canyon. Beyond that the music is full of intricate inner layering, and quirky percussion and stunning guitar.

To be honest, I have been trying to decide where to store the CD. Should I place it with my Keaggy collection, or growing Jeff Johnson collection. I’ve decided with Jeff. From the opening piano riffs, to the “darker” final cut, Frio makes strong on a Jeff Johnson recipe: Minor modes, spare piano, multidimensional rhythm, and a sense of space… or journey.  On the other hand, this disk closely follows the recipe used by Keaggy in his last major instrumental release – Phantasmagorical: shifting melodic line, and guitar that builds, dips, and soars through a larger instrumental fabric. (So store it where you want.)

Fans of both Phil and Jeff will hear sonic signatures from past albums, but I don’t think I have ever heard Phil this “impressionistic.” The supporting structure allows Phil to play… or not, and then with great flourish ---or, at the level of subterranean texture. Some of his guitar riffs sound like running water, both soft and rapid. Fluid indeed! The overall music, while highly electric, doesn't sound “electric.”  Jeff has a knack for creating tones that sound transparent or hollow or like multiple notes (with no spaces between) all at once, like nothing you could ever chart. And the music of Phil and Jeff flows together -- sometimes in duet, sometimes in counterpoint--so well that your ear gets to chase multiple parts in and out like tapestry. And the background ambiance often fits so well, that you really have to think about hearing it.

All in all, this is a very mature work. Both men have produced bolder, more dynamic works. Both men have produced leaner…and certainly lower budget works. (Side note: Phil should scrap his drum machine forever; The quality of the percussion throughout this album would have lifted some of his past solo guitar albums from “incredible-minus” to “astonishing-plus”). And certainly both have produced works that may be more accessible for more people. But this work, with it sophistication, shared enterprise and delight in deep things will make it one of my favorites for decades to come. And now I’m waiting for the next collaboration!

Sunday, September 27, 2009

Phantasmagorical, Master and Musicain II - Phil Keaggy

Phantasmagorical: Master and Musician volume II, by Phil Keaggy

A deep disappointment, a raging delight (! - ?)

One may wonder how I could ever be disappointed in a Phil Keaggy album, but my disappointment has nothing to do with the music, but rather with part of the title.

Title part One: Phantasmagorical.
Linear notes read: Phantasmagorical: 1) a shifting series of phantasm, illusion, or appearances, is in dream or as created by the imagination. 2) A changing scene made up of many elements 3) an optical illusion in which figures increase or diminish in size, pass into each other dissolve, etc. This note perfectly describes the album and everything that makes it work. I fully applaud the title part of the title.

Master and Musician II.
Nope. Sorry. This subtitle set me up. I expected something with greater musical and spiritual connection to Master and the Musician, one of the great albums in the history of the world. I have long wanted just such a followup and was thrilled to see that someone else held my vision. But this is not that album.

Not that Phantasmagorical isn’t top of craft. It’s a very mature work showcasing lessons learned in the thirty years since M and M’s release. But this album misses so many elements that made Master I a distinctive work that there is no good reason to ride off of its coattails. And the compassion disappoints.

Master and Musician one was what we used to call a concept album. The total functioned as a unit, built around a theme... In this case the theme came in the form of a real story, reminiscent of little mini tale by George McDonald (or Lewis or Tolkien) spilling across front and back of the album sleeve. The story itself set a stage for hearing the music, so that even though Master and Musician featured VERY diverse musical components (an M and M highlight), the story wove them together. Linear Notes from the 30 year Anniversary reissue, note that the story was created after the music was created, in part as a way to present (and justify) the ground- breaking instrumental to a largely Christian audience. Even so, the story helped us hear the music as part of sacred narrative, complete with castles, golden halls, a wedding feast and the calling of distant land. I heard Christ wooing his bride. I head Aslan padding in the Hall. Indeed, I remember a review from the time. It asked what in fact might make a Christian instrumental album different from any other… (if not lack of skill;) -- But the reviewer said something that made sense to me. M and M, sounded “anointed.” That is, in disposition, skill and beauty it carried audio blessing beyond the mere music.

Beyond that Master and the Musician featured something that was a hall mark of several early PK recordings… The artful weaving (or sometimes immediate shifting) from acoustic to bold rock and back to acoustic. Master did this in a way I had never heard before. Was it jazz (or classical) or rock? (It was all and more)Master 2 simply doesn’t invite immediate comparison.

Phantasmagorical does feature several “madrigal” tunes that could have been placed in Master and Musician and fit very well. The album also masters the art of shift and weave, but it more from ambient acoustic to jazz acoustic. Gone are the blazing rock anthems. The biggest difference however is in the narrative. Phantasmagorical functions as a conceptual unit, but there is no story line or jacket notes to prime our imaginations. No knights or brides or castles. No Christ wooing his beloved. No throne with seraphim. No Aslan padding through the forest.

Lest I be misunderstood, I would not begin to suggest that M and M is "Christian", in a way that Phantasmagorical is not. Within the calendar week both Friday and Sunday belong to God. An album need not be baptized in Christian language or themes to bring pleasure to God or his people. It’s simply that Master and Musician fed my sacred imagination directly whereas as Phantasmagorical functions at the level of a sonic treat. Phantasmagorical needs no reference to M and M to justify its existence (or sell more records.)

So…. What does Phantasmagorical do right? Most everything …. (Except the subtitle!)

This is a mature album that incorporates elements of all that has gone before it. Here are the strong acoustic rifts of Acoustic Sketches and Freehand, Here are the melodic elements of the Quiet Hours or Cinemascapes. Here are stellar musicians playing a host of instruments, working with PK in the spirit of Beyond Nature (though less dense), and here are some of the weird and slightly hypnotic experiments of the highly looped album: Roundabouts.In two months I have listened to Phantasmagorical near one hundred times... This is an album with that real lasting power. It may be that real musicians, playing real instruments, give this album depth not heard n PK's lower-budget solo albums. And the song “Caffeinated Dessert” may be one of the loveliest most satisfying melodies ever created. Ever.

Beyond that, there are musical textures in this album that I have seldom -- if ever heard. When is the last time you heard and electric guitar and a clarinet (or oboe?) in tight harmony?

In short, Phantasmagorical reaches a level of musical complexity that may eclipse his earlier works. It’s beautiful. I highly recommend it. It’s just not M and M.

Friday, September 25, 2009

Phil Keaggy: Acoustic Sketches

Genre: Solo or small ensamble, acoustic guitar

As the name implies, this disk features acoustic guitar sketches, at various stages of polish. Funny thing. Upon first listen, several pieces sounded so “sketchy” (imagine that) as to sound like just fooling around. Indeed, A few tacks do end with a fade, as opposed to a more satisfying “finished” ending. Now, however I listed to the work and everything sounds quite musical, very purposed, and mostly complete.

Acoustic Sketches stands out for its pure simplicity. There is probably far more to a recording like this than meets my ear. But mostly what we get is stunning “living-room” guitar. I did hear a touch of two of looping, and even a romping track with a Tuba, but on the whole this album stands out for what isn’t there. No orchestras, no drum machine, just Phil with Phil, either solo or in duet.

Stand outs:Iconic sounding entry and exit tracks, and track 3.Several instrumentals of hallmark sung-songs (Let Everything Else Go, and The 50th Family reunion) which probably mean more if you already know and love the sung version.

Staccato Blast:Those who are familiar with guitarist Michael Hedges, will hear several nods to his “violent acoustic” approach. (Phil directly referenced his on his album “Wind and the Wheat” and does well with an artful “borrow.” (As is, I heard Michael Hedges years ago on his album Aerial Boundaries (Windham Hill) and assumed the album featured Hedges in multi tracking. Then I saw the guy in concert and found he played a double necked dulcimer/guitar… all at once.) I do not know if Phil is using multi-tracking or some variation on picking while strumming, but Keaggy’s rapid staccato approach is just as startling. Can you really do that with a guitar?

I would give this album the highest rating, except that I think Phil may have eclipsed it with Free Hand, an album of similar conviction but with just a tad more power, variety, and instrumental depth.

Monday, September 21, 2009

Charlie Peacock: Love, Press Ex-Curio

Genre: Experimental Jazz

"Love Expresses itself in Curiosity"

Wow, Mano, Mano do I like this recording. I guess you call “Love, Press Ex-curio” jazz fusion (You couldn’t call it anything else) but it dishes some really hip fusing. Upfront, this isn’t something that a “ jazz combo could play, unless you included all kinds of digital gizmos. Call it jazz-fusion electronica. But don’t let the electronic part fool you, this album showcases sock-melting “acoustic” instrumentals expertly twined with ambient elements and dancing keyboards. The only album I know to compare it to is an album by “movie-scape artist Mark Isham and his interpretations of Miles Davis numbers.

As for this work, the only supporting musician's name I am familiar with (by association) is Ravi Coltrane, son of Jazz legend John Coltrane. (However that doesn’t mean anything since I can only name a handful of jazz artists) ((Turns out after reading a far better review than this, that I simply am ignorant. Charlie was able to marshal the talents of several world class jazz musicians whose names those in the know, know.))

As for Charlie, most folks know him as a recording artist and veteran producer in the Christian Pop/rock arena. Even so, much of his “regular” music stands outside the bounds of the Christian Radio industry. He has a strong ear for quirky instrumentals, R&B and jazz dallies. This album slightly references his experimental pop album “Strange Language” (and a sampler album with artists he produced) but pushes in a whole new direction. (I bet Charlie has wanted to do this for years as he has referenced John Coltrane in several songs. All in all, and with a limited musical palette I hear Coltrane, Davis, Mark Isham, Chuck Mangione, Marcus Roberts, Glass Harp, Stravinsky!... and Peacock! Great album for those who hear outside the lines.

Sunday, September 20, 2009

Terry Scott Taylor: Knowledge and Innocence

Terry Scott Taylor: Knowledge and Innocence:

It probably doesn't make a lot of sense to review a CD that was first released as an album some twenty(?!) years ago, and that you will never see or hear of ---but I found a copy for far less than the 78 dollars someone wants for it on Ebay.

It’s been so many years since I rubbed all the particles off my old cassette, that I forgot how simply amazing this recording is. Count this as one of the ten recordings I should take to restart civilization. (Others include Mark Heard’s Satellite Sky, Miles Davis’ Kind of Blue, Handel’s Messiah.) There are times the recording sounds a little demo… like a synthesizer was making up for what should have been a full band. And it is, this is something of a homemade drum maching album. But budget aside, Terry pulls out more odd textures, melodies, and moods than could be thought possible. Borrowing a title employed by English poet William Blake, TS Taylor blends themes of childhood, discovery, blue collar life, and grandfather’s camp-meeting, and a longing for heaven. Quick adjectives describing all or part of the album: Cheesy, hypnotic, grand, mystic, human, Exquisite, silly, profound,. Simply... an astonishing album with one foot firmly anchored in the next world.

Wednesday, January 21, 2009

GREAT nature and landscape photography

This next section may take a while to build, but the following links (many gathered from Earth Shots) showcase some of the fineset nature or travel photographers in the world.

Philippe Sainte-Laudy: Photographie nature (French)
countryside, flowers: images range from traditional landscapes to higly stylized photoshop adaptations. Superb.

Dirk Ehrenraut: The World is Unique
German photographer

Kevin McNeal:
Astonishing landscape photographer based out of Washington State. Beautiful light and motion studies. Large format vistas.