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.

1 comment:

  1. I'm not a reviewer, but if I were I'd give your review of Carolyn's album ("LWHF") a raving review. Thanks for putting into words what I hear from her music, but I'm unable to express it with text.

    I agree she's a lyrical gemstone who can make an ordinary phrase sound simple and clever at the same time. She simply shines with joy.