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

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