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.

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