Tuesday, April 27, 2010

Mo Leverett: Shards of Light

Mo Leverett: Shards of Light
(Hymns and Spiritual Songs – (Pirate Edition*)

I think this came out real late 2009.
Genre: Rogue Folk, at the intersection of Creole blues and the great Awakening.

Synopsis: Original and “Old-School” hymns, as sung by a poet-pirate. Lean production, mostly guitar and small ensemble. One of the finest “New-Hymn” collections ever created on the Face of the Earth.

Mo Leverett: Shards of Light (order)

Mo Leverett is one of those guys whose music you just have to know about – or you will never find. He doesn’t seem to show up in any kind of stores, or lists, or even reviews…..and he even dumped me on Facebook. (Truth is, he may have dumped everyone. For whatever reasons, I stopped seeing his post, then went to see if perhaps I had been relegated to Facebook purgatory, only to find that Mo doesn’t appear to be there right now. You can however, follow him through one of his ministry music outlets, or on a Facebook page. You can even read him on this defunct blog, or read a charming review of the process behind Shards of Light.

For the unacquainted (most everyone) Mo is musician-slash-pastor with an intentionally urban church, Centerpoint of Tallahassee, Florida. (Given the lack of a denomination in the name, I guess I’ll skip it too, except to say that Pastor MO works out of a church identified with Puritans, Presbyters, Churches in America, Total depravity, conservative social-sensibilities, and largely white suburban professionals.

It is with some intrigue then, that MO has dedicated his musical and pastoral life to shattering the demographic. He lived and worked for years in an inner city ministry in New Orleans. (Mo founded Desire Street Ministries in 1990 and led the same till 2006. You can trace his ministry --through tribulation, growth and hope ---then deep lamentation, following Katrina’s wrath -- across multiple albums.

Mo’s music is mostly muscled folk, but steeped in an alt-bayou sound. It’s not just theatre, Mo knows the blues. I cannot now find the lyric, but some of Mo’s best music is angry music – including a song in which he hears the Star Spangled Banner from a street side perch. I don’t know if Desire Street Ministries is still going, but I get the sense it took it hard on the chin with the rest of his devastated “parish.” Mo’s since moved his family to higher ground, and opened Rebirth International, an organization with a focus on the revitalization of urban communities worldwide.

All of which is interesting, but has virtually nothing to do (except for the “everything of forging the man) with the music of Shards.
In Short, Shards is one of the MOST SATIFYING collections of hymns and spiritual songs ever created on the Face of the Earth.

And I am not an easy audience. I have an ear for old hymns (but seldome get to hear them) -- And really like the idea of introducing those same hymns to new generations – even if it sometimes means changing the tune. Just the same, I’m mostly underwhelmed by efforts to do just that. Part of the glory of old hymns is their structure. Why trade a tune of enduring beauty for something modern, especially if you trade it for something which is just soggy and unmemorable?

But Mo is not about the business of simply trading tunes or adding beat. He is about the business of making “old” content— dangerous, and desperate and lovely.  

The first and big surprise. Mo’s voice.

Mo makes no bones. He likes a good cigar. But I hadn’t heard a Mo CD in some half a dozen years. Now I am going to go back and fill in the gaps. Mo never had a polished voice… He was always a folk singer’s singer… but his is the voice of one who talks tobacco… or weeps, or sings – like a violin - multiple tones at the same time. (This may be harsh, but my first mental image was of the guy who loses the chariot race to Ben Hur and is gurgling for life… There are times MO’s voice is tortured raspy. Think Pirate, or some kind of cross between Lyle Lovett and Leonard Cohen.

According to the promo material, Shards is Mo’s 9th album, and considered lighter and more hopeful than recent recordings. …. Which in turn, makes me want to go back and hear the misery I’ve missed. Shards dishes a range of emotions, from unbridled jubilation, to quivering reflection -- but there is mass and a depth to Shards that is missing in so much of modern music. When Mo laments sin, or sings of grace you understand that he understands he has been freed from a death sentence. But Augh... The Jubilation. Refiner's Flame is hands down one of the most Joy filled songs I’ve ever heard. (and in the face of great irony)

That we could call our failures friend, and praise our darkest day...And hidden in the worst of times...a mystery to appear, it is in darkness light will shine, and cries which draw God near. 

Then there is that splendid "Last Song" 

If this be my last song , let me like a clarion, like a seraphim angel I'll be, singing all to your glory..If this be my last day...all my burdens will fly away, I will lift crooked hands to the sky and the flame of your name....

You have my permission. Sing it when I die.

Beyond that, Shards is graced with two songs sung by Mo’s daughter…the beauty and virtue that wells from her voice blesses the soul, and would make any Dad proud.

Production on Shards is delightfully lean. The album opens with an instrumental guitar track. Remaining tracks are built on an acoustic guitar base, with swirls of piano or cello and a touch or two of old-church-organ, hand-drum, upright bass, electric guitar, even trumpet -- but never in a way that overpowers the songs. I wish more people would catch the ear for this kind of real music – the kind you could play in your living room if you only knew half a dozen primo musicians and some swampy black vocalists.


All in all, someone may wonder why these are called hymns. We know Rock of Ages was a hymn, but is it a hymn when Mo sings it without the familiar tune or structure? Some may quibble with the word “hymn” but where Shard bumps heavy into song craft of a century or two ago is at the point of content. (Shards also uses some of the rhyme style I associate with the Psalter, an old English adaptation of the Psalms.  Some of the words look hokey in print, but they really do work in song.)  Take for example the song, Shards of Life. Mo joins the saints of old and  sings with conviction of the sinfulness of sin -- and of a boldly loving God we associate with the likes of  Amazing Grace.

There I was in darkness found
Lying prostrate on the ground…
Banded like a shattered reed
Fallen like some scattered seed,
Oh I (or Whoa – I)

Slow I walked on sorrow’s path
Bruised within by sorrow’s wrath
Where to find the hope of cure
Where the strength for to endure
Ohhh-I, whoa I

Shards of Light with arrow speed
Downward flight to pierce my need
Now I’m wounded from above
Wounded by redemptive love

Graceful Grace and Grace alone
Now the only judgment known (Not sure on this)
Now no condemnation plan
Only mercy in His hand
Whoa I, OOh I (?)

Shards of Light with arrow speed
Downward flight to pierce my need
Now I’m wounded from above
I was wounded by redemptive love

As is, I have only one beef with this exceptional album. Given limited print, self production and a modest budget, the Shards CD offers NO linear notes. I recognized several of the lyrics as belonging to old hymns, but am not sure—in the end, how many of these songs are MO’s or how many belong to ‘Public Domain”. I figure at least part of my 15 bucks could have been used to throw in an extra piece of paper. But hey, if that extra thirty cents goes to his family, his ministry or the next CD, I’m for it.

#Save the Hymns


  1. Sorry for the Facebook thing - just decided it was more distraction than my introverted soul could take. No offense intended...And sorry for the absence of linear notes - but the pennies saved do benefit urban mission. Next project I'll be sure and give you more to read. Thanks for the sweet review. You made my day!

  2. Kirk - Thanks for linking my blog to yours. I'm honored and glad to make a new friend.

    Bob Struck