Sparrow Records. July 2010
Audrey Assad, The House You are Building.
Quick Spin: this is something of an audio diary and Christian worship album (but not a corporate worship album) with a literary nod, by singer songwriter Audrey Assasd. Sound ranges from polished pop (with some drop dead gorgeous melodic lines) to moments in the foggy meadow parlor (or something like that). Overall, a little heavy on production for my ear, but the stuff that works is so beautiful that I push through the gloss to multiple moments of exquisite loveliness.
I picked this one up on a lark, with no sense whatsoever what I would hear or find. Special price and cover art pulled me in. I’m an easy sell when it comes to bookish looking girls with dweeb glasses, illumined by a nice North light. The package pretty much shouted - dangerous, minor chord, introverted poetry from a woman of striking intelligence.
And the verdict ...
EVERYTHING I should would from a vocalist -- Most of what I should want in a songwriter -- and (sadly) a little less that works for me on a production/ sound craft level.
First listen has me scratching my head. How did a girl with this much pure vocal ability (and content worth hearing) end up getting run through a CCM (Contemporary Christian pop music) filter? Granted, it’s a quality CCM filter, but it just sounds too much like the product of mainstream radio or what might be dished up by a modern praise band. There are some nice exceptions, those moments, when the producers allowed the piano to well to the top, but my ear is straining to hear all the real music moments under the gloss. (The title song “The House you are Building, or the song “Ought to be” come closest to what this record ought to be. And the final cut – Show me, Well that is simply gorgeous.)
Note: Fifth listen in. I find my heart is warming to the production. Turns out Audrey is working with a veteran audio team including Matt Slocum (Instrumentalist with Sixpence) and producer Marshall Altman (Who… “pulled things out of me emotionally that I don’t think I’d ever accessed”).
Even so, my ear yearns for a little more discord and spit, or -- if we are doing Pop -- those sensibilities that guided Regina Spektor's last CD. I find the opening track "For Love of You" that is currently being used to promote Audrey is my LEAST favorite musically. It set the stage for an initial disappointment, but now I find myself easily drawn into the overall soundscape. Think lush key-driven melancholy-pop with moments of delightful restraint.
Ps. Turns out the opening track that I don’t like is the one doing really well on I-Tunes. So what do I know? I have also found that I-Tunes features an acoustic version of the same track, which I much prefer.
Audrey’s deeply feminine vocals combine both whimsy and strength. She does the “gymnastics” without sounding like an exhibitionist.
Must confess I lack a deep enough exposure to modern pop to make comparisons that may be meaningful. But here are the folks I hear with a touch: Sarah Groves, but more strident, and with more vocal twists. (You can really hear Sara G. in the harmony elements.) Mindy Smith (countrified blues) with just a little more pop sensibility. Eisley (whatever her name is): Not as dainty or flitty, but with a shared penchant for falsetto flips.
It took me to the second listen till I realized that this is a total “you” record. I read that there may be one song written to a boyfriend (in reality) but the dominant “you” -- really is the YOU of God. And this is where Audrey’s songcraft shines. She has managed to write (or co write) a series of vertical poems that are neither hymnbook heavy nor t-shirt casual. Her verse is simple, elegant and poetic, but not whacked-out esoteric. But mostly… (and this is the best part) Audrey's words and worship ring genuine. As a performer, she invites us into her communion with God, be it with the language of wonder, question, or praise.
Yeah these are old shoes that I've been walking in
I'm wearing weary like it's a second skin
I've been looking for a place to lay my head
All this time like a vagabond
A homeless stranger
I've been wandering
All my life you've been calling me
To a home you know I've been needing
I'm a broken stone
So lay me in the house you're building
You are a shelter for every misfit soul
We are the four walls and you're the cornerstone
you're the solid rock that we are built upon
I'm a broken stone
So lay me in the house you're building
'Cause in you I find my meaning, yeah
And in you I find my beauty
(Audio Clip, The House You are Building)
I mentioned Audrey’s bookish cover look. Turns out she really is a reader, and many of the songs reference poems or spiritual writings. I heard an immediate reference to Augustine (I am restless, restless, till I find my rest in You’) Christianity Today pointed to some others.
Additional lyrical inspiration came from Assad’s love of literature and her memories of middle school; Audrey turned to favourite poems by Gerard Manley Hopkins and Francis Thompson, to the works of St Augustine and CS Lewis, and to her own feelings of still not quite fitting in.
The first single “For Love Of You” which was inspired by the Hopkins poem “As Kingfishers Catch Fire”, has already made a splash at radio with K-Love recently adding the single and Assad making an aggressive radio promo tour across the country talking about the single.
Beyond that, I read that Audrey is a relatively recent Roman Catholic convert. (And joins company with a few of my faves, John Michael Talbot, Bill Malonee, and Sarah Hart) Audrey's conversion may direct her reading but seems to have little “direct” impact on her writing, at least in an Ava Maria kind of way. (I hope that didn’t sound too wrong) These songs truly are universal, and this son-of-the reformation was delighted to join with Audrey in bent-heart worship of our living God.
I recommend this disk and hope it finds play in wide circle. I plan to loan it to my kids. I see that one of her songs had been offered free on I-Tunes, and that many responders joined me in both surprise and delight. While I will keep my fingers crossed for more “organic” production next time around, I figure I’ve met a sister in the soul, and look forward to enjoying many a drive or cleaning Saturday with Audrey singing “backup.” My life has been beautified in the listen.