Tuesday, December 3, 2013

Give Love on Christmas

Artists:   Collaboration, featuring Jars of Clay, Charlie Peacock, Sandra McCracken and others.
Genre:  Christmas, folk, folk-rock, chamber-coustic, and assorted indie sounds.

In the next few days I hope to put out a list of my favorite Christmas albums, and sure to make the list is this little gem… I just discovered – one hour ago.  That is, I am now on my second listen, and I fully expect this little download will get plenty of ear-play.

I must confess, as a CD man, I am not quite used to the idea that you can just get music for free (though you will certainly want to throw in a tip… or more, on this one.)

The offering…”Give Love on Christmas” is just that.   A way to give love, by donating to the Blood:Water Mission, even as the represented artists have given of themselves in this collaboration.

Like all things offered on NoiseTrade, the download itself is free, but I make it a habit to tip artists, sometimes on the spot, or sometimes later after sampling works and agreeing that I will be listening multiple times.

As is, I figure not all these songs were penned for Christmas.  In fact, I know several were not… but are given to the project in the spirit of the same.    For example, it would be hard to call the song Mystic, by Charlie Peacock a Christmas song, except it involves going home.

So what makes this a Christmas gem?  Ten of the eleven tunes are "unkowns" -- while the final song, Oh Come Emanuel, simply happens to be my favorite Christmas hymn.  Add to that, the spirit of the thing. Intelligent, lean production as the norm, the absence of smarmy gloss and fru-fru, and strongly vertical connection.  (At least half the songs highlight the love of God as expressed to his creation through his Son, while the others tend to focus on our call to love one another.

Since you can sample the whole of the album on Noisetrade I won’t go on about the sounds of the various artists, except to say… Dan Hasteltine of Jars of Clay just keeps sounding better and better. 

(I had just started to list my favorite tracks, but that list included ¾ of the offering, I figured I will just let you decide which you like best…. But happy surprise showing by Phil Keaggy, and someone called Sleeping at Last.  (Loved that song)   Oh, and the vocal of Jeannette Isabella and Joy Williams (Civil Wars) and… Rhett, Sandra,  and….I better quit.

thank you to all those who put this little treasure of an "album" in my hands.


Ps.  Now I find that this is not the first Blood-Water Mission collaboration.  Here is an earlier release, - Give Hope this Christmas.  It looks mighty interesting, though also less Christmas focused.

Saturday, November 16, 2013

Warren Barfield: Redbird; Album review by Kirk

Artist: Warren Barfield
Album: Redbird
Release Date:  Oct 12, 2012
Genre: Neo-folk, southern fried country without the twang.

Quick spin: Lone guy on a guitar or with small ensemble -- muscled baritone, singing gospel-colored story songs about growing up southern fried. No direct voice comparison, but his delivery shares qualities in common with to James Taylor, Pierce Pettis, Tim O'brien, Marc Cohn, maybe even John Mayer.


I have a theory about bargain bins. They hold the worst… and the very best the music that the world has to offer. Actually found this on Ebay for a buck. Never heard of the guy. Liked the art and the description, took the gamble. Won big time.

Turns out Warren is not a new kid on the block, this would be his fourth album. Also turns out, after reading some reviews, this album represents a turning point for Warren, one that may loosen some of his fan base, even as it adds new followers.

In short, Warren started out with a denser sound, sort of a countrified adult contemporary Nashville fare.  I read that his first album scored strong air play, even as he teamed with a contemporary Christian group Need to Breath, and (or then) recorded a song that was used in the indie/Christian film “Fireproof.”  (Sample)

Since purchasing Redbird, I have started listening  to Warren’s older work. For me, it's a mixed bag… Songs range from: "Oh my, how did I miss this"… to …"that was for someone else."

As it is, there are bucket loads of extremely talented people associated with CCM (Contemporary Christian Music) industry of Nashville, but the place readily suffers from an insular sound. I have come to view the CCM label as the kind of thing you don’t want to be saddled with, even if you are extremely talented – and a Christian singing in a contemporary context!  With Redbird, Warren leaves any vestiges of CCM formula music behind. (good luck getting most of this heard on the radio:)  This album represents a dynamic shift toward the kind of music I thoroughly enjoy: stripped down singer-songwriter artistry of the highest order.

The character of his voice is different, but I would readily compare the “new” warren with another southern Folk-master, Pierce Pettis.


Redbird opens with a song that seems at once ancient… and modern.  They lyrics to The Time is Now are chiseled and direct, the voice like rugged oak.    The chorus (make that choral groups calls to mind cotton fields, chain gangs or the black church...with old women in white hats (or something like that.)

I cut my teeth, on the back of an old church pew
I learned to walk in the ways of light and truth
And I was told not to speak til I was spoken to
I heard it preached, what I should and I should not do
And the choir sang
Woh oh oh oh oh oh oh Woh oh oh oh oh oh oh

Listen between the lines and see if you don’t hear…Martin Luther King, Atticus Finch, or  thousand others who have stood their ground in the face of the boot.

The remaining songs trace a small body of heart-felt themes: Some bright and sing-along, some darker hued, even Faulkneresque.

If I were to choose a theme for Redbird it would be this.  Sticking it out.

Sticking it out in the face of injustice, sticking it out in a climate of short term love, even sticking it out when the world might crush our delight in the indwelling God.   (This albums themes  run horizontal, but that last one is strongly implied.  It is the indwelling God who grants us the power to endure.

My favorites:

The bold opener – The Time is Now, followed by the genuinely lovely Red Bird, the darker-toned Love Does -- the concrete, detailed, heart-teaching ballad anchored in the life and enduring spirit of Warren’s Grandparents, They Don't Make'em Like They Used To -- and the outrageously gorgeous duet “Once You Find Love.” Truth is, you can read a much better description of each song and probably the whole album here (but then it wouldn't be my review.)

Short form: God working through Ebay… led me to this treasure, and I wanted you to know about. My ear is open.   Thanks Warren for taking this risk.  I deeply appreciate it.

Tuesday, November 12, 2013

Trace Adkins: The King's Gift - Review by Kirk

Trace Adkins: The King’s Gift.
Genre:  Christmas; Celtic Country fusion.
Release Date: 10/29/2013

Quick Spin.  A true jewel of an album, featuring Celtic-colored Christmas carols -- and that continent of a voice that is Trace McAdkins.  This will likely be my Advent Fave for the year 2013.  What a great surprise.

I will be honest.  I bought this for the cover, and the very idea of it all. 

Now that CD's appear to be going the way of the dinosaur you can sometimes find good deals in the dwindling Walmart audio section.   So there I am, flipping through the new releases when I see what appears to be a Celtic-based Christmas album with all that braided tapestry stuff -- that, and back cover with the big long haired dude looking like a member of the cavalry.

I was pretty sure I knew the name Trace Adkins, but really I didn't know any of his music, nor could I have described his voice.   My country ear is pretty much limited to the likes of Johnny Cash and  Allison Krauss -- though, in the last years I have purchased music by Merle Haggard and Billy Joe Shaver.  Suffice it to say, I just don’t do much main-street Nashville. 
My mistake.

Turns out I have may have missed more than my folkster-ears have bargained for.

As I said, I was drawn by the design and even the song selection.   My Celtic music collection runs a little deeper than my country, and I can truthfully say I have at least a dozen Celtic-colored Christmas CDs.  So I was intrigued by the idea of cowboys and penny whistles.

And the verdict is…

Thoroughly delighted, utterly pleased, fan of a “new” singer… and brimming with Christmas Joy.

First.  I do not know anything about Trace or his spiritual proclivities.   But I do know, that as an album that would celebrate the birth of the King -- This album rings true.   A lot of folks sing religiously themed music during Christmas time and this could be just that.  But I kind of doubt it.  The title, the focus, the opening words, and the audio conviction that runs through this album firmly suggest that this is an act of worship.

Then there is that voice.  Forgive me Trace (should you read this review) for simply never having heard your voice.   Should anyone else be unfamiliar think….kitten paws and Thunder, or Caverns and Cathedrals.  This a mighty voice, but utterly tender.   In a day when the airwaves are populated by thin voiced adolescents scrubbed clean with auto-tune, it's almost startling to hear a deep, unpolished baritone. And it’s not like he is just lowering his voice to sing low…    Trace comes off totally un-strained when rocking those low decibels.   In fact, there is one time where Trace almost sounds like one of those huge aboriginal pipes called the didgeridoo.  (Often used in Celtic fair.)  Add to that, muscled… low guitar, and the whole things just radiates gentle machismo. Like a Mountain.

Add to that voice, the talents of the Chieftains, multiple skilled instrumentalists, a trove of real Celtic instruments… and the voice of angel vocalist Alyth McCormack (recorded in Ireland) and you have a simply magical brew.   This is one talent-packed ensemble.

As for the twining of Celtic and Western vibe: A marriage made in heaven.

Jazz, as I understand it is the child of European classical and African tribal music.   Two strands, once joined, create this whole new dynamic in music.  While I hardly expect to see a whole *new genre spring out of the fusion of American Country and Irish Country, this marriage is powerful, and living.   It makes perfect sense.  This fusion just feels right. No gimmick.  Perfectly realized. And both genres like the fiddle!

* Ps.  In one sense we already do have such a genre. The mountain music of Appalachia and the Ozarks IS a true child of Ireland and the New World… but this sound reaches just a little farther west. 

Should I have any quibble with this offering, it might be this:  A few of the tunes just played it safe.   It is almost as if, having pressed some boundaries and not wanting to push the existing fan base too far, Trace settled for tradition rather than upset.    Makes good sense to me…  It’s just I was wishing for a little more adventure in a few of the tunes.  (*** See addendum)

Trace, should you ever read this review, may I recommend the Christmas album by Canadian Bruce Cockburn.  He pretty much pushes multiple boundaries, and his violinist does some things that just astonish my ear, but which may alienate a more traditional audience.)   That said, I could not ask for any more from an artist with a well established sound.   At least one review I read on Amazon faulted this work for NOT sounding like the Trace they knew. (Dear Ed, get your ears checked., this disk in not Horrible, it is downright honoring, festive, and utterly refreshing!)   Thank you Trace for your willingness to push into this new territory.    You have gained a new fan….And I will be spreading the joy.

*** Trace, I kinda wanna rescind the playing-it-too-safe comment.  I listened to the CD at home again this weekend, and it just fit -- with family, with activity etc.  Should you have upped the kind artsy-fartsy dissonance my ears sometimes crave,  you might also have ended up with a product that wouldn't play as well in a community setting -- This is a novel offering, AND it plays well with others... 

Note:  Unless he changes his website, you can listen to the tracks at the bottom of his Christmas Tour Page.
(Ps.  Trace, you have the wrong song in the Three Kings slot;)

For those who would sample a single Tune, may I recommend "Three Ships."  Then chase that with Three Kings  (Man I love that last note!)


In closing: This album just leaves me warm in the soul.  Satisfied.   Even glowing.

This is more than a gift of sound or even talent.    It is pure recognition.  God gives us many gifts and the ultimate gift in his Son.   We in turn give gifts… or use even use his gifts, because we have been gifted.  By the King.

Saturday, November 2, 2013

The Hawk In Paris, Music Review by Kirk

Band.  The Hawk in Paris.  (Dan Haseltine and friends Jeremy Bose and Matt Bronleewe)
Album: Freaks

Genre:   Modern/Retro synth Pop (of the highest caliber)
Release Date: October 29, 2013
More Info and Orders: Pledge Music

Quick Spin:  For a old guy who doesn't listen to much pop-anything (even indie-art pop) I may have reformat my ear.  I have now listened to this offering a couple dozen times in just three days... It's cutting grooves.   Deep, melodic, infectious...it sounds at times like a soundtrack to young love... (or old love, for a man still caught in the mystery)  There are some darker moments here, including (for me) a sense of disquietude.  But that will take a bit to explain.


I find there are two ways I can listen to Freaks. 1) Like any other offering I might hear on indie-pop radio (if such a thing exists), or 2) As part of the ongoing sound evolution and spiritual odyssey of Dan Haseltine (frontman for the band Jars of Clay, and now Hawk in Paris.) 

At this point I do not know if The Hawk in Paris is just a side project, or the future for Dan and band. (Band:  please forgive me for speaking of the song-craft and writing of the songs as Dan's, when the source may be shared... or yours.)

Way of Hearing # 1)

Utterly delicious ear candy, Freaks… by The Hawk In Paris, blends the sound sensibilities of a band like Depeche Mode, or David Bowie, or Annie Lennox and the Eurythmics  (I am limited to using the folks I know) with folks I know even less…. Like modern robo-singers Owl City or Moby.  There might be better examples, but I am an old man with an ear for Americana, so modern synth pop is a little out of my expertise.  What I do know is that this is a very forward-looking, backward-glance.  To get the idea, think of a classic building (like the Empire State building, forged in the 1920’s -- Then think of a modern building fashioned in the old art deco style, but with all the new technologies and materials.   In that same sense, Freaks takes the sonic landscape of the 1980’s then updates it with all kinds of modern sound wizardry.   We get the big spaces, the sweeping synthesizer,  the Orwellian harmony,  even the desire to dance like a robot…. And all with Dan Haseltine's liquid vocals.  Beyond that, The sound is sophisticated, cool, then dark.   

As a pop product, Freaks is simply stellar.   The melodies shimmer with all the energy of young love.  I hear magic.  And chrome, and cleanness, and all these ambient colors of the prism.  I hear too, a gifted singer using auto tune, not to correct his imperfections, but to lean into machine.   If there is anything freaky about Freaks, it is the very idea of the voice of man and the voice of machine twining like the twin rails of a double helix.  Dan at once sounds believably human… .and perfect. And sorry band mates to focus on Dan, I know your talents are there in abundance… but Dan's voice:   Ambrosia.

As for content, Freaks is given to themes common to teens,  pop music and humankind.   Ie. rejection, Love found.  Love lapping through our dreams,. Love teetering and strained.  Love in the ditch …  Stars in the eyes. etc.   But this is where the pop sensibilities end.   The caliber of the writing is such that it may confuse us to call this “Pop” anything.

On a personal note.    I find this alum is written backwards.  That is, I like all the first songs least, then find my delight grows as we venture in.  (Bad for first impressions, good for glow at the end of the voyage.)   Least favorite song:   Freaks.  Though I very much like the spaghetti western whistle, I still associate the word Freaks with deviants, hermaphrodites, and two-headed dogs.  (Mercy for the middle.)  I can hear the word “outcast, maverick, or nerd” in a positive light, but I do not want to be found alone in the Forest of the Freaks.  (Then I am afraid it is a way of sanctioning moral disobedience.)

Favorite Song, which surprised me, the breakup song, Cannons.  If this song is about the immediate hemorrhaging of a very real marriage, then I am oh so very sorry.   I guess the lyric which hooked my soul was this simple confession…. If you leave me now, you leave me better than I was before.   Kind of nice to hear a confession of love, even in the midst of unravel.

Actually there is one more favorite song.  But it is not on this album.   Turns out that Freaks is a composite offering, with seven selections that appeared in some form on two earlier EPs.  I am trying to find the very rare first EP (Boys and Girls), but the second - Freaks and Outcasts -  is available for everyone by way of Noisetrade.  (Find it here.)  I simply LOVE LOVE LOVE, the song “Dancing in the Rain” (Outcast Mix).  Dancing just brims with all the emotions of first love; I hear a fusion of Vector’s Dance, with all the exuberance of the original dancing in the Rain song, --- My Fair Lady.

Ps. For those who might buy just one song…  Start with 10) Birds on a Wire.  then peck around it.  (Oh, and the tune, Put your Arms around me....If I were a young pup in love, I might, listening to this melt right into the ground.

Final Note:

Name.  Hawk in Paris.   When doing Google search I found the name Hawk in Paris linked to an image… actually an album cover for a work by jazz legend Coleman Hawkins.  (I hate to admit it, but I was not familiar with the original Hawk, Coleman Hawkins, so now I am getting my fix on both Hawks.  Listen to some from the original Hawk in Paris on YouTube here.

or even do a download here:

or read more on the name, the band and its development with Dan H. and the Noise Trade Interview:

So.  Final word..  

Beautiful, elegant. Pulsing.  Dreamy, evocative, fresh. cinematic... (actually that was seven) tempered with a sense of dystopia.

Way of Hearing, Part 2.

I mentioned earlier that there are two ways I can hear Freaks, first as an offering of modern pop (For which is I give it my full star count)  AND as part of the unfolding sound-scape and spiritual pilgrimage of frontman Dan Haseltine.   Here I am hearing on different level, as a fellow traveler with Dan to the Celestial City… and wondering, if perhaps, Freaks may well represent a side track… into the heart of the Vanity Fair.

 (I think Dan will catch the allusion)

There is no way to write this next part without sounding preachy or overreaching, and I am afraid that someone will  say, who are you to second guess, or critique anyone’s spiritual pilgrimage?   (And of course, I am not qualified.)  But I do know that part of what it means to be part of living spiritual body… the body of Christ, is to encourage our fellow pilgrims and brothers, to keep our eyes on Jesus, the author and finisher of our faith.   

When I hear Freaks, I am not sure if I am hearing just good pop, or … something which is kind of like a grand diversion from something ever so much more central, the love relationship at the center of reality.  And if human relationships can ebb and flow, or even break down and wither on the vine, so too can our relationship with the eternal groom.

It is hard not to hear the “dystopian” vibe  inside the shimmer of Freaks.   Yes there is an intoxicating celebration of love.  And yes, there is the angst that goes with parting (in whatever context), but I am also NOT hearing something I might have heard in the earlier works of Dan, through the mouth of his twenty year old band Jars of Clay; namely that desperate dependence on the God who walks with us, through the brilliance and the storm.

There is nothing here that directly proclaims a war with God.  On the other hand, the sound, the glitter, the big city slickness, even the sexual energy….in combination with the absence of anything that references the larger romance in which we live, hints hard at spiritual malaise.  I know this may not sound fair.   Should the same absence be found in the offerings of any other artist, I wouldn't think a thing about it.   (In fact, I would praise them for being extra dimensional and exploring the full range of romance.)  When I find that absence here where I one heard a "voice in the garden" It causes me to pause.  

Am I hearing things?

*the cover graphics too,  characterized by the loss of face, or a mask of sky and earth, only reinforce the idea.  Something is missing.   Something is hid.  Something is out of order in the universe.

Addendum.  For a slightly different take... on the process, purpose ... even lack of agenda, see Dan's Personal Blog.  The Hawk In Paris, a Primer.

Tuesday, October 22, 2013

Randy Stonehill: Lazarus Heart: album review

Artist: Randy Stonehill
Album Lazarus Heart. 1994

Genre: Pop  (adult contemporary)

First, the strengths:   The theme.  Randy’s ever melodic voice.  The collaboration with other artists. (With background vocal or musical treatments by Phil Keaggy, Christine Dente, Rick Alias, Bob Carlisle, Michael W. Smith.  

Weakness.  Radio Friendly. 

Nothing like reviewing an album almost 19 years after the fact.  Just so happens I picked this one up used, as part of an effort to flesh out my Stonehill Collection.   I regard Randy as part of my inner 12.  That is, one of those musicians whom I count as forming the soundtrack for my soul, who has left an indelible imprint, and whom I would just love to spend some time with as we talk about the deepest things of the heart. 

As is, I have the pleasure of owning  most everything Randy created before, and most things after this… And all I can say is that I am thankful that he didn’t stop here.

The reviews on Amazon kind of surprised me.  Lots of five star reviews.  As for me, this was a real hit and miss.  Not so much for his writing, or voice, but more for the production.   Way too polished for my ear.  Which may explain the strong ratings.   Some folks like that sound.   Me, I want to hear the spit and phlegm, the breaking strings and tendons, the desperation in the voice. Give me all those signs that tell me this person smokes, or is about to have a nervous breakdown. (Okay, maybe not the smokes.) A number of these songs just sounded like the musical base was made for someone else.   My sense, from writing to voice, to total concept is that Randy may have been going for a radio friendlier sound.   Which, if you want to eat, makes a little sense. 

HOWEVER, I counted at least four songs that did so fully resonate with my ears, that I gave them either or four or five star rating for rotation.   4 stars:  Under the Rug, That’s why we don’t Love God, and Troubles, with the 5 star for the utterly angelic liquid voice ballad “When I am afraid.”   This one showcases Randy at his most sensitive vocal ballet.    Hmm.  (May move Under the Rug, with extra Phil Keaggy crunch to 5)

In speaking to the “sound” of this album, I may be missing the most important element.
Lazarus heart builds around a unifying theme of  --- (hold on)  -- Being possessed of a Lazarus Heart.  Which, in addition to being the name of an earlier  song by Sting, and a later novel by someone else)  might refer to the heart of corruption (or death) in need of resurrection.

This is an album anchored in need.  The deepest need.   If some of the writing is too obvious (Ie, not cloaked in ambiguity or gritty tone color, it may be what any a troubled heart needs to hear.   Ie.  Our hearts are ravaged, by self and the world.  We need a healer beyond the doctor. 

“Then I sailed to the edge of the world, and I saw Your face, Your wonderful face”

I appreciate the fact that Randy has continually offered his music and heart, as a place in need of healing.  He needed it then.  He needs it now.   I want to thank him (despite the radio friendly production) for giving so generously of his talents to a smallish body of listeners.  I would say he deserves better.  But perhaps he doesn’t. 

And he would know what I mean by that.

Saturday, October 12, 2013

Winterfold by Jeff Johnson (Album Review)

Artist: Jeff Johnson and friends.
not to be confused with the several other Jeff Johnsons who are musicians.
Ensemble:  Jeff Johnson (keys, percussion, voice) together with his very talented friends, flautist Brian Dunning and Violinist Wendy Goodwin.  (Sound fleshed out with contributions from Tim Ellis on Guitar, Phil Baker on the bass, and Mike Snyder with additional percussion.)

Album: Winterfold (Released 10/8/2013)

Genre: Instrumental (Chamber-coustic)

Quick Spin:  Think of music that might readily have been used for the more pastoral parts of the Lord of the Rings soundtrack.  Winterfold is community project in which Jeff’s uber-talented friends gather with him to make living, full bodied music….fit for the best of ordinary life. Soundwise, Winterfold lives at the intersection of a chamber music and New-Age; It is largely organic (ie, acoustic, but the synthesized elements blend in seamlessly into a perfect whole.  This is not so much a music to listen to  -- like something external which we study with our ears -- but more like a music to live in.  Richly.

I have lived in the music of Jeff Johnson for over thirty years.   His various creations -- and collaborations with friends -- form something of a vital soundtrack for my life.  I figure if you were to map Jeff’s brain and mine you would find this strange body of overlapping themes, and concrete tunes.

Broadly speaking, I might divide the instrumental works of Jeff Johnson into three -- make that four categories.

There are the earliest works, characterized by extravagant dallies with percussion, and lived at the intersection of techno rock, jazz and Styx.   This is Jeff totally un-tethered, exploring every sonic landscape and mixing it up in ways that simply startle the ears.  I remember, when in art class, the instructor invited us to bring in our music and play it.  I slipped in something from Fallen Splendor, that led one kid to look up and say… “What the Hell is that….… is he playing in tongues!”

Then there are his epic “Movie-scape” works, anchored in Medieval lore or the works of the Steven Lawhead.   These are the works that should have been used to score the movie adaptations of Tolkien or Lewis… These are the tunes to conquer the new world, or set into uncharted waters.  I have driven many a back road with the likes of Byzantium guiding me through the turns in lush tapestry of sound.

Then there are those lean, stripped down, minor chord works, fit for devotion and all the pleasure that perhaps only a melancholy soul can find in deep overcast and naked branches. I remember once while playing Ships of Tarshish (From the “No Shadow of Tuning LP) my mother came in and pleaded… “Can you  please turn that off  and put something happy on.”  And while I would  -- out of love  comply, I simply could not understand.  I have found some of my deepest happiness in those most melancholy moments.    A Thin Silence, and even Jeff’s collaborations with Keaggy might fall here.  The focus is on the inner space and dallies with winter light.

Finally there is a body of music… that I call Community Music, that falls  -- as pertains to sound -- somewhere in the middle.  That is,  I hear elements of Jeff’s other works, but tempered, or meek and bathed in reality.  This music is more like the music real people (albeit extremely talented people) make…."live.” It is not so much startling, or epic, or brooding…. As it is living, breathing and round.    This is a music that I would identify with something solid.  Like tables and chairs… but crafted by artisans of the highest order.

Stop onto the stage “Winterfold.

When I first heard the title, I figured the music might be cold or bitter; But no.  This is music of the hearth, a place of protection in the midst of blistering skritchies outside.

The first thing we hear and hear throughout, are the absolutely gorgeous melodic lines, under the breath of flautist Brian Dunning.   Then add the macro-talents of violinist Wendy Goodwin.  These people simply glide tighter like a figure skaters group style.  Instruments twine and rise and fall in a blessed undulation.   As a non-musician, I try to imagine what it must be like to hear this music in its most living sense, directly inside the head of the each player.  There is a synthesis of voice that is uncanny here…. As if they are some kind of joined creation, sensing with and through each other.   As far as recording goes, I hear no sense that the layers of sound were merged in the lab… this is music at the level of a birds in flight in which the group moves together as if one. I hear trust.   Beyond that, I sometimes feel like I am hearing “inside the violin.”  That is I am hearing depth I am not used to hearing inside a recording.

As a sound, Winterfold shares much in common with “Under the Wonder Sky"- an album with deep Advent connections.   Special memory here:  I slipped a CD of Under the Wonder Sky – into my sister-in-laws holiday rotation, somewhere between and Bin Crosby and Diana Krall.  We were eating and chatting and we had good wine in our bellies. It took my sister a while to notice something fresh… Then she asked… “What is this… it is absolutely beautiful.”

In that same vein, I can much imagine slipping this disk into the track at my daughter's wedding reception, as we, fine Hobbits that we are, savor food and the wine of each other’s laughter -- even as we savor (Perhaps unconsciously) the greater of joy of what it means to be in God, in who we live and breath and have our being.  Consider this a soundtrack for being.

Should I boil Winterfold down to simply one world, it would be this.  (Actually, make that three.)

Friendship.  Beauty. 

I have listened, and I am thankful.

Thursday, September 12, 2013

Jars of Clay: Inland

Note:  10/5/13:   I wrote the bulk of this review before I discovered  Dan Hasteltine's personal Blog.  (Dan is the lead singer and front-man for the band Jars of Clay.)  That blog clearly spells out that Dan is in a different place - What he calls a "middle space" with respect to his spiritual pilgrimage.   So take my comments below in the context of my first exposure to Inland, sensing that this album signals an identity shift for the band, but not knowing much of the personal context of the recording.  Should I write this review today, I suspect I would hear the album differently, then grapple with what it means to be "in a middle space."


This review consists of three parts.  1)  A review of the album Inland, by Jars of Clay, followed by 2) a review of the Jars of Clay Little Rock performance on September 10, 2013. Followed by a little 3) summary guess work.

Album: Inland
Release: August 2013
Genre: Accousta-Art-Rock of a surprisingly melodic character.

Quick Spin.

Inland, by Jars of Clay is mini “indie rock” masterpiece, drenched in gorgeous melody and impressionistic lyrics of a personal hue.   My ears are fully delighted.  Perhaps the only thing I am working with is "how to hear" what I am hearing.  This has more to do with who Jars is (or are?) historically.  For almost twenty years Jars has operated under the umbrella of the Contemporary Christian Music novelty market.   With Inland, Jars actively sheds the last trappings of  CCM world. It will be interesting to see if their traditional fan base is good for the ride into new territory.

Inland borrows its name from a line out of Homer’s Odyssey in which "Odysseus is told that his adventures will end and he will finally be at peace when he travels inland carrying the oar of his ship to a point where people have never seen the sea or a boat, and mistake the oar for a winnowing fan use to separate grain from chaff."

Dr. Devdutt Pattanaik (not related to this album) gives this insight to the Oar Metaphor: 
In other words, he reaches a place where people are totally oblivious of the world he inhabits and all ideas that are familiar to him seem unfamiliar to them.

What is the story trying to tell us? It informs us that what seems so familiar and important to us -- the sea and the ship in case of Odysseus -- mean nothing to people in other parts of the world. So vast is the universe. The oar is most critical to Odysseus to survive the seas. But it makes no sense to those inland who have never even heard of the sea. What is critical to one is not critical to another.

Now I am not quite sure if this is what the band is chasing with the title, but it certainly could mean that the Jars are given to a quest where the old language and delivery no longer make sense.  So -- New territory, intelligent music wed to personal, poetic, if not somewhat baffling lyrics. I love this album, but am still trying to figure out “how to think about it.” Perhaps I will have to hear it with some other organ.

This is Jars of Clay’s 11 studio album; the first on their own indie-label. (Gray Matter)    Fans and critics alike have noted: Jars of Clay, as a band just keeps mutating (while keeping pretty much the same folks.)  No two albums chase the same vibe;  Just when you think have pegged the band, they alter the spice and veer some new audio or thematic direction.   Jars = variation within continuity.   Sometimes those changes reflect the fact that Jars has their ear to what other folks are doing, sometimes Jars are the very fount of innovation.  In my mind people should be talking about who sounds like Jars of Clay; however it would be impossible not to note the dept that Jars  owes to bands like Cold Play, Mute Math, the Killers, the Beatles,  Death Cab for Cutie, and Toad Wed Sprocket.   (On a personal level, I am calling this my second favorite Jars of Clay Album, just slightly behind my all time favorite "Much Afraid.")

As is, there are certain things that make any Jars' album a Jars' album.   First there is lead singer Dan Haseltine’s plaintive, nervy, high, melodic -- even desperate voice.   Then there are those highly rhythmic, complex compositions, colored in the stuff of Appalachia, movie soundtracks, and Vivaldi.  Finally, there is a core commitment that the band has a being God's workmanship – even jars made of clay.   “For God, who said, “Let light shine out of darkness,” has shone in our hearts to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ.  But we have this treasure in jars of clay, to show that the surpassing power belongs to God and not to us.”    (from the bible book of Corinthians.)  So there you have it... God showcasing his glory in weak human vessels.)

A question I now ask (and will think through as we go is, "Are Jars of Clay still the same band that it was (or they were) when they recorded their first highly-regarded and self titled album some years ago?"  Are  they a band who might write and sing "Flood"  or" Love Song for a Savior"  -- Are they still vessels holding blessed treasure.   Or something else?

Quick take.   Yes.

That is, I have strong reasons to believe that they are still fundamentally "Jars"  -- But different.  This may take a bit to flesh out -- But know this, the sacred/secular dichotomy is nothing new.  Bach, a man who worked unto God with great awareness, created a large body of work, some for the church, some for the dinner party. He saw nothing inconsistent with giving God glory through the full range of his expressions, even those intended to get the people mincing, under the spell of fine wine.

As a “sound” Inland is an utterly delicious sonic treat.  Lead singer Dan Haseltine has never sounded better.  The tunes, while of varied emotional hue, are melodic, layered and crunchy. Inland features lots of curve-ball inner elements, including little dings and chings, novel percussion, floating harmonies, effervescent  counterpoint, plunging strings, galloping guitars, rattled pianos, crickets, and varied forms of audio extravaganza.  My ears cannot love this enough.   This wouldn't be a Jars' album without a brooding melancholy under-current, however… There is a brilliance, even a radiant joy that shines through many of the selections.  Beyond that, this work (with a few exceptions)  is just so smoothhhhh.  

Odd note:  I did not realize until watching Jars live, that front man Dan leads with a drum stick in hand.   They sometimes employ a second drummer with the big sit-down ensemble, but Jars is, at its heart, a band built around a hand drum or snare.   So it is kind of interesting to hear how sublimated (and delightfully complex) the percussion elements are throughout the recording.   It appears, to my amateur ear, that all kinds of things are operating as percussion that are not drums as such.  And many of those things have melody built in.   Think of a percussive rainbow.

If you want you can play this in the background as you read… but be sure not to get so detracted that you fail to come back;)

On Tuesday, September 10 2013 I had the opportunity to hear Jars live.  Front man Dan Haseltine explained: “This is an album that we have been waiting twenty years to write.  We could not have written this album when we started.”  (Loose, from memory).  He explained that the process behind this album was different.   First, this is their first wholly independent release.  They were not beholden to anybody, be they in the marketplace or in the pew.  Jars set the parameters and took the creative risk..  Second, most jars albums are built around a particular sound or focus.  They have a theme.   I think this album does too, but Dan explained that this is more like a collection of disparate songs, written by the band during the course of life and travel on the road.    They began with a large pool of collected songs and then whittled down.   The resulting collection radiates horizontally.  These are songs about relationships.... even the relationship of the self to self in introspective conversation.

Perhaps, most peculiar, are the lack of any songs that make sense as the product of a Christian Band – at least in the sense of Christian music as a commodity. (Now the title “Christian band” is multifaceted, and the theme I mean to explore further down – but it is quite apparent from their name and  past travel circuit, not to mention the bold and routine presence of Christian based themes, that Jars is rightly called a Christian band.   And I have no sense whatsoever that they have traded in their identity as sons of the King, for something else.    But that lack of “Christian identifiers” either in lyric or linear notes IS peculiar at minimum.  (An earlier alum by two -- Long Fall back to Earth clearly hinted  this direction.  But that album held a song or two that said... we are fallen men, in need of rescue.  Inland, on the other hand, has no song that even whispers "Christian radio."  Perhaps most peculiar, the preceding Jars release, The Shelter, a full voiced sing "Praise Music" singalong with other notables in the Christian Music arena, was explicitly "religious."   So the contrast is even more pronounced.

As is, I have been tickled by the efforts of people to find "Christian" meaning in lyrics.  Go to You-tube and scroll through the responses to the (three) new video offerings.  They are replete with people who wish to ascribe a range of direct or biblical interpretations for the poetry.   Example One  (A response to the song Inland by a phderrik)

I think (Inland) is  a beautiful song about the great commission that Christ had set us out to do.
In the mission field, there could be no clear plans for us to follow as no one may have done it before us. Faith in God & courage to overcome uncertainty will get us through. The most important element - a raw desire to serve people and trusting in God's provisions.

Now that is a lovely take.  It could be true.  But when I read the lyrics, none of that comes through. I do read of a push into an uncertain realm, but that the lyrics simply do not furnish that kind of information.

Example Two:  Newest video.  Fall Asleep.  A woman in a wedding dress takes a bath.  People ask: "Is she the bride of Christ?"   "Is this symbolic of baptism?"  (Etc.)  My guess.  Probably not.  She just happens to be heart-sigh beautiful, the visuals are riveting if not sensual, (but not risque or crass) and the whole thing thing shimmers with dream-world intensity.   I have no doubt that JOC use a lot of symbolism.  They tend too, to themes with water and flooding.   But it will do us no good to find concrete meaning where none is intended.

Finally, I would tell you that I  -- even with a poets’ disposition, am struggling to wrap my mind around the highly impressionistic  quality of Inland's lyrics. There are snatches and phrases in these songs  that really jell. I hear references to the altering and sustaining power of love.  I hear (and agree) that few of us were even ready for challenges that love would throw our way.  But we managed as we stumbled through.  I hear too a veiled reference to deity(?) -- All I want is Peace like a river, long life of sanity, love that won't leave too soon, someone to pull out the splinters, the reckless forgiver. (But then this could be a spouse.)

Then there is my very favorite lyric: 
I thought that everything would turn out right, now look what I've become --
A man I wouldn't have respect for -- if I'd met me when I was young

Speaking of honed christian theology... the poverty of spirit here, is downright doctrinal.

I will leave it for others to parse the meaning of the individual songs.  Suffice it to say, there is something “sub-brain” in this album.   I listen.  I yearn.  I hear the pathos but my heart is gladdened.  I feel a sense of adventure…I feel the wind in my heart, and thankfulness for my wife (who has been to hell with me and back)  … I feel like I have taken something in… traveled new ground,  but I cannot put my finger on it. 

This music makes me feel.  And that is a tremendous gift.


Part 2: Part 2: The Performance.

Earlier on I asked if this band is the same band -- In its soul.  This is not a question I really mean to answer.  I cannot.  (I will explore this question in some detail in part 3.)  However, I can tell you when it comes to concert, Jars fully identified with the full canon of their work…and gave a simply stellar live performance.

There are bands that that suffer outside the studio.  Jars, on the other hand, matched or fully surpassed the excellence of their recorded work.

Perhaps in keeping with their new direction, Jars played at a Little Rock music hall and bar (The Rev Room)  - I felt just fine with the venue but might have had second thoughts about the settings as a youth group leader.  Only drawback - few good places to sit.  And - the crowd was much too small.   Indeed.  Not a crowd.

As it is, Jars spent the first leg of their Inland tour with one of my favorite bands - The Last Bison - then traded out for a couple of new acts, given limitations in the Bison schedule.   I should have loved to hear that pairing, but now follow two new artists, both of whom have drilled new sonic landscapes in my soul.

Note: My original blog post contained my impressions of both intro acts,  Kye Kye and Brooke Waggoner. I've opted to hold those posts for another time and give each their due in a separate post.  Suffice it to say, Mind blown by the talents of both.  I own new music, and relish both acts for different reasons.  I did, however, find the particular match up -- odd.  More down the pike.

9:30 - 11:30 (?)  Final Act.

The set list and performance by Jars of Clay on September 10, 2013 left with one distinct impression.  This is simply one of the finest accousta-rock bands in the world, with the ability to forge music of distinct character...  and varied sounds, and all before our very eyes.   Seeing  the process illumined the body of their work.  This is a band that operates with few overdubs.  When you hear a studio recording by the Jars, you are hearing something very close to their direct (but more energetic) live performance.

As performers, Jars gave their all.  We were a small assembly.  Probably only a hundred at max.  And they played their hearts out, all the while modeling courtesy, energy, craftsmanship, and a real regard for we the listeners.

I have intimated that album Inland, leaves the listener wondering just who this band is, in terms of religious commitments.   But none of those questions seemed relevant in concert.  Jars played from a set list spanning years, and rich in robust proclamations of devotion to Christ, and thanksgiving for his sacrifice.  The band closed the set with requests from the audience.  Surprisingly, most of those requests came from the bands very first land-mark album (and one known for its devotional directness.)  In short, Jars ended the night in something akin to a praise service.  And there very last encore track "Frail" just left me feeling held the strong arms of a healing savior.


Part 3: Wrap up (for now)

In conclusion, I am both puzzled by and drawn to the "new" Jars.  I want to understand who they are in relationship to their past when they spoke with a more direct voice, at least as followers of Jesus.  But I am left with the fact that I do not know these people on any kind of personal level.   The lack of direct spiritual identifiers could signal one of several things.

1)  Not much of anything, these guys just wanted to produce music with a different focus.

2)  This is simply an effort by Jars (for whatever reasons) to enlarge their fan base, and shed the artistic limitations of CCM culture.

3)  The band no longer thinks of themselves as Jars holding blessed treasure.  They just kept the name.  ((In my mind, less probable.))

 4)  The band or Dan (as driving creative force) ARE in a different place in relationship to their faith walk. There are at least some lyrics within Inland that could suggest a crisis of spirit.  Example::

Every time I look in the mirror
I'm in a shadow of doubt
Maybe I'm as lost as the next guy
Just have to find, just have to find out

The problem is just how to hear such a lyric. Without larger context and clarification, I have found it best not to assume much of anything. However, I do know that Jars, as both Dan and band, are given to the introspective spirit. I would not be surprised if Inland does signal a place of disorientation within the context of lived out faith. The fact that Jars so readily played music from their larger canon, including very overt anthems of Christian praise, suggests to me that this album is part of a continuity and not a break. Even so, it does represent a substantial change in their public identity.  I wait to see where this journey Inland takes the band.  So do Jars.


Post Script.   Just discovered.  Dan Hasteltine keeps a blog, where he address the relationship between Inland and the band's past works.  His blog clearly does indicate that he (or the band) are in some new territory... a place of spiritual uncertainty.    My response then should be to pray that Dan knows a level of resolution, that leads to deeper intimacy with Christ.   It is no good to have faith bolstered up with tape or a false public presentation.   So I pray this be a tear-down, leading to refreshing.

Side note 2: when I upload the CD,  My I-tunes account lists the songs as "Religious."   It would appear that if Jars are wishing to preposition themselves, they may want to start with a new description on I-tunes.


Tuesday, September 3, 2013

Audrey Assad: Fortunate Fall

Artist:  Audrey Assad
Album: Fortunate Fall ( August 2013)
Genre:  Piano driven ballads given to direct and intimate worship of the Living God.

This quality image was "borrowed" from the Internet.  I do not know whom to credit.  If you object to my use of it here, please let me know and I will remove it, or credit - pronto.

Quick Spin:  Fortunate Fall features a collection of Psalms, hymns and spiritual songs by Singer/songwriter/pianist – and now producer – Audrey Assad, as she empties her heart in fully satisfying acoustic-colored worship of a plaintive hue.   She invites us to drink at the well.  I left fully satisfied. 

*****   I can't really type a half star, but I don't need to.  This gets the full 5.  

I am Just a few listens in, but Fortunate Fall is headed to Desert Island status, that is… one of the dozen or so albums I would take with me to restart civilization.

My wife and I sometimes have this discussion about the feminine ideal in terms of physical appearance or dress.   I try not to say too much about physical appearance (because I don’t want to get busted) but then I offer my thoughts on dress.

Women, I say – are served best by a modest, figure flattering dress…  

In short, I like the look of something we call “Peace-Corp Chick” (sounds like Sheek).   Such a woman should have flowing hair…kind of wavy.  Maybe red.   Or perhaps she has straight black hair or an Afro.  And if she has grey, she lets the grey remain.   The looks is simple.    Linen tweed blouse-soft pastel, peasant skirt with earth tones, perhaps a muted floral design.  And sandals.   Beyond that, she rides an old school bike with a bell and woven basket, with tulips  flowing over the edge and a book by Dostoyevsky.   As for lipstick… ever so faint.  If she wears any kind of stuff about her eyes, we sense the glow but must not know it.   And of course.  Nice teeth.   You know.  Simple.  Elegant. Earthy.

Then my wife proceeds to tell me just how unnatural… and how very expensive that look is.   “It takes a great deal of money to look like your "little hippy-librarian.”

Example two.   My wife and I watch figure skating.  The couple glides resting in each other arms.  The whole thing looks so smooth and  effortless…

All of that is to say… the new album by Audrey Assad… sounds at once spare, elegant, and effortless.

Then I listen again, and find out just how much mind-bending thought, work, and talent is behind the illusion of simplicity... and the very real beauty of this album.

They say you cannot judge a book by it cover, but I disagree – For me, the cover of a book is always part of the larger book experience.   In that same sense, just savoring the packaging of “Fortunate Fall” is part of my larger listening experience. The front cover of the CD appears to hold a stylized photo illustration comprised of broken flower parts and petals.  There is river of petals, shaped like bird. And you must open the CD art before you ever see Audrey’s face.  Then the photography, of the recording session itself:   Classy black and whites that have a retro feel.   Everything here breaths quality.

As for Audrey’s voice; It is lovely --  Deeply feminine.   (I hear touches of Sarah McLaachlan or Sara Groves.  Suffice it to say, Audrey can sing really big,  but here gives deference to her quite voice.…. And singing with herself in exquisite harmony.   
From what I understand, Audrey herself produced this album.  I don’t know much about the process, but the pictures show a studio replete with piano, chimes, an organ, and various stringed instruments.   And while the production is certainly deeper than mere parlor music, there is a real sense that this is living, breathing music.    I am relishing the restraint.    That, and the slightly minor chord cast.   Listen for cello, bells, wind, and the beating heart.

This is my second Audrey album.  It appears that I missed a most worthy studio release in-between this and her first full-length studio release - This House You are Building. (And from what I read, I now need to find and purchase Heart.)  As is, I wrote a review of  This House -- and gave it a quality review, but also wished that she might have toned to down some of the glossier production elements.  I don’t know if Audrey’s ear has aged, but I want to publicly thank her for paying so much attention to my thoughts, and making this album just for me:)   and Now, here I am.  Fully satisfied.   No unwanted gloss.  No ready made hits for the frothy often waste-land of Christian radio.   I love, love, love the production through out, but am most surprised by the volley of sounds in “Oh Happy Fault.”   Oh, and the beautifully orchestrated song  “Spirit of the Living God.”   My soul just turned to butter.

Odd note:  Many of these songs have a sense of space.  I mean physical space. Not the 80s sense of singing in a can, but I really do get the sense of being in a room, with depth, dust and light.  A few even open into a cathedral.


I have this theory that art is often best served by what is left out.  When it comes to song craft,  Audrey knows when to leave behind.  The songs are honed.  We hear echos of the  Psalms, Augustine, and perhaps even elements of catholic liturgy (some of which may escape me.)  But mostly, we are invited to listen to melodic prayer.  These songs are first and foremost offered to God, and we are invited to join her in the room.

Finally,  It is not often that the mere title of a work sells the package… but there are some very big thoughts behind the album title (and song)  “Fortunate Fall.”  

Which of us -- upon seeing the first-couple crack the skin of the forbidden fruit would then celebrate the Fall of the human race?   But as says Augustine (whom she quotes) :

"For God judged it better to bring good out of evil than not to permit any evil to exist."

or , as sings Audrey:

Oh happy fault, oh Happy fault
that gained for us so great a Redeemer, 
Fortunate fall, fortunate fall
that gained for us so great a Redeemer.

On a personal level, I have puzzled much over this.   Would it be better to live in a world never damaged by sin, disease and pain (and likewise never know the depths of our depravity) or..Is it better to know in ourselves the sickness of the Fall, and then experience healing love of our rescuing and redeeming Savior?   I claim the latter, though sometimes the pain is such it is hard to imagine God even making possible such choice.

But now… I am much ahead of myself. Fortunate Fall is in not a heavy-headed big-think album. I think the theme Fortunate Fall, is more of a setting. Because God is who he is, He is able to see through this current confusion to the end of the day.   He is good to us, despite our double-hearts. He is most worthy of our adoration.   Finally, God has given to some of his children, fingers, vocal cords and the inner sense to create things of great beauty.

I thank Audrey for providing a vehicle that let us join her in the shadow of the throne.

Ps.  Not sure how much longer it will be up, but you can download two of Audrey's songs from Noisetrade/ tip or free.  (One found on the album, the other a "collector's item"  -- one of my favorite hymns. 

song to the Living God.   (image by Kirk Jordan)


Friday, June 7, 2013

the Last Bison - Inheritance / Quill: Album reviews

Album: Inheritance (March 2013)  
with reflections on Quill, 2011

As a rule, when I  review an album, I don't really know the people I write about. And I don’t really know this next band either… except that they are sitting in my living room with shoes kicked off, playing cards, waiting on word about the fried transmission in their tour band. (6/3/2013)

Genre: Indie “Chamber-Jamboree” hybrid, blending elements of Mountain music and “classical”  -- and some modern rock vocals -- into an original and utterly delicious sonic landscape.  (though some folks think they sound like Mumford and Sons.)

Teresa, Andrew, Ben, Dan, Annah, Amos, Jay (Photo through TLB)

This weekend (June 1-3, 2013) I had occasion to hear the sounds of The Last Bison up close and personal, as their lead singer Ben, dangled “mosh pit style” into the crowd at the Wakarusa Music Festival in Hipppyville, Arkansas.  Make that Mulberry Mountain, Ozark Arkansas.  But before we get to the story of how I steadied Ben's back, I wanna tell you about the music of one of the TOP ten people/bands in the History of the World. (That last designation comes at some cost.  I think I had to scratch Miles Davis from my list to hold it at ten.)  

Quick Spin:  I make no bones about it.  The Last Bison of Chesapeake Virginia, is (are?)  pretty much my new favorite band experience ever.  I can think of individuals, who as writers, musicians or singers, I might hold higher… but when it comes to group dynamics, the Last Bison work together like the body parts of a dancing Fred Astaire.  The hand loves the eye that loves the foot that loves the spleen... or something like that.

When you think of The Last Bison think of time travel.  Or a barn dance.  Mr. 1850 gives Miss 2014 a whirl!  Indeed, the Last Bison harness a Civil-War era vibe, complete with costumes and sundry period instruments.  But not so much the voice.  I think the 19th century would've chased the lead singer out of town.

The Last Bison consists of seven talented instrumentalists, built around the pipes of vocal-behemoth Ben Hardesty,  As a kid Ben crafted music first with family then with  friends.  A couple or years ago the his side-mates coalesced as one.  We have:

Dan Hardesty - rudder/graphic design/mandolin and banjo

Ben Hardesty. Lead vocals and guitar
Dan Hardesty. (Dad), Mandolin, banjo, guitar, harmonies 
Annah Hardesty. (sister) Orchestra bells, percussion, harmonies.
Amos Housewroth - Cello  (and extra special friend to Annah.)
Jay Benfante - Drums, percussion
Andrew Benfante - Pump Organ, percussion
Teresa Totheroh - Violin.

Carla Hardesty (Mom) Tour Manager.

The music of The Last Bison reminds me a little of jazz, not because it sounds like jazz,  but because it represents a marriage of disparate worlds.  (Some folks see Jazz and the union of European classical music and African tribal music, resulting in a truly American child.)  

There are times when over half the members of The Last Bison are given to some form of hitting things.  This is a syncopation paradise.  Even so,  it would be hard to call this music rock.  Then there are those strings, bells and pump-organs, all giving rise to lush beautiful melodies   The Last Bison is, in its soul, a chamber orchestra - plus.  It is rare these days, to find a band that is at ease with beauty.  I mean old fashioned, transcendent beauty.    The admixture between staccato and sway, varies from one tune to another, or even within each tune, but it is not impossible to imagine a Bison song that is at once refined and feisty… sweet and salty,  giddy and sublime... all at once.  



I discovered the Music of The Last Bison (then Bison) through the Internet download site  “Noise Trade.” I had no idea who these Bison folk were, but the cover of their offered album "Quill” – really caught my eye.  Is this a 17-century styled etching of a surgically opened torso?  Further examination showed my eye played a trick.   No torso.  That “rolled back skin" was actually the Arc of the Covenant, while the things I thought to be stomach and liver,  were really etched images of  Moses and King Jehoakim(?) lifted from an old Bible.  Or something like that.

At the time of the their fist offering, The Last Bison were simply Bison.  So too were a couple of other older bands.  Hence, to avoid confusion and any legal snafus, the band became the Last….of the Bison bands.

The first tune out of the chute,  “Switzerland” caught my ear right away… but it was the second that really hooked my intrigue.  Ben is belting “these all look to you for food”…. And I sit up.  I know these lines.  They just happen to be from one of my favorite poems in the world.  Make that an archaic hymn….Psalm 104, penned by King David of the Bible.   A few other songs confirm what I suspect; this band – whose lyrics vibrate with biblical imagery, share my Christian faith.  But for any of you who may find that in itself a turn off – The Last Bison is not in anyway a church band, nor even what might be called a Christian band.  Rather, they are a band comprised of Christians who simply forge good music out of their larger life experience.  And if the crowd at the Wakarusa Music fest was any indication… stoned flower children and dancing stork women like their music too.

As is, I can’t say too much more about their sound, that you cannot hear for yourself by simply getting on You-tube. Ben can sing forever in tender falsetto, gargle like a pirate, or turn a note on a dime.  On the other hand, no You-tube video really captures the sheer energy and effervescent joy of their live performance.  In the studio, the Last Bison are multi-hued and talented. Live, the band is pulsing jubilee ship, ripping apart in the storm.  Or something like that.


As of today, The Last Bison have two major “Long Plays” under their belt, which together, cover about 18 songs. It just so happens that Quill and Inheritance share 2/3s of the same songs… but differently.

Quill: Made as something of a self-cooked work, in look of larger funding. (Download Quill Here) 
Inheritance:  The Bands' first big label break with Republic Records complete with bigger mikes, layers, and promotional budget.

My take.  I love both albums and hear in each, things which make them “One of my favorite albums in the history of the world.”

To be honest, I have a special affinity for Quill (sans larger budget) maybe because I heard it first: Bens' vocals are just a little more chaotic and jagged… some of the instrumentation just a little more jarring…the production a tad harsher and brighter…. And the fact that three of my favorite songs…They are Filled, Iscariot, and The Woodcutters Son, are missing from Inheritance.  That said

Inheritance does something that totally loves my ear.  I am hearing all kinds of notes that I missed in Quill.  I hear depth in  the strings, the separation of the sounds… Like Wow.  The production people on this record did a phenomenal job of pulling apart the instrumental voices of a seven member band, and putting them back together in a way that you can hear each player… and the percussion sounds oh so live and fierce.  The bass scoops and holds.  The sonic landscape just is richer, bodied, and warm.  Everything I hear here, sounds big… and fitting for what SHOULD be the band everyone is talking about.   Move over Cold Play (except that I guess Cold Play is probably yesterday’s news.  You must remember, I am an old man.

You can find many dozens of TLB performances on You Tube.  Here are a few of my recommendations.

Sandstone: The very soothing closing track from Inheritance. (there is irony here, as the song is anchored in the very violent story of Samson.)

They are Filled: pretty rough sound, but this really shows of the energy of a house show.

Switzerland:  With nice story video.

An as of yet "unrecorded" cover of M83's Midnight City. (Quite a different sound... for both bands.)

And finally, a "Mini Indie film" featuring instrumental renditions of songs found on Inheritance.  Watch the whole thing.

All in all, the combination of novel instrumentation, cadence, melody, sweetness, percussion, dissonance and harmony, even a touch of vocal ugliness… (make that, gnarliness)… just make The Last Bison one of the most exquisite listens anywhere.  In any era.



If there is any area where the Bison folk have me sometimes scratching my head, it is the lyrics.  Then I figured it out.  This is not Folk, where the singer tells stories full form.  Nor is this "sit down poetry” in the sense that you can just sit down and read the lyrics, as is.  (a good many lyrics just sound hokey removed from the music.)  What we have instead, are “expressions” – bits and snatches of story line,  bold brush stokes and partial forms, that take on a life “in” the music.  Some of the songs make total sense as is, others just kind of kick about with words or phrases that  forge an impression. Take for example: "Switzerland" the bands' most recognized tune to date.

We tried to sleep up in the banks of snow
But soon discovered it was far too cold
So we then retreated into town
To find a place where there was level ground

Oh, Call home
Oh. oh 

SwitzerlandYou’ve taken way my breath now once again
You’ve left me with a sense of compassion
For the ones who can't pick them selves up off the ground

Oh Switzerland
I never thought I’d have you as a friend
I’m praying it was not at all pretend
I need you now
To help pick me up from off the ground

Our drinks were hardly worth the price we paid
But we thanked God for them anyway
 andWith five minutes left 
we broke our backs
To spend more money than either of us had

Sister Annah Hardesty,  on Orchestra bells, and vocals.
Out of the gate, I really like the concrete detail in several of these lines, a real story line in brew-- But what we have are some missing parts.  When talking to Ben he filled in the larger story.  Ben was in Switzerland as part of an extended backpacking tour out of college (or with his Bible college, can’t remember now.)  While there they found themselves in a ski resort town, late and without a place to stay.  They attempted the survivalist thing of getting in the snow banks, then opted for sleeping behind a store, covering themselves with cardboard and crates to weather the night.  They didn't sleep very well, and now, having done one night of the homeless thing, more readily identify with those who sleep outside as a way of life.  So one night in Switzerland is filled both with the beauty of the place, and a deep life lesson about the needy in our midst.

In reading and listening to other TLB songs, I find the same kind of mix – little bits of personal history, chopped and mixed with allegory or emotive outbursts.   I see what I think are songs related to Ben and his sometimes long distant relationship with the girlfriend in his life(?)  Then there are phrases that lift out of the Bible  -- like “Dark am I, and lovely” from the Song of Songs.   All and all, these are songs that take on a life within the music where the total song carves an emotional landscape that is bigger than just the words or the tune.

Sometimes Ben really does kind of look like a Buffalo...

Everyone for whom I have played the music of The Last Bison is deeply impressed.  “These guys are good, I mean really good.”  My sense.  This is, or should be the next “thing to happen.”  I would like to see the whole planet loving their music. And I think the band would like to see such too.   My prayer for The Last Bison is that they take whatever success they find (or maybe even miss) and fold it into their larger story line of a life lived before God with great delight… even as they enjoy his gifts (music) and relish the gift they have in each other – and all that, held together in Him who gives us life, breath, and everything we need. 

I also pray he keep them from idols.

(Continued next post with: How I became an Honorary Bison