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)