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.