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, 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.