Thursday, November 27, 2014

Smalltown Poets: Christmas Time Again

Album: Christmas Time Again
Genre:  Modern Rock with an acoustic underbelly.  Christmas Songs.
Release: Pledge Music November 25 2014

Quick Spin.  Genre bending.  A Christmas album and audio extravaganza that somehow manages to wed Christmas sensibility across several centuries.  There are times I hear the 1714’s catapulted to the now.   Decidedly sacred in focus, Christmas Time Again features some of the standards, a few obscure carols, and a handful of self-penned songs that are the equal of any ancient carol.  Outstanding musicality throughout.

Smalltown Poets are: Michael Johnston: vocals, guitars; Kevin Breuner: guitars; Miguel De Jesus: bass, guitars; Byron Goggin: drums, vocals; and Danny Stephens: keyboards and vocals.   (I am not going to list the cast but it is also obvious that there are lots of folks on other instruments from the cello to the panavox…an instrument developed in the 2020s.


Oh the wonder of Pledge Starter.  I “ordered” this disk some months back, followed the band as they put out newsy and sometimes cheesy stuff about the ongoing production (even wondered if they would make it.) then found the disk neatly in my mailbox on the delivery date. 

I was first made aware of Smalltown Poets what must be nearly twenty? years ago.  They have been off my radar for some years.  This represents something of a “reunion” disk as former members got together to ignite that old sound.  (Note:  the hiatus has not been that long, turns out I missed a disk or two including a 2011 Christmas album!)    For the initiated, Smalltown Poets are (or were) a modern rock band of Christian conviction.  I place them in the same box in which I store Jars of Clay, the Normals, and the Waiting.  (There are times the lead vocalist Michael Johnston sounds remarkably like Dan Hasteltine of Jars of Clay, but with a slightly rougher edge.  What made Smalltown Poets remarkable (given their compare with some very talented bands) was their spiritual desperation and authenticity.  Their first album will always play a special place in my heart, in that I sensed the band or lead singer was coming face to face with temptation, spiritual depravity, and our utter need of redemption.  That, and a certain choral/chimey sound I associate with the band.   When I listen to Small Town Poets I often have the sense of all the members singing vigorously… in a sea of chimes.

But back to the project at hand.

What does Smalltown bring to the table that warrants another Christmas disk?  A:  A deep commitment to the musical process, play - risk - sensitiviity --  and that same vulnerability of spirit which marks their early cannon.

I don’t know just how long it took Poets to record this album, but I have a sense it was on the order of many months.  And it shows up… in the layering, in the musical dallies and experiments, the multiple audio pallets.  You can tell these guys had a lot of fun.  They rock, they contemplate, they turn on a dime.  Christmas Time Again somehow manages to fuse musical idioms seldom joined:  Blue Grass, space music, 90s grunge and chamber music.   And what attention to sonic detail!

This may be an odd comparison.   Just a few weeks ago I watched the absolutely astonishing sci-fi move, Interstellar.  Interstellar plays with the idea of Pan-time (an idea that has been part of the Christian narrative for millennia, as we understand God to be a being outside of time.)

So what’s he connection?  Christmas Time Again is forged in “Pan Time.”   It contains elements that span from medieval Europe to Dickens to Kentucky 1920  to 2020… or something like that.   And it is not just that one song has this flavor… and another, another – Some songs span the distance with all the elements all at once!   Talk about whack… what a jarring an marvelous mash of sounds in the Wassil Song. And man, do I ever dig those spacey choral elements.

Of the offerings, at least ¾ are traditional carols or hymns.  A few more are songs that we have never heard and at least two are self-penned. The Song “This Day in Bethlehem, co-written by M. Johnson and D. Stephens captures the full marvel of Christmas – as an event outside of time, culminating in a great rescue act.  It belongs in our hymn books right beside Silent Night and Oh Come all ye Faith.

As for tradition.  My favorites: Patapan and Sing We  Now of Christmas. Man, I did love that musical mashing.  Sounds like old times.

Should I have any criticism of the disk it might be this.   Poets are at their pinnacle when they write their own music, or go all wonky with traditional tunes.  But there are few remakes of iconic standards that just sounded like modern noise adaptations.  Not many.  Just two.  Or maybe one.   And Now I wish I hadn’t said that. (Cause I think if I listened to it really loud, it would suddenly shimmer.

So, final word.  This is one to crank.  May not work for Grandma’s ears, unless she is really hip.  These guys paid attention to the details.   They had fun, they loved God and loved us by giving so richly of their musical talents and idiosyncrasies. 

Thanks guys, you blessed my ears… and thumped my heart  I feel captured by the marvel of it all.   I am so glad to be part of your community of support.  I heartily endorse this album!

Monday, November 10, 2014

Carolyn Arends: Christmas; The Story of Stories

Album: Christmas: the Story of Stories     (10/2014)
Genre: Adult/Family Contemporary with a vibrant rootsy base

Note: I  keep Carolyn’s albums in the same box that I do Andrew Peterson, Bob Bennett,  and Michael Kelly Blanchard  (If those names don’t help, you could put this in the box with  James Taylor and Mr. Rodgers.:)

The cover got it right: organic, whimsical, and pleasantly quirky.

Quick Spin

It is not often that you will hear the words “child-like” and “impeccable” in the same sentence, but when Carolyn Arends creates music, she twines child-like wonder and unbridled warmth, with an impeccable sense of sound and musical theater.

The Story of Stories is a Christmas themed album.  Three carols - one Rich Mullins classic;  everything else written by Carolyn on or about Christmas eve over several years… Even so. This does not sound so much like a Christmas album.

What it does sound like is a Princess-Mom handing out gooey chocolate chip cookies at the PTA -- while singing about complex algebra, in friendly terms, against a backdrop of utterly gorgeous music.  (That is, Carolyn is given largely to the Cosmic, God-in-the-flesh side of Advent – but writing about it in a such a way that this very big idea settles in our ears with ease. Beyond that Carolyn has a knack for looking at old themes from a fresh tilt.

About the Music:

Two times in the last three years, my wife and I have been privileged to visit the most glorious highway on Earth.  We speak of that ribbon of road between Banff and Jasper Canada, where mountains of unthinkable size, chase one another like beads on a string.  All of which has nothing to do with this review, except for one little detail.  When in Canada, we watch Canadian TV and news.  And Canadian TV and news is of a visibly different character than the over-stimulated world of state-side TV.

This picture has nothing to do with anything, but it was taken in Canada:)
When Canadian pundits discuss the news, they tend to talk. They do not scream, they give their counterparts time to respond.  When they speak of crisis, it is with measure, and even their beautiful talking-head women seem to be of a different breed.  Pretty, but not garish; The whole terrain just seems more human.

While there is little in the actual sound of the Story of Stories that is itself “Canadian”  Ie…   No angry French lumberjacks – the whole thing shimmers with Canadian sensibilities: 

The music is skillfully wrought, organic, and without all that American wiz-bang.

I may have heard a strain or two of electricity, but not much.  What we get is a rich tapestry of rootsy sounds, ranging from Appalachia to Hawaiian to Creole.... all delivered in a lush but very human landscape.  (Real musicians playing real instruments.)  I  am hearing all kinds of earthy vibes:  Mandolin, Mandola, fiddle, violin,  dulcimer, bells, cello, uke, bouzouki. piano, ukulele,  organ, glockenspiel, hurdy gurdy, gourds, tambourines, and assorted guitars.  (I did n't actually hear all those, I read them off the handsome linear notes.)   I also heard some primo singers doing the invisible angel thing.

There are times in this album where the fiddle or strings are just so melodic and sweet, that my whole being sighs.  And I absolutely love those big bells and chimes that show up in some of the carol like places.

The music throughout is simply superb.

(Since first writing, I have since learned a little more... to find out more about the process and the collaboration see:


If Story of Stories was just an instrumental work, it would be impressive in its own right.  But what makes Stories extra special is Carolyn's song craft, and the whole emotional vitality she brings through voice and presentation.

Like many Christmas albums, it was recorded in late Spring.  And despite her efforts to hide that fact by wearing a coat and scarf for her photograph.. those green trees are easy to see. 

This album – and Carolyn's voice are just plain sunny.  

And wholesome too.  (I think I said something like this in my last review of a Carolyn product, but sometimes we get so accustomed to female vocals that are angry, pensive or sultry,  that a woman with a joyous disposition is a novelty in itself.


Beyond the sound, the thing that makes Carolyn's music shine is her ability to take big ideas and boil them down into simple verse, and look at life from a different vantage point.  For example:

Oh little town of Bethlehem,
I think it is a lie, hat you were still or dreamless
On that first Christmas night,
Cause you has soldiers and politicians,
over crowding in your streets,
and there was chaos, and human cruelty
and never quite enough to eat
and then the baby came..
I think he cried the way that babies do,
I think his mama may have cried a little too...

or take this little factoid (the wise men arrived much later than commonly assumed by many) and dress it up in a much bigger idea.

Goodness gracious, man alive,
those kings had to drive, it was two whole years till they finally arrived ...
          Such a long way to go
People say that love has limits, People just don't know
How far the love the came at Christmas, is prepared to go.

I could bring, many other examples  -- like how Carolyn turns "No Room at the Inn" on its head -- but  I might lessen the discovery.

I will however, share a link.  From Carolyn herself.  This shows how Carolyn started with a pun, added some whimsy, then chased a really big idea....

So Final thought.

Story of Stores is really GOOD album.   And I mean that as both an aesthetic judgment, and a moral pronouncement.  Given as I am to a world occupied at by minor themes and discord, I find I need this full bodied affirmation of the Goodness of God.

When I listen to this my whole being feels flooded with sunshine, like what happens when you close your eyes on a bright day.   Only it is night and God is in the room.  Or something like that..

Thank you Carolyn (and all your uber talented musician friends!)