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!

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