Wednesday, October 5, 2011

I Wish I Wrote Reviews For a Magazine

I like music. My ears consume it as if my hearing depends on it.

Here's what I've been listening to as of late...

The Reckoning - NEEDTOBREATHE 

Needtobreathe's new album is probably the best thing they've done, and that's high praise for a band of their caliber. I was skeptical when I started listening to the first track - "Oohs and Aahs" is kind of jazzy and grating - definitely not as instantly ear-catching as their previous album opener, "The Outsiders." Just when I was about to dismiss the track as a weak intro, acapella gang vocals appeared and I was sold. By the time screeching brass entered the fray, the song had reached the "I-think-I'm-going-to-need-to-hit-repeat-when-this-is-over" category.

But I didn't end up doing that, because the bouncy acoustic-riff that started the following track, "White Fences" was so immediately absorbing I couldn't go back. White Fences and the track that follows it, "Drive All Night," are just top-notch. Lead vocalist Bear Rinehart has never sounded better. His voice is strong, gritty, and filled with longing - a perfect match for the melodies his band supplies. White Fences is an especially good example of the album's great mix: loud and punchy percussion and vocals hovering on the verge of distortion. Also, one of Needtobreathe's strengths has always been their soulful background vocals, and this album uses them to great effect. 

Of course, rock albums with a pop sensibility tend to place their most satisfying material at the beginning, so how does the rest of the album fare? Really, really well, actually. Needtobreathe spreads their strongest songs evenly throughout the 14 tracks, and they have so much to draw from there's hardly a weak moment. Even their weakest moments would be some band's strongest moments.

"A Place Only You Can Go" slows things down with a beautiful melody and bagpipes (NOTE: I hope angels know how to play bagpipes). "Slumber," the sixth track, might be the most inspiring and instantly accessible of the bunch. I had so many chills running down my spine the first time I heard it, my feet itched (you either know the feeling or you don't, haha). Bear begs the listener, "Wake on up from you slumber and open up your eyes!" The way he says it, you can't help but want to heed his advice.

The title track is another great tune and makes perfect use of the harmonica. "Able," is a soulful song with a Gospel-choir feel that expresses the poverty of spirit foundational to true faith ("I'm not able on my own"). "Maybe Their On To Us" just rocks, and "Devil's Been Talkin'" - which would have fit in very well on "The Outsiders" album - literally put a smile on my face within the first 15 seconds.

Really, there isn't a single dud here, and if there are any songs that seem less than impressive it's only because they are competing with so much awesomeness.

To top it all off, the album cover is just perfect for this time of year. Seriously. Go buy this thing.

Live acoustic version of "Slumber."

Graceland - Paul Simon 

I love Paul Simon. Simon & Garfunkel is probably my favorite musical union of all-time, and although I would have preferred the two to have remained a duo instead of going their separate ways in 1970, Paul Simon has made (and is still making) good music as a solo artist. 

After S&G split, Simon released five albums over the next 11 years. The first three were quite successful, but the fourth failed to sell in a market dominated by disco. The fifth album was intended to be a reunion record for S&G, but the duo couldn't resolve their artistic differences in the writing/recording sessions. Simon ended up releasing the album as another solo project, and it was a commercial disaster.

So in 1986, the 45-year-old songsmith had nothing to lose when he released Graceland, an album inspired by the South African township music that helped fuel the anti-apartheid movement. Simon's label was concerned the record would be too eclectic for a mainstream audience, but it was a huge hit. It sold over 7 million copies and won the Grammy for Album of the Year in 1987.

The first time I heard about Graceland, I didn't really like the idea. I probably had a reaction similar to his record label execs. I have nothing against world music, but Paul Simon is the quintessential American folk artist. How could he play world music and still sound like Paul Simon?

Well, he's Paul Simon - and he can do that. And he does it well. Somehow, Simon manages to take music from another part of the world and still make it sound like Paul Simon. His gentle lyrical flow, clever melodies and poetic lyrics are all still there - and the South African influence actually complements them really well.

Speaking of those lyrics, I'm always impressed by the way Simon picks his words and turns his melodic phrases in a way that makes him sound like one the most observant, empathetic souls you'd ever hope to meet. Even when I'm not sure what he's talking about, it doesn't matter: "These are the days of miracle and wonder / This is the long distance call / The way the camera follow us in slo-mo / The way we look to us all / The way we look to a distant constellation / That's dying in a corner of the sky / These are the days of miracle and wonder / And don't cry baby, don't cry / Don't cry."

The title track (rumored to be about Simon's failed marriage) has spiritual undertones: "I'm going to Graceland / Poorboys and Pilgrims with families / And we are going to Graceland / And my traveling companions / Are ghosts and empty sockets / I'm looking at ghosts and empties / But I've reason to believe / We all will be received / In Graceland." I'm not sure what Paul's reason is, but I hope it has something to do with the God who hung on a cross.

I'm sure some might think Graceland sounds dated - and I couldn't disagree. Even though I think it's far more timeless than the majority of pop music produced in the 80s, it's still not hard to tell what decade it's from. Several years ago, this probably would have bothered me, but not any more. I'm not sure what's shifted in my aesthetic sensibilities, but in Graceland's case I think the 80s production only adds to its charm.

Another strength of the album is that it works very well as a whole. The variety and placement of the songs keeps it interesting from start to finish and actually enhances each individual song. In today's era of digital music and shuffling ipods, this sort of attention to detail is becoming a lost art. 

The verdict: I love Paul Simon even more now. 

"Under African Skies"

The Final Word - Michael Card

When I was very young, I remember my Dad coming home with this album on cassette. This was unusual - he was not the type to buy music on a regular basis, and when he did it was usually instrumental. 

But he did buy The Final Word, and it became a staple in our family's Plymouth Voyager mini-van. The opener, "To The Mystery," was fascinating to my young ears - the closest thing to rock music I had been exposed to up until then. I remember kicking my legs happily to "Celebrate the Child" and thinking "Spirit of the Age" sounded a little scary.

I don't know how many months (or years) The Final Word played in our van, but it was long enough for the melodies to take deep root in my memory. Deep enough that now, hearing this album in its entirety for the first time in almost 20 years is a powerfully nostalgic experience for me. Not only does it evoke strong positive associations from my childhood, it's also deeply moving because Michael's lyrics - the significance of which I understand far better now than I ever did as a child - remind me that God has been surrounding me with His story and His love long before I had any idea what any of that really meant. 

Nostalgia aside, this really is an excellent album and a true piece of "Christian art" (I use the term in quotes because I think the only thing that can really be a Christian is a person. If there ever was a piece of art that was Christian, though, this is it.). The lyrics are deep but never hide their subject matter. Focusing on the birth of Jesus, Michael manages to take a familiar story and present it in a way that reminds us just how wondrous and mysterious it really is: "A fiction as fantastic and wild / A mother made by her own child / A hopeless babe who cried / Was God incarnate and man deified."  

The combination of nostalgia and spiritual truth is enough in some places to put a lump in my throat, but in no place does it get me more than the final song, "Joy in the Journey." Since the nostalgic quality of this album already brings me to reflect on my journey thus far (and the journey of my parents), Michael's song about his own reflection is extra moving for me: "There is a joy in the journey / There's a light we can love on the way / There is a wonder and wildness to life / And freedom for those who obey." 

What really gets me, though, is the way he describes his audience: "To all who've been born of the Spirit / And who share incarnation with Him / Who belong to eternity stranded in time / And weary of struggling with sin."

The Overture to the Trilogy in the center of the album is a great instrumental piece. It shifts in mood and tempo multiple times, but very naturally. So much so that my mind anticipated it's changes even though I hadn't heard it in two decades. 

Yes, the production is dated - especially those drum cymbals. But it doesn't matter. There is a humility to Michael's tone, and 25-year-old production complements it quite well.

Thanks, Michael. There is a joy in the journey - especially when we have music like yours. 

Michael playing "Joy in the Journey" in 2002. 

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