December 4, 2020

Some Music Observations

I am a music man. Always have been. I remember listening to my mom’s Elvis and Buddy Holly 45s on an old portable record player. (If you didn’t understand a word I just said, go ask your grandparents for an interpretation.) The first album I remember owning myself was Snoopy Vs. The Red Baron by the Peter Pan Singers. (I think I still have it somewhere.) As I grew my tastes evolved toward more mature flavors. In Dayton we had WVUD-FM, an “underground” station from the University of Dayton that played “album tracks,” not just the Top 40 hits. I quickly passed from Three Dog Night and the Guess Who to Hendrix and Zappa. It was about the time I was reaching my teen years I realized that if everyone else was listening to an artist, I probably had no interest in them.

Some of those that made big impressions on me in my teen years included the James Gang, Bob Dylan, Cat Stevens, Neil Young, George Harrison, and Jethro Tull. Sure, they had some radio hits, but most of what I liked of theirs could only be found on their albums. I bought very few singles. I wanted to hear an album in its entirety to hear what the artist meant to convey within that work. (WVUD had a show on each evening called “Wax Museum,” where they played an entire album side, took a short commercial break, then played the other side. They started the whole thing off with a 1000 hz tone so you could calibrate your recorder! Oh that wicked college station!)

To this day I am still very much a contrarian when it comes to music. Well, ok, books and movies and restaurants as well. If everyone else is listening or watching or reading or eating it, I don’t usually want anything to do with it. (And I wonder why I don’t have that many friends…)

So I am a puzzle to my Christian friends. I tell them that I cannot read Christian fiction. It makes me sick to my stomach, thinking of the poor trees cut down to print this tripe. No one—and I mean no one—understands why I refuse to see Courageous. “It’s such a good, uplifting movie, Jeff. You have to see it!” No thanks. Give me Harvey with Jimmy Stewart or The Englishman Who Went Up A Hill But Came Down A Mountain for uplifting movies, thank you. And you already know what I think of chain restaurants.

The same thing when it comes to Christian music. Most of it, as I said recently, gives me ear warts. Come on, my son does a better job producing music in his bedroom using Garage Band than some of these groups today. And lyrically…well, if I wanted God to be my girlfriend, I suppose I could like some of what passes for “worship” music today. But I don’t, and I don’t. I could go on and on, and maybe someday just for fun I will (I have been associated with Christian media—both broadcasting and publishing—for more than 35 years, so I do know a wee bit of what I am talking of). But suffice it to say you do not often find me shopping for music (or anything, really) in Christian bookstores.

So when I came across the David Crowder Band’s album, Give Us Rest, at my Target, and I felt an impulse to buy it, I didn’t have to work all that hard to quench that desire. Yet it kept coming back to me—whether it was the Holy Spirit or the fact that I was doing a lot of straightening in that aisle I’m not sure. But reluctantly I bought it. And I could end this mini-review by telling you, too, to just go buy it. But since I have some time on my hands, I’ll go a bit deeper.

This is Crowder’s last album, at least with this band. They did a farewell concert tour last year, and this is billed as their final album. I’m sure there is a story in there somewhere, and it may even be an interesting story, but I don’t know. I do know this: This is as enjoyable of a listening experience as I have had in a long, long time. There are very few songs, if any, on Give Us Rest that will find their way to the K-Love station nearest you, and to me that’s a very good thing. (See: WVUD, above.) Crowder calls this a “requiem mass in C, the happiest of all keys.” And as a requiem is a mass for the dead, one wonders if the death they are celebrating is the death of their band. If so, this is more of a wake than a solemn mass. It’s an invitation to gather with Crowder, et al, and sing and dance.

Musically this is, as Adam Palmer says, a “kitchen sink” record. There are hints of Radiohead, Transiberian Orchestra, Nickel Creek, and even a selection that brings to mind O Fortuna from Carmina Burana. I am not one to say, “If you like X secular band, buy this Christian album” for many reasons. But the two biggest reasons are I hate (and that is putting it mildly) dividing God’s world into “secular” and “Christian,” and I think if you like X band, then listen to them. So I use these comparisons simply as comparisons. Do what you like with them.

I cannot explain to you why Crowder’s album lifts my heart to the Father so much. Partly it is the joyful music. Partly the well-written lyrics. Partly (probably a very big part) because it doesn’t sound like most other Christian albums. Whatever the reason, I like it. Your mileage may vary, but I suggest you check it out.

Another album I suggest you go buy right now is the latest from Leonard Cohen, Old Ideas. Again, I could stop right there, but I still have some time to kill, so why not add a little more?

This is not the album to start with if you are not familiar with Leonard Cohen. Perhaps you only know him as the writer of the song “Hallelujah” that you either heard sung by Jeff Buckley or on the soundtrack to Shrek. If you have not heard him perform, I suggest you start with his 2010 album, Live In London. It is two and a half hours of solid magic by a seventy-six year old magician. Now 78, Cohen has released his best studio album in more than a decade, Old Ideas.

The music itself is best described as spare. A Hammond B3, light guitar and other stringed instruments, some background vocals. But when you add Cohen’s voice as an instrument, oh my.  I’ve always liked his voice, and it just gets better and better and better. As one person described it, Cohen’s voice has gone “from whisky and cigarettes to chronic bronchitis.” He sings softly at times, yet commands your complete attention.

Lyrically this is among his best works. Over the years he has tended to be very spiritual; at times on this album he is straight-out Christian-sounding, as in the song “Show Me The Place.”

Show me the place/Help me roll away the stone

Show me the place/I can’t roll this thing alone

Show me the place/Where the Word became a man

Show me the place/Where the suffering began

I am not a big concert person. I usually don’t want to fight the crowds, the sound is not up to par in most venues, and I really don’t need to be surrounded by those who are drunk and/or high and are trying to sing along with the artist on stage. (Although beer drunks are better than wine drunks any day … my experience comparing Rolling Stones and SpyroGyra concerts …) But if Leonard Cohen goes back out on tour, you will find me at a show.

Finally, an album I did not review, Chimes of Freedom: The Songs of Bob Dylan. This is a four-disc set benefitting Amnesty International. I passed on this album as it’s my belief that very, very, very few artists can properly do a Dylan song. Johnny Cash, yes. Miley Cyrus? Ke$ha? My Morning Jacket? No, no, no. Perhaps the best ever to interpret Dylan—Roger McGuinn—is nowhere to be found. If I want to hear Dylan, I break out Blood On The Tracks or Blonde On Blonde.

Ok, I have to get back to work on another writing project. What am I going to listen to next? Jethro Tull? The Stones? Dylan? Or perhaps …

 

 

Comments

  1. Jeff, you mentioned Nickel Creek. We’re very lucky out here in LA – -about every month or so, at least two of the three from Nickel Creek get together for “The Watkins Family Music Hour” at a very small club on the westside, just to play roots, gospel honky-tonk and bluegrass music. Last week, it was Sara and Sean Watkins anchoring the band, along with Booker T, Benmont Tench, and a host of lesser-known but amazing talents. (You may remember Benmont as the classic organist from Tom Petty’s band, but yoI was surprised and amazed at how talented he is at honky-tonk and “stride” piano!). Booker T playing/singing Dylan’s “Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door” was sublime.

    I’m passing this along in case any soCal based IM readers want to get in on a mind-blowing evening of musicianship. They hinted that next month Chris Thile will sit in.

    • I’m down in the OC…but I will remember “The Watkins Family Music Hour”, and pass it along to friends up in L.A..

      And…I may get up there myself one of the days.

      Thanks, Steve.

    • Kenny Johnson says

      I live in the South Bay — and I had no idea. Thanks for the heads up! I like Nickel Creek — and love roots music.

      • Kenny Johnson says

        It looks like the play at the Largo? My work is about 4 miles from there. I’ll have to keep my eye out.

  2. A local DJ on an alternative rock station a couple years ago gave this quixotic review of a band:

    “They sound like Nickelback Creek.”

  3. Show Me the Place is one of the most beautiful songs I’ve heard. The lyrics by themselves knocked me out.

  4. I couldn’t resonate more with your being a contrarian when it comes to music, especially in the CCM industry. I was just about to enter Jr. High when the Passion music way began sweeping over my small town. Me and many of my friends had been beginning to be incorporated into musical roles with our church praise teams, and I couldn’t for the life of me figure out what was supposed to be so great about all these tunes they were fanatical about. Early Crowder did nothing for me, and the Chris Tomlin stuff was just beat to death within minutes of hitting the shelves. Perhaps it smacked of idolatry. More likely, melodic content was suffering. Older praise choruses had melodies that soared and took you on a journey, but new stuff just had a catchy beat and hardly anything else. This turned me off to anything trendy for a long time. Well, I suppose since I was also heavy into punk rock, anything resembling a sell-out was the embodiment of evil itself. Now I still have a hard time being able to enjoy anything that is popular on principle alone. That’s probably what made things tough for me as an evangelical worship leader: I simply refuse to play the latest cool songs because I honestly thought they sucked, and nothing made my skin crawl more than, “Hey have you heard this new song from [insert flavor of the month]? It’s awesome! We should use it!”

    Now that I work in a Lutheran context, I can do entire services straight from our hymnal, or incorporate only the best of more contemporary stuff. It’s freeing to be out from under the pressure of industry trends.

    I was first exposed to Cohen when “the Lost Dogs” covered “If It Be Your Will.” Still one of my all time favorite lyrics, I’m considering including it for Maundy Thursday or something.

    • Starke FTW! lol Hey, most Lutherans I know advocate a “blended” approach to worship: The best of the 16th century, and the 17th century.

  5. Jeff,

    Talking about musical tastes is akin to religion or politics–everybody has an opinion and it usually ends up starting a fight! However, (and you just knew this was coming!) one of the most original and refreshing new artists I’ve listened to is Ben Shive. He only has two albums but they are both stellar. His sophomore effort, “The Cymbal Crashing Clouds”, is a celebration of God’s Creation and Christ and His work (and also Brian Wilson’s!) yet he never mentions Jesus that I can recall. Do yourself a favor and download it.

  6. My lengthy post won’t show up. 🙁

  7. I give up. I can’t get it to post. Bottom Line: GET CHIMES OF FREEDOM. It’s BOB DYLAN MUSIC!!

  8. Short version: I own every album Dylan has put out, they’re all on my iPhone, and I’ve been listening to Chimes of Freedom nearly every day since I got it the day it came out (or the day my pre-order arrived from Amnesty International; Amazon is cheaper, though.) Get it.

  9. My friends look at me strangely whenever I tell them my favorite Christian artists are U2 and Bob Dylan. Oh well.

    But Phil Keaggy and Michael Card are a close third and fourth.

    • Glenn Kaiser (Rez Band, Glenn Kaiser Band) was recently in my neck of the woods playing at a benefit concert for a friend of mine who is battling cancer — and Glenn told a funny story about Phil Keaggy and his (Kaiser’s) young grandson. He said he, his wife, Wendy, and their grandson were hanging out backstage at the main stage at Cornerstone while Keaggy was playing. After the set, Wendy introduced Keaggy to her grandson, telling him how Keaggy was a guitar player like his granddad and probably an even better player than his granddad. Kaiser said that at that point his grandson puffed up, stuck out his chin and said, “I don’t think so.”
      By the way, feel free to say a prayer for my friend Tommy, for whom the benefit concert was held. He’s a great guy, a great musician, and one of my fathers in the faith.

      • I was at that concert – we are praying for Tommy. He IS a great guy.

        • Really. Small world.
          Do you live in the West Tennessee area? Did you catch Kaiser’s Sunday morning worship set at the First United Methodist Church? How long have you known Tommy?

          • Nope–Kentucky. I met Tommy when he worshiped at the church we were then attending in Murray. No, we didn’t catch Kaiser at the morning worship at First Methodist. I did wish we could have heard a little more from him that night. That song he did, which he prefaced with some comments about psalms of lament, was gorgeous.

            We now attend the Episcopal church in Paris, by the way. Lovely little church.

  10. I haven’t heard Crowder’s last album yet, but their “A Collision (or, 3+4=7)” record (which came out, I think, circa 2004ish) has been one of the only Christian albums of the last decade that I could genuinely respect and listen to all the way through, and see it as a genuine work of art instead of a cheap collage.

  11. Here’s the best version of the ‘Shrek’ song (Hallelujah) out there:

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Qt2FWAbXinY&feature=related

  12. Jeff,

    I share your taste in music, particularly the artists you mentioned. Give me any of the songs off the album not played on the radio. We had a station that was similar in Pittsburgh in the early seventees (WYDD- free format – also played Dr. Demento on Sunday nights).

    I have completely deprived myself of listening to Christian music. I’m sure there is good stuff out there – but I’ve heard some really cheesy songs and can’t bring myself to listen. And don’t even mention KLOVE…

    Kind of like today’s country – all formula, no creativity. I play games with my kids when they have country on – whether the song will mention fried chicken, pickup trucks, beer, or, in the case of a female singer, baseball bats and riding ponies down by the river. What ever happened to people like Suzie Boggus?

    Dylan – Blood on the Tracks – now that’s an album….and Catch Bull at Four… and Tull’s Benefit OK I’ll stop now….

  13. At 60 I am listening for “faithshaped” music that resonates with my spirit. I appreciate and am entertained by all kinds of good music, whether by pagans or priests, but I can only be truly edified and spiritually encouraged by music that emerges from a heart that is wrestling artistically with matters of life and faith.

    Some of the gifted faithshaped musical artists that touch my spirit in a wide variety of genres (though mostly acoustic) would include Andrew Peterson, Rich Mullins, Fernando Ortega, Sara Groves, Eric Peters, Pierce Pettis, Paul Simon, The Civil Wars, Jill Phillips, Jason Gray, Ben Shive, Josh Garrels, Bob Bennett, and many others.

    Personally, I always thought of Crowder’s music as creative but still mainstream CCM, but I will give their farewell CD a listen. I hope you will give other faithshaped artists a serious listen, too.

  14. I can go you one better about the 45 records, Jeff; my first exposure to music was my father playing shellac (yes, shellac not vinyl) records on an actual wind-up gramophone 🙂

    But I, too, first owned for my very own record (at the age of ten) “Snoopy versus the Red Baron” (the 1973 U.K. Top Ten hit version done by a group whose name I can’t even remember now, featured on a compilation album of Top Twenty hits). My uncle in England who bought it for me was mildly shocked that I wanted it – didn’t I realise that “bloody” was swearing? My second record, bought at my request by my mother, was a selection of Tchaikovsky’s music, including the 1812 Overture and the Romeo and Juliet Overture. My musical tastes have continued to develop in a like manner ever since – is “eclectic” the word? 😉

    Leonard Cohen – but of course! I’ve always said, Laughing Lenny is my favourite Jewish-Catholic- Buddhist 😀

    A Bob Dylan cover by Miley Cyrus? I have never before in my life wanted to own a gun, but suddenly…

  15. I listened to the clips on Amazon from Cohen’s new album. The one that most attracted me was Come Healing. So I went looking for the lyris and found them on the metrolyrics.com site. Here they are. There are some great lines there:

    Come Healing by Leonard Cohen

    O, gather up the brokenness
    Bring it to me now
    The fragrance of those promises
    You never dared to vow

    The splinters that you carried
    The cross you left behind
    Come healing of the body
    Come healing of the mind

    And let the heavens hear it
    The penitential hymn
    Come healing of the spirit
    Come healing of the limb

    Behold the gates of mercy
    In arbitrary space
    And none of us deserving
    Of cruelty or the grace

    O, solitude of longing
    Where love has been confined
    Come healing of the body
    Come healing of the mind

    O, see the darkness yielding
    That tore the light apart
    Come healing of the reason
    Come healing of the heart

    O, troubledness concealing
    An undivided love
    The heart beneath is teaching
    To the broken heart above

    And let the heavens falter
    Let the earth proclaim
    Come healing of the altar
    Come healing of the name

    O, longing of the branches
    To lift the little bud
    O, longing of the arteries
    To purify the blood

    And let the heavens hear it
    The penitential hymn
    Come healing of the spirit
    Come healing of the limb

    O let the heavens hear it
    The penitential hymn
    Come healing of the spirit
    Come healing of the limb

  16. Pastor Mac says

    Much of how you got into music is my story. My brother wanted singles; I wanted albums back in the early 70s. As much of an Apple fanboy that I am, iTunes is oriented to my brother. I’ve vowed not to buy another CD since everything I want (most of it from back in the day) is now digital. Vinyl is still best but not terribly portable. I do have a bunch of vinyl still extant in my basement but condition is a problem. I’ve got Griffin’s iMic (a true gem, btw, for analog turntables & tape decks) to rip in GarageBand but sadly I don’t have functional components any longer due to flooding from Irene last summer. Some have suggested I find material I’m looking for via warez & other non-authorized sites (one guy showed me Larry Norman’s In Another Land out there) but besides how heavily the RIAA & MPAA are now patrolling such haunts it’s still a fundamental violation of the 8th Commandment. But still the singer/songwriter or the AAA radio format is what moves me. And is Michael Card really on a level of JT or Dan Fogelberg? Dylan & Lennon are in their own league that no one can approach…

  17. “If It Be Your Will” , I love this song, with the intro by Cohen and the singing by the Webb Sisters. I had “Live In London” in my truck this week. Sometimes it makes me want to just drive on by work. “Old Ideas” is in my Wish List on Amazon. And Crowder Band’s latest is EXCELLENT! I had to get it…

    Thanks for all your recommendations Jeff. Your tastes boost my appreciation of some fine music.

    have a great weekend.

  18. My favorite CCM artist is Mark Heard. I was actually introduced to him by Michael Spencer…both of them died unexpectedly young. Heard last three albums (especially Satellite Sky) were really something special. His lyrics had a depth of social commentary and introspection that few artists match, Christian or otherwise. He may have been close to big success when a heart attack ended his life at 40, just as he was hitting his stride musically. 🙁

  19. I picked up the new DCB last week as well. I’ve only listened through it once, and honestly, the first time it didn’t strike me as much as their earlier work did (especially A Collision). I’ll have to give it a few more tries.

    I used to have quite a huge collection of Christian music. Actually, I still own most of it. I just don’t listen to much of it anymore. There’s some I still listen to – Phil Keaggy, Charlie Peacock, The Choir, The Prayer Chain, the 77s – to name a few. Most of the Christian bands I like never really made it huge in that market. I remember reading an article by Charlie Peacock a few years talking about how the CCM market is so geared toward teens that once people get older, they end up losing interest in these groups. I find that true. So much of CCM is so cliched and, well, boring that you’d have to pay me to listen to it. What I see is that artists simply don’t mature in the same way in that market. A group like the Newsboys, for example, has been around for over 20 years now, but they’re still trying to write and perform songs for youth groups. That just seems weird to me. Have their beliefs not changed at all in that time, or is it they feel they just have a niche they can take advantage of?

    There are a lot of very good artists who are Christians, but they don’t necessarily write “Christian” music – U2, Bruce Cockburn, Over the Rhine are a few that come to mind. I like artists who don’t try to squeeze their lyrics into a tiny evangelical box.

    • I know that links in comments are discouraged here, but I found the Charlie Peacock article I was thinking of. It’s here: http://www.ccmmagazine.com/article/charlie-peacock-predicts-the-future-of-christian-music/
      (If this is inappropriate, please delete it.)

      This is the paragraph I was thinking of from it:

      Christian music as a genre has always been a music you move on from. Young Christian baby-boomers and Gen-X once in love with the music abandoned it in adulthood and have not returned. As a result, legacy artist catalogs (ranging from Larry Norman to Amy Grant to dcTalk and beyond) do not and will not have the staying power of their mainstream counterparts such as The Beatles, The Eagles, Elton John, Led Zeppelin, Celine Dion, James Taylor, Bob Dylan, Bruce Springsteen and U2. All these secular artists, and a hundred others, remain popular and economically viable today. Sadly, the pattern does not hold true for what was contemporary Christian music.

  20. My new favorite Christian artist is Fernando Ortega, an Anglican pianist and singer. Of course, a lot of his recordings are arrangements of hymns, which may not seem too challenging to some people, but he’s the first Christian artist to grab me by the ears in over 10 years.

    I’ve given a listen to GIve Us Rest and I find it to be very original and exciting music, but I dislike the sound of the album. It seems very thin, very trebly, not a lot of depth to the sound. It seems a rather ephemeral complaint, but I switched from some other album to it one night, and I was just shocked at how weedy Give Us Rest sounded.

  21. petrushka1611 says

    Jeff, you would probably like When the Devil Goes Blind, Charlie Parr’s new album. He’s a young guy who sings old but doesn’t sound fake; “Ain’t No Grave Gonna Hold My Body Down” alone is worth the album. It’s just him and an instrument, sometimes a nice slide guitar.

    I don’t know if you’re still in the Dayton area (I’m not sure if the UD station is still around), but WNKU now has a satellite at 105.9 that comes in clear all over town. My radio stays there about 90% of the time.

  22. I caught a little of a band on a religious TV network trying really hard to imitate Cold Play. I watched Cold Play on Austin City Limits, where they talked a lot about artistic integrity and the creative process. But this band seemed only interested in imitating their sound, not their ethos. I think it demonstrates a fatal flaw in Christian music: “redeem” secular music by setting it to Jesus ditties. Where’s Jesus in the creative process? Where is Jesus in the writing of honest, inspiring, thought-provoking lyrics? I think we are in the midst of one of the greatest awakenings in music since the sixties and early seventies, and Christian musicians think somehow they are participating by wearing beanies. Perhaps things have improved since the eighties, when Christians tried to make a lot of bad music better by Christianizing it. I just wonder if our God is so great, who we are so sure created the universe, why does our music always sound so bad or just follow the rest of the music industry, rather than leading in creativity and quality?

    • petrushka1611 says

      Ox, I often think back to when black gospel seemed far ahead of what the “world” was doing. People like Sister Rosetta Tharpe, the Swan Silvertones…*sigh* Rock probably never would have been if it hadn’t been for black gospel.

  23. Jeff, I share your automatic dislike for most mainstream music (with a few exceptions).
    But if you’re looking for some Christian music that’s way, way off the beaten path, check out David Eugene Edwards’ continuing music project, Woven Hand. Old timey mountain music meets Pink Floyd with very tribal rhythms and Jim Morrison and the prophet Ezekiel taking turns on the lyrics — that’s how I would describe much of Edwards’ music. And if you’re looking for some Christian music that goes well with peyote, Edwards is definitely your ticket.

  24. The last time I checked, Old Ideas was available for listening in its entirety on the NPR website. Overall, it’s a great album, and certain songs, like “Show Me the Way” and are instant classics. My recommendation for an introduction to Leonard Cohen is the “Essential Leonard Cohen,” which covers highpoints of his recorded work up to “Ten Songs.”

    My favorite Dylan tribute album is the “I’m Not There” soundtrack. It even includes a new/old recording of “I’m Not There” by Bob himself.

    My recommendation for another singer-songwriter to explore is Nick Cave. Like Bob and Leonard Cohen, he tends to mix in religious themes and imagery into his works. I recommend “Boatman’s Call” and “Abbatoir Blues.”

    • I love I’m Not There, too (and the movie). And I’ve been thoroughly enjoying Chimes of Freedom, and am still listening to some of the tracks every day two weeks after getting it.