Friday, June 13, 2003  

Today’s Selection - The Jesus Record - Rich Mullins

I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again. The two greatest songwriters in the history of Christian music are Mark Heard and Rich Mullins. Currey said that he cried the day Mark Heard died – I cried the day Rich Mullins died.

Rich died in September of 1997. Almost a year later, The Jesus Record was released. The record consists of two discs – one that has nine rough demo cuts and one that has the “Ragamuffins’” versions of those songs.

The two discs really warrant separate reviews, since they are essentially different records, but I’ll do my best to talk about them both.

The Jesus Demos

These nine tracks are about as rough as it gets. Recorded on a hand-held audio recorder just a few days before the Jeep accident, these songs were recorded as a demo for the studio. They were intended to be re-recorded and distributed, along with a book and some other stuff.

It’s hard for me to talk about this disc without sounding like I’m overstating or exaggerating. But . . . in my humble opinion, this disc is the best Christian album ever made. Now, I really hate making the Christian v. Secular comparisons – then there’s the CCM v. Non-CCM comparisons – but I think that this album is so narrowly focused that it begs to be pigeonholed. Nine songs about Jesus. That was the intent.

“Hard to Get” is the first track. It’s really less a song and more a treatise on the Christian condition. Nobody can vocalize the hard parts of Christianity like Rich could. Most artists don’t seem to have the guts to admit that there are hard parts. This song deals with the seeming absence of God’s presence during painful times.

Do you remember when You lived down here where we all scrape
To find the faith to ask for daily bread
Did You forget about us after You had flown away
Well I memorized every word You said
Still I'm so scared, I'm holding my breath
While You're up there just playing hard to get?

“All the Way to Kingdom Come” is the gospel, simply put. We were looking for heroes, He came looking for the lost/We were searching for glory, and He showed us a cross.

“My Deliverer” – a song about a young Jesus in Egypt, learning about what happened there thousands of years before and the faith of God’s chosen people during it all.

My deliverer is coming
My deliverer is standing by
My deliverer is coming
My deliverer is standing by
He will never break his promise
Though the stars should break faith with the sky

“That Where I Am, There You . . .” is more evidence that nobody can take a simple melody and a simple lyric and transmogrify them into passion and enduring appeal. Rich was a modern day hymn writer. This song, for me, fits right alongside “Awesome God” and “Hope to Carry On” as the best of the modern hymns.

“You Did Not Have a Home” is so wonderful because, although it’s a song about Jesus, it’s also a song about Rich’s nature. The simple aspects of Christ’s life were absolutely central to Rich’s art. He was as consumed with how Christ lived as he was with what Christ said. So, for Jesus to have essentially been a homeless man was reflected in the way Rich lived. The song is about how humanity was saved by a man like that: The whole world rests on the shoulders on a homeless man. I could write a three-page paper on this song. I’ll quit while I’m ahead.

The Jesus Record

The Ragamuffins got together with Michael W. Smith, Amy Grant, and Ashley Cleveland and re-recorded all of the demo songs, plus one. The extra song, “Man of No Reputation,” is excellent. According to the liner notes, Rich couldn’t perform the song; he could never make it all the way through without breaking down in tears.

The Ragamuffin version of “My Deliverer” is definitely the highlight of this record. With a children’s choir as the backdrop, this version is haunting and memorable.

The last song, the re-recording of “That Where I Am, There You . . .” is nicely produced. Using the miracle of modern technology, Rich’s original version is combined with the new one – a la Nat King Cole and Natalie doing “Unforgettable.” It works well.

Unfortunately, not much else on this record works well. Other than those three songs, I think this is a throwaway disc. It’s unfortunate too, but I think it’s a natural by-product of a project like this. Anytime you put the new versions right there along with the originals, they are going to pale in comparison. I almost never listen to this disc.

The true joy of Rich’s artistry doesn’t only come from the lyrics or the music (although both are spectacular). Everytime I hear someone cover one of his songs, it always falls short of Rich’s version. There seems to be something, some quality, about Rich that comes through when he sings. It’s something like honesty or authenticity, but there’s more to it than that. I think that, more than anything, it is vulnerability. Through his music, he allows into the dark and deserted parts of himself. He lets us see the aching, as well as the small joys that he’s experienced. He lets his frustrations with God come through – there’s a line in “Hard to Get” that I quoted above: Did you forget about us after you had flown away/Well I memorized every word you said. When I listen to it, I hear disappointment with God. I hear grief. Who else is that revealing?

We identify with Rich and his music because we believe him. We believe that he has endured the same things that we’ve endured, and he’s willing to admit that Christianity requires endurance.

My good friend Kevin Partridge tells a story about how he once saw Rich eating at Denny’s. Kevin has similar taste in music as I do, and is a big Rich Mullins fan. But at the time, he was younger, and while he knew who Rich was, he wasn’t interested enough to go over and talk to him. We all have made stupid decisions, but Kevin knows that he missed one heck of an opportunity that night. But who knew Jesus would call Rich home that soon?

there. I said it.| 1:31 PM

Thursday, June 12, 2003  

I was around 11 or 12 years old when I went to my first big time concert. It was at the Orlando Arena, we sat in the upper deck. The lights went down, the band came out. Then, out came the man himself – Billy Joel. It was the Storm Front Tour.
I love my parents dearly. Their parenting turned me into the man that I am today. I have vivid memories of driving to church on Sunday mornings in our gigantic van every Sunday morning. For our listening pleasure, we had about 4 choices – oldies radio (which I loved, and still love), Sandi Patti (no comment), Barry Manilow (ditto), and . . . Billy Joel – normally the Innocent Man album. So, naturally, I chose Billy.

I am of one of those people that know every word of “We Didn’t Start the Fire.” I own about 15 Billy Joel records and, while it’s probably not the best one, Storm Front has a certain power of me. It held sway over my Walkman for long periods of time (especially a certain Christmas-time trip to Arkansas, if I remember right).

Although it definitely has some weak tracks – “When in Rome” and “State of Grace” immediately some to mind – it’s really a pretty good album.

If we can all remember back to the Cold War for a minute, “Leningrad” is a pretty moving story of Russian and American cultures coming together, despite decades of staunch belief that the other was the devil incarnate.

“Storm Front” is, as title tracks often are, average at best. Nothing special lyrically, just a straight pop tune with a decent hook, it falls into the lower third of Billy’s songs.

Billy is at his best when he’s evoking an emotional response – he’s at his absolute best when he’s addressing the plight of Everyman. Songs like “Allentown,” “Goodnight, Saigon,” and “Scenes From an Italian Restaurant” are authentic, even if Billy has never been a steel worker, or fought in Vietnam. The Everyman song from Storm Front is “Downeaster ‘Alexa’.” The plight of the fishermen rings a bit truer to me, now that I live in Maryland. I’ve seen the dying of the industry a bit more closely. Although the song is written about Long Island, lines like these could just as easily be about the Chesapeake:

I was a bayman like my father was before
Can't make a living as a bayman anymore
There ain't much future for a man who works the sea
But there ain't no island left for islanders like me

When Garth Brooks (*shudder*) covered “Shameless,” I shook my head. When he made a hit out of it, I cursed. Billy’s version (the original, I should add) is far superior. Much more emotive and true than Garth’s twangy rendition, “Shameless” is a competent pop song.

“We Didn’t Start the Fire” has been much maligned in the past ten years. I think it’s brilliant. Simple metaphor, highly evocative imagery, and a cool video – I love this song. It’ll be around for a hundred years.

The album closes with “And So It Goes,” a superbly touching song about unconditional (and, for that matter, unrequited) love. Nobody could ever say that Billy Joel can’t write a pretty melody. He’s got ‘em coming out his ears. My only complaint with this song is that it makes use of the extraordinarily trite “rose-thorn” metaphor. But I would suspect that every good songwriter has fallen back on it from time to time.

Listen: here’s the deal. I really believe that Billy Joel is the Rodney Dangerfield of the music world. Not everybody who reads this is going to readily admit that he or she likes him. But I would suspect that if hooked up to a lie detector, they might sing a different tune. He is an expert songwriter, one that can evoke the power of history, the sheer muscle of love, and the sentiment of the Everyman. Give me a call – I’ll lend you one of my Billy Joel records.

there. I said it.| 8:29 PM

Rest in Peace, Gregory Peck.

there. I said it.| 6:05 PM

Wednesday, June 11, 2003  

“There’s a far away look in your eyes
It’s behind the lines of the second page.
It’s like reading some poet’s lines,
And your life till now was just commonplace.”
-"All Fall Down"

I have a remarkable tendency to latch on to artists that nobody has every heard of. I try to make disciples and, in some rare cases, I’m successful. Janna has been the guinea pig for most of my musical experimentation: sometimes it’s a hit and sometimes she just rolls her eyes and says, “That’s nice, honey. Did you remember to take the trash out last night?”

But she is a convert to Harrod & Funck fandom. Jason Harrod and Brian Funck – two guitar-playing songwriters who put out three albums in the mid-nineties were mostly a word-of-mouth act, but you can still find some of their stuff if you look hard enough – I think Paste Music still sells it. Their first album, Dreams of the Color Blind, was produced by, you guessed it, Mark Heard. Then the final studio record, Harrod and Funck came out, followed by a Live album. All three are exceptional acoustic folk-rock. Very quiet, thoughtful stuff.

The Live album is my favorite of them all. I have a special penchant for live albums; I guess they give us more personal interaction with the artist. The “witty banter” factor is always important, too (Jason tells a story on the CD about a friend of theirs who worked as a graphic designer for the La Leche League . . . look it up).

Anybody that’s been reading for the past five days will know that I’m a big fan of superlatives and I always run the risk of using too many, of going overboard – especially since I’m talking about some of my favorite records. So, if you think I’m being entirely too complimentary about this album – too bad. It’s all true.

Although their music is plaintive and meditative much of the time, this album is very playful and fun. Take the song “Model Waif” for instance:

I wish I was a model waif
I wouldn’t worry about my weight
I’d look at you with my sultry eyes
I wouldn’t worry about the size of my thighs

I wish I was Mohammed Ali
I’d punch you in the face and get away clean
I wish I was a frozen pizza
I’d get warmed up by someone who loves me.

“Worn Out Welcome” is a refugee from the first record. It’s got a funky, leisurely pace to it and, lyrically, it’s transcendent. The boys show off the quality of their songwriting on songs like “Run, Rabbit, Run” and “The Lion Song.” Likewise, “All Fall Down” is a nostalgic look at childhood and innocence. “Carolina” is a longing for the South, written by somebody who hasn’t been there in a while – this is definitely one that I identify with.

One of the standout tracks is “Houdini,” a folk-song in the truest sense – the memory of Harry Houdini is romanticized - In his great escapes, he scoffed at fate/biting at his heels: misery and ecstacy/Handcuffs break with mysterious grace/And history reveals/There’s only one Houdini.

Another standout track is a T-Bone Burnett song. Burnett recorded it on his 1983 album, Proof Through the Night. It’s called “After All These Years" and it is stunning. I printed the lyrics at the bottom for you.

Two guys, two guitars, and a stage – that’s all that’s here. But this record is the very definition of the sum being greater than its parts. It’s really one of the most special albums that I own. All three albums by these guys are special. They've since broken up, by the way. Jason Harrod has a great solo album out - it's called Living in Skin. Unfortunately, I've no idea what Brian Funck is up to .

After All These Years

I heard you saw her again last evening
I heard you’ve been with her for two or three days
I still have her picture taped to a mirror
Did she still look the same after all these years?

I remember her as the most beautiful woman
Was her hair still blond, are her eyes still blue?
Were they soft and gentle, or filled with tears
Did she still look as hurt after all these years?

I lost track of her way back in the 60s
I’d even heard that she had tried suicide
There were rumors the government killed her career
Did she still look as scared after all these years?

Will they ever uncover her terrible secret
And untangle the mystery of her life?
Will they ever know why she disappeared?
Did she still look as gone after all these years?

Was she still as alluring, still as seductive
Could she still drive you crazy by the look on her face?
Did she still have a whisper you could hear across an ocean?
Was she still a scandal, still a disgrace?

Was she still as impossible, still as voluptuous
Still as helpless and full of fears
Was she still as provocative, still as compelling
Was she still as late after all these years?

there. I said it.| 1:29 PM

Tuesday, June 10, 2003  

Today’s Selection - 1200 Curfews - The Indigo Girls

“This is a song I wrote when I was thinking about my little boyfriend in 6th grade, Danny. He was so cute, and I went Woolworth’s and bought him a ring with my allowance. And as soon as I gave it to him I knew that it wasn’t the cool thing to do. And that was just the beginning of the rest of my life. You have to laugh at yourself, because you’d cry your eyes out if you didn’t.”
- Emily Saliers’ intro to “Least Complicated”

The year: 1995. The girl: Allison Semones. She smoked. And she loved the Indigo Girls. So, naturally, I ran out and bought an Indigo Girls record. I think that 1200 Curfews was the only one on the shelf at the store, so that’s the one I got. I’ve bought many more since then.

I have a love/hate relationship with The Indigo Girls. Generally, I love the songs that Emily writes and I generally don’t like (I don’t wanna say “hate” – it’s not like she’s Ricky Martin, or something) the songs that Amy writes. But, for this album, they used most of the ones of Amy’s that I really admire. On 1200 Curfews there are plenty of Amy’s and plenty of Emily’s, as well as covers of luminaries like Dylan, Joni Mitchell, and Neil Young. It’s 2 CDs full of some great stuff, some not-so-great stuff, and a few throwaways. This is an album that I put in and skip around on – I don’t listen to it straight through.

Although it’s a live album, 1200 Curfews serves as sort of a de facto greatest hits record. All of the biggies are here – “Closer to Fine,” “”Power of Two,” “Land of Canaan,” “Galileo.” Of course, there’s a really good reason for that – they are all fantastic songs. The addition of the covers – Dylan’s “Tangled Up in Blue,” Mitchell’s “River, “ Young’s “Down By the River,” and the song that Gladys Knight made famous, “Midnight Train to Georgia” – is nice. It’s one of life’s greatest pleasures for me to hear one of my favorite artists cover another one of my favorite artist’s songs.

The real power of their music for me is in Emily’s quiet, graceful, plaintive writing. “Least Complicated” has always been my favorite. What makes me think I could start clean-slated/The hardest to learn was the least complicated Also, the depth of imagery in “Virginia Woolf” is such that I think even the writer herself would have appreciated it. The nostalgia and melancholy of “Ghost” affects me everytime. The sheer lyricism of “Language or the Kiss” is so admirable – it is such a well-written song that it serves as a study for me of how to write. Ditto for “Mystery.”

There are some emotionally raw tunes, mostly written by Amy, that don’t always work for me. “Chickenman” is over-the-top, and “Strange Fire” falls apart on a lyrical level. But Amy really shines on “Joking” and “Jonas and Ezekiel.” “The Train Revised” is extraordinarily compelling. It’s a haunting piece about the Holocaust that is drives a stake right through your heart everytime you listen to it.

My admiration for The Indigo Girls has fallen quite far these past few years. Their music has become less storytelling, and more political agenda, and that’s a bit infuriating. I think it’s wasteful of some remarkable talent. But this live album really highlights their mastery that has been so pervasive throughout the years. It’s really wonderful, and it has great staying power. Hey, it lasted longer for me than Allison Semones did.

there. I said it.| 12:13 PM

Monday, June 09, 2003  

Today’s Selection - Killing Floor - Vigilantes of Love

I originally thought of titling this review "Killing Floor by the Vigilantes of Love, or Everything I Ever Needed to Know About History I Learned From Bill Mallonee.” But, I thought that was too long, so I decided to leave it out.

You remember those girls when we were growing up that had posters of Corey Haim, or Kirk Cameron on their walls, and would giggle uncontrollably when their boyfriend-to-be would show up on the screen? That’s how I am with the Vigilantes of Love – I have been since 1994. Eleven years. The tally is up to, I think, 15 albums, with another coming out in August. And I still giggle like a 13-year-old girl when the new records come out. I figure that it's best to just lay that out on the table before the reviewing begins. Do with it what you will

Out of 15 albums, Killing Floor is the third. Released in 1992, it was produced by the late Mark Heard, who has been discussed before around here. It is neither the best VOL album musically, nor the most polished VOL recording, but it is sentimentally my favorite. However, like all things that we love, this record has some faults that are worth mentioning.

I’d like to sit down with Bill sometime and ask him if the historical bent on Killing Floor is intentional, although I suspect that I already know the answer to that question. In fact, there seem to be two distinct records at work on Killing Floor. A large percentage of the songs deal directly with a particular issue: grace, unrequited love, desperation, etc., through the eyes of history. Case in point: “Port of Entry” is a case study about the unending grace of Christ, told through the story of an immigrant in the early days of America coming to find his fortune, only to fail. “Now, I never became a banker, nor was I landed gentry/Will you still hold me in your arms at my port of entry?”

There’s also “Eleanor,” which is an upbraiding to Franklin Roosevelt for ignoring Eleanor, who dedicated her life to him and his work, only to be cast aside in favor of an affair. “Her love deeper than Warm Springs/But Lucy got your best/Eleanor, taking what she could get.”

Also, “Andersonville,” the story of a soldier trapped in the civil war prison camp who continually dreams of his wife and children, but is forced to see life at its ugliest - “So I’ll watch the strong and fearless, reduced and disgraced/Each day the heart of twisted man stares me in the face/So I pray for death to take me/Just like it did my friends.”

The historical aspect come shining through in small ways as well, such as in the most lyrical song, “Earth Has No Sorrow, Heaven Can’t Heal.” The title comes from the old hymn, “Come, Ye Disconsolate” and the song is hymn-like itself, invoking “Beulah” and the sound of church bells.

Johnny says to Sarah as he takes her by the hand
I hear angels cross that river in Beulah Land
The waters are cold and they’re deep, my friend
Goin’ down, down, down, and comin’ up again.

- “Earth Has No Sorrow, Heaven Can’t Heal”

This record also contains one of Bill’s hardest rock and roll songs (if you can call a mandolin a rock and roll instrument – but, once you’ve seen Kenny Hudson play it, you won’t have any problem with that). “Undertow” is a fast-moving, heart-thumping, fun song that’ll leave you gasping for air at the end, but it’s also awfully dark. Lines like “I’m gonna rip out my heart/I’m gonna sew it on my sleeve/I’m gonna preach the gospel/On the corner of the street” are put next to statements like “You’ve been stealing all my children/And raping them repeatedly/It’s not a one time thing/You do it instinctively.”

Although I have a whole lotta love for Killing Floor, it does have some flaws. At 16 songs, it’s too long. Mark Heard probably should have put the kibosh on a couple of tracks, 12 would be a nice number. Songs like “Keep Out the Chill,” “Strike While the Iron is Hot,” and “Deep End” could disappear and I wouldn’t be any sadder. It’s not that they aren’t strong tracks; they simply don’t live up to the quality of the others.

My favorite song here is a sad tale of despair and futility. “Sick of it All” tells of a man who has been betrayed by the American dream – “History teacher told me once what I should hope in/Now it’s lock, stock and barrel and the promises broken.” The hero is so far in debt that he is constantly considering suicide – “I know I clean my guns a lot this fall/But you know how it is when you’re so sick of it all.” And, like a lot of other Bill Mallonee songs, it is completely depressing. I wish I could tell you that there is a silver lining here, but I’d be lying.

The songwriting is incredible. It’s not the most accessible VOL record for a newbie – try out Audible Sigh or Blister Soul if that’s you. But the strength of Killing Floor rests in Bill’s ability to communicate the human condition in such a way that it is, at the same time, completely honest and remarkably graceful. And, speaking of grace, it is never more eloquently told than it is on Killing Floor.

there. I said it.| 12:35 PM

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