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December 2012

Seven Keepers: Favorite Album Releases of 2012 (Revised)

Don't consider this a best of list. That would be presumptuous and impossible anyway, given the element of subjectivity involved.  But these are the records from 2012 that I keep coming back to, that seem to offer something deeper than mere ear candy.  What I am amazed at is how little of what I listen to actually sticks; most is, sadly,  flash in the pan.  These will stick. (Note that they are in no particular order.)

GungorA Creation Liturgy, Gungor.  I nominate this record for the best worship album of all time, and I don't even usually like worship albums!  The musicianship, the lyrics, and the beauty simply compel worship. There is rock, a classical guitar solo, a traditional hymn, and much more, a rich palette of songs that are stirring in their energy.  I only wish I could have been at one of the live shows this album is taken from.  If you want to see what I mean, just listen to Track 2, "Heaven," in its entirety.  It's excellent, which is what our worship should be but which, sadly, so often fails to be.  Two powerful poetry readings are amazing, like speed preaching.  I'm blessed by it all.

BarbRelease Me, Barbara Streisand.  What can be said?  Streisand has released 60 albums since 1963 and done far more besides.  These 11 tracks, previously unreleased, were the "throwaways" from those many recording sessions.  The thing about it is, Streisand's crumbs are food for the gods.  There's not a bad track here, from Jimmy Webb's "Didn't We" to the touching rendition of Randy Newman's "I Think It's Gonna Rain Today," with Newman on the piano.  On several tracks there are snippets of dialogue between Streisand and a musician or recording engineer.  She's witty, funny, and probably quite the diva, but she's also an amazing singer.  I love the crumbs.

BeachThat's Why God Made the Radio, The Beach Boys.  While inconsistent, a much anticipated 50th Anniversary reunion of the still living originators of tunes such as "Help Me Rhonda" and "Fun, Fun, Fun" finally came together. While the tour was short-lived, ultimately shut down by Mike Love, who has continued to tour under The Beach Boys moniker as mostly a nostalgia act, the reunion did produce this record, its songs made memorable by the contributions of the fragile genius of Brain Wilson.  There is a bittersweet feel to the project, in its best moments hearkening back to Pet Sounds, and yet such writing seems closer to reality, somehow resonating more than the buoyant likes of "Fun, Fun, Fun" or "Good Vibrations."  The closer, "Summer's Gone," about says it all: "Summer’s gone/ It’s finally sinking in/ One day begins/ Another ends/ I live them all and back again." With each new album, I always think that Brian Wilson is done, and yet he keeps surprising me.  May God grant him many more years.

  FayLife Is People, Bill Fay.  I think every reviewer of this album by this highly regarded 69-year old English singer-songwriter captures both the humility of Fay in light of his understated brilliance and his spirituality.  He reminds me of Nick Drake without his tortured soul.  And yet no one seems to pick up on the specifically Christian spirituality that permeates his lyrics.  There's Jesus's propitiation for sin: "Every city brawl, every fistfight/ Every bullet from a gun/ Is written upon the palms of the holy one" ("There Is a Valley"); the hope of Heaven: "Ain't so far away, the healing day/ Coming to stay, the healing day" ("The Healing Day") and "I'm waiting for the city of God/ Yeah I'm waiting for the city of God/ When was is will be what was/ Waiting for the city of God" ("City of Dreams"); and a clsing prayer of thankfulness, like a benediction those close to him: "Thank you Lord, for giving life to me/ a river so wide, flowing from you and through me" ("Thank You Lord").  Maybe the state of biblical literacy is so low that reviewers don't even know how to express what he is saying and yet are deeply attracted to the clear-eyed hope of which he sings.  Regardless, Bill Fay is one artist whose "little songs" (his words) should be heard. 

AstroLeonard, the Lonely Astronaut, Andrew Osenga.  As I wrote a review just for this album, I cannot do better than sum it up as I did in that blog post:  "This is likely the richest album both lyrically and musically that Andrew Osenga has launched.  There is a quirkiness in his character, and yet there is profundity in what the man has to say. This record just might resonate more broadly than in just the CCM community, as it touches on many universals and eschews the hackneyed phrases that abound in CCM marketed music.  In fact, it strikes me as "acoustically-grounded, lyrically thoughtful, and spiritually provocative," just the kind of music I would have wanted to find and support in my Silent Planet Records days.  And yet who needs a record label anymore?  Leonard was funded by 365 fans via Kickstarter, and the set, a mock homemade spaceship, built by supporters.  That's a testament to community and a new, broader sense of the importance of patronage."  All that I said is still true.  Give this unlikely record, one that could have gone oh-so-wrong a listen, to see what is oh-so-right.

NeilPalindrome Hunches, Neil Halstead.  Mojave Three frontman Halstead makes folky, dreamy records, a little like The Innocence Mission.  If you don't like the latter, you won't like him, but if you do, you may be all over it.  He lacks the undergirding Christian vision of TIM, but he makes up for it in wit.  The record is very British, welcoming, warm, and lyrically indecipherable much of the time, allowing space for your own meanings --- in other words, it's "shoegazer" folk.  Even the title, "palindrome," meaning a word or line which means the same read backwards as well as forwards, hints that something is up here.  You listen. You figure it out.

SufjanSilver and Gold, Sufjan Stevens.  I normally wouldn't include a Christmas album on my favorites list, but Sufjan's Christmas albums are worth playing all year long.  Not that every song is a keeper, but there is so much here that you can assemble two good CDs of hymns, carols, original tunes, and more, all rather intimate and homemade, but it works.  There are moments of sheer beauty, as in "Justice Delivers Its Death," or in his arrangement of "Joy to the World."  I think the point of the whole lot of it is the heavy weigh that Christmas must carry --- sacred and religious --- but the sweet essence of the celebration, the Incarnation, shines through in the hymns and carols.  And maybe that's his point.

So, that's it for 2012.  It's sad that in all the popular music rendered I could only come up with seven albums that will stick with me.  I leave you with two videos, one by Bill Fay, the other by Sufjan Stevens, that were simply moving --- beautiful songs and simple images.  Enjoy!



What I Have Been Doing, Here, On the Eve of Christmas, When the World Didn't End

Careful_or_youll_end_up_in_my_novel_bumper_sticker-p128702484617530524en7pq_216I've been a bad, bad little blogger.  My last post was dated December 16th, nearly two weeks ago, and my (two) fans have been clamoring for more verbiage to tickle their ears and give them pause to reflect, so I have decided to comply with their wishes.  But if you're looking for another brooding bromide of brilliance here, you may wish to reconsider, since after over 900 posts and the intervening eight Christmases, I'm fresh out. (And yes, I know "bromide" isn't really the right word, but sometimes alliteration wins out.)


Today, we celebrated our annual Christmas lunch with my extended family. We pay close attention to the time at which such events are scheduled.  This one was slated for noon, and you must be there at noon or you'll be licking scraps from emptied serving bowls.  At 11:45, some of the men have to be tethered to their recliners, drooling, like rabid dogs, an unnatural posture for men and recliners as men seem fashioned by their Creator to perfectly reside in recliners, hands on their universal remotes.  Once untethered, the food is consumed in a leisurely 10 minutes, and then the men return to sofa and recliners and take up something, anything with pixels, on ESN (the Eternal Sports Network). I ate ham, green beans, sweet potato casserole, deviled eggs, potato salad, strawberry cobbler, pumpkin pie, a chocolate cover cherry, coconut meringue pie, and. . . and I think that's all.  I'm hungry again, though.

We don't partake of alcohol at our family get togethers.  We don't need to.  We have my nearly 90-year old aunt, who is hard of hearing, loud, bigoted, and opinionated, a wonderful aunt with a zest for life.  She had her hair done just for the event.  She's perfectly fine unless she starts talking about the boys that play on top of her house and play loud "boom-boom" music at all hours, or she starts talking about the subject of interracial marriage.  She engaged the latter topic recently as we dined at a nice restaurant, and it was a wonder we weren't ejected.  She's loud.  But as I said, we don't need alcohol to liven up things.  We have her.

I want to come clean right now.  I rear-ended another car recently.  No one was hurt.  I was only going about 10 miles and hour, which is like being stopped for someone who drives a Mini Cooper S.  The other gentleman was very nice about it. I was mad as h-e-double-hockey-sticks at myself. I think I did about $25 worth of damage to his car.  Mine suffered $7000 damage.  It's the first at fault two-car collision I have had in my long driving career.  I've been driving since I was seven, first illegally (with my aunt, the one who is bigoted and loud and my favorite) and then mostly legally.  I mean, I have had a few accidents, but mostly I have them alone it seems.  I backed into a mail box post, into a car in my driveway, into my unopened garage door, and maybe a few other things.  This time I was doing some other really important things in the car rather than paying attention to the road, like checking my IPhone, because you know you have to keep up with emails and such, immediately, or you may get behind in life, and they are all so very important.  Focus!

So, I just wanted to get that out there, just in case you think I'm practically perfect, Poppins-like, or something.

I think it was God-ordained.  Today, I woke up thinking of buying a new car.  There are few more pleasurable moments in a man's life than buying a new car, or a boat, something big with an engine that makes a lot of racket. One of my friends buys a new car like every six months.  Because, you know, new cars get old, quick, and the new car smells wears off, and you need to do something about it, so if you can, you buy a new car.  And if you can't afford that, you buy a bigger TV.

My brother-in-law just retired after 40 years of working.  He's going to stay home and bother my sister.  I expect him to buy a new TV, maybe a 70-inch model, with a universal remote that looks like one of those "recorders" from Star Trek.  Beam me up, Scotty.

I've been walking a lot here, on the eve of Christmas.  I have to, as I have been eating a lot.  People keep sending us food in the mail.  I'm trying to eat as much of it as I can but really, people, I can only handle so much.  The other night I ate 90% of a bag of some sugary chocolate covered pretzel kind of thing that one of my legal assistants gave me that was supposedly made by kids at a local elementary school.  It was my charitable duty.  I woke up this morning and could barely move. The other night I worked my way through a 10,000 gallon tin of butter, cheese, and caramel popcorn that someone sent.  The next morning I woke up and my feet would barely fit in my shoes.  I need to stop this.  Oh, the things we do for Christmas.

My aunt called me six times yesterday.  The boys are on the roof again.  That 'bong-bong' music.

I think I probably should buy a new car, come to think of it. I want a big one this time, with leather seats that I can easily slide my ample backside around in, making ingress and egress easy, and I want a big attenna on it, one that whips back and forth when I come to a screeching stop at a traffic light.  I want a car that stands up when you hit the accelerator.  And I want a jarring sound system that can make short work of the rap music thumping form the car one lane over.  Is that cool, or what?

I also took off work for a few days and put up the Christmas lights.  I put white lights in careful geometric patterns, in perfect concentric circles, on the trees in my front yard.  Lots of them.  Actually, I just threw them on the trees, haphazardly.  My wife helped.  At first she tried to help me do it somewhat carefully, seeking full coverage, but then we gave up and simply threw them all over the branches.  They look pretty good.  I used white lights in front so as not to offend the neighbors, and real Christmas lights in back, where only we can see them, you know, the colored ones.  Wow, it looks great. I even put in some twinkling ones, in the backyard of course.  In my piece of suburbia colored lights are taboo.  Forget about the giant lighted candles in the yard.  Growing up, we put orange-lit candles in our windows, so I come by it naturally.  We figured out later that the candle manufacturers put orange bulbs in the candles because nobody wants them (except us) and so they sell more bulbs of other colors.  We eventually got blue candles.  We showed them. Ha!

I put candles in the windows too.  Every night I turn all 7000 of them on, and off, at least it feels like I do. It takes forever!  The things we do for Christmas.


Some redeemed Mayan is laughing in Heaven.  I wasn't prepared for the end of the world anyway. I haven't done my taxes. Grrr.

Last year I got Retro Ranger Mints in my stocking,  like Altoids for park rangers.  I wonder what Santa will bring this year?

Yesterday I battled the traffic, the 10,000 cars (I like big numbers) that were in the turn lane for the mall, just so I could eat lunch with a friend.  11:45.  No wait at the restaurant.  I sat down, ordered ice tea, and worked my way through a loaf of bread.  After waiting 20 minutes, I received a text.  He asked if we could move the location for our 12:30 lunch.  12:30???  No problem.  I got nothing to do.  They gave me the bread and tea free, and I walked out, navigated 10,000 more cars in exiting, and went to the shopping mall up the road, where I circled the parking lots several times looking for a narrow spot I could slide into.  I made it.  I was so worked up I ate another loaf of bread. 

I've been listening to a lot of Christmas music.  I have to tell you, I have just about had enough of it, from Sufjan Stevens' "The Christmas Unicorn" to The Best of Amy Grant Christmas (I think she cut about 4000 Christmas records.)  My favorite: Rosie Thomas' (a/k/a Sheila Shaputo's) three-song Christmas EP.  Seriously.  Wearing it out.  But I'm telling you right now: On December 26th it's over.  I'm going to compile a best of 2012 Christmas and consign the rest of it to digital purgatory.  


Today, I read this: ". . . and the government shall be upon his shoulders."  I'm glad for that.  In all the stuff of life, I'm glad that Someone bigger than me and the smart people over me is in charge.  Because I can't fix my aunt.  I can't fix Christmas.  I can't fix the fiscal cliff or my physical cliff.  I can't stop doing stupid things like rear-ending a car.  But He can fix all that.

I might, however, buy both a new car and a bigger TV.  My wife had the temerity to ask why I needed to buy a bigger TV.  She just wants one that works.  If you have to ask, you just don't understand.  It's a self-evident truth.  Men and TVs.  Men and cars.

Well, that's some of the important things I have been working on here, on the eve of Christmas.

Oops.  Gotta go.  My aunt's calling.

Merry Christmas from Outwalking.




When Trees Clap Their Hands

"'Always, everywhere, people have walked, veining the earth with paths visible and invisible, symmetrical or meandering,' writes Thomas Clark in his enduring prose-poem, 'In Praise of Walking.' It's true that once you begin to notice them, you see that the landscape is still webbed with paths and footways --- shadowing the modern-day road network, or meeting it at a slant or perpendicular. Pilgrim paths, green roads, drove roads, corpse roads, trods, leys, dykes, drongs, sarns, snickets --- say the names of the paths out loud and at speed and they become a poem or rite --- holloways, bostles, shutes, drifitways lichways, ridings, cartways, carneys, causeways, herepaths."

(Robert Mcfarlane, in The Old Ways)

Many was the time as a young boy that I was deposited along with my younger sister with my grandmother for a time, for a day even, no doubt my mother, then in her early Forties, exhausted from the care of two young children.  We swung in a bench swing suspended from the massive arm of an oak tree, soaring dangerously high, the swing's chains slack and slapping.  We chased a multitude of cats around the barn, rolled in the fall leaves, played mother-may-i on the front stoop and lawn.  Inside, we watched my grandmother cook --- rolling out dough for biscuits, heaping ample amounts of lard on the counter, snapping green beans.

Mostly, though, we walked.  Donning her bonnet, we'd skirt the pasture, round the corner on a now impassable cartway, and walk or skip to the strawberry patch, eating our fill.  Hands red with berry juice, we'd run the rest of the way, to the creek that pooled under the Southern Railway bridge, wading into the cool water as my grandmother watched from shore.  Sometimes, dangerously I suppose, we'd walk a ways on the railway tracks, balancing on the rails, before turning for home, hearing the whistle of the deisel train behind us.

On those walks we visited an overgrown, intriguing cemetery, its headstones all higgledy-piggledy, Seuss-like, the names on the headstones near obliterated by the wash of rain.  Even then it was a graveyard in a forest, trees pressing in.  We took care not to step on the graves, on the long-lost relatives laying there.  Even today, they lay there, though there is no sign of their occupation.

We walked.  We walked through a then dry lake-bed, visiting elderly people, taking food to shut-ins.  Occasionally, we traveled a dirt road, but more often we navigated a meandering footway.  I took for granted our walks, and yet the wonder of discovery, of places and people, of the living and the dead, of what was and what was already past, stayed with me.

While the land remains, the paths and cartways are overgrown.  The dirt roads are paved, curbed and guttered.  Bends were made straight.  Semi-wilderness has been tamed.  And yet when I go there, something of that place and of those paths, of those walks and of that wonder, remain.

You don't have to read far in Robert Mcfarland's ode to walking and walkways, The Old Ways, to capture his sense of wonder in the landscape of journey.  His poetic prose and ample ability to describe his surroundings are delightful.  What he captures so well in this naturalistic writing is the spiritual quality of places and of the paths that link them.  Citing a phrase used by ornithologist W.H. Hudson, he notes how walking such paths may lead you to "slip back out of this modern world," of how so many wanderers "spoke of the tingle of connection, of walking as seance, of voices heard along the way."  There is peril as well as promise in that idea.

Certainly places and the paths that connect them are more than soul-less inanimates.  Given their creation by a God who made them good, who actively in Christ holds all things together, and who will one day redeem all things, as well as their trodding by those made in His image, they are imbued with His mark.  Seeing a familiar oak tree now, or setting foot on the remnants of a dirt path more than 25 years after my grandmother died and more than 45 years after walking it as a child, it's difficult to call them only dirt and bark.  They're carrying history.  They're bearing echoes of an older story, one God is telling and into which I walked but briefly.

I'm still walking.  Even suburbia retains its pathways.  Still, particularly for children, there is a path from here to there that doesn't involve sidewalks and streets but back yard detours and creekside trails, the faint furrowed impressions of the plowed fields that lay under backyards and forest remnants.  Not everything vanishes.  Bend down and touch the earth and know someone else trod there, behind horse and plow perhaps, before the pines moved in, before the hardwoods came, before I came.

I know I walk among dumb inanimates.  I know they do not have souls.  I know better than to worship the created thing and not the Creator.  And yet they are not mute.  Places and the old ways that link them call out to me.  They testify to glory.  Isaiah the prophet gives voice to creation when he prophesies of the coming Kingdom:

"For you shall go out in joy
     and be led forth in peace;
the mountains and the hills before you
     shall break forth into singing,
     and all the trees of the field shall clap their hands.

(Is. 55:12).  

Likewise he Psalmist also enjoins creation: "Let the rivers clap their hands, let the hills sing for joy together. . ." (Ps. 98:8).  Poorly schooled as we are in spiritualizing scripture, perhaps we miss the physical reality that these words foresee: Perhaps rivers and hills and trees sing and clap even now, faintly, overcome by the din around us, by a world bearing the weight of the curse.  

Sometimes I think I hear them.  But whether I do or not, they will not forever be still.

My grandmother was a path maker, and we followed in her way. Flowers and bushes and trees were familiar neighbors to her, and had we listened we might have learned their names.  I regret I did not pay attention, did not heed her introductions.  Now, when I walk in an unfamiliar city, I write down street names, say them aloud to myself, fast, letting them form a poem or song if for no one but me.  Even city streets sing and clap His praise.  Streetlamps light up and call Him blessed.  Tall buildings sway in time to His song.  Old ways, even here.

But then, my grandmother might say I am only imagining things.  But she'd say it, I am sure, with a twinkle in her eye and, then, turn to walk.