Driving, Home

Driving home tonight, my car chiseled out a path in a lingering fog and rain. Streetlights are muted, soft, the light lying gently on the asphalt. I consider them shining all night on no one, persisting without anyone to be grateful for them, anyone to notice. Electrical current continues to flow, a slight hum of the light-song beneath. I noticed, anyway.

The soundtrack for such rumination is, again, The Innocence Mission. My Room In the Trees is not my favorite of their albums musically, but its subdued tone and lack of a standout song fits this nocturnal drive through a half-hearted rain and tentacled fog. Lyrically, rain abounds in the lyrics. Karen Peris sings “rain sails us in a leafy boat down the street,” or about blow[ing] down alleyways in our raincoats,” about walking under clouds, the “gentle rain at home,” how the “streets were in a downpour,” about “raincoats and lakes,” and how “all we can do with the rain is shout for joy.” Here too are affirmations of God’s care in the weather of life, that “God is love and love will never fail me,” how “across the morning, the beautiful air/ I will be aware/ my Father is there/ and stay calm,” how “everything that is broken you’ll mend.” Hearing these phrases, the rain and fog become assuring, like a personification of God’s love.

I turn right, up the hill from the valley, home. When I first saw this valley 45 years ago, cows grazed its grass taking water at its creek. Now, concrete covers most of it. Commerce, not cows rules. Yet, glancing at it, I can imagine the owls in the trees along the creek bank still carrying some dim instinctual memory of that day, passed down by ancestors, or a fox traversing its banks, homeward bound, ears alert. Or even beaver, damming.

But thinking of what’s lost, of what’s changed, I just want to be home. As I sail upstream, alone in the light of night, I hear “my Father is there,” and I smile.

Untroubled Waters

Jane Kelly Williams, a singer-songwriter friend from New York, is downstairs playing “Bridge Over Troubled Waters” on the piano. It’s a beautiful song, of course, yet one in danger of cliche. Who hasn’t covered the song, and in what style hasn’t it been done, since Simon and Garfunkel released it in 1970? I was 12, so I came into it about two years later. The song was a coda to their relationship, the last song recorded for their last album together, and the gospel feel that it had — which I am hearing now — lent it to appropriation by many a Gospel singer, from the quartets I used to hear with my aunt before I was hijacked by pop music in 1972, when I was 14, to bluegrass and country artists, like Buck Owens. The song won five awards at the 13th Annual Grammy Awards in 1971, including Grammy Award for Record of the Year and Song of the Year. Well deserved. I still have the LP of the same title. But Jane is on to James Taylor, “You’ve Got a Friend,” and “(In My Mind I’m) Going to Carolina.”

I’m going to feed the birds. I just looked out the window and realized that our feeder is empty. Our hospitality is lacking, birds content to sail on by. I get up, intent on doing something about it. On the way, I check the mailbox and find an envelope with a dollar bill inside it. I said a couple days ago, when the high school girls failed to leave my change in the mailbox, “I give up on high school kids, this town, the country, and the universe, in that order. Excepting God.” I was hasty, I admit.

The birds are watching. They cock their heads to the side and withhold judgment. “I am forgetful,” I say. “I’m on your side.” They are forgiving, I sense, as they continue their songs. I can hear the music out here, in the yard, but they, better than me. “Your Song.” Elton John. It’s like a Sirius XM 70s, without disco.

I walk back in, through the sticking gate in the fence. Jane and my wife are laughing. Dinner is on, and I wait, the sound of Carole King taking me on, sailing right behind.



The first time I was a passenger in an airplane was at about the age of 10.  My friend and I boarded an Eastern Airlines DC-3 in route to Washington, DC, via Charlottesville.  We took turns by the window, faces pressed to cold glass, propellers whirring, our seats vibrating. It was 1968.  As we rose above the earth for the first time I sensed the expanse of place, beyond neighborhood and city, beyond home.  I knew maps but lost all bearing there in the air, didn’t know how to make sense of what I saw but wondered at its beauty.

I am not a pilot, but I know a few and know their love of flight.  In his recent book, Skyfaring, 747 pilot Mark Vanhoenacker is like a poet of flight, using finely crafted language to capture the feel of seeing the earth from above.  He says “Flight is the cartographic, planetary equivalent of hearing a song covered by a singer you love, or meeting for the first time a relative whose features or mannerisms are already familiar.  We know the song but not like this; we have never met the person and yet we have never in our lives been strangers.”  

For those who fly, the sky must be like coming home.  You already know the song.  You met somewhere in your imagination or maybe the tug of elevation was buried deep in some gene, was activated when your father tossed you in the air, was primed by the helicoptering swings from an adult’s arms, was nurtured by the flight of books, by high buildings and roller-coaster tracks to the sky, by watching a balloon float high above.  

The first flight must carry some sense of deja vu, some echoing memory of soaring.  And when you rise, when wheels are up and the ground falls away, and you poke through the clouds and float over a bed of air, an ocean of billowing cloud-sea just below, then earth-bound non-pilot that I am, all I can think is that it must be like hearing Pet Sounds for the first time, every time it happens, must be like those first chords of “Wouldn’t It Be Nice” or the fading train and dog coda of “Caroline, No.” Hearing it, feeling it, all I can say is “Play it again. One more time,” and hit repeat.  And I'm soaring.  Is that what it’s like?

Singing In a Foreign Land

Aliens&stSeveral years ago, when I heard the Jewish writer Michael Chabon speak, I wrote furiously in my notebook to try and capture his words.  I had read Chabon’s 2007 novel, The Yiddish Policemen's Union, a detective story that imagines an alternate history in which Israel collapsed in 1948 and European Jews settled in Alaska.  It was odd and untidy, but deeply affecting.  Chabon said “I write books from the place where I live, in exile.”  Chabon said his search has been for a home, a place to call his own. He said he feels like a stranger.  He said he “was born into an interrupted culture, mourning the loss.”  So, rather than wandering around lost, he began to “build a home in his imagination.”

Christians have to identify with his sense of exile.  In 1999, when I was in the early years of Silent Planet Records, we released a compilation called Alien and Strangers.  I’m listening to it now for the first time in a couple years.  My words in the liner notes, while a bit overblown to my ears now, say what I felt then and even more so now: “WE LIVE IN DISCONTENT. WE KNOW THE BROKENNESS OF LIFE. WE LONG FOR WHOLENESS.” “Even in the good times, we sense our exile. We are strangely disaffected.  All of us, indeed, are aliens and strangers, longing for a place called Home.”  The cover art, supplied by artist Carol Bomer, is a painting of a shadowy figure perhaps trapped at the end of a corridor, hands raised, conveying a sense of displacement.  Graphic artist genius Dave Danglis placed the painting on the screen of a surreal Fifties-era TV, a woman’s hand turning it slightly so we can view it, as if to say “look at who we are,” calling to us from a place outside of our time.  Even as I listen to the variety of music on that disc, it seems to come from another world, and the songs are unlike anything I hear now.

We live in Babylon, among a people who have forgotten God, who suffer in their lostness and identity amnesia, who, like Chabon, long for Home.  What makes Chabon commendable is his willingness to face up to it, to name what he feels rather than engage in elaborate self-deceptions.  Exiled to Babylon, the Jewish people said things like “How shall we sing the Lord’s song in a foreign land?” (Ps. 137:4). They wept, hung up their lyres, and longed for Jerusalem.  In Jeremiah’s letter to the exiles, he exhorted them in God’s words to “Build houses and settle down; plant gardens and eat what they produce.  Marry and have sons and daughters; find wives for your sons and give your daughters in marriage, so that they too may have sons and daughters.  Increase in number there; do not decrease. Also, seek the peace and prosperity of the city to which I have carried you into exile. Pray to the LORD for it, because if it prospers, you too will prosper” (Jer. 29:4-7).  And He gave them a promise, that “ God will save Zion and rebuild the cities of Judah. Then people will settle there and possess it” (Ps. 69:35).

Littered through Aliens and Strangers, in a prophetic and unplanned way, are the words of exile and promise of restoration. From the “inkwell of prayer” and “the reservoir of tears,” Jan Krist pleads “May God have mercy/ and come and heal you and me/ Come and comfort/ Come and steel you and me/ Against the ghosts and the insecurities/ God have mercy/ Come and heal you and me.”  Matt Auten’s rich voice calls from eternity where He now resides.  Rick Unruh sings of the “hungry ghost inside of me,” how “each time I feel his cup, I plant the bitter seed, of another hungry ghost,” and I hear in his voice the emptiness of chasing after what the world offers.  And Pierce Pettis reminds us to hold onto “the kingdom come.”

Chabon is on to it.  Embrace your exile.  With a Godward imagination, look to Home.  But settle into life in the world.  Build, marry, have children, work for good, and pray for it.  Always pray. 

Entertaining Angels

Today’s Listening: Entertaining Angels, by Jimmy A (1991) and Harvest Moon, Neil Young (1992).

In May 1992 my son was 5 months old and I left home, reluctantly (as I always do, in the end), to attend The Writing Institute at Glen Eyrie, a castle-like conference center near Colorado Springs, Colorado. Monte Unger led about six of us in “Magazine Article Writing for Christians.” I hadn’t written anything much by then, so I needed help, and Monte obliged in his fatherly way.

One of the first things he asked us to write, even before we came, was 200 words on the subject “Why I want to be a writer,” along with a headline and a subhead.  I still have it.  Next he had us revise these pain-stakeningly chosen words down to 100 words.  Oh, the hatch marks, the pain of the censor!  Then, we had to condense it to 25 words.  It was painful, giving up so much. Make every word count, he said. Spend them wisely. He could have taken us down to one single word. He spared us. I wish more attorneys did that.

There’s some pretty poor writing in my notebook from 23 years ago.  But Monte was encouraging.  “Very Clever” he writes in brackets beside what to me sounds like an awkward title.  “Great conclusion.”  “Pique.”  

Jimmy A is singing “I’ll Meet You In Heaven,” Pastor Scotty Smith in the background, preaching, Charlie Peacock, Phil Madeira, Phil Keaggy, the late Vince Ebo.   It’s good. It’s creative.  

In the notebook pocket from that weekend, behind a copy of The Independent, a local zine, is a program from Poetry 1997: Voices of Vision, March 11, 1997.  It has my name as a Finalist in the Poetry 1997 contest.  I read “In My Room, a poem about Brian Wilson.  My friend Pete drove 25 miles to the Regulator Bookshop in Durham to hear me read.  

Five years after Monte’s workshop I scraped up a few words from the soil littered with sentimental, lame words.  “Right,” scrawls Monte across my paper.  Poor guy.  To have to read this stuff.  

Eject Jimmy A. Insert Neil Young. “From Hank to Hendrix.”  Wonderful.  Effortless.  “Right,” I say.  In Glen Eyrie, I would go back to my room, alone, no internet, no phone, no TV.  I’d sweat out a few words.  Walk around the grounds.  Tear up what I wrote.  Write some more.  Read my Bible.  Pray.  And wish I was home.  Wish I had words for what I felt.  Wish I had names like Harvest Moon or Entertaining Angels.  I was just looking for me, for my own words.


Losing Home

There is a scene in Love and Mercy, the just released Brian Wilson (Beach Boys) biopic where Brian has future wife Melissa Ledbetter drive him to a dead end street in Hawthorne, California.  It’s where he grew up.  Only his home was razed to allow the building of a highway overpass.

That must be sad, when you can’t really go home, when the landscape has been so altered that you find it difficult to orient yourself, like you can’t find the north pole of yourself anymore. He lived at 3701 W. 119 Street. But the home he shared with his two brothers and father Murray and mother Audree is gone.  They are too.  

Seeing that scene reminded me of a very sad yet deeply affecting book I read, entitled The Place You Love Is Gone: Progress Hits Home. In this memoir and social commentary Melissa Holbrook Pierson writes of how progress came and changed the face of three communities she loved — Akron, Ohio; Hoboken, New Jersey; and the Catskill Mountains of upstate New York.  Recognizing that nostalgic longing for what is lost, Pierson says “We press our noses to the glass and wish ourselves inside the cabin’s warm embrace, even as we know there is no real going back. The loss of how we used to be — made from the materials of how we used to live — must simply be borne. We are too far gone.”

If you listen to anything written by Brian Wilson these days, you hear that loss in his voice and in his words. In “Pacific Coast Highway,” off The Beach Boys 2012 record, That’s Why God Made the Radio, he sings “Sometimes I realize/ My days are getting on/ Sometimes I realize/ It’s time to move along/ And I wanna go home.”  Maybe he’s just old.  Or maybe he’s giving voice to a longing we all have for a lasting, eternal home.  I recommend the movie.  I think I'll see it again. 

Love and Mercy

BrianI’m a little bit of a Brian Wilson groupie. When I was 12 or so, I was at my aunt’s house and pulled out a couple of badly scratched LPs by The Beach Boys, All Summer Long and The Beach Boys Concert, plopped them on a portable record player my cousin had, and was overwhelmed by the crackling energy and screams of adoring female fans as the band ran through a stream of #1 hits. It was an American version of The Beatles, a band that my sisters adored and for which, at my immature age, I had no use.

Later, along about 1972, at the age of 14, I awoke to popular music, abandoned the country and bluegrass of my parents (albeit temporarily), and discovered Pet Sounds, Sunflower, and even heard rumors of an unreleased masterpiece, the famous lost album, Smile. I also began following the troubled genius and hit maker of the band, Brian Wilson.

The just-released biopic, Love and Mercy, is an artful and beautiful look at the troubled years of Brian Wilson. Alternating between the Sixties, when Brian began his pioneering studio work on Pet Sounds and Smile, as well as his mental demise, and the Eighties, when having come under the control of the faux-psychiatrist Eugene Landry he was rescued by the woman he married, Melinda Ledbetter, the movie follows a story well-known to his fans. And it gets it right and hits all the truths about this man:  Abusing, controlling father that he ever sought to please, but could never please. Cousin and band member Mike Love, who to this day eschews art for the sake of the commercial, who never quite appreciated the special nature of Brian’s music. And control-freak Eugene Landry, who in fact was more abusive to Brian than his own father.

The acting is top notch.  John Cusak nails the mannerisms and boyish innocence of the Eighties Brian, and Paul Dano looks the part of the Sixties Brian.  Elizabeth Banks likely looks better than the actual Melinda Ledbetter, and Paul Giamatti is the believably sick psycho that Eugene Landry really was. Even the Bohemian lyricist Van Dyke Parks, with his nonsensical verse, is so un-Brian and yet we know that's what he looked like and the way he talked.  But what shines through it all is the music, often melancholy but achingly beautiful.

The film promo says that it portrays the “personal voyage and ultimate salvation of the icon.” Indeed, it is an amazing work of grace that Brian Wilson still lives and makes music, given the abuse he has taken and inflicted on himself.  I do not know him, but having met him several times in the last several years, his eyes still tell me that he is afraid, that salvation is still elusive.  I've written so many times about Wilson. I feel so inadequate to talk about a movie or how I feel about seeing him on screen.  I've read books, bought all his CDs (some more than once), and written about him, even published a poem about him.  See what I mean? I am a groupie.

See the movie. Listen to Pet Sounds. Then pray that Brian Wilson will finally know the love and mercy to be found in Jesus.


How to Listen, How to Live

Andy asked me a few days ago “how I LISTEN to a large record collection.”  That’s a very good question.

Given the ubiquity of music and its easy availability, I find myself impatient, a skimmer and not a deep listener.  To fight that compulsion, which is not unique to music, you have to have a strategy.  In the past, I would periodically select five CDs from my collection of 1300 CDs, at random, and force myself to listen to them in turn, straight through.  But this takes commitment, as nothing culturally encourages you to take the time to do this.

At the topmost corner of the shelves alphabetically housing my CDs, I pull down the very first CD, an album called Gonna Get It Wrong Before I Get It Right, by Sam Ashworth.  I have to force myself to listen to it in its entirety, as I have some vague remembrance that not all of this record is pleasant, that it starts off well and then descends into mediocrity.  But at least it starts well, with the Beatlesque “Look Back,” penned by Ashworth along with Matt Slocum (of Sixpence None the Richer) and the talented John Davis.  

Getting down on the floor, I pry out the very last CD of the collection, So It Goes, by Rollyn Zoubek.  Who?  I have no idea who this is.  Ah. . . I see.  It was produced by an amazing friend and guitarist, Brooks Williams, and released in 2001.  I think that’s the last time I heard it.  But, I tell myself, I will listen to it all.  I will.  

If you think about it, the combined length of all these albums together, assuming 45 minutes per CD, is 975 hours, or 40 days of continuous listening, a number of biblical import.  And I’m not even a true collector.  Want to watch the dysfunctionality of a true collector?  Watch the movie High Fidelity, and then hug your spouse and children.  

So how do you listen to a large record collection?  Just like you live.  One CD, one day, one song, one moment at a time. Existentially.  With patience.  With commitment.  And with a measure of love.

The Years the Locusts Ate

n Joel 2:25 the Lord says through the prophet to His people, “I will repay you for the years the locusts have eaten-- the great locust and the young locust, the other locusts and the locust swarm-- my great army that I sent among you.” Matthew Henry says this is a prefiguring of the gospel, the years being the judgment we experience when we live apart from God and under the law; the repaid years, the blessings to which we are restored having experienced God’s grace by repentance.

I was reminded of this when listening to British septuagenarian and singer-songwriter Bill Fay. His song, “ I Hear You Calling,” off his latest album, "Who Is the Sender?," and a remake of his 1971 recording, has these lines: “Some say messiah coming/ give me back my time/ All my time is lying on the factory floor/And all my time is lying on the factory floor.” I found that sense there, that having been consigned to the drudgery of factory work for many years, the narrator looks forward to the redemption of all that time when Christ returns and restores all things.

I suspect we all have some lost years, some wasted parts of life, some days when we served only ourselves or labored under the curse and failed to look to the Cross. What a great promise that we’ll get all that time back, that the years the locusts ate will be repaid. Indeed, the One who owes us nothing will give us all. 

A Christmas Song For All Year

OITFSome Christmas songs are really suitable for listening year round.  One from this season that I recommend is Jason Harrod's "Out In the Fields," from his Christmas EP of the same title.  As the EP dropped December 18th and is an digital only, indie release, you may have missed it unless you are a Harrod fan.  While the EP is an enjoyable and fresh mix of hymns and  carols, such as "Angels From the Realms of Glory" featuring some buoyant trombone playing, and this one original tune, it's worth picking up just for latter, which will join my Christmas play list for years to come.

"Out of the Fields" has several memorable lines, built around questions by a faith-challenged, melancholic narrator, but the bit that seems at its center is this:

O Lord Invisible where are you hiding?
Where do you burn and whose way do you light?
Out in the fields we are watching and waiting
We need a Redeemer to come make us right

Or even this earlier re-phrasing of it:

Light inaccessible where are you shining?
Where do you burn and whose face do you warm?
Out in the fields we are ready for finding ---
smoldering stars waiting to be reborn

The song contains a longing not for just the coming of a Jesus who can remake us and make all things right.  I like the questions, which are not unlike those the Psalmist asked.  I like the honesty of the narrator, riven by doubt and faithlessness.  And I like the hope, driven home by a driving electric end where the instruments cry the inarticulable.  I'll play it all year.

You'll find it here.


Back of the Top 100

Returning on a family trip this New Years Day, I asked my son to play the Top Billboard charting song for the year of each of our graduations from high school. It was insightful and fun, as it led to other listening and forced us all to listen to songs we might not otherwise have chosen.

My daughter graduated in 2013. We declined to play the lyrically nasty Number One of that year, “Blurred Lines,” by Robin Thicke, featuring T.I. and Pharrell, on my son’s recommendation. I looked up the lyrics later. I can’t repeat most of the them here, except to say the mildest part of it was “you're an animal, baby it's in your nature/ Just let me liberate you,” and it goes downhill from there. My son fared little better, with Ke$ha’s (and how do you pronounce a name with a dollar sign in it?) “Tik Tok,” which is a girls-go-dance-and-party song. Turning to 1976, the year of my graduation, I felt like things had to be better, though I was concerned about the incursion of disco into the playlist. The number one song in 1976 was “Silly Love Songs,” by Paul McCartney and Wings. The lyrics are, in fact, light and silly, but they are not profane. The melody, unfortunately, sticks in your head.

Finally, my wife’s year of graduation, 1973, produced “Tie a Yellow Ribbon Round the Ole Oak Tree,” by Tony Orlando and Dawn. While I’m not particularly fond of the song (though it is infectious, as are most pop tunes), it apparently had a storied tradition rooted in folklore. A convict is returning home after three years imprisonment, and he tells his love to tie a yellow ribbon around the oak tree if she welcomes his return. There are, to his surprise, 100 ribbons around the tree on his return. Variants of the story date back even as far as the civil war, when a woman’s tying a yellow ribbon in her hair was a sign of welcome to a returning soldier. So you have to respect the writers for re-working the story and putting it in song, particularly at a time when many soldiers were returning from an unpopular Vietnam War. The yellow ribbon was a symbol for a welcome homecoming which resonated in a culture not particularly welcoming to returning vets.

As a mark of how the culture has shifted — from the meaningful to the silly to the nasty — just compare these songs. It’s quite a shift. And then go listen somewhere else, because there is still a lot that is true, good, and beautiful --- somewhere back of the Top 100.  Start here or here.

Christmas Don't Be Late

In 1958 Ross Bagdasarian, Sr. (a/k/a David Seville) wrote a song called”Christmas Don’t Be Late.” The song rose to #1 on the Billboard charts and won three Grammy awards. The single sold 4.5 million copies in seven weeks and several times in the following years re-entered the Top 100. You know it, of course, as “The Chipmunk Song,” sung by the fictitious trio of Alvin and the Chipmunks and as a song played (and played one too many times) for comic relief. Bagdasarian sang all the lyrics, his main recording innovation being to use tape machines that could vary speeds so as to create more understandable dialogue. To me the song was always an irritant, and I thought it’s lyrics trite. And they are.

But wait. If you listen to the contemplative rendering of the song by Rosie Thomas, who adds a couple verses, you’ll understand why it is one of my favorites this Christmas (along with others on her Christmas album). Under Rosie’s care, the song is transformed. It begins in a child’s perspective, as it always did, longing for Christmas to “hurry fast,” for a “hula hoop” and a “plane that loops the loop.” But then the perspective broadens, first to a concern for others in the family, for Someone or something (Christmastime?) to “please bring joy to Mom and Dad,” to “help my brother, he’s been sad,” all of which immediately makes you wonder what weighs on Mom and Dad, and why is brother sad? And then the longing broadens to include a concern for everyone, it seems, for “love for all and peace,” to “comfort those who need a friend,” to “fill their hearts with happiness.” And then the zinger of longing, the “may they know He came for them.” All the while there is a continual longing for a Christmas to “please don’t be late,” it needs to come now because “the world cannot wait.” And when I hear that — particularly when I hear the plaintive voice of Rosie Thomas sing it — I hear a longing for a Christmas beyond what we know, a coming not only of the Jesus child but of a Jesus King who will dry up every tear and set things right, who will not be late.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer, a man who knew something about sadness and waiting, and who preached many a sermon on Christmas under the shadow of Hitler's Germany, said in one of those sermons that “God wants to be guilty of our guilt and takes upon himself the punishment and suffering that this guilt brought to us. . . . Now there is no more reality and no more world that is not reconciled to God and in peace.” He spoke of “the unfathomable mystery of the love of God for the world.” If that sounds too universal in scope, perhaps it expresses God's heart for all Creation to be made whole even if not all people come, even if some settle for Christmas now, lights and snowmen and presents and Santa.

He came. For a Mom and Dad who are weighed down by too many Christmases of disappointment in themselves, in each other, in life. For a brother who is sad. For a shop-clerk whose feet are tired and mind weary of “and so this is Christmas, and what have we done,” and longs to go home. For the man at Waffle House nursing a cup of coffee at midnight on Christmas Eve. For a trucker on the highway early Christmas morning, alone on the freeway, Merle Haggard on the radio singing “Sing Me Back Home Again.” For a Christmas that, in the end, on December 26th, didn’t live up to what it promised, that didn’t make you happy but merely distracted you from life for a moment. Or one that even in its finest moment, when your gaze is on the Infant Lowly and the miracle of Incarnation, the longing for a Kingdom come but not yet come in fullness remains.

But I can tell you this: When I wake up the day after Christmas, a trio of chattering chipmunks will be in my head, still asking that Christmas not be late, and Rosie imploring that the world can’t wait. Hearing them, I hear “Come, Lord Jesus, come.” I hear promise and hope. I hear the mystery of of the love of God for the world and the unwinding of the curse. I hear the promise of Christmas to come. I can hardly stand the wait. 

Following the Echoes: A Review of "Close Circle," by Jeff Larson

51vEpR2n6oL._SL1500_If there is any heir to the sun-washed California folk-pop of Seventies supergroup America, it is Jeff Larson. The Bay Area-based singer-songwriter has put heart and soul into an avocation of music, drawing on the support of a close circle of musical friends that includes Gerry Beckley and Dewey Bunnell (of America), as well as Jeffrey Foskett (Brian Wilson, The Beach Boys). His latest release, Close Circle, is no exception. Musically, the album is built around his effortless guitar playing and soaring voice. What saves the music from being overly mellow is the mix of instruments and diversity of sound, varying tempo, mixing in ukulele, dobro, and mandolin, and offering some spunky electric guitar to provide a more organic root. That instrumentation, and the beautifully layered background vocals supplied by Beckley and Bunnell, among others, provides a rich tapestry of sound, one following of the echoes of that West Coast Seventies sound.

Lyrically, the songs also refresh the soul. You won’t find angst or blood -on-the-tracks confession, and yet the generally upbeat music accompanies lyrics that cut a swath through a normal life — which is not unusual in that Larson works a regular 9-5 job like most of the rest of us. From the plea of “Rescue” (“will you rescue me/ when darkness comes”), to a reminder to keep the faith even when you are knocked down by some trial (“Even When the Rain Comes”) to sending a child off to college (“Goodbye Ocean Street Beaches”) to trying to connect with an old friend (“Arizona Again”), he writes of experiences that are universal and, thus, ones we can all connect with. Even though there may be an underlying melancholy or struggle, the music — largely bereft of minor chords — keeps the listener on an upward tack, encouraging us to “keep it open. . . even when the rains come.”

Spend a little time letting this music wash over you. Take a drive on a sunny Fall day and let it help give you the “Lay of the Land,” a kind of sonic landscape for remembrance and promise and hope. Get it on Amazon or iTunes.



Getting Born

ImagesQ: Do you have any children?

BD: Every man with medical problems has children.

Q: What are your medical problems?

BD: Well, there’s glass in the back of my head. I’m a very sick person. I can’t see too well on Tuesdays. These dark glasses are prescribed. I’m not trying to be a beatnik. I have very mercuryesque eyes. And another thing – my toenails don’t fit.

(Bob Dylan, in a 1968 interview)

I went to the doctor today. An orthopedist. (Thank you spell check.) I told him my upper left arm hurt, that I thought maybe I had arthritis, because my mother had that. He looked thoughtful. He put me through some motions — some fine, some that made me wince — and then he announced that I probably had rotator cuff (RC) issues. After an X-ray, he was more definitive: “Darn. Definitely rotator cuff” something or another.

I said what do you do for that. He said therapy. I said great, I need therapy. He said physical therapy. I said good I guess I need that too. I said why does this happen, and he said there was a chronological component to this. You mean old?, I said. He smiled. I’m regularly reminded that I am old as dirt. That’s OK.

At least I don’t have glass in the back of my head.

Q: What do you think of the new Bob Dylan?

BD: What’s your name?

Q: Dave Moberg.

BD: Okay. What would you think if someone asked you, What do you think of the new Dave Moberg? What new Dave Moberg?

I was walking across the street to the doctor’s office one day not long ago. A white-haired elderly man was walking briskly across the street, head down. When he reached me he looked up and said, ominously, “Growing old ain’t for sissies!” I nodded. I was thinking he’s not that much older than me.

The doctor said look, we do this, you’ll be a new man. The new Steve West? I’m skeptical about that. I’m thinking that “if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation.” Bye, bye old; hello, new. But that’s not for sissies either. Growing new, growing younger, is hard.  And getting born is not an exercise, but grace.

Q: Why do some of your songs bear no relation to their titles?

BD: Give me an example.

Q: “Rainy Day Women No. 12 & 35.”

BD: Have you ever been to North Mexico for six straight months?

Q: Not recently.

BD: Well, I can’t explain it to you then. If you had, you’d understand what the song’s about.

Ha, ha.

So I have my first therapy appointment tomorrow. The therapist is supposed to show me some exercises that will help get rid of this issue with the RC, eventually. Th last time I was here he put needles in me. Needling, they called it, though it’s really acupuncture. The doc said that if I can’t tolerate these exercises I can get a shot of cortisone. And if all that doesn’t work, I can have surgery. I can?

I’m not even going to say anything about the glass in my head. Or the mercuryesque eyes. Or my tendinitis, heel spurs, floaters in my eyes, or sleeping habits. But I might tell him about Queen Jane, Georgia Sam, Poor Howard, Mack the Finger, Louie the King, Cain and Abel, the Hunchback of Notre Dame, Cinderella, the Good Samaritan, Orphelia, Einstein disguised as Robin Hood, Dr. Filth, the Phantom of the Opera, Cassanova, Ezra Pound, T.S. Eliot, Angel, Sweet Melinda, Saint Annie, Louise, Johanna, the guilty undertaker, the lonesome organ grinder, a dancing child with a Chinese suit, Shakepeare, the senator, the preacher, the rainman, Ruthie in a honky-tonk lagoon, Queen Mary, sweet Marie, the Persian drunkard, Sad-Eyed Lady of the Lowlands (saying prayers like rhymes), John Wesley Harding (friend to the poor), Frankie Lee and Judas Priest (“don’t go mistaking Paradise for that Home across the road”), St. Augustine, the hobo, the drifter, the landlord, the immigrant, Frank, Vera, Terry Shute, and Peggy Day. (Take a breath.)

Thank you, Bob Dylan, for all those people, real or not.

And the Father of Night. The Ragman. The Bearer of All Burdens. And the One who makes all things new, even me. Even dirt. The One who makes the new Steve West.

I might tell him that Bob Dylan and me are not that much different. That he has ailments too. That he just writes better songs. That the new Bob Dylan looks old as dirt but is growing newer everyday. That eventually I’ll get over this RC thing and all the rest and all to come. Me and Bob Dylan. When he returns.

When He returns.

What are you getting at? What’s this blog post have to do with anything, anyway? What’s it mean?

Have you been to North Mexico Lately?

Not recently.

Then I can’t explain it to you. If you had, you’d understand what I’m talking about. I’m sure you would.

A Kid in the City: Sara Beth Go's "Wish It Had"

Front_of_CoverWhen I first met Sara Beth Go (then Sara Beth Geoghegan), it was at a house concert in my home in 2009. She was loudly banging out tunes on our Baby Grand. When I asked her about the volume level, she unapologetically said “That’s how we do it in Nashville.” Well, OK. It was a sweet if loud evening of stories, jokes, sing-a-longs, an impromptu high school chorus, and sweetly sad love songs and fresh takes on faith from her then new release, Tired of Singing Sad Songs. I asked her back, and back, and back.

Is she tired of singing sad songs? Apparently not. But it’s OK. Unlike her last offering, you won't find direct references to Christian faith in her latest, Wish It Had, or the slightest of nods to the CCM music industry (which is just fine), but what you will find is a kind of sweet snarkiness, a wit and whimsy reflected in these songs of longing, these parables of unrequited, moribund, or complicated love — one person’s attempt to navigate in a world where love is still a precious and rare commodity.

Point in fact: The lead track, “Kids in the City,” gives voice to twenty-something relational longings: “I don’t know where exactly this is going to go/ Kids in the city we don’t wanna be alone/ Puttin’ up signs and looking for hope.” (Whimsy? Check out the video.)  There’s plenty of break ups, “I thought we’d grow old/ the day your mother told me I was pretty/ Now it’s such a pity” (“Wish I Had”) or the holiday blues of “It was the worst New Years ever/ When you told me your heart wasn’t in it” ("Worst New Years Ever").  And yet as much as there is a longing for love there is an appreciation for how the memories we form make us who we are: “Funny, it’s funny what you remember/ All the pieces, the pieces come together/ To make you who you are/ To tell a story, a story that’s your alone” (“Pieces”). In such lyrical territory, you might think that, as Neil Young (aging rock star, kids) once quipped, “these songs are guaranteed to bring you right down.” Not so. What you get with Sara Beth is not an earful of simmering angst, or world-weary muddling through, but life and love as adventure. Hope remains. She still believes.

Sonically, the mood is boosted by the buoyancy and playfulness of the songs. A little ukulele here, bells here, the ba-ba-ba of background vocals, strings, an up and down bass line. It’s so fun to break up and look for love, the songs seem to say. Of course not, and yet Sara Beth’s point seems to be that love is worth it, worth the risk:

You might say I’m foolish and reckless
But I will not put a fence around my heart
Just be safe and protected
And yes it hurts more than it really should
And yes it will be worth all the good and bad.

(“All the Good”). Love is scary, and messy, and risky, and yet Sara Beth says go for it: “"For me in life, it's never been black and white. I want to connect the dots from A to Z and make this really pretty, but it's still a tangled mess. God is simply asking that we trust Him, that we believe the gospel."

And that, people, is what it comes down to. A grand adventure. A trust walk. A two-steps-forward-one step back kind of GPS-less walk in the direction of Love.

So go buy Sara Beth Go’s Wish It Had. Play it loud. And hope that when she does meet the right man she still has something to write about. I think she will.

Out and Back Again: Andrew Osenga's "Leonard, The Lonely Astronaut"

LeonardWhen I first heard of Andrew Osenga's new release, Leonard, The Lonely Astronaut, I thought it sounded like a clunky, overwrought concept album.  It's not.  While Leonard's trajectory is one of self-imposed loneliness, the space metaphor is not overworked nor prominent.  It becomes quickly apparent that these songs record the journey of an everyman from fierce independence to loneliness to a recognition of the cost of freedom and, finally, a rebirth and renewal that allows a reentry into relationship.  If you hear in that the vocabulary of flight, it's mine, not Osenga's.  Blame me.

From the opening notes of "Brushstroke," we get a sense of who Leonard is: a man "making lots of dough," one who "still sort of [has] a couple friends" (which don't really sound like friends), his fierce independence proclaimed in a "brushstroke on the canvas of a perfect blue sky." Musically, it's a subdued beginning, yet quickly we are launched into the big guitar sound of "Only Man In the World," just the kind of rocker that a guy "disappointed in love" might write on launching out on his own. And yet there is a wistfulness, a longing reflected in the closer to the first set of songs: in the acoustic ballad, "Ever and Always," Leonard reflects on the love he once had, how "she brought the stars to a landlocked boy/ held my heart, taught me joy/ and I'm here completely/ forever and always."

Two brief instrumentals, both bearing the title of "Perihelion," separate the three movements of this song sequence.  If a perihelion is the point in orbit when a planet is nearest the sun, perhaps the suggestion here is that these are moments of epiphany or illumination, when Leonard awakes to some new insight about his life.  "Perihelion I" provides a segue-way into a second suite of songs that catalog the effects of independence and offer up confession and a recognition of the need for community.  "Tower of Babel" marks the albums first reference ot God, when Leonard says a broken relationship "finally brought me to my knees/ another ultimatum to a deity/ save this love or I won't believe/ (do you hear me?"  What follows is a request for forgiveness ("Hold On, Boy"), a plea for rescue, for deliverance ("Smoke Signals"), and a recognition that self-made men are lonely men: "God help the man who helps himself!/ He needs no other devil/ Give us the courage to say farewell/ to the fear and watch it crumble."

Yet the most beautiful moment in this set of songs comes with the creation hymn entitled "It Was Not Good For Man To Be Alone."  In what may be the lyrical center of the album, the writer puts words to the community that is at the heart of God: "He was looking for another just like him/ And the heart of God broke for his creation/ It was not good for man to be alone."  And so it isn't.  We come to "Perihelion II," and like a selah of the Psalms, have a moment to reflect on this great truth.

The final two songs of the album represent Leonard's rebirth and re-entry into community.  You hear it the buoyant sound of "Beat of My Heart," when he sings that "only God can hold what's dead and make it new," when Leonard emerges from the silence, darkness, and emptiness of a life alone.  His re-commitment echoes throughout "Shooting Star," the closer,  when he tells his love to "brace for the splashdown/ the grip of gravity and age/ we're going to find out/ if anything can really change."  

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.

So take a trip.  Buy Leonard, the Lonely Astronaut.  Hopefully, it'll feed your soul longer than a mere "brushstroke on the canvas of a perfect blue sky."  It's gravity may even take you Home.


The Superintendent

When my friend Jane sings, I am often transported to her small Georgia hometown, to quiet streets of oak-shaded Victorian homes, to hot summer days and backyards navigated by bare feet, to tree houses, swishing brooms, and bike rides through piles of fallen leaves --- to everything that is the South --- even though her upbringing is percolated through years in cosmopolitan New York City, and even though I have never seen her hometown.  I doubt you would make the same associations upon listening.  Wherever they come from, these images belong to me.  And what a gift they are.

As much as I enjoy film, the multi-sensory onslaught it represents isn't, oddly enough, as rich as the associations my mind makes when I read words on a page in a book, or hear a song like Jane's.  In these settings, my collective memory, my own experience, supplies the images that a film spoon feeds me.  The experience is, according to the late British author and playwright, Dorothy Sayers, reflective of the Trinity: there is the Idea, the Incarnation of that idea, and the Experience of the Incarnated Idea (or, as Sayers calls it, Idea, Energy, Power).  My experience of the Idea incarnate in Jane's song is different than yours.  My reflective reading of a book is something unique and not like yours.  Film, on the other hand, despite its impact, seems to have a flattening effect --- my pictures become the same as yours.  However we each envisioned Narnia before the films, it now pretty much looks the same.  A multitude of images shrinks to one.


Lately, I have been practicing a slow reading of the Gospel of Mark.  Unlike Matthew and Luke, Mark drops right in on an adult Jesus.  His writing is marked by a sense of urgency and immediacy.  His telling is that of an excited boy: John appeared, and then Jesus, and then he was baptized, and then the dove descended and God spoke, and then he was driven out into the wilderness, and then John was arrested, and then Jesus began his ministry.  It's a breathless telling, a just-the-facts telling.

When the first disciples are called, the words are few and the response immediate.  Come.  Follow me. "And immediately they left their nets."  There is no time to pack, no time to say goodbyes, no time to weigh the options.  In the first chapter alone, Mark uses the word "immediately" nine times.  Things are happening.

All this and we're not even out of Chapter One.   Idea.  Incarnation.  Experience.  The truth that Mark seeks to tell is mediated through his personality, and heard by me in the context of my experience, one unique to me and yet not unlike yours.


Whether in Holy Scripture, book, or song, by faith we believe that God superintends our experience.  J.I Packer says about the Scriptures that "through a unique exercise of divine overruling in their composition, they are God's own testimony and teaching in human form."  They are, in other words, His words, mediated through human personality and experience.  And when we hear the Word, we receive it as filtered through our own experience, no less true for being so mediated, "for it is God who works in you, both to will and to work for his good pleasure" (Phil. 2:12).  God's providence is a working out of all things for the good of those who love him, a divine and hands-on management of his creation. 

So while Scripture is uniquely God-breathed, there is a sense in which all of our experience is God-breathed.  For the Christian, no matter what, God is in it.  God inhabits our everyday.  At the heart of every decision, every trial, every joy, every mundane detail or epiphany of life lies Christ --- the one who upholds and preserves all Creation.  In the end, for the Christian all roads lead Home.   Christ undergirds everything that happens to us.


 Sometimes when Jane sings, I see the writer walking the Hudson River heights of Weehawken, New Jersey, or navigating the pedestrian traffic of midtown, or hear a voice singing in a Manhattan church.   I look out at a larger horizon and wonder what God is doing, what amazing energy it must take to uphold all things.  I see what she saw and yet what is uniquely mine.  I trust that God superintends that seeing to His good end, to my good end. 

I hear grace and peace.  I sense the steady work of the Superintendent.  I bet you would too, if you listen to your life.


That's Why God Made Brian Wilson: A Review of "That's Why God Made the Radio," by The Beach Boys

BeachBoysDespite the ineptitude and failure of Brian Wilson in many areas of his life, here, on the cusp of 70, he can still make beautiful music.  Don't doubt that That's Why God Made the Radio, the new album by The Beach Boys, sounds as good as it does.  Without Brian Wilson, it could not have been made.

Yes, they are old.  No, they can't quite hit all the notes they made with ease in their twenties.  And no, he hasn't written a rival to the great "Good Vibrations."  But Wilson has largely authored a fine set of summery songs that resonate with all that is good (or that we like to think is good) about summer, the beach, and that Southern California life and yet which bear the mark of mortality, doubt, and longing.  Wisely, he's not singing about hot rods and girls and surfing anymore or indulging in nostalgia but applying those some great vocal harmonies and pop tunes to lyrics about summers nearly gone.  It's as you might expect from a man pushing 70.  He's a grown up, not a kid.

The album is bookended with bittersweet songs.  It leads off with "Think About the Days," a wordless and yet arresting choral introduction that is reminiscent of "Our Prayer," off Smile, the Boys vocalizing to a melody with a minor key, ending with a solitary piano.  It's an invitation to reflection on the meaning of 50 years of being The Beach Boys.  It's also the lead in to the title cut, Wilson giving credit to God for the gift of music in every generation: "That's why God made the radio. . ./ He waved his hand/ Gave us rock and roll. . ./ It's paradise when I/ Lift up my antennae/ Receiving your signal like a prayer/ Like a prayer.

And then, a trio of songs that wrap up the album hearken back to the slightly melancholy note of the introductory prelude.  In "From There to Back Again" Wilson asks "why don't we feel the way we used to anymore" and reflects on how he's been "thinking 'bout when life was still in front of you" and wonders "if we can get from there to back again."  From there the record goes to a short but moving song, "Pacific Coast Highway," which is simply, well, sad.  Listen: "Sometimes I realize/My days are getting on/ Sometimes I realize/ It's time to move along/ And I wanna go home. . . Driving down the Pacific Coast Highway, the setting sun/ Goodbye."  Ouch.

And finally, the trio ends with "Summer's Gone," a beautiful if yet additional farewell, Wilson lamenting a summer gone, old friends gone, nights that grow cold,concluding that "we laugh, we cry/we live, then die."  Yet the beauty in the delivery of the music keeps it buoyant, keeps me from sinking to where the lyric might take me.

In between these bookends of reality are some other fine songs, but these are the ones I'll remember.  Three tunes find Wilson wondering at the strangeness of life.  "The Private Life of Bill and Sue" is a jab at reality TV, Wilson concluding that "sometimes life can be so strange."  In "Strange World" you sense his alienation from a world that has changed drastically in 50 years, Wilson watching the "uninvited who've lost their way," gathering on Santa Monica Pier, concluding that "it's a strange world after all."  Its a perspective that rings true, one appropriate to his age.  He can write about the beaches and places of Southern California --- this man who seems to embody the ethos of that culture --- and yet one senses he feels like (to appropriate a biblical phrase) an "alien and stranger" in his own hometown.

I recently saw Brian Wilson and The Beach Boys on their 50th Anniversary Tour.  Most of the time he sat behind a grand piano that he did not play.  When he stood at the show closer and had a bass guitar strapped on to him (his instrument back in the day), I noticed his frailty, how he shuffled across the stage, that lost look in his eyes that I have seen before.  I thought to myself: "This is it.  This is the last.  This is his goodbye.  He may not even make it through the night, much less a grueling tour."  And yet he keeps on.

This could have been a nostalgia record, an aging band reworking their old hits, a caricature of themselves.  They could could have played to sentimentality.  That this album doesn't do any of that is due to Wilson, songwriting partners (like Joe Thomas), and a working band of younger musicians (Jeffrey Foskett, The Wondermints, et al.) who support him and keep him honest.  He's still doing something new.  He's still making good if maybe not great music.

I think that's why God made Brian Wilson. 


For two of four nights last week, I have attended high school voice and choir recitals that featured Broadway show tunes, nearly four and a half hours of them. I don't want to hear any more show tunes any time soon, except perhaps those sung by my son or daughter. It's like being locked in the room and being forced to watch American Idol. So over the top. Missing subtlety. Don't get me wrong. There are some great show tunes and great voices. But.

(But you can't use "but" like that can you, dangling there at the end of a paragraph, all alone? Can you?)

The last couple of days I listened to melancholy, angst-ridden, world-weary, and sometimes angry and bitter singer-songwriters during drive time, all plucking away on their guitars, strumming like the pull of a brush through unkempt hair. I even listened to some spout socially conscious songs that I generally disdain just so I could feel good and mad at them for mixing politics and good music. I loved it. I felt better, cleansed. It was an antidote for all that peppiness.

You see, "Wicked" grows tiresome. During a rendition of "Aquarius" I was so embarrassed for the young woman I had to look down. I fiddled with my phone. And "Son of a Preacher Man," from Pulp Fiction? I fiddled with my phone some more. I didn't even like it when Dusty Springfield did it.

The Kinks ridiculed the whole broadway/american idol/showbiz dream in that great album of social critique, Everybody's In Showbiz, which in 1972 referred mostly to the life of a rock star or a movie star. In "Celluloid Heroes," they sing "I wish my life was a non-stop hollywood movie-show,/ a fantasy world of celluloid villains and heroes,/ because celluloid heroes never feel any pain,/ and celluloid heroes never really die." Everybody wants to be a star. Everyone is celebrity-obssessed. Everyone wants to live on beyond themselves. Everybody wants something more. Everybody wants. . . something. But.

But hold on a minute. Am I just a cranky 50-something irritated by having to sit so long in a hard chair? Yes, I suppose so. But.

But something is different here. When I was a kid I wanted to be a super hero and, later, a rock star.  My best friend and I tied towels around our necks and lurked about the neighborhood at night, ran faster than we thought we could, maybe even flew for a couple seconds.  As a teenager, I plugged in a moth-eaten tube amp and a Les Paul Gibson inherited from my Dad and played the biggest, loudest, fuzziest no-good chords I could find.  (My friend's dad said maybe I should keep my day job, and he was right.)  But I didn't really think I had a shot at super-heroeing or rock stardom, and it certainly wasn't for public consumption. It was a fun game of pretend.  It was in my head, a wonderful fantasy.  Yet surveys show that these days high-schoolers have off-the-chart unrealistic expectations of what life can hold for them.  Many will not earn any superlatives, much less achieve stardom (unless you count their Facebook page), will not be celebrated nationally, regionally, or locally.  The desire to be recognized and noticed is a human impulse but one that is ultimately dehumanizing, a great contraction of human life to image and persona.

You know, I'm not even that celebrated here at home.  


But I am loved.  I know that.  I also know that the Maker of the universe, the One who need not have noticed me, did in fact make me in His image and is at work redeeming His image in me, making me more human, more of who He intended me to be.  It's a long project, and one I could be more cooperative with than I am.  And yet what an amazing hope that my life is not contracting into some media-shaped image but expanding into the fullness of who God made me to be.  Now that's a wicked work of love.

My daughter sang a tune from The Addams Family. Now that's different. She was beautiful.  She's a rock star and super-hero all in one.  But.

Come On a Safari. With Me.

The-beach-boysIt began in the twilight of my childhood. Around 1967, when I was nine or so, I was rummaging through my cousin's LPs, a poorly kept collection of around 25 albums, some in sleeves, some loose, some packaged two to a sleeve, and so on. I pulled out a badly worn cover for an album called The Beach Boys Concert. It housed two scratched LPs, one of the same name and one called All Summer Long. They may have been the first LPs I ever handled or, at least, paid attention to --- heavy in my hands, a slightly musty smell lingering with vinyl, a multi-color Capital Records label imprint. I put The Beach Boys Concert on the turntable. Fred Vail (who I later met) emceed: "Now, from Hawthorne, California, to entertain you tonight, with a gala concert, and a recording session, the FABULOUS Beach Boys!"

And it was fabulous. I was entranced by the energy of the first tune, "Fun, Fun, Fun," the screams of the crowd that moved in waves through the songs, and the speed of delivery, as if someone cranked the RPMs up a notch. (Actually, I wasn't wrong about that, as early manager Murray Wilson's favorite trick was to have the original recordings "brightened" by having them sped up.) It was the first rock songs I ever paid attention to. But then, sustained attention isn't in the nature of most nine-year olds, and so my cousin came home and I went on with life. But I didn't forget the sparkling vocals and crackling energy of those songs.

Spin forward five years and I'm 14, introspective (that is, a teenager), sitting in my bedroom covered with posters, a black light in the corner, listening to a song that seems made for me, Beach Boys leader Brian Wilson singing "There's a world where I can go and tell my secrets to/ In my room/ In this room I lock out all my worries and my fears/ In my room." I didn't know then, but "In My Room" was sadly true, as Brian Wilson was worried and afraid in ways I couldn't imagine then. I began buying up their records, beginning with Sunflower, an effervescent Seventies record, Surf's Up, which was (for the Beach Boys) oddly melancholy, and then worked my way back through their catalog through the early hot rod and surfing song albums. The albums were issued on CD for the first time, and I bought them again. Still later they were issued with bonus tracks and detailed liner notes. I bought them again. I believe I bought the seminal Pet Sounds album four or five times and chased bootleg recordings and trivia about the famous "lost" Smile sessions (released, finally, last year) for nearly 40 years. I don't regret it.

And then spin way forward, through college, marriage, and career, and into middle-age, and in 2002 I had a record label called Silent Planet Records. One day, either my General Manager, Tony Shore, or I said "why don't we. . .," and we did. We did a tribute to Brian Wilson called Making God Smile. It's the best thing we ever did on that label. It was my way of saying thank you for some music that has enriched my life.

Around that time, I googled Brian Wilson and ended up on the website of an evangelist from my hometown, Greensboro, North Carolina, who had an apologetics ministry. In Alex McFarland's website was a reference to Jeffrey Foskett, a member of Brian Wilson's band. That was unusual. I emailed McFarland to ask for the email address of Foskett, thinking I'd drop him a note to see if he had any ideas of good bands to sign to our label. When I emailed him, he responded and said that he might know of some bands, but that he may be interested as well. His album, Stars in the Sand, was released in 2004 on The Pop Collective, an imprint of Silent Planet Records, and we became friends. As a result, I have met Brian Wilson several times, in Minneapolis, Los Angeles, and Washington. To him I'm just a fan, a friend of Jeffrey's. He doesn't know me, nor need he. But when I see him on the stage or in person, I am glad to have met him, as it keeps me from idolizing him. I am reminded that he is a frail human being with a special gift for harmony.

I pray for him too. I pray that there are people in his life who tell him the truth about God and about himself, who aren't fans but friends who speak the truth in love. The same kind of friends I have.

Brian_wilson_2At this point, you may be thinking that this is just the nostalgic ramblings of a middle-aged man. It's not. There's nothing I want to go back to, no golden age, and I suspect Brian Wilson would also not want to turn back the clock to the many miseries he has endured in his life. What we think may have been golden for him was not golden at all. Others may have heard enough about this enigmatic artist. Yet I can't stop.

I remember that boy of nine, those pure vocals pouring out of my cousin's stereo, the teenage angst comforted by the words of "In My Room," and I wonder at the strange Providence that ever so slightly bent our paths toward one another. I don't believe in a universe of chance encounters, in any stray molecules, and yet it'd be presumptuous to say I know what it all means; but for belief in a sovereign God, it would be even comical to suggest it has meaning.

Sometimes, the poets say, words are set down that the writers don't grasp the meaning or meanings of until later, if at all. Brian Wilson said "Come On a Safari with me." I just took him up on it, that's all. He had no idea that he wasn't just talking about hot rods and surfing and girls. He was talking about my life, and yours.


Hello Cleveland. I'm Back.

I think the last time I was in Cleveland was about. . . umm. . . seven years ago.  I always say seven when I know it wasn't last year and yet it wasn't so long ago as to be ancient.  I really don't know how long ago it was.  Now that I think about it, it had to be at least 12 years ago, and that's verging on ancient, but they say memory is the second thing to go, if I remember correctly.  I forgot what the first thing is.

I'm in a smelly Comfort Inn room, courtesy of United Airline, a non-smoking room that reeks of cigarette, in route yet interrupted to Grand Rapids, for a Festival of Faith and Writing.  A party of books, if you can say party about bibliophiles.  But that macaronic collection of people and books is tomorrow.  I mean today.  I mean I just had dinner with some new friends at 1o:30, which is like the middle of the night for me, and now it is tomorrow, at least yesterday's tomorrow (or is it today?).  I haven't had anything to drink, if you're wondering.

But enough of that.  Cleveland holds fond memories for me, at least with time they seem fond.  Whenever it was that I was last here, it was as the record mogul fool that I was was then, the godfather of Silent Planet Records, at the annual convention of the Folk Alliance, with several artists in tow (and on the dole).  I learned a few things that trip, like full size vans do not fit in parking garages.  I rented one to tote my starving artists about, drove into a parking garage, and discovered with horror, once in, that it didn't fit.  I mean vertically.  I scraped the top of the van a few times and became terribly concerned that I'd never make it out.  Stuck. I felt claustrophobic, scrapping my way through the first floor of the garage until it disgorged me into the street, thankful at that moment for the collision damage waiver I never buy but did buy that time.  Sorry, I tore up your van.  Thanks.  Goodbye.  Absolutely freeing.

You can do legal U-turns in the middle of a busy street in Cleveland.  It's fun.  Everyone's doing it.  Which makes it not so fun after all.  Particularly in a full size van.  And did you know that have a high center of gravity and that you should slow down to do a U-turn? I  know that. . . now.

One night I had the bright idea to take the artists to dinner. . . only my little group swelled to what seemed like 30,maybe 40.  A few homeless people (they looked similar to my artists), may have been with us.  We hired a few taxis and asked the driver of the lead car to take us to his favorite restaurant.  He did, after a tour of seedy neighborhoods, and it was good, and it cost me.  It really cost me.  I don't even know who all those people were.  And they drank.  I don't have a problem with alcohol, really, but drunk arists. . . well, there were moments of incredible inspiration, verse and song.  And tears.  Mine. Someone had to pay.

Self-avowed anarchists walk the halls of Folk Alliance.  I didn't really believe such folk existed, but they do.  They have a problem with authority.  They strum guitars and complain about their mothers and fathers and teachers and governments.  And people of faith?  I didn't even meet a Muslim, much less a Christian.  These folk were irreligious.  If I had found a crystal-gazing New Ager, I would have thought him/her a kindred spirit, a co-belligerent.  But not to be.

I'm thankful for at least one thing.  I met the fantastic Jane Kelly Williams in Cleveland.  I sent her an airline ticket.  She came.  She played and sang, and the room was absolutely still, reverent like high church.  It made it all worthwhile, being a record mogul that is.

I wasn't even a proper record mogul.  I always imagined a stretch limo pulling up to the convention center and me with shades and black skinny jeans and t-shirt advancing on the Folk Alliance with several admirers in tow, a couple of big strapping guys on either side to deal with hangers-on.

I have to tell you: the record business wasn't what I thought it was.  It was more like this: hang out with some wacky but inspiring people, spend money, listen to music, spend some more money, and when you think it's over, spend even more money.  It was a glorious waste of time.

I loved it all.

[The facts above bear some resemblance to the truth.  Sorry, but I can't remember it all.]

Their Big Fat Greek Album (Burlap to Cashmere to Me)

41K8PJTMC8L._SL500_AA300_I have little idea what most of the songs on Burlap to Cashmere's self-titled 2010 album mean, but it doesn't mean they're not memorable.  Out of the blue, in a restaurant or from the back seat of the car, my son may sing "I will ride my bus" and my daughter echo "my bus," and the song "Digee Dime" is summoned (oops, sorry, that's from their 1998 album, "Anybody Out There?") and that unforgettable chorus, "digee dime, digee dime, digee dime," rings out, which, whatever it means, we love.  Or there is my wife's favorite profundity from (it seems like) several of their songs, Steven Delopoulos's "hey, hey, hey, hey, hey, hey, hey, hey," her less robust version issuing forth when I least expect.  Or there's that great line from "Orchestrated Love Song, the wistful "I wanna live on a boat and sail away with my children," once again sung by daughter, and we all nod inwardly in agreement.  It's like a shared lexicon, shorthand album-speak --- one quip, one phrase, and the entire song, the entire album is conjured up.  Their music has become a sonic appendage to our family life, shared space.

I don't know what I was listening to in 1998, but it's my loss that I missed hearing BTC's debut release.  But when last year's album came out, it immediately resonated with me.  The love affair with their sound was sealed when I heard them in concert, an even better rendition of the songs on the album, and in respect to the songs played from their more produced 1998 album, more organic.  These are guys you want to invite over for a meal, take home, keep around for awhile, guys obviously in love with making music, enjoying being with one another.  Fronted by Delopolous and his cousin, Johnny Philippidis, with a beat laid down by long-time friend Theodore Pagano, this is family music, soaked in the sounds of the Mediterranean, mixed with a little Cat Stevens and Simon and Garfunkel, and simmered in the stew of what I imagine to be a big, lovable, sometimes loud Greek family, with cryptically profound lyrics that won't leave your head.  Digee dime, digee dime.

In the end, it doesn't really matter so much that we don't pick up the meaning, as phrases themselves carry meaning, settling down in the context of our lives and working into our own circumstances.  Do I "wanna live on a boat and sail away with my children?"  You bet I do.  Sometimes.  Sometimes when life is overwhelming I want to gather my family and go away, away from media, from problems, from phone calls, from toil.  It captures a longing we must all feel at some point.  To "ride my bus" seems to speak to me of the place where I am, to the comfort of the mundane (but familiar) lives we all live.  "Love Reclaims the Atmosphere" is a gentle exhortation to "crucify your fear. . . send blessings to your critics. . . be careful with the least of these. . . ," channeling Simon and Garfunkel through a prism of faith.  Coming to "Closer to the Edge" I find myself hitting repeat, repeat, repeat, as Delopolous sings "Closer to the edge I found/ I was standing in the second round/ I was laughing but I didn't make a sound/ Now I'm flying with my feet on the ground," and while I don't know what he's talking about I want it to be true of me. It bouys me, fills me with joy.

But it's the album closer, "The Other Country," that I find myself waiting on.  In direct gospel lyrics, Delopolous sings:

Do not be afraid of this earthly city 
Do not be afraid when the Pharaoh's nigh 
Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death 
Even though I sink through the ocean 
You will rescue me 
I am standing in the fire 
But I can hear the choir singing 
I was a blind man stumbling 
But now I see 

The phrase "the other country" makes me think of C.S. Lewis's reference, more than once, to that "other country," as when he said, "I must keep alive in myself the desire for my true country, which I shall not find till after death; I must never let it get snowed under or turned aside; I must make it the main object of life to press on to that other country and to help others to do the same."  But perhaps I return time and again to this song because the night I heard BTC in concert was just days after I placed my dying mother in hospice care and one week before her death.  That propinquity etches the song on my heart and carries the aroma of hope that she is enjoying that "other country" even now.

But that's my story.  You have your own.  And God knows Steven, Johnny, and Thedore have their own.  It was, after all, Philippidis's near tragic beating in an episode of road rage that, in part, brought these two cousins and friend back together to write and play music again. Hearing them, I have a sense that they're in it for the long haul. And we're the better for it.

Buy it.  Listen to it with your family.  Let it seep into the corners of your life.  Get a whiff of the other country.

Opa! (translation: an exclamation of joy).


Oh, Melancholia

My son accuses me of only listening to songs that are depressing and gloomy.  It makes me sad that he would think that.

Chalk that propensity up to years of listening to folk singers and singer-songwriters, many of whom major in angst and world-weariness.  No, I can't blame them.  Really, it's deep childhood trauma, the emotional scars of two events.  One, our dog, Pug (haunting name, isn't it?) died on Christmas Day.  Imagine that, a day on which the Incarnation is celebrated and our dog chooses that very day to "decarnate" himself.  Well, or something like that.  I was four, and you can imagine what I suffer from these 49 years later.

And then there were my three wicked step-sisters --- no, really just sisters, though the idea of stepsisters just sounds more wicked, doesn't it?  Before I had any dignity, that is, about the age of four, they dressed me up like a girl and paraded me around the neighborhood.  Have I forgotten?  Not on your life.  And yet, by God's grace this has not created any gender confusion but only contributed to this melancholia of which I write.

Oh, melancholia.  What a delicious disposition.  It's coming on Christmas. . . and if I had a river I'd skate away. . . at least that's what Joni Mitchell says in that kind of but not really Christmas song called, in true holiday fashion, "The River."  On the day after Thanksgiving I pull out all my lyrically saddest or most musically morose songs  --- all my Joni Mitchell sound-a-likes --- and play them over and over again on long car trips to wails of complaint and gnashings of teeth from the rear quarter.  I love it.  There is nothing like a sad Christmas song to cheer the heart.  Give me a minor key, anytime, an unresolved coda, a santa-brought-no-gifts-wife-left-dog-died-got-fired sort of faux country song, and I'm happy.  Sorta.

This Christmas I'm off to a particularly good start.  The Moravian Star I always hang over the side door lights up just fine indoors but won't light up outdoors.  Peters out just across the threshold.  It's inexplicable.  Spooked.  Gremlin-ized.  I'm afraid to task my son with it, as he may well make it more aerodynamic and yet still not solve the lighting problem.  (He's an aerospace student/pilot type.)  I'll make it fly --- one kick and I'll put it in my neighbor's front yard, and then we'll see if it lights up.

Got my daughter a Charlie Brown Christmas tree with one sad ornament on it.  The acorn don't fall far from the tree, does it?  Sad, sad tree, and she's so happy with it. I may even get a big tree and decorate it Charlie Brown style.  Very feng shui.  It takes a lot of effort to be lazy and call it simple.  One ornament.  Just one.

[Dad, what are you writing?

A new blog post.

About what?

Joy and happiness.

No you're not!  It's you.  It can't be.]

You see what I must put up with.  My melancholia is not respected, not taken seriously.  I am the butt of jokes, at the forefront of derision.  That makes me sad.

I am predisposed to words like bittersweet, ambivalent, or even adjectival phrases like happy-sad, as they all seem to be saying two things at once.  Keeps people hopping when you talk like that, and it suits my inwardly smiling melancholic disposition to find sadness inside of happiness, to be both-and not either-or.

But speaking of words, and getting to the point of this meditation on my melancholy, there seems to be a bias against the melancholic, a sense that it means someone who is depressed all the time.  Dig a little, though, and you see another definition, an older one: "pensive contemplation."  In that, I hear the Psalmist and Jesus, something to aspire to and not avoid.

When David declared in that most melancholy of psalms that "I lie awake; I have become like a bird alone on a roof (Ps. 102:7, NIV), he wasn't simply depressed but both burdened and comforted ---  he laments his sin and that of a nation and yet is comforted by assurances that God is faithful and compasisonate and will "rebuild Zion" (v. 16) and "respond to the prayer of the destitute" (v. 17).  He lay in a state of "pensive contemplation."  And when Jesus said "blessed are those who mourn," which is a state, as John Stott reminds us, to aspire to, a burden over the sin both without and within, he did not fail to promise that those who aspire to such mourning "will be comforted" (Mt. 5:4).  There is deep joy and hope and promise wrapped in a holy sadness over sin.

I can't play the truly sad songs, the lyrically nihilistic or musically chaotic.  I can't play them because they aren't true, beautiful, or good.  They embody the despairing sadness of a people without faith, hope, or love.  That's not me.

The melancholy songs speak to me because they carry the weight of sin and yet are better able to hold the promise of joy than the light and happy fluff.  A pensive contemplation is a posture that often suits me.  The deeper trauma that affects me is not sibling devilry or the loss of childhood pets but the trauma of grace.  From that, thank God, I will never ever recover.

Who Left the Artist in Control?

Mccart 1 "Blimey, he's Paul McCartney.  He can bloody well record whatever he wants.  He can record an album of screaming if he wants.  Oh, right, John Lennon did that.  Well, he's a Beatle for goodness sakes.  He can do whatever he wants"

I can well imagine having some such retort from a British cabbie or the like, hearing me complain about the self-indulgent dithering of Paul McCartney on his McCartney and McCartney II, both reissued this week in single, deluxe, and super-deluxe editions, a part of the Paul McCartney Archive Collection.  I allowed my completest compulsion to take hold, buying both.  It was not a good use of money.

Both suffer from the self-indulgence allowed a superstar artist.  They clock in at under 35 minutes, not much music by any standard.  Both represent McCartney's complete and total control over the recording process, meaning he can issue half-baked, incomplete songs, songs with innocuous lyrics, and record his meandering pre-song experimentions.  (The bonus disc is more of the same.)  A good producer (George Martin?) and a record company (Capital) would have insisted on real songs --- crackling pop masterpieces, of which he is quite capable.  But, he's a Beatle.  He has enough money to be writer, singer, only instrumentalist, producer, and record company.  It's not nearly as ridiculous as John and Yoko's album of primal screaming, but both could have been much, much better.  There's just no one to hold him accountable, no one to say no.

Still, I would have bought McCartney, issued in 1970, for nostalgia alone as well as for the song, "Maybe I'm Amazed."  I first bought the album in vinyl when I was 14, a Beatles fanatic.  I took it home, put it on the turntable in my bedroom, and pored over the cover and photos.  Perhaps these "songs" which, if issued by a lesser artist, would likely never see the light of day, are so impressed in my memory because they are laden with all the sights, sounds, smells, and emotions of those teenage years, the sounds part of the soundtrack of my life.  As such, I have completely lost any objectivity about the record.  The bits and pieces of songs that exist there live in my thoughts; I can summon them to mind anytime.  And the fact is they have an innocence that endears them, filled as there are with images of domesticity --- of a Beatle, his wife, and young children at home.  The six instrumentals are interspersed with eight songs, some little more than ditties, like the brief opener, "The Lovely Linda, or "That Would Be Something," a song which amounts to one thought: it'd be really something to meet you in the falling rain.  Profundity it lacks.  "Junk" is endearing, and yet it's difficult to say why.  Perhaps its the simplicity of its melody.  "Teddy Boy" is a "Rocky Raccoon" like acoustic number.  But the piano ballad, "Maybe I'm Amazed," is the only pop classic here.  Still, I would buy this album again, and again, and again, as it summons up a time we (I) can't get back again.

Mccart2 McCartney II, on the other hand, is mostly a lot of electronic experimentation.  There is "Coming Up," a radio hit from the record, but it's just not my style.  While "Waterfalls" is a nice ballad, the lyrics are cliche and trite, like "I need love/ like a second needs an hour/ like a raindrop needs a shower."  I'll probably never listen to the bonus disc again.  McCartney's excess is vividly demonstrated by the over 10 minute instrumental experimentation of "Secret Friend."  This, in other words, is a largely forgettable album that might have been rejected or reworked but for McCartney's star power.  Teh cover shot seems to say it all: "What have I done here?," Paul seems to be saying.

The lesson in all this is that artists do not need to be in complete control.  They need good producers to challenge them and ask them for their best.  They need record labels that insist on products that are well-made and marketable.  And they need a public that refuses to buy because of a name but insists on quality.  None of these checks on artistic divas is perfect.  Far from it.  The public is often fickle and will settle for too little.  Producers can apply a certain sound they are comfortable with to every artist, making them all sound the same (think Daniel Lanai or Charlie Peacock), and record companies can insist on the always safe and predictable, the same record over and over again.  But truly great records are born in the tension that exists in this community dedicated to the one thing they all profess to love: the music.

As for me, if there's a McCartney III, I'll think carefully before paying any hard cash for it.


Closer to the Edge, Closer to Home

Yes-band-logo During one rousing moment, the middle-aged woman next to me is shaking her head back and forth in ecstasy, undoubtedly reliving some bygone concert.  Behind me a man hoops and claps nonstop through every song, heedless of the actual beat.  On the other side a grizzled over-prime hippie keeps up a running commentary whether we want it or not; already inebriated, he continues to imbibe and opine. "You like Yes?" he says." I think "Yes, yes, after all, why would I be here if I didn't?"

This is Yes 2011.  An aging, perennially thin Steve Howe continues to play some amazing chops on the guitar.  A solid (that is, heavy) Chris Squire reminds us that a bass can play lead just as well as a lead guitar, only lower, a fact that resonates in my chest from the slightly too-loud music.  A balding (well, they are all balding) Alan White is amazing, still banging out a drum solo and hitting 8th notes at his age.  And while these prog-rock stalwarts keep on, there are signs of change: lead singer Jon Anderson is gone, replaced by a youthful Canadian singer, Benoit David, and keyboardist Rick Wakeman is replaced by look-a-like son Oliver Wakeman.  It's the same music, as both newcomers do a respectable job, but a Yes lineup without Anderson and Wakeman is a bit unsettling (not that the band hasn't been somewhat of a revolving door through the years).

This is Yes 2011.  I last saw Yes in 2004 on their 35th Anniversary Tour, in the Greensboro Coliseum with my then 12-year old son, his first rock concert.  I'm thankful I did, as the more historic lineup with Anderson and the elder Wakeman were on that tour.  Little did we know it might be their last one.  That evening held some historic significance for me, as I had first heard the band in that same arena in 1972, when they had a great deal more hair, the music was frightfully loud, billowing clouds of marijuana smoke rose from an arena floor, bong pipes were passed down the aisles, and police were stationed around the perimeter of the hall.  I was in the pit of this love fest of rock and roll moment, standing throughout on a folding chair on the fourth row from the front --- with my first date.  I was 14.  She was 13.  I didn't know what to say to her, but it didn't matter; the music was so incredibly loud we could not hear each other, even when we yelled.  Then, I was thankful for the volume.  It was one the best yet loudest and most illegal concert experiences I have ever had (though I assure all my smoke was second-hand). 

I suspect the band then was little different than me: the horizon of our life was the next day or, stretching our minds a bit, maybe the next week, and life seemed to stretch endlessly in front of us.  I had no idea the turns it would take.  I would not have been able to conceive of looking back on that moment 39 years later.

Last night I wasn't really reliving that bygone moment, though recalling it was inevitable, listening to time pass through the songs of youth.  Looking at these aging rocks stars, seeing equally aging fans caught up in the moment, I had to stop and remind myself that life is not, in the end, a "roundabout," a futile and nostalgic chasing after the youth of the past or narcotic numbing of the present as we all draw "close to the edge." In the timeless melodies and instrumental beauty of Yes, there is actually a deeper reminder that a Creator, the very "rhythm of life, is drawing me Home.  That's the "wondrous story."

But enough song titles.  I made it through that first date.  We broke up, though.  Maybe it was the perfume that smelled like marijuana (remember that?) or the distance (she lived cross town and I did not drive).  I don't know.  But perhaps in that Land ahead, I'll see her and share a redeemed memory of that amazing concert.  Maybe then we'll finally know what to say to each other. . . right after I introduce her to my wife.

Christmas Listening: The New, the Old, and the Strange

Kids-in-the-boat-hires-300x267 Though I have a lot of Christmas albums, there are very few that I can regularly listen to this time of the year in their entirety.  Generally, I make playlists of the songs I enjoy.  Yet there are a few that sustain my interest because they are either well-crafted collections of new Christmas songs or innovative or inspired renditions of classics.  In the end, a substantial part of what goes into listening is subjective, but this season I can only tell you that these ten albums are ones that are worth my sustained listening.  The first three are new this year; the last seven are (at least in our home), classics.  I hope you enjoy sampling these (as every title is linked to a page where you can listen):

The New

1.  Songs for the Advent Conspiracy - Mike Crawford and His Secret Siblings.  For Christmas music, this is definitely non-mainstream.  A benefit CD supplying funds to build wells for the poor in Western Kenya, the CD is a ministry of Jacob's Well Church in Kansas City Missouri. A collection of originals and classic Christmas songs, the music has a melodic feel, Americana at times and other times like some sort of space-rock.  I like both it and the cause --- every bit. (I also appreciate the four-panel gatefold CD with original art.  Nice touch in a digital age.)  It's about as strange as the CD I bought about 15 years ago by The Revolutionary Army of the Infant Jesus, but that's another story!

2.  Christmas - Andy Gullahorn and Jill Phillips.  One of my favorite new CDs, this husband-wife duo have put together a warm, textured recording of originals and classics, including some of my favorites (like "Some Children See Him").  I think this is one I can listen to all year.  It's folk-pop at it's best, with nary a clunker.  (But you can skip Track 13, which I believe is their young daughter singing.  Cute, but one listen is enough!)

3.  Songs for Christmas - Phil Wickham.  This guy is CCM through and through, and yet I like the CD. He has a voice reminiscent of DC Talk's Kevin Max.  Nice.  And the renditions of classics are truly beautiful and inspired.  Favorite track: "Prelude/The First Noel."

The Classics

4.  December in Vermont - Diane Zeigler.  An absolutely gorgeous recording by a singer-songwriter with a killer voice.  It's mellow, devotional tone is perfect for a late night in the dark around the Christmas tree.  

5.  Winterfall - Lee Spears and Donna Michael.  This instrumental CD of hammered dulcimer and piano has stayed in my CD player every year since its release in 1987.  It provides a gorgeous sonic backdrop for my workday.  Spears is a North Carolina hammered dulcimer maker.  I generally can't listen long to a dulcimer by itself, but paired with the piano, the total sound is mellow, the percussive effect pleasantly muted.

6.  December - The Moody Blues.  An awesome performing symphonic rock band from the Seventies, the Blues made this great seasonal recording in 2003.  Justin Hayward has one of my favorite male voices, and uses it to great effect here in both classics and originals.

7.  The Animals Christmas - Art Garfunkel and Amy Grant.  Written by the great songwriter Jimmy Webb, this retelling of the Christmas legend pairs CCM crossover artist Grant with one-half of Simon and Garfunkel.  Two great voices.  Inspired writing and arranging.  This one will never go out of print.

8.  Home for Christmas - Amy Grant.  Four Christmas albums!  That's how many Amy Grant has made, and that's not even counting The Animals' Christmas.  And yet this is the most consistent of the bunch: a classic, well-done collection of carols.  For when you just want to hear traditional carols.

9.  Come Rejoice - Judy Collins.  Whatever you think of Judy Collins, she has an amazing voice and is a fine entertainer (I've seen her twice).  Unlike her best of collection, where the sixty-something Collins appeared in the buff (my wife and I had to modify that cover art for the sake of our children and us), she appears fully clothed here.  I love her renditions of "Away in a Manger," "Cherry Tree Carol" (listen to the words of this odd but poignant song), and the original "Song for Sarajevo" (which, though not about Christmas, now forever reminds me of Christmas).

10. Songs for Christmas - Sufjan Stevens.  I don't what this is doing here at the bottom, because I love this quirky 5-CD box set.  Stevens manages to wed a campfire sing-a-long to a choir and a lot of plunky banjo and simple guitar and who knows what other odd sounds for a recording that is down right worshipful.  Listen to "Holy, Holy, Holy," and see if you don't worship.  Buy the box.  Digital downloads just don't do this lovingly prepared box set justice.

And there you have it.  Except for a playlist of those few songs culled from other Christmas CDs, this is what I'll listen to this Christmas.  Enjoy!  And please make a few suggestions of your own.

October. . . and Larry

In the middle of U2's second album, October, released in 1981, the brevity of the title cut stands as a testimony of faith:

51VEZMBJhKL._SL500_AA300_ October and the trees are stripped bare
of all they wear.
What do I care?

October and kingdoms rise
and kingdoms fall
but you go on
and on.

For me the album is like a trip through the Psalms, reflecting a wrestling with faith, God, and others, as well as a resounding affirmation of faith --- much like you find from the Psalmist.  It was against its backdrop that my friend Larry was working out his salvation with fear and trembling.  Larry had graduated from college, took a printing job in town, and lived alone.  I think he was wondering what else there was for him.  Back then --- 29 years ago --- he and I would put this LP on in his tiny apartment and just listen, pausing every now and then to reflect a bit on the words.  Gloria/ In te domine/ Gloria/ Exultate/ Gloria/ Gloria/ Oh, Lord, loosen my lips.  It was exhilarating to hear. Then there's "Rejoice" and its chorus of I can't change the world/ but I can change the world in me/ Rejoice/ Rejoice.  In "Tomorrow," Bono sings Open up. open up, to the lamb of God/ To the love of He/ Who made the blind to see/ He's coming back/ He's coming back/ O believe Him.  But then there's also the angst of "I Threw a Brick Through the Window," a song Larry likely identified with, its My direction, going nowhere, going nowhere/ So I threw a brick through the window.

I worried a bit about Larry.  You see, the last two dates he had he met via the Personals ads in the old Spectator magazine, you know, "25 yr. old SWM looking for intelligent & fun SWF."  There was always history, stories which Larry sometimes shared with me.  In between U2 songs, that is.

29 years ago.  I don't even have a picture of Larry.  I don't know where he is. I don't even remember the last time I saw him.  But when I hear the melancholy strains of October, I think of him. . . and pray.

Dear John, Wherever You Are (A Belated Birthday Wish)

"Rita, take a letter will you?"

"Yes sir."

I love saying that.  There's only two rooms in this office suite, if you want to call it that, a ten by ten room with one window for me and another room for Rita no bigger than a walk in closet, with a musty smell hanging over the place.  But still. . . I love saying that, mashing the button on the completely unnecessary intercom and summoning her to my office.  To take a letter.  

"The usual, Mr. Richards?"

"Of course.  The usual."

Rita perched on the edge of my desk, steno pad in hand, pen ready.  

I'm old school, really.  I like to dictate because I believe words have to be spoken, said out loud, to have weight, to test them, to let them hang in the air a moment so the sound of them can stir the air and rustle the imagination, so you can visualize them and call back the malformed and inert ones, publish and polish the golden ones.

Rita takes shorthand.  You wouldn't believe how difficult it was to find someone these days that could teach her that arcane method.  The secretarial schools don't even teach it.  I found a 75 year old former secretary to Benjamin Lippin (God rest his soul), still living in a flat on the upper west side, that agreed to take her on.  That's a feat.  Rita's not the brightest bulb in the pack.  But she's serviceable. . .

"You want me to come back later when you're done pondering?"

. . . and I've known her since grade school.  Lovely Rita, we used to call her.

"I said you want me to come back?"

"No, I'm ready."

I leaned back in my chair, got ready to put my feet up on the desk, then thought better of it.  Better pace for this one, considering who it was addressed to.

"OK.  Ready."

Dear Mr. Lennon. . .  No, scratch that.  Dear John. . .  That's better.  More familiar.  He'd like that.  Just one of the blokes.

"Dear John. . ."

"Rita, you don't have to repeat what I say.  That's really disconcerting."

"OK.  I got it.  Right. . . You're writing a dead person?"

"Just take the letter, Rita.  You know I don't like commentary.  Who I write is my business."  I had to regularly remind Rita that I was the one giving the letter and she was the one taking the letter.  It may not be divine revelation, but at least I was the one superintending what revelation it was, and she was a mere scribe.

"Right."  Rita chewed the end of her pen, rolled her eyes, and set in again to write.  She had a point. How do you write a dead person?  Where to address it?  Believing as I do that souls live on in Heaven or Hell, what was I to do?  Send two letters?  Throw one off the top of the Empire State and leave one in the furnace of Death Valley?  Or just drop them in the mail and let the clerks in the Postal Service sort it out over coffee?

"You were saying?"

"Yes, yes, I'm getting to it, Rita.  Patience, please."

"Alright already.  I'm just saying, it's almost lunch and I gotta meet Jimmy, you know."

"I'm thinking."

What I really want to tell him is that I appreciate his honesty, how he told the truth --- none of that sappy stuff his counterpart wrote.  And when he said we should imagine there's no heaven, how when I did that, I couldn't live with it, how it drove me to believing.  I even forgive him for that acerbic "How Do You Sleep at Night," his poison pen letter to his counterpart.  I want to tell him I'm sorry he had to die so young, so quickly.  So tragically. That his music was the soundtrack of my high school years, my turnable playing it late into the night. "Love."  "Instant Karma." "Jealous Guy." "Crippled Inside" (you nailed it there John).

Karen Demski, that not very pretty girl in my first year law school torts class, screamed in class, broke down, and ran out the door when she found out he had been shot.  That's how bad it was.  Like a little bit of her died right then.  I won't forget that, won't forget the prayer that was really behind "all we are saying is give peace a chance."  He'd be 70 had he lived.  There's so much I could say.  So much. I even have two cats, one named Yoko and one named John.  And a dog named Mean Mr. Mustard.  And a fish named Polythene Pam (or "PP" for short).  Guinea pig named Old Flat-top died, though.  

"I'm ready, Rita."

Dear John.  

Happy birthday.  

Thank you.

Sorry this is late.



In the Shelter of Each Other

"In the shelter of each other, we will live, we will live (never walk alone)."

(Jars of Clay, "Shelter")

Today I've been playing over and over again the new album by Jars of Clay, entitled The Shelter. While it is all good, I always find myself back at this chorus from the title cut, a chorus that is both descriptive and normative, that expresses what is and what can be.  We all want shelter.  We all need shelter.

The Psalmist repeatedly recalls the refuge provided by God when he speaks of being in the shadow of his wings, picturing God as a nurturing, protective bird, providing shelter and protection under his wings, in His shadow.  "How priceless is your unfailing love! Both high and low among men find refuge in the shadow of your wings," he says (Ps. 36:7), or he entreats God to "hide me in the shadow of your wings" (Ps. 17:8).

The word "shelter" even became descriptive of a certain brand of Christian ministry.  For example, L'Abri Fellowship began in Switzerland in 1955 when Francis and Edith Schaeffer decided in faith to open their home to be a place where people could find answers to their questions about life and faith and for a practical demonstration of Christian care. It was called L'Abri, the French word for "shelter," because they sought to provide a shelter from the pressures of an increasingly secular culture, a quiet haven to explore what is true, good, and beautiful.

Some may remember Shelter Records, a now defunct record label started by Leon Russell and producer Denny Cordell in 1969, one of the fledgling artist-oriented labels that became more common with the ascent of the artist and demise of the label.  I don't know the philosophy of the label, if it had one, but I suspect it was intended as an artist-friendly haven, a refuge of sorts (which brings to mind another now defunct label, Refuge Records).  Indeed, if you google the word "shelter," a slew of ministries and organizations pop up.  Homes for battered and abused women, animal rescue groups, child advocacy groups, and ministries to the homeless, just to name a few. 

That the word describes many ministries (using the word loosely), both Christian and secular, is a testimony to the deep need and longing for shelter that each person has, and the problems that exist in society can be traced to the misplaced pursuit of that shelter --- for a place where there is protection, where there is unconditional love.

For Christians, God is the one who provides ultimate shelter, as all other dwellings --- family, friends, social networks (such as they are), and church will fail us.  Our dependence on that ultimate shelter and the promise and hope of a secure dwelling in Heaven keeps us from attempting to meet all our need for shelter from any earthly medium.  And yet these imperfect, temporal shelters are the mediators of God's permanent shelter, the face of His love, the shadow, however mottled, of his wings.  As the song later says, "God has given us each other, and we will never walk alone." Community will never be enough, never satisfy.  Only God can be our shelter.

But rather than focus on my need for shelter, the better questions are who I am called to provide shelter for and what that shelter looks like.  I cannot shelter the world, of course, with all its shelter-needy people, so who has God called me to shelter?  And how do I shelter them in a way that makes them not dependent on what I provide but points them back to the ultimate source of their shelter, not themselves (self-reliance), not even each other (their family or community, as important as that is), but to a Father who will supply what they need for eternity?

For example, my family provides for the education and support of four Ugandan young people between the ages of 16 and 20 and probably will for several years.  (By American standards, the investment is small, so don't think too highly of us!)  We are "sheltering" them, if you will, and yet there are many more like them that we don't know and even knowing could not afford to shelter. Why these young people?  I always answer that they are the ones God put in my path.  I don't know what else to say.  I'm more concerned about the how of sheltering them --- is there a way to help them without creating an unhealthy dependence?  will they be self-supporting once they complete their education?  Caring for them in this way is the right thing to do, as it is part of loving them, but if it creates dependency, then we haven't loved them well.

To shelter someone is just another outworking of the command to love one another.  In practice, you can't practically demonstrate love for everyone.  Only God so loved the world, right?  To love everyone is a platitude that may in practice look like loving no one.  We have to bring it down to street level, from an aerial view to the human traffic in our face, asking Love who? and Love how?  Love is particular.

If there is any peace
If there is any hope
We must all believe
Our lives are not alone
We don’t all belong
God has given us each other
And we will never walk alone

So who has God called you to shelter?  And how will you do that?

A Not Too Hidden Wholeness - Luke Brindley's Treasure in a Broken Land

A-hidden-wholeness I first heard Luke Brindley about ten years ago, when his Spring Song release made it into my hands.  At the time, I was in the music business, swimming in singer-songwriters, with several demos or full-length CDs (and cassettes!) stuffed in my mailbox everyday.  I listened to them all, one minute of each of the first three songs.  And yes, it's true --- you do get a fairly accurate indication of the way things will go in that sampling. Most did not make it further.  Spring Song did.  It was likely because it reminded me (perhaps a little too much) of a singer-songwriter giant in my eyes and ears, the Canadian Bruce Cockburn, and yet I think I felt there was more to it as well, something original and not just derivative, like a younger writer just beginning to find his voice.

A lot has happened in ten years.  How much the world has grown up.  And how much Luke Brindley has grown up, both in life experiences and in music, as it should be. Listening to his just released A Hidden Wholeness, I sense that he is, if not fully grown, a long way from Spring Song. And yet, you can still hear the voice of the child in the man, a comforting sense to me that he has not forgotten his roots as he continues to circle his musical home.

The album is a sonic delight, everything I ever wanted in music.  To resurrect a tag line I used to use in the record business, it is "acoustically grounded, lyrically thoughtful, and spiritually provocative." It is, in short, the kind of music I return to despite the journeys over the years into many other genres.  It's like coming home.

Brindley knows how to rock, as songs on some previous records testify to, but this is not that record, not that it doesn't have some upbeat moments.  This is, rather, a more mature and fully developed folk-pop record that heralds back in some ways to those early recordings, like Spring Song and How Faint the Whisper.  Only this time around the songs are more instrumentally diverse, lyrically deep, and better produced.  For me it's a near perfect blend of folk and pop, with some moving melodies that pull you right in, like "We Go Together," a song about persevering in life, together, in spite of what comes your way, or the punchy pop of "Broken Land," with the chorus, "honey take my hand, through this broken land," bringing to mind the late Mark Heard's "Treasure in a Broken Land."

Broken, but not without hope.  And that seems to be the thematic thread that runs through these songs: life is difficult, often confusing, but "as dark as it's gotten/ it ain't dark yet" ("We Go Together") and "only love's gonna tear down these walls ("Wrecking Ball").  Thematically, "Broken Land," which also serves as the album's last word, is the center of the album, with its searching hope, Brindley singing about "looking through the city for the real life giver," and about how he's "heard rumors of redemption, maybe they're true," hope springing out of doubt.  Even religion fails him, and yet the essence of true religion remains, or at least seems to haunt him:

i was raised in the pews of a dozen small churches
tongues of fire conjured when the choir would sing
beyond the din of the deceivers and the orphaned believers
i heard the Lord knockin' so i let him in

now that refuge of hope has been torn down for years
and my spirit still fights with my flesh
but if you cornered me in my clearest moment
asked me if i'd do it again, i'd say yes

And yes, I believe he would.  And maybe we would too.

A Hidden Wholeness is a fitting return to roots for Luke Brindley, a cup of water to this thirsty man.  I highly recommend it.  Two quibbles though: For those who still care about physical product, the print on this artistic record is much too faint, the title indecipherable and the song titles practically so.  And given the importance of lyrics in this kind of music, their absence is an inconvenience.  But that has nothing to do with the excellent craft wielded here.  Listen.  Soon.

A Spark in the Night: Brett Harris's "Man of Few Words"

Brettcover copy Perhaps the key to Brett Harris's pop sensibility is found in the photograph in the inside of his latest CD. Amid a room cluttered with musical instruments, amps, and other recording paraphernalia, one item immediately catches the eye: the unmistakable classic album cover of the Beatles' Rubber Soul album. And yet while his latest release pays homage to vintage pop music, it seems more fresh and current than much of the mimicry that plies the airwaves.

Man of Few Words, Harris's April 6th release --- his first full-length recording --- is a paean to the restorative, liberating, and yet sometimes unrequited power of love, a lexicon of feelings, promises, changed perspectives, heartbreaks, and joy. It is, in short, a new pop record with an old soul, its love songs rooted in a musical palette of acoustically-grounded pop melodies, rich harmony, and diverse instrumentation. Listening to it I heard the unmistakable echo of Lennon-McCartney but also the artistic range of veteran popster Elvis Costello, the sunny southern California sound of the Beach Boys (particularly post-Smile), and other AM pop radio sounds, among them (dare I say it) even Mott the Hoople ("All the Young Dudes"). Backed by some veteran area musicians this time around (he played all or most of the instruments on his preceding two EPs), and under the competent hand of co-producer Jeff Crawford, Harris takes a leap up the ladder of musical competence.  There are no fillers here.  Every track clicks.

From the moment the band kicks in on the first cut, "I Found Out," I knew I would like this album.  The buoyant beat is a fine complement to the lyrical focus, the changed perspective on life brought about by new found love.  When Harris sings "you opened my eyes/ to a brand new horizon," or "Honey you've got a spark/ that can light up the darkest night," everything in me wants to say "yes!" in affirmation.  It's a promising overture to an album that, while not shirking the trouble of love, never wallows in angst.  It just keeps moving.  As Harris encourages us in "Mansfield," "Just slow it down and/ take some time to look around and see/ what a lovely, lovely place this world could be."  Maybe so, but the infectious beat and hooky choruses of this album don't have you thinking slow at all.  Leaping and dancing may be more like it.  (And for that Mott the Hoople influence, check out "Drop the Needle."  Am I right?)  And certainly my favorite lyric is this hope-beyond-his-years stanza from "Wish," where Harris imagines that "Me and you should be like old shoes/ never more than a step apart/ Above our chins we'd wear broken-in-grins/ cultivated by happy hearts."  It's a good marital aspiration to have in your Twenties.

While musically there's nary a downer here, there a few songs you can file under the category of "Love Hurts."  The shuffling acoustic beat of "Unspoken" has a lyric that channels a thousand classic love songs: "you swore you'd love me thick and thin/ and I believed in you/ but you broke my heart in two." And yet the music almost paradoxically hints at some greater joy that will come even out of heartbreak.  Or listen to "So Easy," when the narrator asks us to "imagine the sight/ of me watching you walk in the room last night/ dressed to kill on the arm of someone else," and yet musically I hear the classic AM pop sound of "The Association," so fetching a sound that it's difficult to believe that the "broken-hearted boy" in the song won't pick himself and go on and even be better for it.  And maybe that's just it: there's an unspoken undercurrent of something deeper than romantic love in this record of love songs, a gravity of joy and hope that is irrepressible.  But then this "man of few words" need not say much.  He just needs to sing it.

I highly recommend Man of Few Words.  While I might quibble about the lack of lyrics in the CD insert (though they are available online) and hope for a bit more lyrical depth or complexity (the prior because I'm old-school, the latter because I read too much poetry), these are likely my idiosyncrasies, not qualifications on a fine record.  So step up to the plate.  Don't be a passive listener.  Support a local (Durham, NC) artist with a passion for writing and playing new classics.  Like a lot of great music, Harris's record is independently released and, thus, not nationally distributed. . . yet, that is, at least in the brick and mortar stores.  But you can find it at several local record stores and online.  Find out where here.  Buy it local, or buy it direct at a show.  But just buy it, and "let the music take you 'round/ and get lost in the sound with everyone."  That's an order, and a promise.

The Benefits of Cold Air

Joni+Mitchell "If you breathe the cold in deeply enough, it'll make you warm inside."

(Laura Ingalls Wilder, in Little House on the Prairie, the Musical)

Jane lived in a house across from the university, next to the house in which my high school girlfriend lived. In the early days of our budding romance, my girlfriend's father would yell and shout at me and threaten to call the police on me, red-faced and cursing.  That is, until he became better accustomed to me.  We were getting to know each other.  Anyway, the first time he did this, I didn't want to call his bluff.  I was afraid.  I ran next door.  I didn't know Jane but had seen her outside.  I figured she'd offer a hiding place to me, and she did.

Jane's parents, one of whom was a college professor, lived a somewhat bohemian existence, though I did not know that word then.  The yard was unkempt, vines grew up and over the wide front porch, tattered rugs covered the floors, and mismatched furniture filled the rooms.  There was air of cultivated neglect, I think, as if material things weren't meant to matter that much.  A heaviness, even sadness, seemed to hang over that home, and it's disorderliness only accentuated it.

That day Jane was playing a Joni Mitchell record, one with a  particularly sad chorus.  (Wait, I think that's every Joni Mitchell song!)  I don't remember what it was.  Maybe it was "A Case of You," with its "Oh I am a lonely painter/ I live in a box of paints," or maybe it was "The Circle Song," which carries her classic melancholy sound and lyric, with its 

And the seasons they go round and round 
And the painted ponies go up and down 
We're captive on the carousel of time 
We can't return, we can only look behind 
From where we came 
And go round and round and round 
In the circle game 

Life's a game, she says, and all we can do is go round and round and round.  Well, Jane breathed deep of that sense of frustration, of lostness.  And yet, cold though the wind might blow in that house, Jane seemed strangely warmed by it, as if she drank it in and let the blues roll over her until it lit a fire in her, like she was living some dark night of the soul knowing that it was good for her.  I liked it as an antidote to my effervescent girlfriend who brimmed with life.  On occasion, her happinness could be unbearable, perhaps because it was only part of reality, like an album of songs all in major keys.  Jane played the minor keys.  When I ran to her house, I traded G-C-D for Am-Bm-Em.  I learned that God made minor keys too and meant us to listen to them at times, to drink them in.  She'd play her guitar and sing her repertoire of Joni songs.  Bent over the guitar, stringy brown hair falling round her, she even looked like the singer-songwriter.

She taught me how to play "Blackbird" on the guitar.  I still play it, for myself, anyway.  I like that image of a "blackbird singing in the dead of night," encouraged to "take these broken wings and learn to fly."

And when I play it, I sometimes think of Jane, a shelter from the storm, a friend if briefly but one who taught me that there's more to life than happiness or sadness, that breathing the air of sadness can lead to a greater joy.  She didn't know all that then, and God knows I didn't, and yet I can trace His hand in Jane, and Joni, and even in the brimming spirit of a girlfriend who loved life and people in a way I found difficult. It all matters.  It all means something, even now, after all these years. I still breathe it in, and I'm still warmed by it.

On the 405: A Review of Jeff Larson's "Heart of the Valley"

41UKb3eNqtL._SL160_AA115_ For all the glitter and ridiculous excess of Southern California, there remains something alluring about its films, it sunshine, its beaches, and its music.  More than anything, though, it is the sound of the place, its music, that evokes its sense of place, at least for an outsider like me. The first chords of "Wouldn't It Be Nice," off the great Pet Sounds, will take me there, as will the Seventies-soft-rock vibe of "Ventura Highway, America's hit 1972 single.  Now, Jeff Larson transports me with the effervescent pop of his new release, Heart of the Valley --- eleven songs that are pure joy to hear and which unabashedly draw on the mid-Seventies sound of America and groups of similar ilk.  I'm smitten.

Nary a twit of angst, world-weariness, or political rant will you find on this selection of songs.  While the melodies, Larson's silky voice, and writing, production, and playing of collaborator Garry Beckley are what immediately summon you, folkster that I am, it's the lyrics --- many penned by Beckley, but some standouts co-written or written by Larson --- that take me deeper and hold me. The "beloved" 405, the San Diego Freeway that snakes through the West LA area, one of the most-traveled and congested freeways in the world, an impressionistic picture of which adorns the cover of the CD, serves as an apt metaphor for the life swirling around the songs here.  The 405 is an experience common to those in Southern California, no matter what the background or socio-economic status.  In its shadow are blighted commercial areas as well as luxurious residential enclaves.  So it forms a common experience of movement and travel informed by hopes and dreams, all keywords to the songs found here.

Begin with the title cut, "Heart of the Valley," which tells us that "right through the middle/ on the 405/ you start to believe it/ as you come alive."  It's  song that calls us to "remember" a time when "time didn't matter" and asks us to "dream" and "hope" and "imagine."  It's a ballad that really is the heart of the record, a kind of wistful nostalgia intertwined with hopeful expectancy.  (It also has a beautiful vocal outro by Jeffrey Foskett.) The theme of movement and travel is carried on through "Sudden Soldier," where the narrator is in an airport watching soldiers en route to war, "the same old story/ for hope and glory," and in the hymn-like interlude, "Airport Smiles." It pops up later in "Calling" ("Time is a commodity/ that always gets away from me/ the counting off the days with nothing left to say") and "One Way Ticket" ("I've got no way to reach her/ and I'm out of time").

In spite of the wistfulness of some of the songs, the lyrics evince a hopefulness, a sense of promise, buoyed by jangly guitars, major chords, and percussion, as in the delightful "Minus Marci, with the belief that "loves been here all along/ smiling from the wings" or the faith and sense of commitment contained in "every drop of faith/ is part of the plan/ every step I take/ on every grain of sand/ there's no doubt/ we'll work it out."  The closer, "One Lit Window," co-penned by Larson and Beckley, is my favorite, embodying a longing and sense of loss, something we can all identify with ("One lit window on the street tonight - is anyone home?") with hope and forward-looking commitment ("I'm hoping to mend the tear. . . . at least I'm trying.")  That light in the window becomes an image of hope, and just as the image of the lit window lies under the disc in the CD case, so hope underlies all these songs, whether in their lyrics or in their summery sound.  It makes the album a standout, given that there's so precious little of that quality in most music today.

I recommend Heart of the Valley.  Its shimmering sound and buoyant hope will lift you out of the dark and cold and right onto the 405, smack in the metaphoric heart of where dreams and hopes can come true. That's not, by the way, Southern California.

For Christmas Listening

Moody Whenever Christmas comes around each year, I dust off the old CDs with a mixture of resignation and anticipation.  I really want to like Christmas music, but the fact is that many of the albums I have bought for Christmas go unplayed.  Very few albums hold up to the test of time.  Rather, I find myself making my own playlist, selecting songs from here and there.  Time allowing, I'll post my own playlist of favorite Christmas songs, but for now, I'll simply provide a list of CDs that I most listen to around the Christmas season.

This list is actually the same one I posted last year. I have listened to many of the new Christmas albums released this year, and yet not a single one will make this list.  So this list is actually the same one posted last year, with my occasional 2009 comments in italics.  I hope you enjoy some of these.  Click on the titles for most and you'll be taken to a site (usually Amazon) where you can listen to samples.  Enjoy!

  • The Animals Christmas -- Art Garfunkel, Amy Grant, and Jimmy Webb -- The voices of Amy Grant and Art Garfunkel, the writing, arranging, and production of Jimmy Webb, and the background vocals of the Kings College Choir bring alive a beautiful legend focused on the animal's perspective surrounding the birth of Christ.  This is back in print after being out of print for some time, the rights purchased by Art Garfunkel.  It's consistently good, and not like anything else I have ever heard.
  • One Wintry Night -- Jerry and Lisa Smith -- Instrumental versions of classic Christmas carols and three original compositions inspired by Ruth Bell Graham's Christmas story of the same name.  Jerry plays hammered dulcimer, Lisa flute.  It was produced by Jeff Johnson, who also adds keyboards and various Celtic instruments.  The title cut is one of those songs that I never ever ever get tired of.  If you are ever in Black Mountain, NC, visit Jerry's music shop, Song of the Wood.
  • Winterfall -- Lee Spears and Donna Michaels -- Once again, instrumental, hammered dulcimer and piano, but this is, like One Wintry Night, not standard fare for such records.  Both Spears and Michaels live in NC and, while they had one release of original music after this record, nothing matches the originality of this recording.
  • Come Rejoice -- Judy Collins -- Mostly traditional songs sung in a traditional way, but she pulls it off with a great voice.  The addition of "Song for Sarajevo," though it adds a blue note, is a plus. It's a beautiful song. The focus of that song on Kosovo dates it a bit!
  • Songs for Christmas -- Sufjan Stevens -- This is a huge favorite released in 2007 by this popular indie songwriter, and one that grows on me in its lo-fi authenticity and campfire like singalong style.  It's moving.  And it's Christ-centered.  And I think I'll listen to it every year. And I have.  It has an enduring simplicity.  Just when you think no one can bring a fresh take to a carol or hymn, along comes this record.  I find "Holy, Holy, Holy," moving and worshipful, and I don't know why his version of it is so arresting. For this one, buy the box, as the packaging is half the fun. 
  • Christmas -- Bruce Cockburn -- Canadian singer-songwriter Cockburn brings some original arrangements to Christmas carols, some little sung jewels, and one original.  My favorite: "Mary Had a Baby."
  • December -- The Moody Blues -- Call them prog-rock or orchestral rock, but these guys have been around.  They bring classic vocals and harmonies to classic songs, and a couple originals.  It's playable beyond Christmas, so it generally extends throughout the winter. 
  • O Holy Night -- Sara Groves -- New last year, Groves gives original carols some new twists and pens a number of great original Christmas songs.  She's a refreshing alternative to the usual CCM fare. Just a plug --- her just released record, "Fireflies and Songs," is excellent.
  • Come Darkness, Come Light: Twelve Songs of Christmas --  Mary Chapin Carpenter -- This country-folk staple sings mostly original songs, so if you're looking for recognizable Christmas favorites, this is not it.  But I like the new songs and tire of the same carols at times.
  • Christmas -- Alathea -- This female duo, with its Appalachian-infused melodies, have become local favorites around here.  This record, released last year, has some great takes on carols and some original tunes as well.  Think of the pop side of Allison Krauss.  Add humor. 

Well, I'm not saying these are the best, but they are what I'm finding myself listening to. . . this Christmas, and for many of the past Christmases.  My kids like Trans-Siberian Orchestra.  All I can think of when I hear them is big guitars and big hair.  It's over the top, with no subtlety.  I'll stick to the quieter things for the season and save the big guitars for the New Year. 

Oh, I should mention that one of my favorite artists, Sandra McCracken, has a new Christmas song out for free, a rough mix of a cut of her new (and very eagerly anticipated) hymns project.  You can get it below.

A Thankgiving Soundtrack. . . Again

couiple [Can you believe it's nearly Thanksgiving?  Though I'd love to troll the new CDs I bought this year for new Thanksgiving songs, the honest truth is that I don't have time.  Plus, I like what I said two years ago here and the playlist I included then just fine.  Finding Thanksgiving songs is not that easy, you know!  My children say I just look for the saddest songs I can find and include them, but what do they know?  Deep under melancholy is something like joy, not happiness.  But maybe you have to live a while to understand that.  So, enjoy these sadfully joyful songs, and, above all, be thankful.  I have some ideas beyond turkey and football for how to celebrate this woefully brief interlude in the retail Christmas season, but check back for that by the weekend.  For now, just listen.]

These songs don't all have Thanksgiving as a theme, because what I treasure about the day is also the gathering at home, or maybe the longing for home, or (sadly) in some cases the trials of being home. Like every holiday, its mention also brings a certain remembrance of childhood celebrations of the day. So, that too is reflected in some of my choices. In the end, it is a subjective list, of course, and yet I hope you will enjoy the music and reflect on what light it sheds on this Thanksgiving Day.

I've recorded and posted below two MP3 files, each with eight or nine songs. You can stream these but, better yet, I suggest right-clicking on each one (where it says "Side One" and "Side Two") and saving it to your desktop. Each will take a couple minutes to download. Once you have done that, you can then click on the desktop icon and listen to the songs on your player. Enjoy!

Side One

1. In the Bounty of the Lord, by Claire Holly. A gospel bluegrass number that celebrates what God gives us. The style is reminiscent of music I listened to growing up, as I find it reminds me of those Friday nights when my father's friends would come over and play music and drink black coffee until after midnight.

2. Thanksgiving Day, by Ray Davies. Kinks front-man Davies can claim the only legitimate song about Thanksgiving! He eschews his usual sardonic wit and writes a warm tune here, and the most rocking thing you'll hear on this playlist.

3. Thank You, by Jan Krist. It wouldn't be Thanksgiving without saying "thank you," and Jan manages to lace the thanks with enough melancholy and angst to keep it real. She's a good friend, and hearing her music brings many memories.

4. Gratitude, by Peter Himmelman. "I'm glad that I can see the brown eyes of my daughter. . . . Forgive me if I lost a sense of gratitude." Himmelman, an orthodox Jew, knows Who to thank. His song is a confession of how we take things for granted and forget to be thankful to our Creator.

5. Be Thou My Vision, by Van Morrison. It wouldn't be Thanksgiving without a hymn, and this is likely my favorite, with a very Celtic delivery by Van.

6. Covert War, by David Wilcox. Wow. If you had a family like this, you wouldn't want to go home for Thanksgiving. Fireworks at the Thanksgiving meal! Sad, but real.

7. Come Thou Fount/ Grain By Grain, by Matt Auten. Gorgeous hymn, and a reminder that God is the fount of every blessing.

8. A Charlie Brown Thanksgiving, by George Winston. Watching Charlie Brown is a part of every holiday. Besides, it's a bit of a pick-me-up.

Side Two

9. Wanderer's Song, by Brooks Williams. One of my favorites by Brooks, this song is about how all roads lead home.

10. River Where Mercy Flows, by Julie Miller. I love Julie's songs, and the tenderness and fragility of her voice is disarming. Thank God for His mercy.

11. What Wondrous Love, by Jars of Clay. Another hymn favorite. Thank God for his wondrous love.

12. Thanksgiving Song, by Mary Chapin Carpenter. New to the playlist this year, this original song is from Carpenter's recently released Christmas album. "Grateful for each hand we hold, around this table. . . ."

13. America, by Simon and Garfunkel. As my Uganda friend reminds me, Thanksgiving is a uniquely American holiday, and this is a song about America, and a nostalgic reminder of another time. This is the unique place I'm thankful for.

14. Somewhere Over the Rainbow, by The Innocence Mission. It seems like The Wizard of Oz used to come on sometime around the holidays every year as I was growing up. Thus, I identify it with home. It has a lullaby quality to it also, as sung by Karen Peris.

15. The Water is Wide, by Karla Bonoff. What a great song! This traditional tune was arranged and sung by Bonoff with some guitar and vocals by James Taylor late in the song. It's a song about trying to get home.

16. We Will Dance Someday, by Brooks Williams. A great upbeat song of hope about the Home we will enjoy someday. That hope makes me thankful.

17. Homecoming, by Jerry Reed Smith. An instrumental coda which reminds us, I think, of where our real Home is, where it will be Thanksgiving all the time.

One More Summer: A Review of "When We Get to Surf City," by Bob Greene

39057974 In 1992, when journalist Bob Greene was 45, he received a letter that would change his life.  Gary Griffin, a musician in Jan and Dean's touring band, had picked up a copy of one of his books, Be True to Your School, and wrote to say how much he enjoyed it.  A phone call later and Griffin had invited Greene to come to one of the band's gigs.  Not only did Greene see the show, he ended up singing and playing guitar with the band for the next 15 years, something he would never have dreamed possible.  He did what journalists do: he wrote about it.

When We Get to Surf City is Greene's account of his summertime on again-off again touring with Jan and Dean --- part travelogue, part biography, and part memoir.  I thought it would be a sad book, the recordation of a declining over-the-hill duo playing to crowds either reliving nostalgic memories or oblivious to the legends before them.  I was wrong.  The book demonstrates the value of friendship, of working to be the best at something you are passionate about, and of the timeless value of good songs.  I finished it not sad but warmed by its humanity and by the common decency of the people that inhabit its pages.  Its humble prose suggests more about life than it articulates.

Jan and Dean were a promising duo in the early 1960s.  Contemporaries of The Beach Boys, they had a #1 hit with "Surf City" in 1963, a song that became their signature.  The chorus, "Surf City, here we come," became a mantra of longing for many landlocked high school kids who dreamed of hot rods, surfing, and endless summers --- of someplace ther than where they were.  They followed it with several more #1 hits before being overtaken by The Beach Boys and, of course, The Beatles. 

By the time Jan Berry had his tragic car accident in 1966, an accident that left him to a long recuperation and lasting damage, the duo were a footnote on the popular music scene.  Neverthess, they did not stop touring.  Berry fought his way back and partner Dean Torrance stood by him.  Despite a broken body, slurred speech, and a muddied memory, Jan retook the stage, even though he had to relearn his own songs before every concert.  They played everywhere --- state and county fairs, festivals in small and medium-sized towns, corporate events, and oldies shows with the likes of Chuck Berry, Fabian, Gary and the Pacemakers, Ben E. King, and more.  Winters became a mere interlude to be endured until summer and the real life of touring.

What I like about the book is not the fact that we get to peer into the lives of Jan and Dean, at Jan's difficulties and fears and the relationship he had with Dean.  Such a telling can feel like voyeurism, making me wonder what the person written about would think.  It is, after all, personal.  And yet the spotlight Greene shines on the duo has the effect of endearing them to us rather than destroying some ideal we had of them. In fact, given the decadent lives of most rock stars, Jan and Dean and band come off as hard-working, conservative, all-American guys.  In other words, they are much better human beings than we might otherwise have thought.  They are passionate about what they do, are conscientious, and, above all, value each other.  In fact, in the end, that's why they keep doing it.

And then there's the songs.  They are timeless.  The idea that you can go to a place like "Surf City" endures, as it captures a longing for an experience, time, or place where everything feels right.  Audiences continue to interact with that song and others sung by Jan and Dean because they tap into something universal, something that continues to resonate in the human soul.  Although the author may not speak of it as a spiritual longing, that is its essence --- a desire to transcend the mundane toil and troubles of the world, even if it is ephermeral. 

At one point Greene is riding with Ben E. King, and he asks him what he's thinking about when he looks out at an audience of middle-aged people who are past their prime, past high school dances, surfing, and late-night parties.  Listen to what he says about his songs:

On "Save the Last Dance for Me":  "You think about what the last dance used to mean to you --- all the dances you went to when you were young --- and then you think about all you've been through in life, what's behind you and what's ahead.  All your years of setbacks, all your years of hope."

On "Stand By Me":  "[M]akes me think. . .[a]bout how important it is to have at least one person in your life you can count on.  Someone you can call when there's no one else to talk to."

Timeless.  Seen the way Ben E. King sees them, or the way Jan and Dean see them, oldies take on a new glow, reapplied and fresh every night as they are sung by musicians who still believe what they say, who look upon an audience not as something to be endured but as human souls to be given a gift of understanding, of songs that connect to their deepest longings.

To the extent there are redundancies in this book, like the many times Greene proclaims his wonder that he is playing with Jan and Dean, he can be forgiven.  He is, after all, living a dream.  However, in all these summers of interaction, of sharing stages, meals, and hotel rooms, you would think that deeper questions about life would come up.  Jan and Dean and band were either oblivious to spiritual issues or, as is more likely, guardedly private about most areas of their life outside touring.  The later is likely the case.  Life on the road rarely intersected with life off the road.

In March 2004 Jan Berry died of a seizure, and Jan and Dean ceased to exist.  Nevertheless, Dean Torrance continued to tour under the moniker of the Surf City Allstars.  Good songs are, after all, timeless, and Surf City is forever on the horizon, a summer beyond our reach.

I recommend When We Get to Surf City.  It lives up to its subtitle as "A Jouney Through America in Search of Rock and Roll, Friendship, and Dreams."  It hints at a greater journey we are all on, a search for not just one more magic summer but a life when all is set right. 

Surf City? 

Here we come.

It Won't Be Long, Yeah (With the Beatles)

41W+HTbeiHL._SL500_AA240_ When I first heard the Beatles' second U.S. album, Meet the Beatles, in 1964, I was all of six, and I'm sure I thought "what's the big deal?" or something like that.  I rounded the corner of our living room, peered around our stereo record player in a floor cabinet as big as a small dresser, and my sister was lying on the floor listening to "I Want to Hold Your Hand," swooning over the album cover with four moptops in shadow, and I thought, "Yuck.  Girls."  Big deal.

But big deal it was of course, even though it was outside the world of a six-year old.  I came to the Beatles music via their last albums, Let It Be and Abbey Road, and then worked my way back through the catalog, entranced, a discography in reverse, navigating my high school years in a daze of sorts, mesmerized by great rock and roll, peeling away layers of production and multi-tracking to get to the essence of the Liverpool boys, and that's what you have with With the Beatles, the earlier British release of Capital Records' Meet the Beatles (the latter with reordered tracks, sidelined covers, and the addition of the #1 single "I Want to Hold Your Hand").

If you peruse the crisp black and white photos in this beautiful reissue, you see that the Beatles were in fact boys, youthful, the seriousness of the cover photo belied by the mostly smiling faces within.  The topics about which they sing (no, that's topic, singular) is love --- lost love, unrequited love, hoped for love, and so on.  I can almost (but not quite) imagine how the teenage girls fell out over these songs. . .

"Since you left me, I'm all alone" Swoon

"Close your eyes and I'll kiss you, tomorrow I'll miss you"  Eyes closed, fainting

"Please Mr. Postman, look and see, if there's a letter in there for me" Puhleassse

"I wanna be your lover baby, I wanna be your man"  Woah.  Granted, "lover" didn't quite have the same connotation then as now.

But I'm six, remember, and I'd rather play cowboys and Indians than listen to a bunch of girls yabbering about some funny looking guys.  I mean, what's the big deal?

I know now that John, Paul, George and Ringo were working nonstop, touring, barely eating, sleeping in dives, playing in rowdy bars in Hamburg, drinking and carousing, that this album was recorded in 28 hours over the course of six days (as much time as they would later spend on one song alone!), and that it was the first British album to sell one million copies.  There is a lot not to admire about these guys.  But two things stand out: tremendous creativity and an unparalleled work ethic.  Without both, they would not have been so successful.  With both, their relentless schedule and manic following nearly killed them within three years.  Who would want that?

I'm not six anymore.  I'm not 16 either.  I can't hear this music now the way I heard it then, fresh and new, hear the needle touch vinyl for the first time, smell the record fresh out of the slipcase.   Now it's an artifact, heard and experienced through three decades of listening to the music in different contexts, through countless articles I've read about them, and memorable conversations where their names were invoked.  I can't any longer hear John Lennon's voice without remembering the shock of his death, how a woman in my law school class wept when she heard and left the room, without conjuring up images of lying on the tile basement floor of my bedroom riveted by the sound of their voices knowing that they could never be what they were.

They were not innocents of course.  And yet it was a time of innocence, before assassinations and race riots and ugly protests.  Before we knew presidents lied.  Before we stopped believing in the American Dream.  A time when we were all six, when we walked in wonder and were unaware of what could and did happen in a world of brokenness. 

We were not innocents of course.  And we can't go back.  We can only go on, carrying forward all that is true, good and beautiful, waiting for a time when innocence will be restored, when songs about love have a new and deeper meaning. "It won't be long, yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah."  Those boys were on to something.

Please, Please Me: Reverie on My Childhood

200px-PleasePleaseMe "One, two, three, four. . ."

My sister is in the backseat with her best friend Jane, chattering away about boys and teachers and who knows what else, with their mini-skirts and go-go boots swinging back and forth, giggling and laughing at things indecipherable to me at five. "Oh, I love that song! Turn it up, turn it up," she says, and my mother obliges, the mono sound crackling through the car radio. My sister and Jane swoon in the backseat. I'm on my knees in the front seat, leaning into the backseat, trying to decipher their words. I don't get it. I don't understand sisters or girls or the music they love. I turn away, just disgusted and bored.

I didn't know it then, but the song was "Please, Please Me;" the band, the Beatles; the year, 1964. I wasn't thinking about the Beatles that year, and they weren't yet a household name in the United States, but they were coming. The album bearing the name of the UK #1 hit, having been released in 1963, didn't reach the United States that year, but the song came via another release, "Introducing the Beatles," in early 1964. I heard it, but I didn't know what I was hearing.

Listening to "Please, Please Me" now, in its newly remastered edition, it's almost understandable the sensation it caused in my sister and many other teenagers. When Paul reaches "four" in his countdown to "I Saw Her Standing There," the kickoff song for the album, it's almost a promise of things to come, a breathless "four" shouted into the mike. The boyish energy, the clean guitar sound, the working class British vocals, the driving bass --- they must have sounded exotic and exciting to my sisters and yet, to my parents and many others, bewildering. 


"Listen --- do you want to know a secret? Do you promise not to tell?"

Trina Payne and I had a secret. Despite our youthful stature, we were an item. I liked her, all six years of her. Or maybe I didn't. I wasn't sure. Or maybe it was just that she liked me so much. Sitting in my first grade class with Mrs. Teague, I'd catch her looking at me and smiling, and I have to admit that I enjoyed it. And yet I wasn't ready for the responsibilities that such affection entailed. For example, Trina insisted on hanging out with me during recess, when I was playing with the guys. I began to wonder what part of "secret" she didn't understand. Besides, I had no idea that this relationship brought with it a commitment to actually spending any significant time with each other. It was the idea of it and not its reality that captivated me.

So one day I'm exiting the cafeteria line with my tray of watered-down tomato soup, and I see a gaggle of girls gathered around Trina. it doesn't look good. I sit down at another table. One of the girls comes over and tells me Trina is saving pennies for our marriage! Good grief! This has gotten way out of hand, and so I decide I need to break it off and that I'll tell her just as soon as I can, but not today, and maybe not tomorrow, but soon, I promise myself, soon this will all end.

At nap time that day, we roll out our towels on the floor. Some kids actually sleep during that time. I never did. I look a couple of towels over and see Trina beckoning me. I go. I know this sounds crazy, and I don't know how it happened, but I let her kiss me. She said no one was watching. I know I made a promise to myself that I would break up with her, and so all this was very confusing. It was like the siren call of a mermaid, luring sailors to their death, nd that kiss was deadly. By the end of nap time, out secret was out. Everyone knew that Trina and I had kissed. Never mind that it was just a little kiss, on my cheek, a kiss it still was. I promised myself I would break up with her --- tomorrow.

At recess the next day, I did the deed. She cried. I felt like a heel. Her mother called my mother. And I learned that six-year old girls are terrible at keeping secrets.


"Well my heart went boom, when I crossed that room, and I held her hand, in mine. . . . Now I'll never dance with another, when I saw her standing there."

My friend Bobby and I had been looking forward to this day for a long time. We dressed up in shirt and tie and met out in the street after dinner. My Mom slicked back my hair. Exiting the door, I bounced down the front steps and took my hand and pushed my bangs back down over my forehead, like James Dean (who I did not know at the time).  I had adopted the concept of "cool," felt certain, confident, having nourished the idea of myself as a guy who could really make the moves on the 12-year old girls in the class.  Walking the quarter mile to the school, we were full of ourselves, gushing with possibilities for our evening out, checking off the girls we would sweep onto the floor.  We were deluded!

I guess we had visions of dancing with girls all night, and yet when we got to the school auditorium, we froze. We took our place along the wall with several other guys, watching the guys brave enough to dance. I never even got near a girl much less danced with one. I never even spoke to one.  I counted the lights above the dancers, tried to look above it all, drank a gallon of punch, and ate a lot of cookies. About 45 minutes into it, we left. Walking home in the dark, neither of us spoke about it.


"Come on, come on, come on, come on baby, twist and shout"

I discovered songs like "I Saw Her Standing There" or "Love Me Do" when I discovered popular music at the age of 13.  Until then, I listened to the music of my parents --- old-time country music and bluegrass.  Artists like Lester Flatt and Earl Scruggs, Jim Reeves, and Marty Robbins.  We watched the Glen Campbell show or even Hee Haw, more for music than comedy.

I don't know what the first bit of rock music I attached to would have been, but I know that the Beatles were among the first.  I bought Abbey Road and Let It Be when they were originally released, saw the movie Let It Be at least twice at the college theater on Tate Street in Greensboro.  I worked my way back through the catalog, an interesting process of going back to roots.  I love it all, but there is something raw and so exciting about this album of songs recorded live in Abbey Road studio in 1963, "whistled through" (as producer George Martin recalls) in a twelve-hour day, history in the making while I was busy being five.

I missed all this, of course.  It's all history to me, experienced vicariously via biography, documentary, and recordings, and yet it was there as a backdrop to my childhood.  In the wasteland of music in my college years (1976-1980), when disco dominated, I would come to believe that all the great rock music had already been made between 1963 and 1975.  That was a mistaken belief, of course, and yet I still feel like all my musical sensibilities were rooted in that era for which I was born to late.

The funny thing is my son says the same thing --- that he was born to late.

"In my mind there's no sorrow/ don't you know that it's so?/ They'll be no sad tomorrows/ don't you know that it's so?

[Like many other collectors of music, I recently bought the box set of all the Beatles' newly remastered albums, some (like Please, Please Me) in stereo for the first time.  I'm listening to them chronologically, one each week, and reacting to them.  What could I possibly say original about them?  Nothing, of course.  Except this is memoir, my personal recollection and reaction, and since no one has lived my life, maybe there is something unique about it.  Maybe it'll make you think about where you were and what you were doing so long ago, when these records were released.]

A New Season of House Concerts: Geoghegan, Sparks, Paquette, and McCracken

Sandra+McCracken Local readers of this blog may be interested in the upcoming 2009-10 season of house concerts in Raleigh, North Carolina.  Booked so far this season is emerging New Orleans singer-songwriter Sara Beth Geoghegan on September 18th, vintage CCM rockers (toned down a bit for the house) Greg and Rebecca Sparks on October 10th, Nashville singer-songwriter Jill Paquette (MIA for a couple years as she married and had a baby) on December 5th, and then in 2010 thus far, Sandra McCracken, formerly of Indelible Grace and wife of Derek Webb, on February 26th.

If you've never attended a house concert, no need to be intimidated.  It's simply that, a concert in a house.  We move out the furniture, bring in a small sound system, lights, and chairs, and invite people in for food, drink, and music.  It's in your face up close music, with a chance to interact and meet the artists as well as the meet other concert-goers.  You reserve a seat and give a suggested donation to the artist (usually $15/person) at the door.  It's great fun.

Sarabeth Our upcoming concert for which reservations are being accepted now is Sara Beth Geoghegan, who will be with us on Friday, September 18th, at 8:00.  Sara Beth, a relative unknown, has recorded a very authentic and beautiful record of her own songs entitled Tired of Singing Sad Songs.  You can find out more about Sara Beth, listen to her music, and book a reservation, on our concerts page here.  Or read my review of her record here.  But hurry. . . seats tend to go fast!  Feel free to share this link with a friend, on facebook, and invite others to come.  The photo?  NO, she's not mad about anything, just thoughtful.  Actually, she's funny!  But you'll have to come to the concert to find that out.

Life on Shuffle

Medium.41.207415 On a long road trip recently, I experienced something by choice that is a rarity in this time.  I probably have at least 500 songs on my IPod, a fraction of what is available to me at home but plenty to choose from.  Only I didn't.  I put the IPod on shuffle and for nearly four hours disciplined myself to listen to every song that came to me, unbidden, welcoming it, considering its lyric and sound.  Interestingly enough, at least every other song I felt the compulsion to skip the song, surprising considering that I chose these songs! But I take that as a symptom of cultural attention deficit disorder to which I'm not immune.

Within reason, we can now listen to whatever song we want to listen to, at any time, in almost any place, as many times as we like.  Music is ubiquitous --- widely accessible, portable, and taste-driven.  If I want it, I can have it.  Now.  I do not have to wait.  In a not so distant time, we had to wait for a DJ to play our favorite song on the radio, whether "In a Gada Da Vida or "Bus Stop." Or if we were lucky we'd find the record and buy it in a record store and take it home and listen.  If we push back farther in time, prior to the phonograph, to hear a song we had to hear it live.  We had to be there.  And we had to wait for that time. We had to anticipate that experience.  Choice was limited but experience rich and savored.

Something is lost in this expansion of choice.  By taking songs as they came, by abandoning choice and denying whatever momentary passion came over me, I realized that my experience was richer.  I wasn't bored.  I was more attentive.  I discovered a richness in songs that at first I wanted to skip.  I enjoyed the surprise of hearing what was next. I enjoyed the restfulness of not choosing.  Some oft-skipped bit of progressive rock on Yes's Fragile CD needed to be savored, not skipped on the way to the immediately captivating "Roundabout."

It's a great lesson for life, this shuffling through, if I allow it.  I don't have to have my way. I need not make a choice.  What if, when I go to a restaurant, I just tell the server to bring me his or her favorite dish, if I tell them to just "surprise me?"  I might try that sometime. What if rather than trying to be right in every discussion I just let someone else be "right," if I just let them "win?"  What if, rather than avoiding an office mate by not walking by their office, I just walk by their office and see what happens?  What if rather than attempting to carefully control the events of my day I just accept what comes, savor it, learn from it, and pray through it.  It's not fatalism, as choice cannot be escaped, but it is a long restfulness and acceptance that likely will bring greater enjoyment of the moment.

In the Gospel accounts of Jesus' life, one has a sense of a man who moved in the direction of his calling, ultimately a calling requiring his death, but one who responded to the need of the moment, to the person he beheld.  When the woman touched the hem of his robe, he stopped and addressed her.  Though weary, when the crowds sought him out, he was there for them.  Though sleeping, he awoke at his disciples' insistence to calm a storm.  Though omnipotent and sovereign, he refused to pull rank and flatten those who would crucify him. Though a man with a mission, he accepted what came because life on shuffle was, in the end, just life on God's time.

G.K. Chesterton, one of the most quotable of men, once said that "Self-denial is the test and definition of self-government." By having so many choices, by not having to deny ourselves much, we become slaves of our passions, both the relatively benign ones like what song I will listen to next to the more dangerous ones like what food I will eat (gluttony) or who I will sleep with (sexual immorality).  Market economies and liberal democracies thrive on the notion that an expansion of choice is always good, that having what I want when I want it is always good.  It's not.  In the end, self-government is, in God's economy, an agent of freedom and enjoyment.  Limiting choice can lead to a greater enjoyment of what we have.  The notion that I don't have to have what I can have is a freeing thought.

I'm just going to put life on shuffle.  I'm just going to see what happens next.

The Jangling Man: The Music of Martin Newell

61Se8bQTNwL._SL500_AA280_ For someone who has said that "pop music should be done quickly, cheaply and imperfectly," English pop-rocker, poet, and columnist Martin Newell certainly doesn't sound it.  His 1993 gem of a release, The Greatest Living Englishman, is lyrically as good as anything written by Muswell hillbilly Ray Davies (The Kinks) or The Who's Pete Townsend, both artists who served as models for Newell, and musically it is a pop dream --- delicious hooks, diverse tempos, gorgeous melodies, and a touch of psychedelia --- that is worth playing over and over for its sheer excellence and sunny satire (if that sounds like an oxymoron, you'll just have to listen).  No doubt this release is helped greatly by the production work of the talented Andy Partridge (XTC), but its Newell's songs that shine through.

Newell, now in his mid-50s, is a bit of an iconoclast, a sort of mature teenage rebel.  He started his musical career in the Seventies glam-rock band, The Mighty Plods, honing his craft in bars and clubs, some of them (like one in describes in the port city of Ipswich, East Anglia) bringing to mind the kind of places the early Beatles played in Hamburg, Germany.  Dangerous, that is.  From The Mighty Plods he formed Cleaners from Venus, independently releasing his music on cassettes before finally signing with a label and making proper records.  What I have heard of Cleaners from Venus is much in the vein of The Greatest Living Englishman, without the serious production that could have made for stellar releases.  Same goes for his 1989 band formed with his friend Nelson, The Brotherhood of Lizards.  It's all preface to his best work, a record which even Newell says is "the one I'd stand or fall by."  He's right.

Some of Newell's attitude, his love of spontaneity, and his dislike of record companies and marketing comes through in this response to an interviewer:  "I might make another album this year.  But I'm going to do it in a really bad, cheap studio.  And I'm probably going to play all the instruments, which means it'll definitely be crappy. But I maintain that our real fans actually like that quality in us.  Record companies and musicians, for 15 years now, have tried to make me so good.  And I've considered it to a mission to fight them."  And yet, despite what he says, Newell has in his own way continued to work with the dreaded record companies on and off over the years, consistently maintaining his distance, his independence, and yet allowing them to market his music.  We can be thankful that he did, otherwise none of us may ever have heard of him.

Throughout it all, this Englishman has maintaned his sense of humor, making wry observations on English character, like the English dismissal of fame like the following that I particularly enjoyed:

Martread "Have you ever had a thing sitting on a train...You're sitting in a station, there's a train sitting on the platform opposite going the other way.  The train opposite you, one of the trains starts to move very slowly out.  And you're not sure whether it's your train or their train.  But you notice it's not your train--that your train's still standing still, but the other train's moving--there's a feeling of disappointment, isn't there?  That's what it's like for people in England when you become successful.  You are starting to slowly move, and it emphasizes their own status.  And they feel disappointed, and so they react usually with some kind of jaundice.  Or they try and comfort themselves--well it's probably only a flash in the pan.  It'll probably be back to normal tomorrow.  Success is not seen as a normal condition in England.  It's seen as an aberration, and it's there to be really watched and made sure the person doesn't get above themselves. The fact of the matter is that talent is very fragile.  It's like Tinkerbell, the fairy in Peter Pan. A lot of people go back to the office job.  People say, "You still playing music?"  Like it's some venereal disease.  I dare say, a similar situation happens in America, though.  It's double-plus here."

But despite his sarcasm and mildly anarchic tendencies, Newell is, deep down, a kind of English Wendell Berry (well, a bit earthier than Berry), with a deep love of the English countryside and village (particularly the town of Wivenhoe, in northeastern Essex, in the east of England) and an irrepressibly sunny disposition despite all he says.  Rather than being the rebel, or being political, he seems to prefer just being local, being home.

The Greatest Living Englishman kicks off with ""Goodbye Dreaming Fields," a nostalgic look back at a town that is not the same, with the narrator confessing that "I'm a ghost in my hometown, since they knocked that dance-hall down," observing that he once knew some girls there, but "they are married with kids now."  Musically, it's pure joy, with a kick-off guitar riff out of The Beatles' "Rain" or "Paperback Writer."

"Before the Hurricane" is completely different, a quaint, jaunty number that looks at a country town after the storm, where despite the event, "nothing much has changed."  The trailer at the end gives us a preview of what's in store for us throughout the record --- we hear a bell ring as someone enters a country store, children playing, and small talk --- all of which root the album in a particular place and time.  Normally, this kind of intrusion might be annoying, but not here.

"We'll Build a House" reflects a longing for home and family, for roots, while the title cut may be referring to the bygone days of the British Empire.  It ends with the sounds of revelry, a drinking party perhaps.  "Home Counties Boy" starts in the midst of a bubbling brook, ducks quacking, and dogs barking, a folksy ode to the rural life, where the boy "has a spade in my hands, and mud on my knees, I am a boy from the home counties."  In the end, we hear the narrator quipping that "he started to lose it toward the end, started seeing astrologists every day, got in trouble selling up those nuclear subs. . . ."  You can almost hear two country gentlemen discussing the plight of one of their own gone mad over their fence.

Musically, "A Street Called Prospect" is classic Kinks, a tune that might have walked right off Village Green Preservation Society, a bit of bite in Newell's social commentary as he critiques the promise of success offered by liberal society: "The poor get angry, and the rich make hay, and your youth is like a dog-rose, only blossoms for a day." A endearing sarcasm pervades "Christmas in Suburbia," and yet it's offered up with a jangle-pop groove that makes it very listenable.  In the end, you're sad that Christmas in suburbia is not more, yet you don't have the sense that it's all bad.

But the best is saved for last, a testimony to good sequencing.  "The Jangling Man" is a beautiful pop tune, Newell engaging in a bit of wry autobiography:

So wander dimly through the past
Of the England that you knew
These dispossessed and homeless children
They all belong to you
They all belong to you

And I am just a jangling man
Been in the cold to long-along-along
And I live with a Raggedy-Ann
We never had any money, is it really so wrong?

My favorite bit of monologue by Newell comes at the end of "The Jangling Man," Newell wittily taking a shot at the music industry: "We were #1 in the album charts in the States, for like most of 1968.  He pushed us, and he pushed us, and he pushed us.  It was a tripper out.  It was a bloody hamster wheel.  The pressure got too much for Dave, Steve. . . . He used to say Steve was the son he never had.  Clever, oh yeah he was clever, so clever, so clever that one of us went mad, almost died.  We got our money, didn't we?  Didn't we?  Cheers"  Ouch.  It's funny, particularly heard in that British voice, and yet there's some truth in it.

The final cut, "The Green-Gold Girl of Summer," mirrors the brillant opening track.  It starts with a lone acoustic guitar that sounds like the opening of The Kinks' "Shangri-La" (another bow to Ray Davies), but morphs into a rock sound similar to The Beatles' "I Want You (She's So Heavy)" (off Abbey Road), ending in an increasingly dissonant bit of psychedelia which is marvelous.  Finally, the album closes with a trailer instrumental, "An Englishman's Home," which sounds like a organ dirge, overlayed with an old gentleman talking about how someone (Newell?) who "when the Sixties were over, had moved on, was just not as happy," and so on.  Newell is undoubtedly poking a bit of fun at himself, now an old geezer.

The Greatest Living Englishman is a classic rock album, a 1993 release which sounds like a breath of fresh air out of the late Sixties.  Martin Newell is, for all his quirkiness, an intelligent writer who continues to delight in poetry, column, and song.  Though none of his releases quite approach what he realized magically in his collaboration with Andy Partridge, he continues to work and produce quality songs.

On the back of the CD booklet, Newell quotes a bit of George Orwell that seems to express the uniqueness he senses about England: "When you come back to England from any foreign country, you have immediately the sensation of breathing a different air."  In an era of mass marketing and homogenization of the market, it's a pleasure to re-discover a musician like Martin Newell, a man who knows his place, so to speak, with all its peril and pleasure --- even more, to find that he's still at it, after all these years.

[Listen to Martin Newell's "Goodbye Dreaming Fields" here: Goodbye Dreaming Fields.]

Sipping Beauty: The Songs of Sara Beth Geoghegan

Sb Plenty of gifted female singer-songwriters write out of grief.  Rosanne Cash's beautiful and heart-wrenchingly sad 2006 release, Black Cadillac, is about as good as it gets from a non-believer, a blood-on-the-tracks like confessional after her loss of her mother and father in one year.  Then there's Sand and Water, Beth Nielsen Chapman's songs wrested from the grief of losing her husband to cancer.  Both provide glimpses of hope amid oceans of doubt and struggle.  Yet neither get anywhere near an expression of faith in God.  The best Chapman can do is admit that "I will see you in the light of a thousand suns" ("Sand and Water"), and Cash can look for "roses in the snow" but can't quite come to believe in any afterlife.  That's why Sara Beth Goeghegan's recent independent release, Tired of Singing Sad Songs, is a breath of non-sentimental fresh air, realistically confronting the pain of loss and sadness while affirming a sure hope in Jesus.  Alright, I admit it: I am smitten by these songs.

Geoghegan (pronounced go-hay-gen), a New Orleans native, self-confessed migrating songstress, and now settled Nashville songwriter, is as songwriter mature beyond her 27 years, well able to match lyric and tune with the likes of Sara Groves or, in the mainstream world, Beth Nielsen Chapman, Shawn Colvin, Jennifer Warnes, or Karla Bonoff (just to name a few).  Though a worship leader with a good sense of humor, her gifts extend beyond church and have the promise of reaching deeper into the world.  I think she's done it with this collection.  Indeed, there's nary a clunker on this 11-song release. 

Tosss_cover The title cut sets the tone, the melancholy giving way to the affirmation of the chorus, "When the flowers bloom/ darling we will too/ After a hard cold winter/ And the birds fly home/ with a lighter load/ They’re singing a hymn of summer."  Then there's "Lord Deliver Me," a prayer that God deliver her from preoccupation with self: "Lord deliver me from the desire to be noticed, loved, exalted/ Lord deliver me from the desire to be favored, popular, chosen, or acknowledged/ Lord deliver me from the fear of being wrong, forgotten, or ignored/ Lord deliver me from the fear of being humiliated or left behind." All the better that the background vocals come through here like congregational singing, making it more a song from us all.

"Hallelujah, What a Mess," is an admission of our weakness and dependence on God, that even at our best we're a mess.  It has an infectious melody that begs you to sing. "Ooh, We Need Jesus" is simply that --- that, in the end, what she is trying to communicate about is simply our need for Jesus.  The real life struggle of her Aunt Marika --- a former nun who struggled through alcohol and drug dependence before emerging --- is reflected in "3 Sips of Beauty."  Geoghegan channels Karla Bonoff (stylistically, that is) in "Opening," a highly singable folk-pop tune that I keep coming back to.  I could go on, but the whole album is full of poignant lyric and joyful melody: a collection of "best of" on a debut release, with just enough production, just diverse enough arrangement and instrumentation, and, well, just enough of everything right.  It's rare to be so consistently good on any release, much less a first release.  If I gush, it's because I honestly can't find anything to levy a serious criticism against (except maybe the non-inclusion of full lyrics in the packaging or online --- something that can be remedied).

We don't know all the loss represented in the album's songs --- broken engagement, separation, or just that nagging and generalized sense of loss that can infect us all --- nor whether the songs should even be taken as autobiographical (though I doubt Geoghegan can write so well about things she is not to some extent acquainted with).  But it doesn't matter.  What matters is that the songs offer multiple points of connection with listeners who undoubtedly also know loss and grief, and yet Goeghegan doesn't leave them there in a mildly comforting sense of shared grief but points beyond to hope and deeper comfort in Christ.  That's what sets these songs apart.

Tired of angst-ridden, world-weary, stumbling-through-the-darkness tunes that leave you empty?  I recommend Tired of Singing Sad Songs.  Listen to "Hallelujah, What a Mess" here:

Check out Sara Beth's websiteBuy her record. Give some encouragement to a budding songwriter, will ya? 

Our Disembodied Music

Huge.10.51755 When I was a teenager of 14 or so, a big event for me was the purchase of a record album. At that time, music was a full-orbed experience: I saved my money, looking with anticipation to buying an LP (my first, as I recall, cost $3.49), I went to the record store (at that time, The Record Bar), handled all the various LPs of interest on display, talked to other shoppers and the manager, made the purchase, walked home with that large LP tucked under my arm (anticipation swelling), plopped on the floor of my room (often with a friend), took the plastic off, carefully slid it out of its sleeve (I can still smell that new vinyl), put it on the turntable, settled in to listen all the way through each side, and perused art, lyrics, and liner notes as it played. It was a great experience! The impression it made upon me is confirmed by the fact that I can remember many of those early purchases --- picking up the box containing George Harrison's All Things Must Pass collection with the bearded ex-Beatle seated on front, relishing the unusually sunny disposition of Neil Young on the cover of Comes a Time (at which a very long-haired hippie said to me, "hey man, he's smiling, can you believe that?"), waiting eagerly for the release of the Concert for Bangla Desh only to discover with dismay that the whole first side of Disc 1 was taken up by Ravi Shankar playing the sitar (sorry, sitar fans). I could go on. I know, you must think it pathetic . . . but remember that I was only 14.

200px-AllThingsBWCover Those days are gone, of course, and for those younger than 40, perhaps never existed. Since that time I have witnessed the advent of the compact disc, a development which truncated the tactile experience of buying and listening to music to a smaller, less impressive package but, nevertheless, still a visible, tangible commodity. I have the seen the advent of the internet and online shopping, which reduced the communal experience of the record store to just me and my computer and exposed me to a plethora of often mediocre music competing for my attention on the internet, a virtual flood of noise. Finally, I have seen music made portable and ubiquitous. It's on my phone, PDA, and IPod, where it can be instantly purchased and downloaded. It blares at me in every store I enter, from discreetly placed speakers along the streets of our new shopping centers, in restaurants, when pumping gas, and in doctors' offices --- disembodied sounds divorced from context, from tangible package, from artist, from community --- simply floating through my life and rarely coming to rest.

Given the ubiquity and portability of music, it is no surprise that the music industry is in a severe decline, as Mark Geil documents in a "Music in Recession," a summary of the state of the Christian music industry featured in a recent Christianity Today. On every front there is bad news --- artists can't make a living, touring and festivals are cutting back, record sales are crumbling (and have been since the CD reissue market peaked and declined), record labels are folding or shrinking, and commercial radio is down 30 to 40 percent. And yet while the article takes a shot at the amount of illegal downloading and what that has cost the industry, no where does it ask why people regard music as not worth paying for. It doesn't take a genius to conclude that when something is everywhere and at all times available for free, devaluation is inevitable. Even without illegal downloading, music is so plentiful that you can have all you want. So why pay?

As wonderful as it is to have music so accessible and new music so readily discoverable, the disembodied sounds we listen to nowadays are nowhere as rich as what was had in a time when they were heard in the context of a complete album, when buying and even listening were often communal experiences, where listening was multi-sensory with the packaging an extension of the artist's craft. In the end, when you had an LP, you really had something --- a physical work of art that you could hold, persue, talk about with friends, and see on your shelf. I know little about most of the artists whose songs I listen to now, but then I could have told you a great deal about them from perusing their lyrics, liner notes, and art work, supplemented, of course, by Rolling Stone Magazine, then a counter-cultural newspaper, or, in Christian circles, by True Tunes, an art-zine focused on the really cool music of the Christian culture. When I download a song now, I sense that I have almost nothing, sound divorced from context, from artist, from anything tangible that I can hold. I value it little, and that is why I am unlikely to pay for a download unless that is the only medium by which I can hear a song.

For my teenage son, this way of thinking is incomprehensible. That there is no physical product is no big deal to him. That there is no context is also not problematic. He cites the lower cost and portability of downloads as far superior to the album culture. He is interested in the song, not the artist, and certainly not the album which may contain songs he does not want. Lower cost, portability, and selectivity are certainly benefits of the digital music era, but it is difficult for him (and I surmise others of his age) to see that there is a cost. They do not know what they have missed; there is no love lost for albums when there is no loss.

Albums were a richer experience, but you might say so was listening to live music in parlors, street fairs, church, and home sing-a-longs when music to be heard had to be heard live. No one would want to turn back the clock to that era, even if we could. The phonograph and radio were a natural outgrowth of peoples' desire to take the music with them. And yet in all technological progress there is loss. Music has become cheapened both by its ubiquity and portability, more often a subjective, individual experience (think ear buds) and less often a communal experience. Even our buying of music has become an individual experience: one man, one computer screen. Any virtual buying community is a cheap substitute for hanging out in the record store talking about music. That kind of community is consigned to record collectors viewed as eccentrics by most.

We can't turn the clock back, but I suggest that the economic downturn actually can help restore value to music. As Geil notes, the industry collapse can get rid of the stardom mindset that some artists have, lead to greater improvisation, and weed out people who don't have anything to say in favor of those who do, and I would say of those who have not only an inner calling for the music but one confirmed by their community of faith or patronage. It may also restore greater connections between artists and their fans, artists like one of my acquaintances, Luke Brindley, who eschew labels and ask fans to financially invest in their recordings. I also still think a lot of people want to hear music in community, and house concerts retain a following in part because of their intimacy, not only with other people but with the artist. Finally, by buying physical product (CDs or even special vinyl releases), we can let artists and labels know that we care about context, that we want to know more than a song title and artist name. Perhaps we might not only save the CD but also preserve vinyl for those who care.

For Christians, the respect for and love of the physical is bound up in the Incarnation. In Jesus God was not simply a voice but a person one could see, touch, and hear. Christianity is, rightly understood, a sensual religion: the stuff of everyday life matters. Thus, a musical product which is a fuller and more sensual expression of the artist's imagination is more incarnational, and in this case more is better. The analogy is imperfect, of course, but I don't want a disembodied music any more than I want a disembodied Jesus. Just as we have an embodied religion, we need an embodied music. We're made for it.

Pandora’s Box

340px-Pandora_-_John_William_Waterhouse"[The Internet] creates a permanent puberty of the mind. We get locked in so much information, and the inability to sort that information meaningfully limits our capacity to understand. The last stage of knowledge is wisdom. But we are miles from wisdom because the Internet encourages the opposite of what creates wisdom—stillness, time, and inefficient things like suffering. On the Internet, there is no such thing as waiting; there is no such thing as stillness. There is a constant churning."

(Shane Hipps, in Flickering Pixels: How Technology Shapes Your Faith)

I am awash in music. Whether I am in my car, while working at my computer in my home or on the job, in restaurants, shopping, or putting gas in my car, life is lived out complete with soundtrack. Like most other products, technologically-savvy marketers have found ways to deliver music to me whenever I want it (and even when I don't). I'm part of the problem, as I confess I am a music junkie. What I can't determine is whether all this music is good for me --- and I'm not referring to content or quality as much as quantity. Why the compulsion to listen? Why do I feel the need to have the background of my day soaked in sound?

In this respect, Pandora, a relative newcomer to internet radio, has not been helpful. While our firewall at work blocks most streaming music (it won't allow Rhapsody), Pandora streams through unchecked. If you're not familiar with Pandora, it's a remarkable internet radio service that allows you to pick a song or artist and build a playlist of songs that are in a similar vein to that song. Actually, it's a cooperative process. Based on the song or artist you select, Pandora suggests and begins playing similar songs. You can accept or reject the song. Every time you make such a choice, you further give input to Pandora, allowing it to refine the song selection. For example, I began a station by playing "Baby Blue," by the Seventies power-pop group, Badfinger. Next up, Pandora selected "Who'll Stop the Rain," by Creedence Clearwater Revival. Why? If you want to know, it tells you. In this instance it said because it features "basic rock song structures, country influences, a subtle use of vocal harmony, extensive vamping and mixed electric and acoustic instrumentation." Well, I don't know about all that, but they guessed right --- I liked the song. And it's uncanny, because more often than not they do get it right.

Pandora grew out of the marriage of some astute musicians and computer geeks who conceived the Music Genome Project, a distilling of the essential qualities of music that then allowed them to map similarities. In their own words, they "set out to capture the essence of music at the most fundamental level. We ended up assembling literally hundreds of musical attributes or `genes' into a very large Music Genome. Taken together these genes capture the unique and magical musical identity of a song - everything from melody, harmony and rhythm, to instrumentation, orchestration, arrangement, lyrics, and of course the rich world of singing and vocal harmony. It's not about what a band looks like, or what genre they supposedly belong to, or about who buys their records - it's about what each individual song sounds like." It's ingenious, really, and though it has a significant subjective component, I am amazed at their ability to objectify (and then market) the factors that make up our usually unarticulated taste in music, so amazed that I have spent hours listening to Pandora.

Then lately I have been wondering how all this listening is shaping me, for better or worse. Like any new technology, I suspect it sows good and bad fruit. On the positive side, Pandora has introduced me to new songs and new artists and reminded me of songs and artists I had forgotten. I now listen to Yo La Tenga, when I had never heard of them before, and rediscovered The James Gang (please don't say "who?"), a group I lost to my high school years. It allows me to listen to full tracks at no cost. I either put up with a few advertisements or pay a modest $36 a year to enjoy advertisement-free listening and a longer time-out function. I enjoy the fact that both independent and major artists get paid when I play their song. And finally, I enjoy the element of surprise in finding out what song will be selected for me next. Of course, there is the portability of it as well, but that's nothing new.

On the negative side, I suspect I am also becoming captive to my tastes and less adventurous and patient in listening outside by personalized genres. To be fair, Pandora gives you a tool to deal with this, at least in part, by allowing you to click a button called "Add Variety," but I never do. I like my listening comfort zone, and Pandora feeds that taste-ghetto. Pandora also (and it's not alone in this) provides a veritable and portable glut of music --- at home, at work, in the car, and on your IPhone --- and thereby contributes to the impatient, non-evaluative listening many now major in. I pay little attention to words, know and care little about the new artists, and don't end up buying their album or song (at least not yet). I need not tolerate anything that doesn't immediately grab me by the musical short-hairs: I can skip a song easily enough and blacklist an artist so that their songs never play again. Once again, to be fair, Pandora allows only a limited number of skips or thumbs down on suggested songs before you are bumped from the station, but you can always log back on, so there is little disincentive to impatience and little incentive to listen beyond 30 seconds or so. It propels this propensity to skimming as does any kind of internet listening or browsing.

Consider how long it has been since you carefully listened to a song or, better yet, an entire album. Music now streams through my head and I rarely press pause so I can think about it. I get what I want when I want it, but I probably don't get what I need --- a balance between the stimulating, surprising experience of hearing all the music offered by Pandora and a more reflective, deeper, committed listening to a small cadre of artists that I commit to and support, a balance between the stimulation of music and the solitude and space of silence as I listen and reflect on the world outside and world in my head. Life is more novel than soundtrack, a story so rich that you cannot hear it without a measure of rest from the constant churning of sound (and information and image).

In Greek mythology, Pandora, whose name means sender of gifts, was also the one with the unchecked curiosity who opened the box that brought ill upon the world. It just goes to show that when it comes to new technology, we take the bad with the good. Pandora brings ill and unintended consequences. Its open box walls me in to my own prejudices even while it ostensibly opens me up to new musical vistas. When it comes to music, maybe this good gift of rediscovered or new music should prompt me to stop the flow and go deeper, getting to know a smaller amount of music by a small number of artists in a deeper way. Of course, that requires listening, not just hearing, and thoughtfulness, not distraction. In short, it requires the good sense to put the lid on Pandora's box at some point. Can we do that?

Jill Phillips In Concert

Phillips Since last fall, I have rediscovered the pleasure of doing house concerts. We clear out the den, bring in chairs, provide modest sound and lights, and invite 65-75 people to join us for an intimate evening with a singer-songwriter.  It's been great seeing friends and meeting new friends and simply watching everyone have a good time.  In addition, when I have music in the house, it seems to hang around for a while thereafter.

I really pleased to announce our next concert with Jill Phillips on Friday, March 20th.  I only discovered Jill last year and have since bought her entire catalog of CDs.  She's a great writer with a beautiful voice, and perfectly complemented by her fellow musician and husband Andy Gullahorn.  I won't spend precious words extoling her virtues here.  Visit the webpage here for full details and to make a reservation.  You'll be glad you did.

Chase the Buffalo: Pierce Pettis Presses On

14970f050c5f770.7408673811 One of the earliest singer-songwriter albums I bought during my "folk phase" was one by Pierce Pettis.  At the time, the musical wood were thick with guitar toting troubadours, and Windham Hill, a New Age music label, formed an imprint, High Street, just for singer-songwriters, one of which was Pierce.  My favorite release by Pierce was an album that has been out of circulation for at least 10 years.  Entitled Chase the Buffalo, it was produced by the late and legendary Mark Heard and was marked by some lyrically amazing songs.  He's only gotten better with age, and while singer-songwriters ultimately suffered at the hands of major labels eager to ride a wave of urban music in the Nineties, Pierce has endured and is on tour with his latest release, That Kind of Love.

But to appreciate Pierce, you need to see him live.  And now you can do that in the best way, in a small, intimate house setting in Raleigh, North Carolina on February 13th, as Pierce tours to promote his record.  A reservation is required, and we are filling fast.  So for more information about how to reserve a seat, as well as to check out video and audio of Pierce, see our Brookhaven House Concerts page here.

Odessa: A Bee Gees Pop Classic

Odessa My college years (1976-1980) were marred by the advent of disco, with its mirror balls, bumping dance, and mindless lyrics.  I listened to a lot of Jackson Browne and the (then) more novel and fresh sounds of what came to be known as contemporary Christian music.  Sad to say, my memory of the Bee Gees remains tainted by the memory of that sad musical era when, musically, I was just "staying alive." Ugh.

But, I forget, as do most, that Barry, Maurice, and Robin Gibb had a life before disco, crafting great pop songs laced with intricate harmonies and lush instrumentation.  Not only could they sing, but they were multi-talented instrumentalists who also wrote their own songs.  Their 1969 two-disc release, Odessa, was emblematic of that era --- 17 original songs that featured generally simple acoustic arrangements supplemented by symphonic backing, lyrically spanning the gamut from English mythology to love songs, with enough diversity in tempo and sound to keep it interesting all the way through.  But before considering the music, pause for a minute and consider the packaging.  It will remind us of what we have lost.

The late Sixties and early Seventies were still the of the LP, its very size providing artists with a larger palette for their creativity.  Not only could they write and sing their own songs, maybe even produce their own albums, their artistic control extended to packaging.  Jefferson Airplane puts Bark in a brown paper bag, Grand Funk Railroad's E Plurbius Funk is round instead of square, Traffic's Low Spark of High Heeled Boys is a parallelogram, the Raspberries's self-titled debut is a scratch and sniff cover, just to name a few --- and Odessa is released in a bi-fold, 2-disc red velour cover.  It's like a "touch and feel" children's book, or wallpaper from Elvis's bedroom.  Inside there is a drawing spanning the 2-page bi-fold of a capsized boat with a captain throwing a child to the waiting arms of those in a lifeboat (a shipwreck the subject of the album's theme song).  I remember holding that album.  Music was multi-sensory then.  Not only did you hear it, you felt it, saw it, had the tangible reminder (icon) of the album.  That has been lost.

But enough of that lament and on to the music.  What I did not realize before was the proficient instrumentalists the Gibbs brothers were.  For example, there is Maurice Gibb's flamenco guitar work on the title cut, "Odessa," or his bass, piano, or mellotron on other tracks.  Robin also contributed keyboards, and Barry, acoustic guitar.  With Colin Peterson on percussion, they truly were a band, not just singers fronting a band.  Three of the 17 tracks are instrumentals.  "Seven Seas Symphony," for example, was essentially performed live in the studio, with Maurice Gibb playing piano to a backing by choir and orchestra.  All in all, what stands out to me is the masterful songwriting.  These brothers knew how to craft a pop song and how to sustain interest in an album by having a diverse collection of tempos and instruments and topics.

The second disc in the collection is a mono recording of the entire album, released initially in mono.  It's interesting to compare stereo and mono and realize what a significant change it was at the time.  The third disc is filled with early demos or alternate takes of all the songs on Odessa, all good.  Combined with liner notes that discuss the differences with the released version, it's an interesting peek into the creative process, with some lyrics abandoned or changed, instruments modified, and, in one case (with "Pity"), the song never completed.  With the included poster and sticker, it makes for a great package, albeit more for collectors than typical music consumers.

Me, I'm just glad to have some music I can actually put my hands around.  And yes, I forgive them for disco.

A Christmas Gift

epk_get_band_pic.asp I enjoyed all of my Christmas gifts, but it was a real joy to receive a new Christmas song from Bob Bennett today.  I have known Bob longer than any other musician.  Somewhere around 1989, nearly twenty years ago, my friend Craig and I had a thought:  why not have a musician perform at our church.  Novel, huh?  Only problem was we didn’t have a clue how to do that.  I was holding Bob’s great CD, Songs from Bright Avenue, and I noticed a number for a booking agent on the liner notes.  I called the number.  The people were nice.  Bob came.  And since then I have probably hosted 50-75 concerts.  I have lost track.

But I won’t forget the first concert.  Bob proved himself then and afterwards as a gifted songwriter, good guitarist, great vocalist, and funny entertainer that always delights audiences.  He was doing Christian music before there was much Contemporary Christian Music industry to speak of.  His songs have always moved me, and it’s been a delight to see him every few years or so.

But, according to Bob, he’s been in a musical dry season of sorts for going on 18 months, unable to write one of those trademark songs he’s known for.  That’s why it was a pleasure to get word of his new song, Carol of the Moon and Stars, today.  It’s everything he’s known for --- profound lyrics, honey-smooth vocals, and a great melody.  Pure and simple, it’s a gift.

I encourage you to download this very nice demo of the song here.  (You’ll need to click on the Song of the month link).  While you’re at it, buy a CD.  Support a fine artist and very, very decent human being,  Welcome back, Bob.

Favorite Albums of 2008

welcome It would be presumptuous to call this a “best of” list, because I’ve only listened to a fraction of the music out there, but these are some of the albums that I enjoyed the most or found the most interesting, in no particular order:

That Lucky Old Sun, by Brian Wilson  I’m amazed at the energy and staying power of this former Beach Boy creative genius.  After producing the Sixties classic Pet Sounds, he literally descended into personal and creative lethargy for nearly three decades, only to emerge in the Nineties with health, stable family life, and new creativity.  This album is a superb suite of songs, literally a sonic landscape of Southern California and Brian Wilson, who are in some ways indistinguishable.  If you told me I could only have one record from last year to listen to, I would take this one.

Welcome to the Welcome Wagon, by The Welcome Wagon  It may sound like an unlikely recipe for mainstream success.  A Presbyterian pastor and wife, Vito and Monique, sing simple songs of faith, in what one critic described as CCM meets nerdfolk.  With Sufjan Stevens producing, it works. It’s a fun and even worshipful blessing of a record.

Live: Hope at the Hideout, by Mavis Staples  An energetic live album, this former civil rights era singer belts out blues and gospel with a stripped down, swampy three piece band and backup singers.  I love the guitar.  I love the voice.  I love the songs.  And I’m encouraged.  It’s like listening to history come to life.

Captured in Still Life, by Kensington Prairie  This folk-pop album is really the solo project of Vancouver indie-pop singer Rebecca Rowan (of the band, Maplewood Lane).  Having grown up in British boarding schools in Africa and India (a daughter of missionaries), she has a lot of influences, but I simply love the sunny pop and wistful melodies you’ll find here.  I keep coming back to it.

Freedom Wind, by The Explorers Club  They may look like Beach Boys copycats, right down tot he packaging that is made to look like a worn LP sleeve for something like All Summer Long, and yet these guys are more than that.  I feel like I’m listening to original music by a modern day version of the Boys.  And that’s not bad.

Electric Arguments, The Firemen  This album had to be stickered just to let people know that it’s really a Paul McCartney album.  Now in his mid-Sixties, McCartney teamed with the British producer Youth.  All instruments were played by McCartney, and all recorded in the space of one day.  From the classic rock opener to psychedelia to twangy folk, the record has a spontaneity and life missing in the man’s other solo work.  In my opinion, he can stay “The Firemen.”

The Good Things, by Jill Phillips  She’s one of my favorite CCM singers, because she can write great songs, play guitar, and sing.  It’s not sappy or sentimental, and yet full of faith and struggles that we all have.  Every Jill Phillips record is good, and this one is no exception.

Pacific Ocean Blue, by Dennis Wilson  Most people have no idea how creative and talented the youngest Beach Boy, the drummer, actually was, as his life was tragically cut short by his drowning death in 1983, an unbelievable 25 years ago. In this reissue, his only solo release, Pacific Ocean Blue, is remastered with bonus tracks.  But the gem is the inclusion of 17 tracks from the sessions for his never finished or released album, Bambu.  Listening gives you some sense of the unique direction this artist would have taken, but for his death.  Sadly, it’s unlikely that most people, other than Beach Boys fans and collectors, will ever hear this. Too bad!

Meet Glen Campbell, by Glen Campbell  As I’m writing this, I’m thinking “I have become my father,” and in a way I have.  I remember watching the Glen Campbell show in the Sixties with my Dad, and now, I’m buying a record?  Yes!  This is a very talented man, and there are some great songs here, both originals and covers.  Drop your preconceptions.  Give it a listen.

Promise of Summer, by Jackopierce  When I heard the rockabilly opener to this record, “Everything I’m Not,” with the chorus “I’m an open book, she’s a mystery/ I’m black coffee and she’s sweet tea/ You probably wonder why she’s with me/ I’m grateful for everything I’ve got/ She is everything I’m not,” I knew I liked this band.  It’s clever, straight ahead, heartland rock ‘n roll, with a country flavor.  What’s not to like?

And that’s it for 2008.  Next week, post-Christmas music, I think I’ll chuck all this music, set it aside for a few months, so I can return to it and realize how well it holds up (or not).  Happy listening!

For Christmas Listening

Xmas This year I'm updating my list of Christmas music suggestions, adding a few new ones.  Christmastime poses some difficulty for me musically, in that I find so few Christmas albums that I like.  Most records are uninspiring rehashes of the same carols, hymns, and other Christmas songs.  Some artists have managed to take the familiar carols and add a depressing note to them, and I'm not in favor of that.  I may find one or two songs I like, but on the whole albums tend to be inconsistent affairs.  Instrumental albums fare about the same.  If I hear one more Windham Hill Celtic Christmas record. . . well, I've had enough of those for a while.  Really, what I cherish is music that is Christocentric, authentic, and original (meaning fresh and timeless arrangement of familiar songs or new songs).

I've tried to consider what my ten favorite Christmas albums are, the criteria being whether I listen to them every year.  In fact, one mark of a good Christmas album is that you want to listen to it all year, not just at Christmas.  Here's my ten:

  • The Animals Christmas -- Art Garfunkel, Amy Grant, and Jimmy Webb -- The voices of Amy Grant and Art Garfunkel, the writing, arranging, and production of Jimmy Webb, and the background vocals of the Kings College Choir bring alive a beautiful legend focused on the animal's perspective surrounding the birth of Christ.  This is out of print, but new and used copies can be found on ebay or amazon.  It's consistently good, and not like anything else I have ever heard.
  • One Wintry Night -- Jerry and Lisa Smith -- Instrumental versions of classic Christmas carols and three original compositions inspired by Ruth Bell Graham's Christmas story of the same name.  Jerry plays hammered dulcimer, Lisa flute.  It was produced by Jeff Johnson, who also adds keyboards and various Celtic instruments.  The title cut is one of those songs that I never get tired of.
  • Winterfall -- Lee Spears and Donna Michaels -- Once again, instrumental, hammered dulcimer and piano, but this is, like One Wintry Night, not standard fare for such records.
  • Come Rejoice -- Judy Collins -- Mostly traditional songs sung in a traditional way, but she pulls it off with a great voice.  The addition of "Song for Sarajevo," though it adds a blue note, is a plus.  It's a beautiful song.
  • Songs for Christmas -- Sufjan Stevens -- This is a new favorite released last year, and one that grows on me in its lo-fi authenticity and campfire like singalong style.  It's moving.  And it's Christ-centered.  And I think I'll listen to it every year.
  • Christmas -- Bruce Cockburn -- Canadian singer-songwriter Cockburn brings some original arrangements to Christmas carols, some little sung jewels, and one original.  My favorite: "Mary Had a Baby."
  • December -- The Moody Blues -- Call them prog-rock or orchestral rock, but these guys have been around.  They bring classic vocals and harmonies to classic songs, and a couple originals.  It's playable beyond Christmas.
  • Sara Groves -- O Holy Night -- New this year, Grove's gives original carols some new twists and pens a number of great original Christmas songs.  She's a refreshing alternative to the usual CCM fare.
  • Mary Chapin Carpenter -- Christmas --  This country-folk staple sings mostly original songs, so if you're looking for recognizable Christmas favorites, this is not it.  But I like the new songs and tire of the same carols at times.
  • Alathea -- Christmas -- Folks that I know rave about the new CD from this female duo, with its Appalachian-infused melodies.  I'm a big fan, so as soon as I set hands on it, I know I will like it too.

Well, I'm not saying these are the best, but they are what I'm finding myself listening to. . . this Christmas, and for many of the past Christmases.  My kids like Trans-Siberian Orchestra.  All I can think of when I hear them is big guitars and big hair.  It's over the top, with no subtlety.  I'll stick to the quieter things for the season and save the big guitars for the New Year.  Happy listening!