This site is now an archived site.  Check out the new site for new material.

 

I’ve started a new writing project:  Redeeming the Commute.  Head on over to http://redeemingthecommute.tumblr.com/ to read about what I’ve been listening to lately.

 

“The Skeptics Sing” is an occasional feature here at The Persistence of Song.  Posts in this category will highlight music with an explicitly unbelieving worldview.  Analyzing these songs will prove helpful in understanding unbelief.  The first installment of the series focused on a track from a new Wilco album.  Read a general description of the series, as well as the first installment, here.

This edition of “The Skeptics Sing” features one of my favorite albums of the year by one of my favorite new artists of the year.  The Head and the Heart is a Seattle-based folk-pop group.  The band has garnered some attention on public radio stations, with both “Down in the Valley” and “Lost in Mind” receiving significant radio play.

The songs from the band’s self-titled debut album are not hostilely inimical to the Christian faith.  Rather, the motif of unbelief on The Head and the Heart correlates maturation with the loss of faith.  Three tracks in particular demonstrate this theme.

“Cats And Dogs” and “Couer D’alene” are a sort of musical portmanteau.  The former is brief and segues carefully into the longer “Couer D’alene.”  Here’s a good quality live version.

“Ghosts” is the third track on the album.  It’s as catchy as the albums first two tracks, though with a bit of a sinister minor key.  Here’s a live version from the same studio session as the last clip.

The growing-up themes are readily apparent in these three songs.

–        “My roots are grown, but I don’t know where they are.”

–        “Oh the songs people will sing for home / And for the ones that have been gone for too long”

–        “People say, ‘I knew you when you were six years old.’ / But I’ve changed.”

Sprinkled in these songs are two interesting remarks about faith.  In “Couer D’alene,” the speaker asks, “What will become of these gestures we’ve made?  I’ve given up my Bible; you moved out of state.”  And in “Ghosts,” we hear, “When Mary moved all of her *stuff* to Chicago, her mother made sure that she left with her Bible, but you won’t find her face on Sundays.”

In these lyrics, we hear accounts of growing out of the faith.  People grow up and grow apart from what they once confessed to believe.  A commonly referenced scenario is that of the church-going teenager, who in his college days forsakes the faith. 

Several reasons are commonly enlisted to explain this departure.  The apostates were unprepared for the philosophical and other intellectual challenges common at secular universities.  The legitimization of other worldviews causes them to question the legitimacy of their own.  The charm of debauchery leads some to disassociate themselves from the gospel.

These attempted explanations, though well-meaning, present only proximate causes of apostasy.  In reality, the true cause of young adult un-conversion is the lack of genuine conversion in the first place.  The antagonistic naturalistic professor (or party scene, or popular pluralism) gives deceived unbelievers the opportunity to realize their unbelief.       

This distinction has the appearance of triviality, but it is crucial in how we counsel the outed unbeliever.  If our recourse is to arguments for God’s existence or behavior modification, then we only deal with proximate causes and only treat symptoms. 

We need to exercise some narrative-control.  Perhaps, instead of treating them like they are growing out of or apart from the faith, we should question whether they have even been born for a second time (John 3:3).

“I Will Love the Lord” is my latest effort in retrofitting the hymn texts of James Montgomery with modern-sounding tunes.  To read more about this effort, check out the first two installments of the “Montgomery Made-Over” series.  

Here’s a demo version of “I Will Love the Lord,” along with the lyrics.

 

 

I will love the Lord; for He
From eternity loved me;
I will love the Lord, who gave
His own Son my soul to save,
And sends down, in love divine,
His good Spirit to strive with mine.

I will love the Son; for He
Loved, and gave himself for me;
I will love him on his cross,
And for him count all things loss;
I will love him on his throne,
When I know as I am known.

I will love the Spirit; for He
Deigns in love to dwell with me;
I will love Him on my knees,
Helping mine infirmities,
Till my joyful lips record
“Abba, Father!” “Jesus, Lord!”

You, o’er all for ever blest,
One, true, only God confess’d
I would love, with heart and mind,
Soul and strength; –but what can bind,
O my God, my love to you?
This alone, Your love to me.

The text is the 175th hymn in Sacred Poems and Hymns.  Montgomery’s inscription for the hymn reads, “The first of all the commandments,” and references Mark 12:30.

By devoting a stanza to each person of the Trinity, “I Will Love the Lord” is characteristic of Montgomery’s hymns and their common Trinitarian-focus.  The hymn’s concluding lines are my favorite.  How is it that we could love God?  It is because he first (and always) loved us.

When I started The Persistence of Song late last year, I used a musical metaphor to describe the purpose of the blog:  “For every melody we encounter, worldview is singing alto.”  The idea of this metaphor is that worldview—our basic assumptions and beliefs about reality—is a subtle subtext of the music we consume. 

Of course, in some forms of music, worldview is much more prominent.  We expect, for example, that contemporary Christian musicians would seek to promote their worldview through their music.  An interesting trend in 2011 is that a number of musicians who deny Christianity (or at least certain caricatures of Christianity) are promoting an unbelieving worldview in their music. 

“The Skeptics Sing” is a new, occasional feature here at The Persistence of Song.  Posts in this category will highlight music with an explicitly unbelieving worldview.  Analyzing these songs will prove helpful in understanding unbelief.  The first example is from the rock band Wilco, and it’s recently released album.   

Wilco, “One Sunday Morning (Song For Jane Smiley’s Boyfriend)”

On September 27, Wilco released The Whole Love, the band’s ninth album.  It’s lovely listening, with a sonic range of addictive pop hooks (e.g., “Dawned on Me”) and serene tunes (e.g., “Rising Red Lung”).  “One Sunday Morning (Song For Jane Smiley’s Boyfriend)” might well be the best track on the album.  The mere facts of the song—its twelve-minute duration, repetitive structure, and minimalistic melody—make it a surprising choice as the album’s best track.  Yet, “One Sunday Morning” is masterfully executed:  the restraint in Jeff Tweedy’s voice is perfectly matched by the instrumental dynamics.

The song frankly admits a rejection of biblical Christian belief:  “I said it’s your God I don’t believe in / No, your Bible can’t be true.”  But this admission is complexly admixed with a father-son conflict:  “My father said what I had become / No one should be.”  At the father’s death, the son feels “relief” because now the father “knows he was wrong.”  One of the things on which the father erred, according to the speaker, is his view of death:  “I am cold for my father / Frozen underground / Jesus I wouldn’t bother / He belongs to me now.” 

“One Sunday Morning” reflects the reasons many embrace unbelief.  Specifically, the issue of authority dogs many unbelievers.  The speaker sarcastically remarks, “Bless my mind.  I miss / Being told how to live.”  As fallen humans, we have a rebellious proclivity.  We reject authority, whether it is the God of the universe or the head of our household. 

But we should be careful how we describe modern feeling toward authority.  Avoid the temptation to hastily generalize.  Modern unbelievers do not reject God because they have a broad dislike for authority.  Rather, unbelievers’ distaste for authority stems ultimately from their rejection of God.  What we often fail to realize is that the rejection of the lesser authority is symptomatic of our rejection of the greater authority. 

In Romans 1, the apostle Paul describes human fallen-ness.  Though God is evident to us in creation, we reject the knowledge of him and refuse to thank and worship him.  God has judged this rejection by giving us over to our evil—and less satisfying!—desires.  Paul proceeds to catalogue these desires and their sinful instantiations, and he includes in this list “disobedient to parents” (Rom 1:30).

Prima facie, “One Sunday Morning” focuses on a father-son conflict, but Wilco—perhaps, writing better than it knew—exposes the true conflict.  Our rejection of God has radically mis-ordered our concept of the world, generally, and authority, specifically.       

This mis-ordered concept breeds mis-ordered desires.  We boast, with Wilco, in what we “learned without warning.”  Yet, in the gospel, we are beckoned to submit to the authority of all ages, and in our Christian growth and progress, we are constantly reminded, “What do you have that you did not receive?  If then you received it, why do you boast as if you did not receive it?” (1 Cor 4:7)

Nirvana, Nevermind 

Twenty years ago, on September 24th, 1991, Nirvana released Nevermind.  Butch Vig produced Nevermind and fascinatingly reminisced about its creation on an episode of Sound Opinions earlier this year.

“I got a call from Jonathan at Sub Pop [a record label], and he called and said, ‘You’ve got to work with this band, Nirvana. They could be the next Beatles.’ I’m thinking, ‘Yeah, right. I’ve heard that before.’”

The record label representative was no false prophet.  Nirvana became the most important rock band since the Beatles.  Kurt Cobain, Krist Novoselic, and Dave Grohl seemed aware of the importance of their cultural moment.  They even poked fun at the Beatles comparison in the music video for the song, “In Bloom.”          

Nirvana staged a Seattle invasion and popularized alternative rock.  In January of 1992, Nevermind toppled Michael Jackson’s Dangerous from the ascendency of the Billboard 200, eventually abdicating the top spot for Garth Brooks’ Ropin’ the Wind.  That’s a testimony to the band’s cultural influence:  Nirvana made the music of miscreant youth competitive with mainstream commercial acts like Michael Jackson and Garth Brooks. 

Two years later, Nirvana’s cultural moment was punctuated with the most significant music tragedy since John Lennon’s assassination in 1980:  on April 8, 1994, an electrician found Kurt Cobain dead of a self-inflicted wound.  If Nirvana was a reincarnation of the Beatles, Courtney Love, Cobain’s inimical spouse, seemed destined to play the role of Yoko Ono.  Yet, it was Cobain–his own Mark David Chapman–who destroyed Nirvana.    

So, Nirvana never really became the next Beatles; who could achieve that accolade, anyway?  The band can be credited, however, with setting the agenda for alternative rock for the next twenty years.  An indicator of Nirvana’s creativity and influence is its continued radio play.  Scan through the stations on your FM dial until you find a Nirvana song.  You will most probably end up on either a modern rock station or a classic rock station.  If you stay on the classic rock station, you will wonder, “How does Nirvana belong on this station?”  If you stay on the modern rock station, the Nirvana song will seem quite at home with the other entries on the playlist.  The explanation for these phenomena is that Nirvana innovated a genre that hasn’t changed much in twenty years. 

The Strokes, Is This It  

It’s an anniversary of sorts for the debut album of the New York City band The Strokes.  Technically, Is This It debuted in the United Kingdom on August 22, 2001, and in the United States on October 9, 2001.  The US debut of the album, however, was originally scheduled for release on September 25, 2001.  The 9/11 attacks forced a delay in the album’s release.  

The UK version of Is This It featured the cheeky track, “New York City Cops.”  The song’s refrain contains these lines:  “New York City cops / They ain’t too smart.”  The song is not a diatribe against New York’s finest; yet, The Strokes, probably wisely, decided to replace the song on their debut album with “When It Started.”    

The band’s publicist released this statement:  “The band stands by ‘New York City Cops,’ but feels after witnessing the valiant response of the [NYPD] during last week’s tragedy, that timing was wrong to release it during these highly sensitive times.” 

Reviewing the release of the band’s fourth album earlier this year, Jack Hamilton wrote, “The Strokes were supposed to change everything, until they didn’t, until they kind of did, by which point nobody was expecting it.”  He is exactly right. 

The originally scheduled US release date for Is This It coincided with the ten year anniversary of Nirvana’s Nevermind.  (In the popular music industry albums are customarily released on Tuesdays; so, Is This It would have to settle for the day after Nevermind’s tenth anniversary.)  The Strokes were the new Nirvana.  However, just as Nirvana could not live up to Beatles-esque comparisons, The Strokes were lessor heirs to Nirvana.  The Strokes’ garage rock revival never gained the traction or the cultural relevance of grunge.  

Whereas Nirvana wanted to challenge the sonic preconceptions of its audience—for instance, in the track “Radio Friendly Unit-Shifter”—The Strokes embraced an easily accessible format.  None of the tracks on Is This It—or their second album, Room on Fire—exceeds four minutes.  Nirvana’s lyrics were intellectually meaningful, whether they critiqued generational stereotypes, as in Smells Like Teen Spirit, or struggled with concept of authority and dependence, as in Heart Shaped Box.  On the other hand, the vast majority of The Strokes’ lyrics—almost exclusively written by lead singer Julian Casablancas—depict the privileged and decadent social scene enjoyed by the son of a business tycoon and international model. 

Though less enterprising and influential than Nevermind, Is This It is fine rock art.  The rhythm and lead guitar partnership between Albert Hammond and Nick Valensi is nonpareil in modern rock.  Casablancas’ voice—which is filtered on The Strokes’ early albums—does not impressively span octaves, but has an intriguing range of intensities. 

It only takes 35 minutes to listen Is This It, and I must have made that half-hour round trip hundreds of times.  For several months after discovering the album, I listened to it every unoccupied moment at my disposal.  It was the soundtrack of my commutes, yard work, and household chores.  The album’s most popular tracks “Someday” (see clip below) and “Last Nite” are hardly its best, a fact which gives my favorite songs on the album the appeal of an intimate secret.    

The Strokes did not live up to the Nirvana hype, just as Nirvana did not live up to the Beatles hype, but that won’t stop me from savoring Is This It.  It deserves to share an (approximate) anniversary with Nevermind.  I refuse to let any terrorist—or even the actual facts—take that away from me.

Part two.  For part one, click here.  Or read the whole series in the Essays section.

3.  “Non-Christian” music is an accurate cultural barometer. 

Jon Acuff, the author of Stuff Christians Like and Quitter, tweeted insightfully about the recent MTV Video Music Awards, “Just watched an alter ego accept a VMA for a video about being yourself.”  That tweet goes beyond sarcasm; it is an incisive, albeit brief, glimpse at our cultural moment.  Lady Gaga’s music testifies to the genetic fatalism that’s gaining traction in our intellectual context.  The tautological expression “you are who you are” has given credence to the moral motto of our day “be true to yourself.”  Yet, our culture repeatedly invents new ways of being something other than ourselves–whether through an anonymous online profile or a Gaga-esque masquerade.

In the New Testament, the Apostle Paul makes use of similar cultural barometers in his ministry.  In Acts 17, Paul preaches before a sophisticated intellectual crowd in Athens.  In verse 28, he quotes from Greek poet Aratus (circa 3rd century BC).  The cited text–”For we are indeed his offspring”–gives Paul evidence for his claim that the Athenians are religious and, in fact, share his creation-oriented worldview.

In Paul’s letter to Titus, whom he left in Crete to minister, he quotes the humorous aphorism, “Cretans are always liars, evil beasts, lazy gluttons.”  This quotation, from the philosopher and poet Epimenides (circa 6th century BC), provides the basis for Paul’s command to Titus, “Therefore, rebuke them sharply, that they may be sound in faith.”

Paul found in “non-Christian” poetry instructive material for evangelism and Christian discipleship.  Our culture is, regrettably, post-poetic, and popular music is one of our remaining poetic vestiges.  We, too, if we carefully examine the Billboard charts, will find cultural material to aid us in our mission.

4.  “Non-Christian” music often provides an illustrative foil to Christian belief and practice.

From time-to-time, I find “non-Christian” music to touch on Christian issues meaningfully and, thus, provide illustrations for our belief and practice.  The country duo Brooks and Dunn, for instance, gives us two ways of approaching suffering in their songs “God Must Be Busy” and “Believe.”

Released in 2005, “Believe” fared well commercially and reached as high as #8 on the US Country charts.  The song portrays Christian faith as persistent through sorrow.  A character in the song, “Old man Wrigley” experiences the loss of his wife and son, and he comforts himself with scripture and the hope of everlasting life:

“I raise my hands, bow my head
I’m finding more and more truth in the words written in red
They tell me that there’s more to life that just what I can see
Oh, I believe”

Two short years later, Brooks and Dunn released “God Must Be Busy,” which reached #11 on the U.S. Country charts.  This song presents a contrasting view of suffering than the one found in “Believe.”  A list of moral and natural evils–including Middle East turmoil, natural disasters, and child abduction–evokes this response from the song’s speaker:

“And I know in the big picture
I’m just a speck of sand
and God’s got better things to do
than look out for one man.
I know he’s heard my prayers
cause he hears everything.
He just ain’t answered back
or he’d bring you back to me.
God must be busy.”

A classic philosophical objection to the Christian concept of God is the problem of evil.  One way of formulating this objection forces Christians into a dilemma.  Given the immense scope of suffering in the world, God must be limited in either his ability or his desire to curtail suffering.  The problem of evil would have us sacrifice our views on God’s omnipotence or his benevolence.  Brooks and Dunn’s “God Must Be Busy” dangerously treads on questioning God’s omnipotence.  Though the scope of suffering seems incalculable to us, God is lovingly, powerfully, and wisely working all things in accordance with his will.

So, we find in two Brooks and Dunn songs material illustrative for our conception of suffering.  We can endure in belief through suffering, as the character in “Believe,” or we could question God’s character, as in “God Must Be Busy.”

Should all Christians listen to secular music?

The reasons outlined above lead me to a more inclusive view of non-Christian music.  I argue, now, that non-Christian music is permissible and, under the right conditions, helpful.  Yet, I do not argue for a carte blanche freedom of consumption for all Christians.

Recall my earlier emphasis on moral discernment.  As Christians, we must know our tendencies toward transgressions.  Some may find in non-Christian music a gateway to sinful actions, speech, and thoughts.  Know your own heart well enough to rid yourself of that which would enslave you.

Furthermore, some instances of non-Christian music are gratuitously sinful.  When I was younger, I identified non-Christian hip-hop as a generally wicked genre of music.  Rap seemed obsessed with an affection for lewd language, the objectification of women, and the glorification of violence.  As I have matured, I have duly noted the prevalence of these preoccupations in other forms of music–for instance, the objectification of women, though subtler, is a common theme in country music.  We need to embrace our repulsive instincts; offended feelings, at times, are the Holy Spirit’s work of sanctification.

I also see the practical benefits of guardedly exposing children to non-Christian music.  So many of the thematic trends of non-Christian music are developmentally inappropriate for children.

Corrie Tin Boom’s autobiography, The Hiding Place, is a heroic tale of the Tin Booms’ civil disobedience to Nazi authorities’ persecution of Jews.  My favorite character of the book is Corrie’s father.  Mr. Tin Boom is an absent-minded and eccentric watch maker and repairman, who seems to care little about turning a profit.  He also was a devout Christian father, who exuded wisdom in leading his family.

When Corrie was a young child, she overheard an adult conversation that referenced “sex sin.”  On a trip with her father, she brought up this conversation and wanted to know what precisely this “sex sin” is.  Mr. Tin Boom led his daughter through a helpful learning exercise.  He placed before her a large, heavy suitcase and asked her to lift it.  Though she tried, Corrie could hardly nudge the suitcase.  Mr. Tin Boom explained that he would never ask Corrie to carry this suitcase for him; she was not able to bear its weight.  Similarly, she was not ready to know some realities of the world, including the “sex sin” about which she had inquired.

Modern fathers should heed Mr. Tin Boom’s example in many ways, including the issues of music, specifically, and entertainment, generally.

A Mission Statement for Listening

As musician Derek Webb evolved musically, he became fond of another aphorism.  He said of his work as an artist, “I look at the world and tell you what I see.”  I’m attempting something similar with The Persistence of Song:  I listen to the world and tell you what I hear.

I hope that’s how you’ll interact with all music—whether it’s marketed as “Christian” or “secular.”  Listen critically, for the unexamined playlist is not worth hearing.

Part one of two.

Everclear Forever Gone

Fresh from a summer Christian youth camp experience in the late 90s, I, teeming with resolve, set about the painful task of purging my music holdings of “secular music.”  Typically, my chief aim after such youth camps was to document daily Bible readings, record a consistent prayer life, or memorize a book of the Bible.

Yet, one summer, the inquisition of my CD collection was the mark of holiness on which I had set my legalistic efforts.  I do not recall the propositions that, at the time, ineluctably led me to this course of action.  I do, however, remember distinctly several other youth returning with similar ambitions.  Perhaps, for me, the dispossession of questionable music was more easily attainted than the goals I derived from other summer camp experiences.

Fortunately, I was no connoisseur of fine music in the late 90s.   Most of the items I discarded were hardly a sacrifice.  I only regret the loss of one album, So Much for the Afterglow, by Everclear.

Before you ridicule me, keep in mind that Everclear was an edgy choice for me in the late 90s.   Also, note that So Much for the Afterglow was released before the band completely abandoned its artistic cents sense for the money-making venture known as Songs from an American Movie, Vol. 1: Learning How to Smile.

Over the last decade, I have significantly, though slowly, revised my attitudes and beliefs toward music.  Several principles led to this gradual transformation.  These principles provide a conceptual framework for how we interact with the music so easily accessible in our culture.

[Excursus:  The Economic Explanation for Song Quality

For the moment, I want to set aside aesthetic concerns.  A common critique of contemporary Christian music focuses on the quality of the music.  Perhaps, some would take this critique as a reason for listening to secular music.  I find this approach inconsistent.  The state of music on CCM stations and popular “secular” radio stations is quite similar; neither are peddlers of fine art.  In both cases, Christian and secular, quality music can be found.  Find your local public radio music station, and you’ll find some quality non-Christian music.

Locating comparable quality Christian music will require a little more effort.  And the primary reason is economic.  Larger markets and larger niches demand more products, and this demand creates a competitive condition well-suited for good products.  For instance, a handful of large, successful burger-based fast food restaurants dot the landscape of cities throughout the US; yet, only one Tex-Mex chain has as noticeable of a presence.   To mix the metaphors, more people are ordering Biebers with cheese than soft tobyMac supremes.]

1.  No suitable definition exists for the concept “Christian music.” 

Singer-songwriter Derek Webb made much of the quip, “Christ didn’t die for a song.”  Webb’s sarcastic saw exposes a serious problem with the term “Christian music.”  I won’t belabor the point here—I’ve spilt much blink, roughly 1500 words, on this already—but no sensible or useful definition exists for what we often call “Christian music.”  For the term to gain any technical credibility, we have to posit a definition that encompasses a larger sample of work now considered “secular” or a definition that excludes much of what we tolerate as “Christian music.”  The popular “Christian” and “secular” distinction is one of convenience and commerce.

2.  Moral discernment is of greater value than moral demarcation. 

The distinction between “Christian” and “non-Christian” music appeals to our cut-and-dry sentiment.  If we can demarcate these albums as “Christian,” then, obviously, they are suitable for listening.  If we can demarcate those albums as “non-Christian,” then we can avoid them.

Fascinatingly, the Apostle Paul avoids this sort of reductionism when he discusses some of the issues of conscience in first century Christianity.  For instance, Paul addresses the issue of food sacrificed to idols (1 Corinthians 8), which he, perhaps surprisingly, does not forbid Christians to eat.  The principle he impresses upon God’s people is to eat these foods wisely, not flaunting Christian liberty so as to tempt other Christians who have been redeemed from paganism.  Similarly, the one who abstains is not to despise the one who partakes.

Music is a modern-day issue to which we can apply Paul’s teachings.  We should not summarily dismiss “non-Christian” music as songs offered to idols.  Rather, we listen discerningly, and we never impinge upon others music that violates their conscience or stirs them up to sin.

Similarly, we cannot blindly accept all forms of music marketed as “Christian” as—pardon the clichéd expression—God’s honest truth.  How often have we heard “Christian” music carelessly describe God as in need of us?  (The answer is too often.)  We must be discerning, even as we listen to positive, upbeat, encouraging music.

In part two of this series, I will discuss how music helps us gauge the worldview of our culture.  We will also see how non-Christian music provides examples and illustrations that help us comprehend our faith.

Louisville’s Brown Theatre hosted folk singer Gillian Welch and her guitar virtuoso Dave Rawlings on Tuesday, August, 30th.  The Theatre provided a scenic venue, although its grand mezzanine alters the acoustics for those unfortunate ones toward the back of the audience.  The stage was as minimalistic and unassuming as Welch and her music:  lights set down low and a simple carpet adorning the stage.

Welch and Rawlings played two sets of songs (see their handwritten lists below), and the selections spanned their oeuvre, from “Stillhouse” off of Revival to several pieces from their new release The Harrow & the Harvest.  They also incorporated “Ruby” and “Sweet Tooth” from Rawlings’ album, A Friend of a Friend.   

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Welch comes off as slightly uncomfortable on stage.  Her intermittent banter with the audience verges on perilously unfunny, but Rawlings sarcastic interjections ease this tension.  No one cares about the banter, though, when the music starts.

Welch and Rawlings have become my two favorite musicians.  They craft poetic lyrics and set them to tunes that range from toe-tapping to breath-taking.  My favorite moment from this concert was “Elvis Presley Blues.”  I did not capture the live performance, but here’s a good version.   

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Live in concert, Rawlings is the show stopper, and performances like last Tuesday night leave him with few peers on six strings.  A couple of years ago a friend asked me, “Who is the better guitar player, Keith Urban or Brad Paisley?”  Of course quantifying and comparing guitar skills are difficult tasks.  Still, I answered Brad Paisley: Keith Urban has 8 to 10 good tricks that he rotates throughout his solos, but Paisley has a much broader proficiency. 

You get the same feeling with Rawlings’ work.  He’s skilled with dynamics and effuses songs with a frenetic energy more characteristic of hard rock than newgrass folk.  He attempts dissonances that most of us would dismiss on grounds of sound music theory.                

Welch and Rawlings’s music is the epitome of curiously religious.  Occasionally, they perform songs familiar to Southern Gospel aficionados—Welch contributed to “I’ll Fly Away” for the Grammy-winning soundtrack to O Brother, Where Art Thou?—but these renditions are a tribute to the genre, rather than a confession of faith.

The theme of depravity recurs throughout their musical corpus.  Human proclivity toward sin is an assumption in Gillian Welch’s lyrically world—“the great destroyer lives in every man” (“Silver Dagger,” The Harrow and the Harvest). 

Characters in Welch’s songs react to the reality of fallen-ness in diverse ways.  The rebellious Yankee maiden of “Miss Ohio” (off the album Soul Journey) puts on a moral pretense, even as she pursues her misplaced passions—“I wanna do right but not right now.”  The love besotted lady of “Tennessee” (from The Harrow & the Harvest) apparently lacks the evil intentions but still falls victim to vice—“I had no design to be a child of sin, but you went and pressed your whiskers to my cheek.”       

What become clear to me in the concert was that some hear a celebration of depravity in Welch’s music and are glad to join in the festivities.  I don’t think that characterization is fair. 

Welch and Rawlings let eight years pass between Gillian Welch’s last two records.  They’ve described the more recent of these efforts as ten different kinds of sad.  Here’s hoping that however long it takes for the next album to debut, it will sound like the joy of salvation and the hope of redemption.

As part of the Music for the March series, I’m featuring collections of Amazon MP3 albums.  Purchase any MP3 album between now and September 23rd, and I’ll donate ALL of my Amazon Affiliate commission (which is 10% of the album cost, up to $1.50) to March of Dimes.  You can follow my fundraising efforts (and make other contributions) here.

This collection focuses on me, more specifically, my favorite albums.  Click any of the links below to contribute to March of Dimes by purchasing the album. 

The Strokes, Is This It.  This album was a revolution for my playlist.  I didn’t listen to The Strokes, when they debuted during my high school career, and, thus, I robbed myself of much happiness.  Here’s what makes the album so great for me.  The album’s most popular songs–”Someday” and “Last Nite”–are good songs, but are nowhere near the best songs on the album.  I’m not alone, here; Rolling Stone magazine named Is This It the second best album of the decade (2000-2009). 

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Derek Webb, I See Things Upside DownISTUD is Webb at his best:  musically and lyrically.  It was Webb’s second solo album and had an experimental rock sound.  I must confess some nostalgia with this choice.  When ISTUD came in the mail (yes back then, most humans still ordered physical copies of music), it hijacked my attention, going with me straight to my scheduled college German lab.  Later, I was the promoter for a Webb concert at my university.  Those were the good ole days.  The album also features my favorite song, “Reputation.”     

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Phoenix, Wolfgang Amadeus Phoenix.  The only negative thing I can say about this album is its lame title.  To Phoenix’s credit, they revolutionized their sound for this album, and for moments, Phoenix sounds less like a band, a more like alternative rock composers.  Phoenix’s unlikely success in 2009—culminating with a Grammy award for alternative rock album of the year—initiated the francophone momentum that, a year later, landed Arcade Fire the Grammy award for album of the year.      

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Andy Davis, Thinks of Her.  This is a wonderful, unfairly unheralded, album.  Davis’ follow-up album Let the Woman is worth your while, as well. 

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Ryan Adams, Heartbreaker.  A college roommate helped me to distinguish between Ryan Adams and Bryan Adams and greatly improved my quality of life.  Heartbreaker is an artful amalgam of folk, blues, and rock.  For Adams, it’s been a burdensome breakthrough album, one to which all of his others albums have been compared; yet, it’s better to peak early than never to peak at all.

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