Archive for April, 2011

74. Kiss of Life – Lifesavers

April 25, 2011 10 comments



Trying encapsulate Mike Knott’s amazing career is just impossible, unfair and critical suicide. Lifesavors? Lifesavers? Mike Knott. Michael Knott. Lifesavers Underground? LSU? Idle Lovell? Mr. Knott has had more incarnations than Terry Scott Taylor and each of them are valid contributions to the Christian Music market.

Kiss of Life was the first time for Mike Knott and the boys to be introduced to the major Christian Music industry, with the previosuly reviewed “Dreamlife” receiving minimal distribution and promotion. . Good distribution and great radio support helped break the band in the Christian alternative scene where Knott would flourish for several years. There were several rock radio hits on this project and they found their way to the airwaves.

Let’s start this by stating the obvious. Mike Knott is a genius. He knows how to craft a fine pop tune. He knows a hook when he hears one. He is also one of the best alternative/punk/pop vocalist in the history of Christian music. But he can also be edgy, controversial and impulsive. These are all good things when creating great music.

Now I know for some it is sacrilege to chose this album as the highest ranking “Lifesavers” project as Knott himself has more than once noted he wished it never existed! I have never bothered to ask why, but I might assume the reasons would the more blatant evangelical content and the pop flavor of the album which stands out against the rest of Knott’s fiery catalog. It’s a shame since it also contains some of Knott’s most memorable offerings.

He may not be happy that this album exists, but I sure am! I know there are a ton of the “cool” fans that join Mike in their dislike of this project, but there is amazing pop tracks here that made the “underground” in Christian music much more available to the general youth kid. In that way this project is downright ground breaking!

Kiss of Life kicks off with “She’s On Fire” which sounds like something lifted off the soundtrack to the average John Hughes film. Groovy and memorable in the vein of The Psychedelic Furs it gets the album off to a great start with the story of a “girl” that has found that one true love, a love greater than one finds exclusively on earth.

“I Pray You Pray” could have been an anthem for Christian High School kids going through early romances and never knowing what is right in God’s eyes. Those struggles are universal and what looks from the outset to be an easy answer truly isn’t when examined deeper. The pitfalls of relationships for Christians has been a constant struggle but few artist have ever dared to broach the subject.

A personal favorite is “I Can’t Wait.” Musically in the vein of Knott’s Idle Lovell project, which is why it also appears on that project, this melancholy and longing refrain is haunting and beautiful. It is hard to tell whether this is written primarily to a love lost or from the heart of one who longs to be with Christ, but it appears both themes are present.

The album fluctuates between mid-tempo ballads and straight ahead rockers. What is distinctly missing from this project is the punk rock that dominated the first two projects and the darker, more aggressive guitars of later projects. This is filled with much more of a pop sensibility. Closer to the aforementioned Psychedelic Furs as well as bands like The Cure and The Waterboys, there is an immediate likability to the project, but it stands out because of just how well it has stood up against fashions, fads and time.

One songs that stands out in the tradition of the Cure, et al is “Highway to Zion.” Knott’s penchant for a great chorus and his sexy, slurred vocals make the song memorable on many levels.

One unique stand out on the project is the ballad “Dreamin’.” I was working at a local radio station in Southern California and we would occasionally branch out beyond the normal Christian Adult Contemporary with artists like Steve Taylor, The 77′s and Charlie Peacock. I pestered the Program Director, literally begging him to give the song a listen. He was familiar with the band and of their live concert reputation, so I didn’t make much progress. Finally to get me off his back he let me play the first 30 seconds of the song for him. It was added to the station rotation that afternoon!

Dreamin’ is a breezy and warm tune with a killer sax solo and unforgettable chorus. It made some inroads into the more pop and adult contemporary radio formats that would never even touched the Lifesavers previously. Knott here expresses the innate desire amongst believers to be with the one who truly loves them at all times.

Another relationship song worth noting is “Love Boy Love Girl.” Another song that should have made it on to a movie soundtrack, Love Boy Love Girl is about sa well crafted a pop song as anything Knott has ever written. But it also addresses sexual purity and cultures rejection of universal truths and norms.

There is a very faithful cover of The Byrds “Turn, Turn, Turn,” which has to be the most often covered song by Christian artists in history. The heaviest and darkest songs follows with “We Live For The Son” and “Free Her.” These songs would hint at what would soon follow with the creation of LSU.

“We Live for the Son” takes its inspiration from both the late 60’s blues bands and the later 70’s punk influenced ones. As a Psychedelic Furs fan at the time, I just hear so much of what they were doing on the less commercial offerings here.

“Free Her” is the heaviest and darkest song on the project. Knott’s vocals are more aggressive and strained with a range from a guttural growl to a borderline scream. It is also the most interesting musically on the entire project. But I never recall seeing the song performed live for some reason.

The album concludes with the worshipful “See Me Fall.” Long before the invent of the modern worship music phenomenon and bands like Sonicflood and Delirious, bands like the Lifesavers, Undercover and the Altar Boys would write worshipful melodies within their artistic framework. In fact, many of these bands would add a “worship set” to their concerts long before it became the norm.That is the case here.

This song also has one the greatest sax solos in CCM history.

As stated above I understand there are many that simply do not like this album because it was too evangelical, not edgy enough or for a host of other reasons. But is is also the most accessible, cohesive and memorable album. Even on Knott’s more aggressive offering, there is always a true pop sensibility, it is just more dramatically presented and compelling here.


75. Toward Eternity – Matthew Ward

April 21, 2011 21 comments


Matthew Ward

I have heard from different sources that Matthew Ward’s “Toward Eternity” is either the last Jesus Music album or the first CCM album. Released right around the turn of the decade that many define as the historical marker for the two genres. Produced and written by many that were the founder and stalwarts of the Jesus Music era (Randy Stonehill, Phil Keaggy, Keith Green, Michael Omartian), but decidedly more polished, rock and pop driven than anything released previously.

I simply call it a classic that is clearly the center of a musical paradigm shirt in CCM. Production was stellar, performances spotless and Ward’s vocals soar. This is not a solo project from 1/3 of 2nd Chapter of Acts, it is a brilliant rock album conceived and released by an utterly unique and engaging artist in his own right. These are not left-overs from his group, but rather songs that far exceed much of what his siblings were releasing at the time.

Musicians on the album included those mentioned above along with Abraham Laboriel, David Kemper, Ray Parker Jr. and many more studio pros. The album is nearly flawless and many aficionados will list it in their all time Top 10. It was also released at a time when many Christian Music buffs were cutting their teeth on the genre and this album proved to be a revelation to many. I would not be surprised to find many of the “older” readers complaining on its placement in the countdown, and I will not disagree; I understand their reasoning.

Oddly enough, even fans of hard rock love the album despite its general lack of anything leaning in that direction. Much has to do with the great songs and Keaggy’s outrageous guitar work. It is always odd that Keaggy will often lend some of his best work on projects for other artists. But ultimately it comes down to the fact that Ward possesses one of the greatest voices on the planet. Period!

The album kicks off with the funky rock number “It’s Alright” lead by Keaggy’s great guitar work. This is a fearless rock groove with a monster bass line driving the low-end. The song is built around a particular end times expectation complete with money system, beast and mark. That notwithstanding, the song is just so good. The great vocal bridge leads to Keaggy’s driving rhythm guitar work.

Limited breaks between songs leads the starter right into a great Keith green piano driven song, “Soft Spot.” The Beatlesque (Penny Lane) sound of the chorus complete with a great string arrangement softens what could have been a much heavier song, and it actually works in the artists favor given the content of the song.

The acoustic “Noah” immediately sounds like a Phil Keaggy song. And it is. Written by Keaggy, Ward recorded it and someone once mentioned that Keaggy didn’t want to record it after hearing Ward’s masterful vocals. I don’t know if it’s one of those popular urban legends as Keaggy eventually would record his own version.

A personal favorite is the rocker, “Till the Walls Come Down.” Like the lead track, the song is one of the heavier musically and features Keaggy’s awesome guitar work, especially the solo. Written by Ward, Keaggy and Green (wow, just think about that for a moment), the song is most noted for the Michael Omartian lead “killer bees.” One must listen to truly understand the bees reference.

Returning to the most pop oriented piano sound with Green’s “Better Than This,” Ward let’s the vocals go on a few bright moments when he hits some unreal notes. The song has a great hook, but the same can be said for the entire album. I can go years in between listens and still never miss a note when singing along.

What would be initially the start of side two, “Your Love Came Over Me” is great Doobie Brothers (China Grove) type riff that never quits throughout. I know it may be hard for readers today to understand just how rare it was for a “safe” artist to deliver such a rock oriented album. The industry at the time would allow for the occasional pop rock riff, but rarely an album that rocked from start to finish.

The song was written by Keith Green and a gentlemen named Todd Fishkind. Fishkind may be one of the most important songwriters and musicians from the era that no one really knows about. He was very close to Green and they wrote quite a bit together, including the classic “Your Love Broke Through.” Fishkind would also wrote a book about Keith. He was also considered quite the musician.

“Hold On” follows and sounds like something off pop radio at the time. If not for Ward’s distinctive vocals I would swear it could have been a single off of Chicago 13. In fact, it would have been the best song off of Chicago 13.

The borderline “world music” influenced “Angels Unaware” is the only truly dated song from the project. The lyrics about guardian angels at times are silly (something about the “honkin’ flu”) but no more silly than what Amy Grant would record nearly a decade later.

The hiccup of “Angels Unaware” is immediately forgotten with the stunning and emotionally driving ballad, “Summer Snow.” The simple song of faith and God’s timing is exclusively driven by piano and strings. Tom Keene’s great string arrangement supports Green’s beautiful playing. Matthew shows the range both vocally and emotionally here. It ranks amongst the true classic from the era.

The “much too short” album closes with an Anne Herring tune, “The Vineyard.” It is all but an instrumental, as the only vocals are “ooh’s” playing the part of strings on top of Tom Keene’s beautiful piano work. It is a contemplative ending to an utterly brilliant and timeless classic album.

Whether it ended one or era or started another is not of consequence and the debate shall continue. What is of consequence is how truly revelatory and ground breaking the album was and how, over 30 years later, it is still a brilliant masterpiece by a wonderful artist.

76. Shawl – The Prayer Chain

April 21, 2011 10 comments

SHAWL (1993)

The Prayer Chain

Christian alternative was always sorely lacking in angst. Then along came The Prayer Chain, CCM’s most “angsty” band. After two moody and contemplative releases (one an independent produced by the Choir’s Steve Hindalong and the other an EP for “big time” reunion records”), Shawl was a smack in the face on the CCM market, set squarely in the heart of the grunge market with an abandon and aggressive emotional release.

Most Christian alternative at the time was either acoustic based or blues influenced rock. many were scratching at the emo and grunge influence, but none embraced them full force with such clarity and authenticity.

The band could be considered a “supergroup in reverse.” Each member has gone onto other ventures and have excelled in those arenas. Guitarists Andrew Pickett is one of CCM’s best rock/alternative guitarists (best?) and played with Mike Knott, Cush, My Brother’s Mother and a host of others. Eric Campuzano (bass) started the Lassie Foundation with drummer Wayne Everett and both played with Starflyer 59 and Cush.

The band has always been considered one of the best collection of musicians in the genre and lead singer Tim Tabor has gone on to build a large concert booking business and runs a record label.

“Shawl” is a bleak, heavy and aggressive addition to the CCM market that many were not ready for. The positive and hope-laden expressions found on “Whirlpool” are gone and one gets the sense that all is not well with the world. Even the opening song references that “Shine is dead,” a shot over the bow of the previous release.

The opening “Indian chant” set the groove that will sustain throughout the entire album and warns the listener: “This is not something you’ve heard before.” The heavy, Alice in Chains, type crunch and groove will never let up. But in the midst of this aggressive musical attack, there is always a sense of melody and groove that other bands seem to lose.

“Dig Dug” starts slowly, almost like something from Roy Orbison, until the guitar punches through the wall. Taber throughout the entire project always appears to be on the vocal edge and, on a few occasions, goes beyond the vocal limit but is carried by the passion of the performance.

The arrangements are much more intricate than one might expect from the genre and Prickett’s uniquely creative guitar precision shows on “Fifty-Eight.” The song remains one of the bands finest and delivers both melody and passion not unlike the band Live.

“Like I Was” is a more groove driven funk number in the vein of the Red Hot Chili Peppers or even another band from the same era and area, Dig Hay Zoose. Taber balances the funky groove with more drawn out and expansive vocal lines. I could listen all day to Prickett’s guitar work here while the bass lines just pound and drive.

The slower and softer “The Hollow” is much more atmospheric than the rest of the album and sounds like something from the original independent release or what Prickett would also perform with the Violet Burning.

The song works well as it musically flows into a truly epic song in “Never Enough.” At nearly seven minutes, the song is also one of the most vocally “evangelical” on the album. This is truly an epic rock song with changes, mood shifts and Prickett’s ridiculous guitar work. Taber goes over the edge and combining with the entire band performance makes a real Christian alternative classic, nearly on par with Stavesacre.

“Wrounde” features less grunge and a more U2 like sweeping musical landscape. There is quite a bit happening in this generally soft song. The funky change at the halfway point drives the song home.

This moves straight into one of the album’s best songs, despite it sounding nothing like the rest of the album. “Grin” is almost punk rock with the faster rhythm and unrelenting attack. Like a harder version of the alarm, the song drives a powerful punch through the speakers. It also comes across as one of the lighter and more hopeful songs.

“Big Wheel” returns to the funkier, grunge rock that populates the majority of the album. Taber’s vocals are much more clear and defined than most anywhere else on the album.

“Pure” shows even more of a U2 influence and sounds like something that may have appeared on “Rattle and Hum” with its significantly more blues driven groove. Taber is also more reserved vocally and helps keep the song going forward. In a different industry and maybe a different time, the song could have been a radio hit.

“Worm” is a spoken word interlude (if it’s even that) that leads directly into the albums official closing number, “Psycho Flange.” The song is almost an anthem with its bigger arrangement and more melodic approach. The song ends up being the most “musical” on the album with a killer bass line driving the song throughout.

The CD contains an untitled bonus cut that fits the mood of the majority of the record. My only problem with it and the use of untitled tracks is that quite often they fit better in the midst of the album than at the end, especially how strong of a closer, “Psych Flange” is.

I always heard stories about turmoil in the band and bickering throughout their tenure and how the final albums were difficult to piece together based on the bands inability to get along. I wasn’t privy to those conversations, so, at least for this review, I will contend that no matter what happened at the end of the band’s career, for one moment in time, they created a brilliant, heavy and lasting rock record at a time when most of that music is long forgotten.

77. Darn Floor, Big Bite – Daniel Amos (Da)

April 21, 2011 36 comments


Daniel Amos (Da)

The famous gorilla Koko was trained to speak in sign language on a limited basis, After experiencing an earthquake the gorilla signed the words, “Darn Floor – Big Bite” to describe the incident. The gorilla’s limited expressions and inability to fully communicate the response is compared to man’s inability to express the wonders of God and the way life is lived with its many facets and expressions on one of Daniel Amos’ most constantly impressive albums of the same name.

After finally completing the four album tour de force known as the “Alarma Chronicles,” (on four separate labels mind you), the band released its second album for Frontline Records. Now without keyboardist Rob Watson and featuring an increase involvement of the ever impressive Greg Flesch, the album was less atmospheric and surreal and more earthy and rock driven. It is a brilliant, rather accessible and stunning album that would remain one of the least successful projects in the band’s history.

(Well, they did use the word “darn” in the title, so what did they expect?)

I almost dread reviewing anything Terry Taylor does, especially what is found under the moniker Daniel Amos for fear of fans decrying a lack of understanding on my part as to what the band and Terry were attempting to create. Quite frankly a quick perusing of Daniel Amos websites and chat boards reveal that the only acceptable Christian Music Top 10 would look something like this:

1. Alarma – Daniel Amos

2. Horrendous Disc – Daniel Amos

3. Mr. Beuchner’s dream – Daniel Amos

4. Outdoor Elvis – The Swirling Eddies

5. Bibleland – Daniel Amos

6. A Briefing for the Ascent – Terry Taylor

7. Shotgun Angel – Daniel Amos

8. Doppelganger – Daniel Amos

9. Let’s Spin – The Swirling Eddies

10. Fearful Symmetry – Daniel Amos

and so on…

There is no fan base in Christian music that comes anywhere close to the passion and obsession that accompanies the fans of this amazing band. Myopic and intolerant of dissent, they know more about every little release Taylor and Co. have even been involved with and to speak with any authority on the subject without prior approval and the express written consent of Major League baseball is strictly prohibited.

So, walk softly and carry a very approving stick!

The other problem is that, quite often, I have no idea what a song may be about. Taylor may be one of the best read songwriters in CCM (or anywhere for that matter) and his references to obscure writers and events can leave a puzzled look on many a face. That’s not a Taylor problem, but rather a listener problem; but it also can cause some severe confusion on the listener’s part.

But despite the limited success of the album and it, sometimes, obscure content, it remains one of the best of the band’s career and has a cool freshness even as I listen over and over to it in writing this review.

As mentioned previously, the guitar makes a pleasant and obvious return with the departure of Rob Watson and Greg Flesch’s significantly increased contribution. This is immediately evident with “Return of the Beat Menace.” Jerry Chamberlain possessed a quirky and unique style why Flesch employs a wider and more diverse musical palette. Here we see some of the old Chamberlain influenced touches with a the off-center solo, but with Flesch’s more crunchy/post punk rhythm style. This combination works well as Flesch displays a depth of new guitar sounds while not completely eliminating the signature sound that band had been known for.

I should point here that the drums sounds are “louder” and more “up front” than on  many DA albums. I would also think it is time to note that all but one song was written by Taylor, Chandler and Flesch musically. This creates a much more “band” feel.

“Strange Animals” continue with the more rock driven sound, focusing on melody and rhythm over atmosphere. The complexity of trying to describe the nature of God is a common theme and introduced here. The difficulty lies in the transcendent nature of those things of which we are not a member of the species. How can man adequately describe, in essence, that which he is not privy to the thoughts, presence and soul of?

The theme takes on a much clearer reality on the title track. Like the gorilla’s story by which the song receives its name, man is at an utter loss to adequately describe God. Attempts are futile and the best we can hope for is a limited and vague understanding. Of course, Taylor puts it in a much more dramatic and stunning context. The Talking Heads like groove drives the song with a funky cool swing that is, at times, reminiscent of the music on Vox Humana.

The softer and more ethereal “Earth Household” sounds the closest to “Fear Symmetry” as any song on the album. More keyboard focused, while a bit lighter and more positive than the previous release. Taylor has never been an artists who is afraid to address the sheer mystery of God and admit the reality is filled with unknowing.

Wall of Voodoo and Guadalcanal Diary are two of the great unheralded bands of the early and mid-80’s (along with the previously discussed Violent Femmes) and with “Safety Net” there are touches of all three. A nearly cowboy driven beat mixed with descant guitar rhythms and Taylor’s most edgy vocals on the album. Grace is a scary thing when one plays with their sin in careless ways.

“Pictures of the Gone World” actually sounds like a song left off of Alarma or Doppelganger. The verse structure harkens back to those two albums with its quirky, pop punk delivery with a hook oriented chorus and wild, off-key (almost) guitar solo.

Digging even deeper to a musical influence, “Divine Instant” reminds the listener of the Beach Boys and Beatles influences first really delivered on Horrendous Disc. The Polynesian rhythm of the verse structure shifts to a much more 60’s influenced rock chorus.

Ok, so just how many artists in CCM could write a song with the title, “Half Light, Epoch and Phase?” Borrowing from 1 Corinthians 13, the theme of attempting to understand the mysterious and unfathomable nature of God is continued. here we see through a  glass darkly and only have “cracks in the floor.” The admitted struggle between doubt and faith are juxtaposed against a resolve to allow faith to continue without demanding God explain everything.

“The Uttainable Earth” musically points to the direction the band would take over the next several albums. Thinking man’s rock with strong melody and piercing focus. This song always reminds me of T-Rex and later Rick Altizer.

The album closes with a three and half-minute song that could have lasted twice that length. The beautiful and melodic worshipful tune is what great music is meant to be. A choir featuring everyone who ever dropped by the Green Room studio and an unforgettable melody. There is a touch of Taylor’s first two solo projects to be found here. A stunning song of grace and hope, it is the perfect ending to the album.

It is really a shame that this album never received the attention and recognition it deserved. Some of Taylor’s finest band oriented music is lost to all too many. But, this too is a common theme!

78. Between the Glory and the Flame – Randy Stonehill

April 20, 2011 9 comments


Randy Stonehill

In 1981 Randy Stonehill transitioned from being one of the most important figures of the Jesus Music era to one of the most important figures in this new CCM era without missing a beat. After several years of building a friendship with former Larry Norman run Solid Rock labelmates, Daniel Amos, the two tremendous forces merged into one to create one of Stonehill’s finest albums.

Produced by Terry Taylor and accompanied by the rest of Daniel Amos, BTGATF is Stonehill’s most consistently rock effort. Stonehill and the band walk a very fine line between accessibility and authenticity that makes the album a lasting treasure. The lack of parodies (“Christine” notwithstanding) makes the album utterly a rock effort that stands the test of time better than all but one other Stonehill release.

One of the truly great results of the production effort was that it DOES NOT sound like randy Stonehill singing Daniel Amos songs. These are clearly Stonehill songs that are shaped in a more authentic and current rock setting. But at times it does seem like Taylor restrains the more “exuberant” Stonehill and the effect works in creating a more cohesive and listenable album. All this while the album remains one of Taylor’s first outside production ventures; on Myrrh Records to boot!

The title track kicks of the record is a strict Americana rock vibe before there was such a thing. Borrowing from the best songwriters like Springsteen, Dylan and Petty, this is real middle America rock and roll with a decidedly “California” feel. The feel is stripped down and simplified rock that is more transcendent than time warped; a real rarity for the era. Ultimately I get the impression someone was listening to Jackson Browne in the studio.

“Die Young” features the staccato guitar riff that Daniel Amos would employ on Alarma and Doppelganger and it works perfectly here. The “eta, drink and be merry” theme so common in music is examined in relation to eternity and found wanting. The song itself would have fir Mark Heard’s “Victim’s” album thematically perfectly.

“Fifth Avenue Breakdown” is a real rocker. And for 1981 is was a REAL rocker. The street life content approaches the theme of alienation in a crowded world in a much more real sense than most CCM during this time.

Drastically different musically and lyrically from the first three songs, “Grandfather’s Song” deals beautifully with the death of Stonehill’s Grandfather. Like many similar themed songs the hope found in knowing what is to come for our believing loved ones offers such hope.

“Find Your Way to me” may be the finest pop song in Stonehill. Tasteful, soft groove builds into a great chorus and monster bridge before slowing back down to a great Beach Boys like vocal close.

The closest thing to a “novelty” song is “Christine,” a song about obsession and the longing for acceptance. the object of the obsession is a popular evening television news anchor named Christian Long. There was a very popular Southern California news anchor named Christine Lund at the time. It’s kind of an uncomfortable song because of the acoustic, balladeer style sound more stalking and creepy then funny. But that is part of the dark humor the song uses to weave its tale.

The most heavily Daniel Amos influenced song is “Rainbow.” The Beatlespue rocker uses the backward recording process on the drums that Taylor would use often on albums like Vox Humana and Fearful Symmetry. There is even blatant vocal backward masking. The promise behind the rainbow is discovered in this grace-filled and beautiful melody.

“Givin’ It Up For Love” returns to the more aggressive rock theme with the best rock guitar riff on the album. Jerry Chamberlain turns it up a notch here with a much more aggressive lead and crunchy rhythm. Stonehill appears more comfortable here than on many of his other rock offerings.It should be noted that the song was penned by Stonehill and good friend Tom Howard. This is the first of two songs they wrote together for this project.

It should also be noted before continuing that I firmly believe that randy Stonehill is one of the three best ballad performers in Christian music and I can’t tell you who the other two might be. His ability to capture and move with just a simply acoustic guitar and his voice is truly unparalleled. “Letert To My Family” is an example of this. Stonehill’s vocal range and command of the melody is unmatched and I can listen all day to his mellower music; something i cannot say about too many artists.

The album’s closer, “Farther On” is the perfect close to the album. The tension created throughout the album as life is balanced between the glory and the flame is answered with the most evangelical song on the album. Very uplifting and positive without ever falling into a preachy mode. There is a simplicity in the faith described that appeals to Jesus Music sensibilities while understanding a changing world’s response to the Gospel call.

While not the best Stonehill album from top to bottom (that will be discussed much later) it remains a classic with many unforgettable songs. It is also one of the better snapshots for time of an industry maturing and growing out from its Jesus Music infancy. It also introduced the industry to Terry Taylor as producer, and what a revelation that was.

EDIT: Kudos also to Thom Roy who may be the most important engineer and producer in orange County that way too few people are aware of.

79. Satellite Sky – Mark Heard

April 20, 2011 13 comments


Mark Heard

Record Executive: So son, you want to record a huh? What kind of record.

Artist: It’s going to be a 15 song rock album with country/folk and Americana influences written and recorded almost exclusively on mandolin!

Fortunately the above conversation took place in the head of Mark Heard as, at the time, he was his own record company executive and artist. And by allowing himself the freedom to write what he wanted, he provided listeners with a  brilliant work that sounds amazing 20 years later.

In the late Spring of 1992, Mark Heard came to a Diamante Music sales conference to perform some new songs that would be released a few weeks later on Satellite Sky. He pulled out his electric 1939 National Steel mandolin and began to play.


The album starts with one of my all time favorite Mark Heard songs, “Tip of My Tongue.” The mandolin carries a “big Country” like epic sound and melody as Heard’s most passionate voice screams out his desire to properly communicate and how words can be so inadequate when the message is so impressive. I find the chorus to be possibly Heard’s finest vocal performance and a great way to kick the album in gear.

The title track follows with little break between songs and carries the same Springsteenesque rock and roll. It should be noted here that unlike many Heard albums this one was a very large effort of guest musicians and friends. This gives the album a real “band” feel and an authentic rock vibe. Michael Been, David Raven, Fergus marsh (Bruce Cockburn’s band), Buddy Miller, David Miner, Sam Phillips and the “much unheralded” Pam Dwinell-Miner all contribute.

The song looks to the future that was supposed to come during his lifetime and what should Heard’s own children expect to find during theirs.

Whether “Big Wheels Roll” is about the music industry or just “industry” itself is not the issue. Rather the steel and cold that permeates society and chokes the dreamers is lamented as the fallout reveals itself in the current human condition.

The “human condition” is a common theme in Heard’s writings and no artist in CCM has ever examined it quite like Heard. No song expresses this better than “Orphan’s of God.” Julie and Buddy Miller would later brilliantly cover this song. Those that question, brood and struggle with their situation and lovingly referred to as God’s orphans; those who cannot or dare not fit nicely into currently safe categories.

Never seen as a big “hook” writer, “Another Day in Limbo” possesses just that; a huge hook that is utterly unforgettable. Built around the familiar Big Country type e-bow guitar sound created by the electric mandolin, the groove is so mercilessly driven forward as the song builds vocally into a great chorus.

Probably one of the more “forgotten” Mark Heard songs, “Language of Love” is actually one of the commercial ventures in his playlist and weaves its way from a “River” era Springsteen like melody (complete with organ accompaniment) to a Tonio K. or T-Bone Burnett like chorus. The organ is an awesome addition and fills in the song to make it much larger than it really is.

“Freight Train to Nowhere” is just a good old-fashioned kick ass rock and roll song. It’s fitting that VoL would alter cover it with a much more aggressive rock vibe arrangement. Heard’s penchant for a brilliant twist of a phrase is evident here as he sings “the wages of spend is debt” and “She can’t give a damn on cue” with a sly wrinkle in his tongue.

What would appear to be album filler in the hands of a lesser artist, “Long Way Down” becomes an impassioned and brilliant performance. The song builds and builds and if his name was Tom Petty it would have found its way into the Top 40!

Heard’s own frailty and struggle is examined in “A Broken Man.” The lack of seeing the miraculous in the common is brilliantly described in the line “one day’s miracle is another day’s rut.” Heard’s constant theme of just always being on the “outside” is once again explored here as well.

“Love Is So Blind” is enchantingly beautiful both lyrically and melodically. The Spirit weaves its way through the downtown streets at night to sing to infidels and thieves because she is blind to the circumstance and loves with question.

“Hammers and Nails” could have appeared and number of albums by The Call with its almost spoken verses and huge and passionate chorus. It has a real Michael Been quality about it. Taking the weapons of the crucifixion as metaphors, heard examines God’s piecing love; hammers and nails.

Considered by many the strongest song on the album and by many as one of Heard’s finest work, “We Know Too Much.” The aforementioned Michael been would later do a staggering impressive cover of the song, but it’s the heart of the song that resonates no matter the arrangement and performance.

“Lost on Purpose” bring a return to the early 80’s song of Mark heard with its Lindsey Buckingham feel and melody. This could have been a lost track from “Victims of the Age.”

“Nothing But the Wind” examines the unending grace of a God who covers the tracks where we’ve been and remembers them no more.

But it is with the album’s closer, “Treasure of a Broken land” where we truly find Heard at his brilliant apex. Leaving his final encore to be his finest. The over 6-minute epic in no way suffers from its length. There is not a single unneeded note or word. This is what songwriting brilliance is meant to be. The irony of this resurrection themed song is striking and lasting.

During the previously mentioned performance at the Diamante sales conference he mentioned that was going “finally get out there” and to do several shows over the Summer culminating at one of his favorite places to play, JPUSA’s Cornerstone festival outside of Chicago. It would be there that he would suffer a heart attack on stage, return for an encore, be rushed to a hospital and a few short weeks later pass away.

80. The Innocence Mission – The Innocence Mission

April 14, 2011 13 comments


The Innocence Mission

Everything about this album is simply beautiful.

From the stylish cover to the angelic quality of lead vocalist Karen Paris’ voice and from the ethereal melodic qualities to the lyrics fresh and surprising, the whole album reeks of beauty.  Informed by their Catholic upbringing, the band demonstrates a love for the mystical and the iconic throughout.

Unlike their more popular Protestant contemporaries, Paris seems unafraid of the mystery that shrouds humanities relationship with God and one another. Both are dealt with a length on this amazing debut release.

Formed during the early to mid-1980’s when band members met each other at their High school, The Innocence Mission is really the table dressing for the songwriting prowess of lead vocalists Karen Pris and musician husband, Don. The other musicians have come and gone over the years leaving the Paris’ as the focal members of the group.

On the debut under consideration here Paris was responsible for writing or co-writing every song on the album.

The album starts with the one minute plus “Paper Dolls.” Here the ethereal and atmospheric quality of  both the music and the vocals are introduced. Oddly enough, the song is about seeing our childhood heroes for who they truly are and the loss of innocence associated with that common reality.

“Black Sheep Wall” remains a personal favorite and the haunting melody never wavers. At times Paris’ voice falls into a sound similar to Maria McKee’s without the gusto. The black sheep here is reminded that there is still a shepherd out there in the field.

“Surreal” should have been a hit for the day. The 10,000 Maniacs and Sixpence type style was right in line with this song. Perhaps a few years later and it could have been. At times the band is noticeably ahead of itself musically.

It appears Paris’ brother was getting married and the family did not know the girl. “Curious” deals with those struggles of wondering about this new family member. There is a touch of warm humor here that is very inviting.

“Clear to You” will most likely remind many of artists like “Iona.” The atmospheric, though not quite Celtic, sound is so entrapping. Sounding almost like a hymn we are informed of one who hears, sees and knows all. And this same one is there to catch you when you fall and mourn.

The most commercial sounding song of the bunch is “Mercy” and I have always been surprised by the limited Christian rock radio response to the song. This song of God’s mercy is, well, just beautiful. For those in Christ there are no fires of hell, only mercy.

My wife has always loved “Broken Circle” and its powerful message of the need for family unity while decrying the fast paced life that separates one from another. One of the more “simple” songs on the album, the limited background instrumentation really brings the message to the forefront.

The unabashedly U2 inspired “I remember Me” is replete with Edge like guitar riff and the most powerful drumming on the album. “You Chase the Light” is just the opposite with a return to almost exclusively piano as the musical landscape. But the song also contains the best hook in a chorus on the project.

“Notebook” is my favorite lyrically. Here the artistic endeavors of a writer and painter are seen as having to do “real” jobs to make the rent. the painter must paint house, but he seen “coming to life” when he is front of his canvas. This desire of the artist in unquenchable.

What was hinted at previously comes to the forefront here with a much more obvious Celtic influence on “Come Around and See Me.” That is until the chorus where Paris’ best vocals show up with a sassy soulfulness.

Paris is really a poet trapped in the body of a singer. Her “Wonder of birds” is simply enchanting and mesmerizing. Oh, to reach the heights of a bird and feel the freedom associated with flight. Paris expresses this desire for her art to find that similar freedom of expression, and she does so in such a beautiful fashion. But here she couches it another song that should have been a radio hit.

The album closes with “Medjugorje.” I remember hearing a customer at a Christian Bookstore complain to the manager about them carrying the album because of the Catholic inspired lyric. The very short song is a fitting end to the beautiful album. I’ve always hoped that customer picked up a certain Swirling Eddies album.

Few albums among my collection are as consistently stunning and beautiful as this project. I doubt many in the future will reach its heights.