I will be returning to the countdown soon. I am trying to add something special to several of the Top 50 reviews and it is taking a bit longer than anticipated. Hopefully, this will be worth it.
HEARTS OF FIRE (1981)
Sweet Comfort Band
There are truly not all that many albums in the history of CCM that can be labeled “game changers.” This is one of those rare exceptions. After two very powerful and legitimate soul and funk albums, the quartet released the decent, albeit forgettable, “Hold On Tight.” The album garnered limited sales and evenless radio excitement. It sounded too much like previous releases and, as a result, like something about five years too late.
Then came “Hearts of Fire.”
From the stunning (at the time) album artwork, the more rock (less R&B) sounds and the undeniably more “current” sound, the album changed the direction of the band, and for that matter, the CCM industry. The level of songwriting quality, lyrical maturity and production level were something more akin to Toto and Chicago than what was populating most of the shelf space in Christian music.
Sweet Comfort also needs to be noted for their musicianship, which was so far superior to their contemporaries, that, in hindsight, they deserved a much better listen than they received. If any band deserved a listen on the mainstream side of things it was SCB, especially with this album.
Other changes include a lyrical approach that is filled with significantly less “Christianeze” than most of the rock offerings of the day. Where Petra was creating Praise Rock with standard and “safe” content, Sweet Comfort expressed loneliness, doubts, marital strife, fidelity and faith.
It is also with this album that Sweet Comfort became Bryan Duncan’s band. Though Randy Thomas would still make occasional lead appearances here and on future releases, it was evident that Duncan’s personality and vocal prowess was the dominating force. This is most obvious on the ballads, where Duncan’s blue-eyed soul is so stirring that he really possessed no equal in CCM outside of possibly Russ Taff, who had no gone out on his own at the time.
After the flat response to “Hold On Tight,” the band needed to create something fresh and exciting. they accomplished it with this amazing and classic release.
It was evident from the progressive piano opening to “Isabel,” to the lower and more distorted guitar sound that permeates the whole album. Duncan’s voice is a little rougher here than on most SCB songs and it fits the Toto/Foreigner sound of the rock anthem. Written about he conversion of a young girl whose life was spent tending bar and trying to make it through the day, even the lyrical content was darker and heavier than earlier works.
It would be “Isabel” that would change my perception of the band, and especially of Duncan, who i had previously labeled as a soul guy only. His vamping at the end of the song showed much more aggressive emotion than I had ever noticed previously. And Thomas’ guitar work is stellar.
The same aggression and progression would follow with “You Can Make It.” Not quite as fast, but just as heavy, this is where the Toto comparisons really take shape. Pay attention to the vocals in the bridge and the really strong and underrated drum work of Rick Thomson.
The album slows down just a touch on the more acoustic and soulful “They Just Go On.” Here the late Kevin Thomson’s bass line is a gem. On a side note, the best bass solos I ever saw live were at the hands of Mr. Thomson. Here Duncan and Thomas share verse and chorus vocals. But it’s the great lyrical content that sets this on apart. There is a sense that the couple in the story are real people, with real struggles,
“The Road” is an example of the previously mentioned vocal prowess of Duncan on ballads. The song about life on the road and away from the family is pure emotion. Mainstream rock stars have such a different motivation for their sacrifice and that difference is examined here as Duncan bemoans the fact that he is running out of the emotional drive to finish what the Lord had started.
The only really “old style” R&B song on the album is the Stevie Wonder-like “Feel Like Singing.” The song has one of the few uses of a horn section on the project and Thomas’ guitar tone is very jazz oriented like something from “Breakin’ the Ice.” The riff does share a similarity to “Sir Duke.”
“Now of Never” is a return to the Toto oriented rock style. Nice guitar work from Thomas here as well; very Steve Lukather.
The radio friendly “Can You Help me” incorporates a very different Eagles like sound for the band, especially the vocals in the chorus. In fact, this song has always reminded me of something Prodigal would have done.
“Contender” just plain rocks. Once again Duncan’s more rock vocals are surprising. Using a boxing match as a parallel for spiritual warfare a decade before Carman made a mockery of the same imagery, the song sounds like it could have been entrance music for a boxer at the time.
The album actually closes with two very strong ballads. The first is the Thomas penned wedding song, “Just Like Me.” At the time a decent wedding song was a guaranteed radio success. This proved to be true here as well.
One of the bands finest ballads closes the album with “You Need a Reason.” A huge radio success and a lasting radio hit. The song also served as the concert closing “altar call” number. It would be this format of a ballad that Duncan would continue to find success with as a solo artist. A special nod to the killer sax solo.
CCM wasn’t really ready for something like this when it came out. The CCM world was populated with early Amy Grant, The Imperials and bands like DeGarmo and Key and Resurrection Band relegated to the far extremes. SCB brought thoughtful, well conceived and exceptionally produced pop rock to an industry completely void of that material.
Vigilantes of Love
Wow, if ever a title of an album matched the contents it holds it is VoL’s “Jugular.” That is where the project aims and it is where it hits and does not let go until you are spent! I remember the first time I heard this project I was sitting in the office of Frontline Records as the management was trying to decide whether to ink a distribution deal for this project into the Christian Bookstore market. It was probably prudent for the long-term success of the fledgling distribution company that they decided to pass. Despite being the most consistently controversial record label for the time, Jugular was too much for even them.
Fortunately for me I received a copy of the record that day and it has remained a favorite ever since!
To call Bill Mallonee of Vigilantes of Love prolific is like calling Portland wet. He has managed to release over 30 records containing hundreds of songs in just a 20 year span without losing anything in terms of quality and integrity. He is simply a songwriting machine. Four VoL albums graced this list and many more were under serious consideration and most like should have been included.
This should serve as a warning that many people may be offended by some of the content contained on the project, both subject wise and particular language used. Mallonee is a fearless songwriter and his content is as wide as the universe and as honest as can be found, but his use of profanity has caused many to shrink from his work. That is a shame.
I have long gotten past the issue of the usage of certain words and whether a Christian is free to use them within context. Here I believe Mallonee is well within his rights and the contextual usage is dead on and actually not that far removed from similar language used in the Bible, if not sanitized over the years. The Apostle Paul was not one to mince words and felt quite free to use words and phrases that many today would be both surprised by and, I’m sure, offended.
Throughout this review we will highlight several songs that stand out and the reason they make this record such an important one in christian music history. I do also want to highly recommend that the reader also try and track down a copy of Driving Nails as it contains some of the best content in Mallonee’s career as well.
One of the real beauties of Jugular is its pure simplicity. Guitar, limited drum, harmonica and accordion pretty much consume the entire project…sounds pretty hip and edgy already, doesn’t it? Recorded feverishly over a three day period it really is a wonderful work of art.
The album kicks off with “Weak One Now” with a great acoustic hook and poignant lyrics. The accordion is the primary melody carrying instrument here. Mallonee’s Dylanesque vocals drip with sincerity and authenticity. Whether the world of the Church, words lose their meaning when not matched with the actions to support their truth claims.
The album fllows with “Songs on the Radio,” a blistering critique on the mediocrity of what passes for music on the radio and art within the confines of modern culture. He does so, like Bruce Cockburn, by forcing more words into the lyric than actually fit the song.
They were arguing the merits of Freud and Darwin on MTV
Oh, the things they foist upon men’s minds in the blessed name of free inquiry
Buy stock in psychiatric hospitals
Soon there’ll be no vacancy
If they see no one’s at home out there, then someone else has got to fill that need
The songs on the radio still suck, I’m afraid
It is my turn to drive, and I can barely stay awake
The real victim of Mallonee’s venom is the American culture and buying, selling and pimping…quality content is the victim of commercialism’s dominance.
Now when a need is nonexistent you’ve got to create desire
Eastern Europe is the most likely buyer
They’ve been dying for it, crying for it ever since the wall
For syringes, porn, designer drugs, orgasms and shopping malls
Won’t you pardon my imposition and my lack of tact and flair?
I was looking for salvation
I was hoping you might tell me where
I can smell it on your breath, smell it on your hair
I can almost reach and grasp it, but my vision is so impaired
‘Cos there’s dung on the airwaves as far as I can see
The following song is “Something to Hold On To.” In the poet yearns for something that’s worthy og grabbing hold, whether it be love, truth or peace, but is continually struggling with the nagging questions and pictures the lengths he is willing to go in order to discover this thing worthy of being held on to.
Nicodemus had his questions
Thomas had his doubts
We have not been left in the dark to work the whole thing out
This clinical environment
To believe is just to fake
I would thrust my hands inside the wound if it will bring you all to faith
But Mallonee is not without hope and the listener begins to catch a glimpse of where his trust is found and it is clear it does not reside within himself.
I will boast in my brokenness
Revel in my defeat
I will let you kick my ass if it’s what you need from me
See, pilgrims without weapons sometimes get nailed to a tree
They use no anesthetics, but the surgery’s guaranteed
“As Big as Christ” bemoans the reality that very few of us ever ask the really important questions. We are relatively content with mediocrity and are afraid to deal with the greater realities.
See, I have no motivation
I have not any drive
I’ve got no hunger
Fascination with the higher things in life
Friends say they’re so happy
Friends say they’re well-fed
They’re well-drugged and laid and entertained
So beautiful and deadly boring…
…Pardon me if I interpose a question
Big as Christ
Smaller than your life
“Love Cocoon” is one of the two most controversial songs on the entire despite that fact it does not contain any words that any would find offensive. But rather, with this song, it is all about the content. Using imagery not far from the Bible’s own Song of Solomon, Mallonee explores the world of physical, sexual intimacy. Many listeners are unable to get past the first two verses to really realize just what Mallonee is expressing here and what a powerful and glorious gift intimacy expressed within the marriage covenant is. Mallonee starts with a picture of the passion of intimacy when he sings:
Honey, I wanna attack your flesh with abandon
I wanna look for your fruits
I wanna put my hands on them
Pump up the thermostat beneath your skin
I wanna uncover your swimming hole and dive right in
I’m a moth when I fly to the light of my doom
You wrap me up in your love
But soon the listener understands the direction Mallonee is going as he struggles with the presence of this passion and its origins.
There’s an explosion of grace dripping in my bed
Is it somewhere else?
Is it in my head?
Is it weak and tender?
Is it rough and ready?
Is it fragile and delicate?
Is it rock-hard and steady?
Mallonee also wants to clearly differentiate his expression from how the world pictures the same act.
Now the world keeps on banging, and they come and go
It’s just a part of their scenery
A part of their show
But I got this wedding band wrapped around my finger
Honey, I’ll be your poet
Darlin’ I’ll be your singer
Mallonee finishes with a true testament to a holy and Biblical form of intimacy to leave no sense of confusion.
Some call it freedom
Some call it shackle
Honey, let’s get together and build a tabernacle of holy flesh and holy mirth
We’ll confute the enemy and enjoy the worth
You wrap me up in your love cocoon…
“In the Morning” follows with the struggles within the marriage relationship. Unlike the previous, this time it is the struggles of the relationship that takes center stage. The music is somber and matches the content.
The folk driven “Thorn in Your Flesh” is wonderful expression of grace. Mallonee pleads for the listener to reach deep inside the wounds and find God’s grace.
“Take No Prisoners” subtly shows my Mallonee is one of the finest acoustic guitar players out there that no one knows about. The song points to a style that will later become a musical staple for the band. The song of lost ultimately reflects on the loss of the first love in the Christian faith and the constant need for repentance.
The more traditional blues influenced “Watching the Moonlight” reminds me of early Larry Norman and speaks, like much of the album, to the concept of grace, from both a spiritual and emotional perspective. While the more upbeat, but musically similar “era-wise” blues number “Flames of Hell” follows with a Gospel message and style similar to the Glen Kaiser blues albums.
“America” starts with a Gospel flared instrumental version of “Amazing Grace” before merging into a straight folk tune bemoaning the loss of America his father spoke of and loved so much. Rather than the expected liberal attack on the country, the song actually is a call of repentance and return to foundational principles of hard work and faith. The plea is for the Church to be the Church in America and understand her role, but notes her struggle with fame and riches.
Where Love Cocoon caused an uproar over the content it was “Drunk On the Tears” that many found objectionable because of the use of a vulgarity. It is a shame that so many missed this powerful song – a song I believe is the very best Mallonee has ever written – because of not understanding the use of words within particular content and even the Bible’s own use of profane language when needed.
“Drunk on the Tears” starts with Mallonee bemoaning the many different sins of society. From the business and political elite, to the casual drugging of society and the depths at which a woman will go to make ends meet. This is dark and sad set against the back drop of acoustic guitar and harmonica. But it is when Mallonee turns his attention toward religious hypocrisy that songs begins its lyrical tension.
Jim and Tammy and Reverend Swaggart
They don’t look like Jesus, and they’re a whole lot fatter
Don’t miss the truth for a stupid sideshow
Don’t confuse the cup with the contents it holds
Mallonee then turns the finger back at himself and the struggles he faces and his current state of depravity and his need for the kind of “drink” that God provides.
God, I need a drink, and I need one fast
Make it a strong one
One that’ll last
Have You got anything that’s been selling brisk
For a soul diagnosed at a terminal risk?
At this point the song changes bot musically and lyrically. Instrumentation all but vanishes and the listeners is left Mallonee nearly whispering in his ear about the only truth that bring this peace man so feverishly desires…
Jesus, lover of my soul
Let me to Thy bosom fly
I’m so weak, and I’m so cold
And the lambs in the West so speedily die
Alibis roll off my tongue
I’m looking for ruins to hide among
I got a soul piled high to excess
With the wonderfully useless and the frivolous
The praise due Your name evades my lips
There’s no helping hand on my fingertips
I used to be someone
Now I’m not worth a shit
I got a truckload of things I’m trying to forget
Then in some real way the Gospel invades the hopelessness and Mallonee traces man’s frailty back to the garden and recognizes the promise of hope that was given even in that dark moment that doomed mankind.
Since back in the garden on the first page
Something about the cradle to the grave
The promise is broken
More promises made
All in the image I’ve so defaced
Played out on the pages of history
Dripping in blood that flows from a tree
Where the Father and Son part company
Come back together for you and me
Finally Mallonee reaches the climax of the reality that it was all paid for at the cross. The cursed man hanging from a tree actually was presenting Himself as divine and kingly.
I don’t know why You did it
What was Your motivation?
Crucifixion’s not a cool sensation
You had something to say, and You started to speak
The cross is the place for Your coronation speech
“Losin’ It” continues with a similar theme, but here Mallonee relents to his struggles and cries out for God just to hold him as he is “losin’ it.” Here the image used in the Biblical story of Job and the faith that continued despite the losses.
A more upbeat (lyrically and musical) number follows with “Words of Love Spoken” and sounds like a Derek Webb written Caedmon’s Call tune. Mallonee longs to have his soul hear the words of love spoken to him by God as he relishesthe truths contained.
The album closes with the somber and moving “Who Knows When the Sunrise Will Be.” The rhetorical question of the title reveals Mallonee’s ultimate realization that only God knows and controls all things, even those difficult events in personal and human history. He even quotes Martin Luther in the song regarding only Jesus could die for another.
The final verse shows a man who is ashamed in humanity’s sinful actions and notes the need for a Savior. Abortion, divorce and more topics reveal man’s ultimate need for God and Mallonee does not shrink back from offering the only answer to these wretched actions and personal failings.
Superlatives lack any real power to perfectly describe exactly how amazing this album truly is. No use trying.
ADAM AGAIN (1976)
The artist with only four solo albums (as well as a couple with wife Stormie) may be responsible for the sale of more music than any artist in CCM. Between producing, performing and creating, Michael Omartian has been involved directly with albums that have sold a combined half a billion units!
Unlike many artists and producers in CCM, Omartian has been equally involved with both worlds of music consistently throughout his career. He was working with mainstream artists in the early 70’s as well as working with Barry McGuire and Second Chapter of Acts at the same time.
Omartian got his musical start as a part of Campus Crusade for Christ’s traveling musical group, The New Folk. But it wouldn’t be long before he was working with Steely Dan, Loggins and Messina and Rod Stewart. All the while he would earn a living as a top paid keyboardist performing with the best in the industry on both sides of the musical fence.
His first “group” was an instrumental band called Rhythm Heritage, best known for their television theme songs that spawned mega hits for the band. The first was the theme to the television show S.W.A.T. and the follow-up was the theme to Baretta, “Keep Your Eye on the Sparrow.” the latter was sung by Sammy Davis Jr.
About the time Rhythm Heritage disbanded he began working with The Imperials, helping them create some of the finest music in the early CCM era. Albums like “One More Song for You” and “Priority” are true classics and both appear on this countdown.
But he also produced a couple great funk, soul and pop albums for the mainstream market that also found their way into the Christian market through a distribution deal with Myrrh records. Two of those albums appear on this list and there will be many who will argue that this one in particular could just as easily be listed significantly higher. I have spent the last several days listening to the album over and over and I am inclined to agree with that sentiment. The album is really that good.
The album is meticulously produced with some of the finest musicians on the planet directly involved. The credit lists reads like a who’s who in both Christian and mainstream music worlds. It’s important to remember that this was released in 1976 and was not “behind the times” like many “pop music” releases in the christian market, and was actually right in line with what was happening musically with the funk and soul influences combined with pop and the early strains of disco influenced white dance music and string arrangements.
Themes are just as “Christian” as anything in Jesus Music at the time, but Omartian avoided the normal “buzz words” associated with the genre. His goal was to create music with a Christian worldview that would be challenging and exhorting to Christians without alienating any listening audience.
The album features the work of Dean Parks, Larry Carlton, Ernie Watts and Lee Ritenour. Serious music aficionados would be impressed with just a guest appearance from any of those listed let along all of them appearing on one project. For those not as informed about studio and jazz musicians, these guys are the bomb; the very, very best in the world. And it shows on the project. Add to that the fact that Omartian belongs right with them on the list and it is no wonder why this project is so highly regarded.
The album leads off with “Ain’t You Glad,” a straight ahead pop rock number with a great groove and obviously built for radio success. This is as good a time as any to note that Omartian is more than just a musician and producer, he is quite a gifted vocalist, especially for the musical style and the era in which this album came out. White man soul filled with big choruses and monster backing vocals. Fans of Steely Dan will find quite a bit to like here.
The funky, keyboard driven “No Matter What Shape You’re In” follows with another monster hook and great, uplifting message about love and support to those around us. The horn section add a perfect, Chicago-like soulful vibe.
“See This House” slows things down a bit with a sadder and more contemplative message. Omartian sings of the need to let others into our lives. He uses the image of a beautiful house high on a hill, that is dirty and broken down inside, though the outside it stunning.
Some don’t care for “Whachersign” as much as I do…I love it! This is pure mid-70’s pre-disco era white man funk. It’s fun and groovy, that borders on cheesy, with a little “Love Boat” theme song creeping in. It matches perfectly the lyrics that ridicule the “pick up line” regarding astrology, especially popular in the 70’s. It was the age of Aquarius remember. Omartian puts on his most gaudy lurex, polyester jacket and croons about not needing to get to know anyone, just their “sign” to know if they have a future.
“Annie the Poet” is beautiful tribute to Jesus Music’s first and possibly only true poet laureate, Annie Herring of Second Chapter of Acts. During the 60’s and 70’s young people were constantly seeking truth and revelation amongst the arts, especially music and poetry. Followers of Jim Morrison (The Doors) and Bob Dylan would hang onto every word from their “gods” in search of intellectual and spiritual revelations. All the while a sweet little poet submerged into the Christian subculture of Jesus Music was offering the real truth. The song has a Van Morrison type calypso type feel, almost progressive at times with a great big chorus. A really loving and beautiful tribute.
While side one is more pop and soul oriented, with a real focus on more radio ready tunes, side two returns to the more progressive style found initially on White Horse. The side open with an instrumental “(Telos Suite) Prelude” and it sets the tone for side two. Progressive with a classical influence, the song has touches of Kansas and early Styx instrumentals, and much too short.
This immediately bleeds into “Alive and Well,” the best cut on the whole album. Progressive and rocking from start to finish, this is song broke down barriers in CCM like no other at the time. There is more than a nod to the more rock oriented Chicago sound here and just as good. Omartian appears inspired vocally on the song as his vocals match the more progressive sound and energy.
The song is about the Devil, who was apparently Alive and Well in and living in Los Angeles at the time. Unlike other more humorous tales and tunes about the Devil, here the man in the red suite is seen through his evil and destructive actions in Hollywood and the music world.But he also realizes his judgment is nigh.
Progressive jazz infused with the rock make it a completely unique song for the Christian world. The horn section inspired by the progressive jazz melody lets loose here and really drives this song. If this was the only song of note, it would still be listed amongst this list.
A short break between songs lead the listener right into the title track. Mellower, but no less “rock” in style, “Adam Again” is the response to the temptation the Devil presents in the previous song. The song tells the story of a young bride that is having doubts about the fidelity of her husband. The suspicions are not unfounded as we find the husband at a bar contemplating an indiscretion. But both want to return to their days oh marital happiness, but not knowing how to do it. They desire to return to the garden and be Adam again. Sad, but powerful.
The album closes with the six-minute epic, progressive rock number dealing with the coming of Christ, “Here He Comes.” As dealt with exhaustively throughout this blog, the topic of the second Coming and Rapture (especially the dominant Dispensational view” was the single most popular topic for musicians in the Jesus Music era. But few expressed the topic in such a wonderful and artistic way.
Classical and progressive, with a dull compliment of instrumentation, time signature changes and huge choral vocals. very uplifting and powerful. The chorus is reminiscent of a Second Chapter of Acts melody. Few have duplicated the this song for taking a musical expression and having it perfectly match the content while remaining completely current.
There is not a throw away on the entire project, and it withstands the test of time significantly better than most albums from that time period. The production is brilliant and miles ahead of its contemporaries. Simply brilliant!
The Violet Burning
The sophomore release from Southern California’s “The Violet Burning” became an instant classic. Penetrating vocals, eerie and haunting melodies, and some of the most amazing, insightful and poignant lyrics. While at the same time the record appears to be, in a sense, a worship album.
Released in 1992, Strength took a young worship leader, rock singer and poet Michael Prtizl and introduced him to a much larger audience than the Violet Burning’s debut, Chosen. If ever a record was about creating an atmosphere it was Strength. In the opening track over one minute of instrumental driven by U2ish guitar sound leads to the psalmist claiming “I am nothing/I have no where else to turn” with an angst that is both authentic and heart wrenching. Pritzl’s vocals increase with intensity and remorse as the song builds. Finally the psalmist proclaims over and over “There is no one like You!” Modern worship may be more memorable, have catchier choruses and work better in a corporate setting, but none have reached the depths of sheer passion and truth as this opening track.
“The Face of Beauty” follows in the same vein with the atmospheric guitar work of Shawn Tubbs swirling, building and moving the listener without a conscious reaction. Here the face of beauty is covered with blood and scars. This song immediately flows into “Stay With Me” with no break whatsoever. This is not the normal fade in as the previous fades out. this is a hard shift from one to another that works without a hitch. The song itself actually only contains the title as lyrics repeated often throughout, but is primarily driven by amazing guitar work.
“Undone” remains a personal favorite and possibly the most commercially viable song from the album (or ever?). I hope Mike doesn’t kill me, but for some reason I hear a bit of Morrisey here and the sweet melody and great string arrangement appears plucked straight from the great British folk and alternative artists like Hothouse Flowers, Morrisey, Bryan Ferry and The Silencers.
Let’s just be blunt here: “As I Am” is freakin’ brilliant! Few songs can last 8 minutes without wearing thin, even fewer ballads can come even close to that length. Starting off Bruce Cockburn type acoustic guitar before the vocals tell the story of “Mary’s Song” from the Scriptures. The brilliant song ebbs and flows and winds and consumes. Additional vocal support from My Brother’s Mother lead vocalist Jamie Eichler adds to the story that Pritzl delivers with passion and hope.
“Like the Sun” returns to a sound similar to the opening cut and not too far removed from the music Mike Roe was also making at the same time. Great drum driven rock that builds in anthem like ferocity as it moves along. The lyrics keep the worshipful them going. Again it must be stated just how well the strings work with rock music delivered here. The same to be said for the following song, “Gold.”
The “Song of the Harlot” is not an eschatological tune about the harlot of Revelation, but rather a telling of the Biblical story of Mary Madeleine weeping at the feet of Jesus. Pritzl relates her need and sorrow to all of us and we relate to this woman in her contrition, humility and appreciation.
I will sing
Cause I love, my love
And my tears will fall
Down upon your feet
Let me smother them
Let me dry them
With my hair
If I could be
Anyone at all
If I could be
Anyone at all
Let me be
The whore at your feet
“The Song of the Harlot” by The Violet Burning
For some reason I recall this album having some controversy attached to it, but looking back it’s really hard to understand why. Lyrics throughout are passionate and distinct. True there are stories of love lost and an amazing cover of the Beatles’ “Eleanor Rigby,” but, for the most part, the album maintains a very strong sense of the divine and man’s relationship with God. Even what immediately may appear to be a simple song of loss, once the layers have been removed the listener realizes a Scriptural depth to its content.
In fact, no other album by an alternative artist in CCM history was content written so much in the vein of the Psalms. This is most evident in the albums closer, “Through My Tears.” Here again Pritzl reveals himself to be nothing with God and His making the Psalmist whole. There is honesty and ache that accompany every song.
Like a few other albums mentioned, the album is best consumed as a whole. Though each song easily stands on its own merit to truly reach the depths of ache and heights of glory the album delivers, one should listen as a whole. I also recommend listening with headphones as there is so much subtly going on here that headphones helps deliver the entire package.
I would be remiss if i did not talk at all about some of the most amazing guitar work to be heard on an alternative release. Previously I noted some similarity to early U2 but even that is unfair as there is more a passion and guttural feel to the playing of Shawn Tubbs. Tubbs would also play with another unsung band, My Brother’s Mother. The playing comes from the back of the speakers and then completely surrounds the listener and works as a vocals of sorts as it plays such an integral part in communicating the message Pritzl seeks to deliver.
Also it should be noted that there are real strings on this album and it adds to the warmth and passion that cannot be duplicated with synthesizers. The strings weave in and out nearly every song and join the rock band setting to create something nearly otherworldly.
Strength has been in and out print so many times that I honestly can’t tell the reader whether one can get it on line or not, but I do believe it is well worth the effort. If one is a fan the Cure, the Verve, The 77′s, U2 or any of the best music 1990′s you cannot avoid having this project in your collection.
Ultimately Strength is about the overwhelming majesty and grace of God…
There is just one thing
You, always you
If I descend into the depths of hell
You will find me
And if I climb above the stars
You are there
Through my tears I know
One thing remains
You, always you
EDIT: I do want to note that the band has recently released a tour de force project called “The Story of Our Lives.” It is a 3 CD box set of all new material and a constant theme throughout. It is utterly brilliant and possibly their finest work to date. A decade from now when I compile a Top 1,000, it will surely reach the Top 50.
SIXPENCE NONE THE RICHER (1997)
Sixpence None the Richer
In early 1994 I was working for the newly created Diamante Music, a company birthed from the demise of Frontline Records/Distribution. We were having sales Conference in Nashville, TN at the offices of REX, an independent label that Diamante had recently signed a distribution deal with. This was a label driven by very creative aggressive musical leanings like Circle of Dust, Believer, Living Sacrifices, Six Feet Deep and Hot Pink Turtle. But this time we were presented something we never saw coming.
The owner of Diamante was a hulk of man named Bill Conine. He stood at the front of the conference room with his arm around this pretty little, diminutive red haired girl. A young man I remembered from the band Love Come stood next to her. Minutes later the sales force was introduced to songs “Trust” and “Field of Flowers” from the upcoming debut release, “Fatherless and the Widow” by Sixpence None the Richer.
Guitarist Matt Slocum read a portion from C.S. Lewis that explained the seemingly odd name of the band. It didn’t matter. The sales force was in the presence of something that was bigger than they even imagined. As stellar as the debut release was, it did not compare to what Steve Taylor’s fledgling label, Squint, would produce with the bands self-titled third release.
After experiencing some moderate sales success the album started to fly when mainstream radio stations began adding the single “Kiss Me.” This became a huge hit reaching Number two on both the Top 40 and Adult Contemporary charts. The single would continue to breathe life into the project as it was used in a pivotal scene in the popular teen romance movie “She’s All That.”
Soon afterward the band would record a cover of the La’s “There She Goes” which would also chart extremely well. Squint immediately began repressing the project with the bonus song added to the project. But if all the reader knows of this project are those two great singles than they are truly missing out on a wonderful record that captures more and more with each listen.
“We Have Forgotten” starts off the album with a soft and lilting melody that, like most of the album, envelopes and surrounds rather than beats and pounds. One is lulled into submission and eventually the listener surrenders to the sounds so beautiful and stirring.
All too often an artist finds the most powerful expressions are the questions and the difficulties in life, so with “Anything” the band admits to this frailty in the art. “We’re all told to dance, but no one picked the tune.”
One of the album’s highlights is the very sexy and groove driven “Waiting Room.” This contains some of the best combination of Slocum’s guitar work and Leigh’s breathy vocals mixed with a very dynamic string arrangement. Strings don’t normally rock like this! The longing lyrics match the music to a “T”
Here we are in the waiting room of the world.
We will wait until you call our name out loud,
In the waiting room of the world.
We will wait until you call our name out loud.
What follows can only be described as an mega hit and a game changer for the band. “Kiss Me” became the biggest hit for the band as they crossed over to mainstream radio. The song reached millions more as it played in the pivotal scene in the popular teen romantic comedy, “She’s All That” as well as accompanying a scene on the popular Dawson’s Creek.
It was simply HUGE!!!
“Easy to Ignore” brings the band back to its roots with a more eclectic folk rock sound with a wonderful string section supporting the Americana rock flavor. All the while “Puedo Escribir” is a Spanish rock number about loss and loneliness.
Another rock single that received some strong Christian radio support is “I Can’t Catch You.” More rock than much on the album, this song is all about a great guitar riff hook by Slocum.
“The Lines of My Earth” is really unique with its beautiful piano and vocal performance with the rhythm guitar mixed way back in the mix and almost indecipherable at times. There is a sense of desperation for inspiration that makes the song so brutally honest. But when the guitar and sax kick in near the end it takes on a whole different jazzy vibe that is very cool.
I will admit that I do have a Fast Forward song on the album that I always skip. “Sister, Mother” just has never done anything for me, and I really can’t give an honest reason as to why.
But the album is quickly saved for with the back to back songs “I Won’t Stay Long” and “Love.” There are no two songs any different on the album than these two. the first is an acapella number that soars in its simplicity while the latter is the “heaviest” song and actually reminds me the most of Slocum’s former band, the criminally overlooked Love Coma.
“Moving On” reminds me a bit on Over the Rhine, and that’s a really, really good thing.
The album closes with another “hit” song that was actually not a part of the original release. A cover of the La’s tune, “There She Goes,” was added after the popularity of “Kiss Me” left the label searching for another more commercially viable single. It worked as the song became a better than moderate hit for the band.
As mentioned previously Sixpence experienced very strong Christian Rock radio support for “I Can’t Catch You.” But this not an album of singles. It is an album best experienced as a whole. Some records are amazing because of how each and every individual song is such a wonderful work on its own. SNTR is radically different in that it really is meant to be enjoyed as a single unit. Songs flow and move and leave an impression more than an indelible mark. When the listener has finished they believe they have truly taken in a work of art.
TRIBAL OPERA (1987)
iDEoLA (Mark Heard)
On Mark Heard “Stop the Dominoes” the poet lamented…
I’m too sacred for the sinners
And the saints wish I would leave
But this was not supposed to be the case for Heard working under the pseudonym iDEoLA on the newly created What? Records in 1987. This was to be a label dedicated to allow Christian artist the free expression to write and perform what they wanted and would include a strong relationship with mainstream counterpart A&M to market, distribute and promote the releases to the mainstream radio and record market. Label mates Tonio K. and Dave Perkins were perfect fits for this type of fledgling project. But unfortunately for all involved (including the consumer) the dreams never truly materialized.
But what we are left with, though, is one the best singular recordings in CCM. This is one of the few releases in this countdown by an artist with only one release. Of course with iDEoLA that isn’t quite accurate as the mastermind and singular performer is the late Mark Heard.
Musically this was quite a departure for Heard as his previously releases were acoustic or electric driven folk, rock and blues. But like Lindsey Buckingham (Fleetwod Mac), to whom Heard is often compared, he felt free as an artist to expand his musical horizons while remaining true to his core, which is songwriting. There will be many who will disagree, but I am firmly convinced that Mark Heard was the very best songwriter in Christian Music and rivaled the very best in all of music including Bruce Cockburn, Peter Gabriel and Bob Dylan.
Musically this is electric and eclectic. Both world music and rock and roll. Samples, steel drum sounds, electronic bass and both acoustic and electric guitars. The comparisons to the aforementioned Lindsey Buckingham and Peter Gabriel are fair and complimentary. But hidden within the punctuated production and world rhythms are some of Heard’s finest lyrics and melodies.
In a musical format not noted for deeper thoughts of the human condition Heard starts, “I Am an Emotional Man,” a transparent revelation that beneath the image, guitars and sample machines is a man with emotions that are out of step with the accepted 1980′s facades.
in the primal jungle streets
where the sky is smothered
two-legged creatures breathe and eat
bruising one another
i wish i’d never been told
that the species has souls
i am an emotional man
emotional man with obsolete tears
i guess i’m just an emotional man
emotional man with out-of-place feelings
The first, and I believe, only pop radio single follows with “Is It Any Wonder.” I remember hearing the single months before the album came out and there was some sort of contest to “guess” who the artist behind the band was. I was working at a large Christian Bookstore at the time and won the contest. I always assumed there weren’t too many Christian Bookstore workers that knew who Mark Heard was.
It made sense to make this tune the first single as it is clearly the most accessible and pop driven tune. It was almost like the first time I heard Springsteen’s, “Dancing in the Dark.” It was a folk/Americana rocker placed on top of a straight dance beat. But somehow it worked. But unlike Springsteen, Heard actually had something worth saying.
i had a dream, it was a mystery
i dreamed of science and of history
i dreamed that since we stood up out of the dust
we formed our words on lips of beauty and trust
i should’ve known better than that
i should’ve known better than that
everything looks different in the morning
is it any wonder
is it any wonder
is it any wonder we dare to live in our dreams
“Watching the Ships Go Down” laments the world of failing love and true lack of real attachment in intimate and emotional relationships. This sense of isolation that pervades society is under the microscope as Heard denotes:
take each other for granted
it’s only love we tell ourselves
it’s only emotion
untamed as any ocean
with the wind at our backs
and time on our side
breakers crashing on rocks
we assume that we’ll survive
watching the ship go down
the percussive rhythms of “Talk to Me” are hypnotic as the repetitive chorus. One of the most “tribal” songs on the album, but male backing vocal choir in the verses is set against the hard and staccato solo voice of Heard.
“Go Ask the Dead Man” continues to be a personal favorite. This also infuses the American rock rhythm and African chanting call and response as it lyrically depicts the struggles of seeking answers to life’s great questions. But the answers given are like the blind leading the blind unless one asks the right person.
The two most highly thought of songs kick off the second half of the project. The first, “Love is Bigger Than Life” is one of the most upbeat songs on the album, both musically and lyrically. The driving tribal beat mixes with a memorable chorus to accentuate Heard’s best vocals. One may even mistake it for a “love song.”
it can bite you like a snake
joy most poisonous
it can stalk you like a ghost
quieter than air
it can shake you when you wake
arrow to the heart
it can change you while you sleep
slowly but surely
heartbeats drown out the weather
two hearts beat better and better
The albums central theme and lyrical center is “How To Grown Up Big and Strong.” This song has been covered by several artists and deservedly so. It may ranks as one of Heard’s best compositions.
strong man strangle universe
he drown the stars
blinded by the mission of a thousand wars
he fit and dominant
not wonder why
he love the battlecry
strong man is survivor
he live to pound
little wooden crosses in the bloody ground
he fit and dominant
he stand a chance
he not bow to circumstance
and the world keep on turning
and the sun keep on burnring
and the children keep learning
how to grow up big and strong
I remember going to a Christian Nightclub in Orange County back when this album was released. Heard performed to a crowd that was completely unfamiliar with his music except for myself and a few of my friends. This was a crowd more interested in Chris Eaton, Leon Patillo, Kim Boyce and Russ Taff and simply did not get what Heard was doing. That was until he performed “Everybody Dances.” Of course they had no idea what they were dancing to and the songs lyrics flew several feet above the meat market ceiling, but in the wry Mark Heard way, he played it three times during his set.
The album finishes with two more songs regarding the human condition. “Why Can’t We Just Say No” looks at those who move forward toward an inevitable end and apparently do nothing to change their direction. “Hold Back the Tears” expresses the frustration of a society that simply does not allow transparency for fear of rejection or persecution.
It should be noted here just how stellar the production of this project. It was easily one of the finest produced albums for its time and still sound sonically strong.
Despite the electronic and manufactured feel of the project musically it lyrically carries the stamp of the raw emotion connected to the struggles of the human condition. In fact, it is these raw and very personal lyrics couched within a very artificial setting that makes them so impacting and worthy of our attention.