Wesley Randolph Eader // Highway Winds

 

7.5

self-released / 2016

Highway Winds is Wesley Randolph Eader's second album, but the cover art for his first LP, 2012's Of Old It Was Recorded, is still the most descriptive metaphor for what he's about. It's a washed-out, far-away photograph of Eader with guitar in hand, mounted in an antique wooden frame that you'd guess was from half a century ago. Like that picture, newcomers to Eader's music would probably assume it's decades and decades old. That's because he plays his version of old-fashioned folk and gospel completely straight, with not a wink or a trace of irony to be found - he's like a time-traveling third Louvin Brother who's taken up life as a 29-year-old Portlander.

Eader's economic but powerful way with words gave Of Old It Was Recorded's stark, very traditional gospel hymns a sublime gravity, and Highway Winds' more personal folk songs benefit from the same, still delivered in a charmingly nasal, old-timey twang. Eader draws from other branches of Americana on this record, too, adding bluegrass and country inflections with the help of (among others) Blitzen Trapper frontman Eric Earley, whose multi-instrumentalist chops embellish nearly every track.

Like the name suggests, Highway Winds is about and meant for the road. Trucks, buses, and highways show up on nearly every song, and Eader's characters - missionaries, ex-cons, astronauts - are always leaving or in transit. Indeed, the bluegrass thumper "Carry On Down the Road" (which features champion fiddler Luke Price, tearing it up), is an explicit ode to the curative powers of peacing out: "If you're broken and you wanna get fixed/Just remember these words then go like this: I've got to go, I've got to go/I've got to carry on down that road".

"Talkin' Walmart Texas Blues" is the record's most instantly memorable song, calling back especially to Dylan's "Talkin' World War III Blues". But instead of wandering a newly-irradiated New York, Eader's version has him trapped at a nightmarishly huge, town-devouring iteration of the house that Sam Walton built. Hilariously, it's so big that it has "its own post office, its own city hall, its own go-kart racing track, its own nuclear missile silo, even its own K-Mart." Yet even in this trenchant and comic vision of capitalism run amok, Eader retains a humble self-criticism. At song's end, he exclaims with relief, "I've been to Walmart for the very last time", before wryly nodding to the maybe-even-more-dubious (yet socially kosher) new way of doing things: "Now I do all my shopping online/Who's running that operation, anyway?"

Like the best folk singers of the past, Eader doesn't just excoriate the powerful for their sins, but elevates the morally heroic everyman: on the gorgeous ballad "Eliza (The Saint of Flower Mountain)", he spins the story of a young woman laying her life down for villagers in an unnamed war-torn country. Similarly, "Country Preacher" is a refreshing and straightforward acclamation of a parochial minister - so straightforward, in fact, it's disorienting. Describing the preacher's life, Eader rattles off so fundamentalist cliches - pickup truck, revival tent, altar calls - you start to brace for the inevitable suckerpunch to shatter the rosy caricature. But the suckerpunch never comes, and the song remains precisely what it seemed on the surface: a happy celebration of a nobody preacher who "follows Jesus most humbly."

For every one of those moral heroes on Highway Winds, though, there are two more broken-hearted lovers or disaffected vagabonds - Eader has especial sympathy for the down-and-out, and a Townes Van Zandtian knack for the poetry of the hard-scrabble. Driven by a deeper spiritual hunger, his rootless wanderers are ambivalent about the possibility of material satisfaction - as the melancholy riverboat sailor on "Big Steam Wheel" puts it, "I guess I should be proud that I live in such an age/Where mankind rules the world and does everything his way". But Eader's songs are encouragements that the rambling path is suffused with grace - that no matter where you go, you go with God. Or, as he sings, accompanied by the sigh of a harmonica as the album closes, "Oh, the highway winds blow easy on the road that carries you."

The Welcome Wagon records unreleased Sufjan song "The Greatest Gift"

Apparently, Sufjan Stevens is the man to tap if you want some moving and germane live music for your special occasion. If you'll remember, he wrote a gorgeous tune for Reverend Vito Aiuto's ordination that eventually appeared on his 2003 Michigan album, and now Aiuto, the husband half of the husband-wife duo The Welcome Wagon, is telling the story of a wedding he officiated where Stevens performed a song called "The Greatest Gift" for the gathered guests. Aiuto's eloquent recollection-cum-homily was posted on the Kickstarter for The Welcome Wagon's third record Light Up the Stairs, along with a rough cut of their version of the song, which will appear on the album:

"I never again heard the song Sufjan sang that day until about a year ago. He had made a recording of it, and when he sent it to me, he told me he wasn’t going to release it and that we could have it. Another gift from him to us, and once again, as his gifts often are, so timely, because I thought of the record we were in the midst of making, Light Up The Stairs, songs about how terribly difficult and necessary it is to both give and receive love: with God, with each other, and with ourselves."

Read the rest at the Light Up the Stairs Kickstarter, and listen to "The Greatest Gift" below.

Hear Wendell Kimbrough's ode to confession, "Then At Last (Psalm 32)"

It's a weird irony that in the age of tell-all books, talk show confessionals, and soul-baring social media posts, the contemporary Christian church, which (thanks to God's inexhaustible love and mercy) should be the premium confessional venue, often neglects the confession of sin as a necessary part of the spiritual life. Alabama worship leader and songwriter Wendell Kimbrough is dropping a new album called Psalms We Sing Together later this month, and the opening track, "Then At Last (Psalm 32)", is a unique and potent ode to the simple confession and to the supernatural healing that comes to us through "the love of God and the family of grace".

Kimbrough says that he penned the song just a week before recording the album, and only wound up including it because producer Isaac Wardell (the genius mastermind behind Bifrost Arts) pushed him to do so. But the song, a brass-backed folk-rock jam à la The Band, ended up provoking the most significant response of almost any of the record's other compositions - after sharing it with his congregation for the first time, several members approached Kimbrough to tell him how powerfully it had spoken to them, including one man with tears in his eyes.

Kimbrough explains the specific inspiration for the song:

In Psalm 32, David is telling what I think is a very human and familiar story.  He was hiding the broken parts of his life.  He was traveling through life trying to keep people (and God) from seeing the parts of himself that were wrong, broken, inadequate.  We all do this.  On one level it's necessary to survival, but it ultimately sabotages our lives.  In my life, I know I've spent enormous amounts of energy trying to hide the broken parts of me from myself, from God, and especially from my community.  The voice of shame tells us, "If you show your brokenness and weakness, you will be rejected."  But the irony David highlights in this psalm is that, when he kept silent and hidden, his life deteriorated.  It's the very act of hiding that isolates us from intimacy, fellowship, and love.  
The turning point of the psalm is when David finally says, "I will confess!"  And he speaks out--he tells his friends and his God what is wrong with him.  He tells his story of brokenness.  And instead of the shame he anticipated, the psalm says he was surrounded with "shouts of deliverance," and a celebration breaks out. David receives grace.  
I think Psalm 32 contains one of the keys to life.  It's the very act of telling our shameful stories that allows us to be free from shame.  Only as I speak about what is broken in me can I really experience grace, love, intimacy, and connection--connection to God, and connection to my brothers and sisters in the human family. 

Listen to "Then At Last (Psalm 32)" below, and look out for Psalms We Sing Together on September 23.

VAS // VAS

 

6.3

self-released / 2016

Young songwriter Julien Baker's surge to prominence over the last year has afforded her a mouthpiece to speak about Christianity to the national media, but also to draw attention to the vibrant D.I.Y. music scene in her hometown of Memphis, Tennessee. In an interview with Bandcamp, one of the Memphis contemporaries she most enthusiastically shouted-out was VAS, a rock quartet formed of students at the city's Visible Music College who recently released their self-titled debut. VAS ("vessel" in Latin) is a collection of melodic, electronically-inflected indie pop, packed to the brim with hooks - and though the record suffers from a sense of sonic déjà vu over its nine tracks, it's well worth a spin for frontman Andrew Elder's sometimes sublime vocal performance and for the promise it holds for the nascent band's future.

Justin Vernon (of Bon Iver)'s influence is all over VAS - from Elder's vocals, which are a clarion falsetto in the high ranges, then soaked in autotune and other effects in the low, to the neon-streaked synthesizers that recall Vernon's side project Volcano Choir even more than Bon Iver. It's an invigorating mix, and VAS succeed in making the sound their own, though most tracks are cast after the same mid-tempo prototype that by record's end loses its novel luster. Yet while the pace and structure of the songs becomes too familiar, every one has individual elements that work. For example, the dark bass synth that anchors "Soda Pop", the blistering, proggish guitar solo on the same song, or the close of "Dream For Real" which would be at home in a European electro club. But for all of that busy sound, some of the best moments come when VAS take a breather, like the memorable coda of "She Told Me", where the guitars drop away and Elder sings vividly about smoke billowing from a girl's ribcage. 

The singer's performance on the sorrowful, piano-centric "BloodIsBloodIsBlood" is one of the album's highlights, and there's a crystalline quality to his voice as he delivers the remorse-ridden lyrics. Interesting lyrical territory is explored on "Vipers", too, which laments the know-nothing apathy of white churches to the unique struggles of black Americans. Imagining those struggles as the titular snakes, it ends on a note of hope in Christ's justice: "The head of the slithering serpent will be crushed under his foot."

It's "Richard Parker" that listeners will remember most clearly, though. The record's pyrotechnic closer has VAS pushing the envelope, with synths that drift like cirrus clouds around Elder's heavily-processed vocals before giving way to a post-rock-esque crescendo so big that it required a second drum kit and additional musicians (members of Forrister, band of the aforementioned Julien Baker, cut the track live with VAS in a single take). The track title is a reference to Life of Pi, and when Elder intones triumphantly that "I'm the captain now," and, "I'll train your mind to fear all the love that you've been given", the pathos courtesy of book/film could raise a couple goosebumps. This post-rock-inspired sound seems like a rich vein to explore in the future, but regardless of where the band goes next, VAS suggests that it will be worth following along.

Listen to the truly haunting found-sound track "Joy, Easily and Effortlessly" by art rockers Sun Body

The self-titled debut from Sun Body, a quartet hailing from Midland Park, New Jersey, is a diverse set of six mostly-instrumental tracks that rewards patient listeners with textured, experimental rock and a capacious sense of scale. The album's fourth track, "Joy, Easily and Effortlessly" features audio of a young woman that at first seems to be an amusing parody of the most acquisitive of name-it-and-claim-it prosperity prayers:       "Thank you God for the beautiful and perfect home you have in store for us. Thank you God for providing us with all the wonderful furniture and decorations at a price we can easily afford. Brian and I accept expected and unexpected resources, now and forever... Brian and my cash flow is always overflowing, now and forever... Money is drawn to Brian and I now and forever..."

But when asked about the audio's source - did the band write and record it? - bandleader Zack Borzone's answer is jaw-dropping:

"my friend and i were walking through my town, and there was a crashed car parked in front of the high school as a warning for prom weekend and drinking and driving. we were messing around with it and he broke the windshield, so we climbed in and looked around. He found some tapes inside the gloves box labelled "affirmations" and "stuff". We listened through them and they sounded like homemade affirmations tapes, but it was sort of para-gospel. she was mentioning god and "the spirit" a lot, but it all sounded somewhat unsure and very clearly unrealistic. like the part in the song where you hear her say "my husband and i make over 6 million... a month". my friends and i were all silent after listening through the tapes because it was just really clear that we had been deep inside someone's life. There were some parts of the tape that I decided not to include in the track just out of respect for her."

Listen to "Joy, Easily and Effortlessly" below.

I Love You, Jesus Christ: Bersain Beristain talks Even Oxen, Neutral Milk Hotel, and the Book of Revelation

EVEN OXEN PERFORMING AT THE WHITE SWAN IN HOUSTON, AUGUST 15TH

EVEN OXEN PERFORMING AT THE WHITE SWAN IN HOUSTON, AUGUST 15TH

Even Oxen's Bersain Beristain (pronounced bear-sane bear-i-stain) isn't quite who you'd expect to be behind Arrayed Above the Seraphim Lights, a cornucopia of otherwordly bedroom folk and avant-garde soundscapes that stands as one of the best albums to be released so far this year. Instead of a self-consciously weird artiste, the 22-year-old Beristain is a Houston college student and gas station clerk who fits music in where he can - his demeanor is so friendly it's almost goofy, and void of affect. The morning in June when Spirit You All spoke to Beristain via Skype, he and his Even Oxen bandmates were getting ready for their third-ever live performance, which was also their debut as a three-piece:

Spirit You All: Can you give a bit of background about yourself? Where you're from, how started playing music, what you do these days?

BB: Well, I'm from California originally. A small town called Hemet. I basically circled between California, Nevada, and Idaho, and that's where I spent most of my life growing up. Only recently have I moved over to Texas, and I've been over here for the past three years, just going to school and working. Unfortunately I wasn't into any music scenes - I would catch a show every now and then when I could.

So for what I'm doing now besides school and work, I guess I'm trying to take my music a little bit more seriously. I don't have the best recording process or anything, but at least now there's music for people to listen to, so I feel more comfortable playing shows - we're playing an open mic tonight, so you have to take what you can get. I've been messaging venues, but no reply yet. I even tried messaging some churches to see if they would be okay with doing a free show kind of thing, but no response from them yet. So the open mic is where we're goin'!

Spirit You All: How much have you played live as Even Oxen? Also, how much is this a Bersain Beristain solo project versus being a full band?

BB: Well, for right now, we haven't played very much. There's only really been two shows, and one was in 2015, where we played with a band from New Orleans called Squirrel Queen. They were so kind to look for us and invite us to play with them when they were coming on a tour over to Texas. I just played solo. And the second time around, the same situation happened - a friend connected us with another band, and we were able to play with them in the beginning of this year. This time it was me and my brother.

And that's it. So I guess that's to say that Even Oxen is much more of a solo project, because that's originally how it started. But I've always dreamt that it could be a band, and I can't do everything by myself, you know? I need to have other bandmates. I guess we'll see for the next release. I'm definitely done with recording for a little while - I'd rather focus on performing, anyways. But I'm hoping it will become a band.

Spirit You All: Where did the name "Even Oxen" come from? I assume it had something to do with being "unequally yoked"...?

BB: Yeah, exactly. We were just thinking of band names, and I figured I wanted to have something biblical... Most Christians will already know where that's from, so that's cool.

Spirit You All: Coming off your EP last year, what was the vision for Arrayed Above the Seraphim Lights? What did you want to try to do that was different?

BB: I definitely wanted to try to have better recording quality. Because for my EP, I was just 15 and 16. I didn't know what I was doing. All I knew is that I wanted to record some music. I just said, "I'm just going to record a song every year". It wasn't a thought-out process, that's just what ended up happening. And looking back, it's like, man, I just breathed into that microphone. I mean, I didn't hold back. [laughs]

So I thought, "Okay, let's give it one more shot before I try to do anything else." My main aim was to produce something that was a little bit more bearable as far as the vocals go. But ultimately I think that where the EP was a lot quieter and a lot more acoustic, I wanted to balance that out with a lot noisier stuff. I wanted to just show the more abrasive side of my music. And I think that came out all right. So now there's a bit of balance, you know what I mean? And I feel more comfortable with that.

Spirit You All: Can you explain the recording process for the album?

BB: Well, ultimately, I hated it. [laughs] I mean, I don't ever want to do it again. I have this really old Dell laptop, and I downloaded Audacity for it a while back. I can't download any new applications for it because it's so buggy and they don't work. So what I would do is I would hit "record" on Audacity - I could record the first file great. Basically that would just be me, singing with the guitar, or maybe just guitar. And after that I would record from my phone - like, I would press "play" on the computer and I would record on my phone and try playing along with it. And then because it's recorded on my phone I have to email it to myself, but then I have to change the file into a WAV format because that's the kind that Audacity works with. I'd have to go to a website to do that, and it would take a long time. So it was a nightmare, especially for the longer songs on that album. All I can say is I don't ever want to do that again.

The bulk of the album was recorded in two months, and the only song that was recorded earlier was "Kaiah's Connectant Ville" in 2014. Besides that, the whole thing was recorded in February to April of this year.

Spirit You All: Can you talk a bit about how "Kaiah's Connectant Ville" came together?

BB: Kaiah is a great friend who I grew up with in Idaho. We met when I went and visited her church. I love that she allowed me to use her song because, to me, it's my favorite song on the album. She's been playing cello for most of her life, and she made that song originally for a talent show that she was doing in her senior year of high school. But she didn't win! Which sucks because I think she at least should have placed or something. Anyway, she recorded the song, and I asked her if I could use it, and she was more than happy to allow that. I just added piano and some percussion to it - and I only did that the night before I released the album.

Actually, most of the album, like, a big chunk of it, was recorded the night before. Because, like I told you, I was sick of recording up to that point - I wanted to get it done immediately. And originally I wasn't even sure I was going to feature that song on the album, because I wanted to do it justice and I didn't know what to put onto it. I had the percussion all planned out, but I was like, do I want to leave it so bare in the beginning? So in a really quick moment I was able to record those piano parts, and got it done the next morning. 

Spirit You All: You finished the final song, "Arrayed Above the Seraphim Lights", on the last day, too? 

BB: Yeah, it was the day of. I recorded "Kaiah's Connectant Ville", "The Dragon on the Shore Beside the Sea", "Arrayed Above the Seraphim Lights", and "Your Baileys of Water" all in the same day because with school and work and everything, it's just so hard to find time to do other things like that. So yeah, I had to do it inside my truck because there's no way - it's a loud song. I know that it might sound a little subdued in the recording, but I have to get pretty loud for that one. And luckily it was raining outside and I was in my truck, so I don't think anyone could hear me. That was the only option I had. 

Spirit You All: There's a huge variety of sounds on the album. What other artists had an influence on the sound and the direction of the album? 

BB: Definitely Jeff Mangum, from Neutral Milk Hotel. I think he's a big inspiration for everybody. Anyone who hears his music, whether they end up loving it or not, they remember what they heard because it's just so unlike anything else. It's funny because their influence ranges a lot, too, but I can't say there was ever been a band that sounded quite like Neutral Milk Hotel. And I think it's mostly just songwriting. It's just so filled with passion. But not just the songwriting - his allowance for such a variety of sounds to come in really is the biggest influence on me.

I first heard about In the Aeroplane Over the Sea from a Pitchfork article about Cold War Kids - it started off saying "hipsters hate Jesus". [laughs] And I thought that was so funny, and I ended up listening to some of the albums they mentioned that were Christian-influenced. I guess In the Aeroplane Over the Sea was included in there. So when I read about them, I checked it out, and at first it was just like, "Okay, this is an acoustic song, this is going to be an acoustic indie album." And then it just transforms into this noisy, "I love you Jesus Christ!", punk-influenced stuff. Up to that point - I mean, we've heard bands like Beatles include a big variety of sounds - but I don't think any of them resonated with me as much as In the Aeroplane Over the Sea up 'til that point. I didn't know that you could take so many influences and put it in the same album and have it work out. I guess after I heard that, I was like, this is what I want to do. 

I think one last artist that's worth mentioning - it's worth mentioning because you mentioned him [on the blog] a few reviews back - is Washington Phillips. Washington Phillips is a crazy story, because no one really knows very much about him, and he grew up in Texas. And he managed to record like 18 tracks and only 16 of them survived. But yeah, his style really influenced me. It's so concentrated and unafraid to be worshipful. That's what I wanted to do, too.

Besides actual artists, 4chan's music board is the biggest influence on me. Have you even been there?

Spirit You All: No, I just know 4chan's reputation... You know, "a wretched hive of scum and villainy"...

BB: [laughs] I stay away from all the other boards, so I keep away from all the evil that's inside there. For the most part, I just stick to the music board - it's a lot more family-friendly than a lot of other places you can end up on that site. [laughs again]

Well, the music board is very volatile. It's not the most welcoming place for artists, but that's the most beautiful thing about them. They take art and elevate it to such a high standard, and they'll include so many different artists in their conversations. They're the biggest influence besides actual artists. They're the ones that pushed me to want to do something good, they made me want to do something different. Without them I would have regressed into some stupid pop thing. Like, you should hear the demos that I had lying around before I started to do Arrayed. It was just awful generic pop stuff. So despite their bad reputation and how terrible they treat the artists sometimes, they are the ones that love music most. There's no one who will push the underground more than they will. Seeing them discuss music inspires me to be better and think that it's always possible.

Spirit You All: How do you see yourself as a Christian and as an artist, and the intersection there?

BB: Honestly, I don't feel as comfortable singing about other stuff as I do my faith and my relationship with Jesus. And that's not because there aren't other things that are worth talking about or anything. It's just that there are so many great artists out there who are already doing that. There are so many great Christian artists who are doing that. I mean, like, Sufjan Stevens, for example, he tackles big issues when it comes to family or personal problems... But we've already had artists do that, and for me, I just feel more comfortable being able to sing about my faith. That's the thing I want to give to the world more than anything. Maybe something that can resonate with other believers.

I want to be a worship artist through and through, but I don't want the musical side of it go in the same direction that most people would think a worship artist would be. The crazy part about it is I've had way more support from a secular audience more than a Christian one. And I don't blame them, it's just, I'm surprised. You wouldn't think music with lyrics as openly religious as mine would connect with a secular audience, but it does!

Spirit You All: Have you always loved Revelation, or was it a surprising new appreciation that you've gained?

BB: I've always had a fascination with it. Even when I was a kid, I would always ask adults at the Baptist church I grew up in - I would ask them what this means. And you would get so many interpretations - you know, some people really did think that everything was meant to be literal, to the point that, "Oh yeah, Jesus has a sword coming out of his mouth. Like, Jesus really has a sword coming out of his mouth!" And some people say that Revelation already happened, that it already took place in the days of the early church. So I've always been fascinated by the amount of interpretations it can draw. I did come back to it recently because the imagery used in it... Whether it's metaphorical or whether it's literal, it's all powerful. It doesn't matter because it's so captivating in its descriptions of heaven and of things happening on earth, that I thought to write about it would be cool.

Spirit You All: Most of the songs on Arrayed are fairly lyrically straightforward, apart from "Your Baileys of Water". What was the inspiration and meaning behind that song?

BB: "Your Baileys of Water" was really inspired by Texas. There's a huge difference between California and Texas, and the biggest difference, I feel, is in the amount of clouds in the sky. They're ridiculous. Every day, these huge mountains of clouds everywhere. And that's where "Your Baileys of Water" comes from. So the clouds are baileys... of water... [laughs]

[For readers still in the dark, a bailey is the outer wall of a castle - implying that the clouds are the outer walls of God's heavenly castle]

We drove around a lot when I first moved here, and Texas is huge, so you spend hours driving just to get to one place. That's why I talk about traveling - there's a line in there that goes, "With the burdens of leaving, I'm thankful to spend it with you." Because no matter where you are, wherever God takes you, he's with you. No matter what, I'll never be without Jesus. So I guess I just tried to combine those two ideas.

Spirit You All: What was the vision for "The Dragon on the Shore Beside the Sea", and how did you get those abrasive sounds?

BB: I wanted it to be a "musical translation", I guess you could call it, of Revelation 12, where the woman gives birth to her child and the dragon comes after them. There are very few things in life that are as terrifying to me as the idea of being hunted down. So my vision was to create something that would be terrifying, that would give you a sense of anxiety, because that's what I imagine that situation being like.

The recording process was pretty simple - I recorded the drum beat using this water jug that I filled with quarters and coins and stuff. And I would put it inside this four-legged stool - I would flip the stool upside down, and I would place the jug inside it so it wouldn't move. And I grabbed a potato masher and I would just hit it and get different sounds as I circled around the stool. So I had a potato masher in one hand and a tambourine in the other - that's just the base of that song. Besides that I added white noise into the song, and I recorded some guitar for it. It's not very much, actually, it's only about four stems because the percussion was all done in one take because I don't get much time at my house to be as loud as that.

Spirit You All: What do you see next for Even Oxen? Where do you hope to see the project go?

BB: I think that I want to do this for my life. If I could do music for my life, I would. I'm obviously still going to go to school and I'm still going to work, but none of those things are going to be as impassioned as my music is. I guess where I see it going right now is I'm just going to work hard playing live shows and getting my music across to people in Texas while I still can. We were supposed to do a mini-tour a couple weeks ago over in Virginia and North Carolina, but there were so many problems that got in the way - we couldn't drive over there because we had issues with our cars. And even then, one of the shows got cancelled because the venue got a court summons for too many noise complaints. It sucks because sometimes you just can't help things. But I'm definitely going to just keep trying, because if I love it I'm just going to keep doing it no matter what.

As far as where I see Even Oxen and what's in store for us, definitely expect shows... and more changes. Even Oxen's not going to stay the same. It's not always going to stay folk-influenced. Recently I've been listening to a lot of dance music - house especially. That seems to be the way the sound is going now, though that's not something that's been reflected in any of the other recent songs. So I definitely do think that Even Oxen is going to change. I think it's good for artists to grow and experiment.

We're also trying to do a music video for "The Dragon on the Shore Beside the Sea". It's going to be a lot like Animal Collective's ODDSAC film. It's a long song, so it's going to have a narrative, but there's going to be a lot of abstract imagery. We're buying a Chinese dragon costume for it, and we're going to play around with that. It's summer right now, so there's no school and we're just trying to stay as productive as possible.

Arrayed Above the Seraphim Lights is available on Bandcamp and on cassette via Punch Bowl Records

Cindertalk contributes soundtrack to the Bono/Eugene Peterson short film

Multi-instrumentalist Jonny Rodgers, who splits his time between Eugene, Oregeon on the west coast and Brooklyn and New Haven on the east, has made music for a long time with an array of collaborators that includes Son Lux and My Brightest Diamond. His current solo project, Cindertalk, incorporates tuned wineglasses to achieve a tactile, organic tone that blends perfectly with his electronic and acoustic compositions, and director Nathan Clarke tapped him to provide the music for the much-acclaimed new short film The Psalms. The film, which you can view in its entirety on YouTube, documents a wonderful conversation between U2's Bono and theologian/author Eugene Peterson that ranges in focus from the place of the Psalter in the life of the church to art's integral role in relating to our Creator. At 20 minutes, the film is quite brief, and you can hear most of Cindertalk's soundtrack as you watch the film, but Rodgers' work makes for a good focus listen as well, with ambient swells reminiscent of Brian Eno and The Album Leaf and minimalist percussion provided by New Haven's The Soldier Story. Hear the the title song below, and if your curiosity is piqued then be sure to check out Makers & Mystics interview with Rodgers about the the creative process behind the soundtrack, as well.

Watch the magnificent video for Vic Thrill's "The Creator"

If you're a hardcore This American Life listener, you might remember the classic episode where the Williamsburg, Brooklyn musician Vic Thrill asks God for a chance to meet the neighborhood's "other half" and has his prayer answered when he meets a young Hasidic man named Chaim, whom he helps to launch a meteoric indie rock career as "Curly Oxide". A member of Williamsburg's indie music since 1998, Thrill (aka Billy Campion) is still going strong, even though the spectre of gentrification and rapidly rising rents that has long floated over the neighborhood has led to the recent closure of many of its beloved venues.

Campion recently shared the video for "The Creator", from his upcoming double album Bollywood Hula Bard, and it's both mesmerizing and powerful. The video was shot in the South Williamsburg basement that serves as both his studio and home, and there's a conscious Bowie influence in the magnetic aura he affects (Bowie, a huge inspiration for the artist, died the day before the video shoot, and if you watch closely, at one moment you can see some of the "Ashes to Ashes" video projected on his chest). The song itself has an intensely spiritual feel, with bodhrán and a heavy drone ringing as Campion imagines the world "through the eyes of the Creator". He says nearly the whole thing came to him in a dream: "I dreamed I was being given a ride by the spirit of GOD, which had taken a form that was several football fields in length and moved like a water snake to propel itself through outer space. I was being given a tour of the universe by the One who made it and an opportunity to see everything how IT did. I was singing 'Through the eyes of the Creator!' just like you hear it in the song. I woke up and sang it right into my iPhone, went back to bed and woke up again in the morning where I finished the rest of it at breakfast."

Watch "The Creator" below.

Kings Kaleidoscope's Chad Gardner on living "Beyond Control"

Chad Gardner (center, with beanie) and the rest of Kings Kaleidoscope

Chad Gardner (center, with beanie) and the rest of Kings Kaleidoscope

Seattle's Kings Kaleidoscope broke out in a big way with their 2014 debut LP Becoming Who We Are, an album that put the band's plenitude of musicians to good use, creating worship on the scale of big collectives like Broken Social Scene that seeths with a mesmerizing tangle of horns, strings, and crisp, syncopated drums. They return this week with their sophomore effort, Beyond Control, which retains that controlled-chaos musical aesthetic while taking the songs in a slightly rawer and more personal direction, with perceptive nods to themes like the loss of both wonder and danger in the modern world. Spirit You All had a conversation via Skype with songwriter and frontman Chad Gardner about self-producing the new album, social media, Kanye West, and virtual reality:

Spirit You All: You've said in the past that you're a big Kanye West fan. How did you feel about Life of Pablo?

CG: I don't even necessarily appreciate Kanye for being a musician anymore. I'm not inspired by him lyrically at all, but just as a culture mover, he's like Muhammad Ali to me. I love that he is one of the biggest artists in the world, and he continuously messes with everybody and says, “I'm going to push on every expectation you have. Everything you expected of me, I'm going to do something different, and I'm going to do it really well.” So in that sense, I love it. I love the whole idea of a record that will never be done, I love the idea that he's going to be updating that record on streaming for the next 10 years or however many... that there will be another track added to it or he'll change the kick drum on something. There are so many of those concepts that are completely futuristic and next-level, and the way he collaborates with stuff... So there are things that I love about it and things that I'm not into. I guess that record kind of solidified to me that I'm not like, 'Oh man, I can't wait to listen to Kanye's next album', but more, wow, I really respect the fierceness and the boldness to do completely new ideas all the time and not worry about it.

Spirit You All: Becoming Who We Are was recorded on a MacBook using a lot of different microphones in a lot of different places, but I heard that you got a home studio for this one?

CG: Yeah, it's not much. I've just got a basement here with all our instruments and whatnot. And it's still my Macbook Pro. My whole thing is I really like to produce music and arrange music and so in the same way as our last record, I got to engineer most of this one and record it all here at home, which is great. With the the last one we had to travel around to various spaces, but this one we were able to dial it in more. So I think, sonically, it's a little more consistent and just a little bit more “pro” sounding, even though it's still a basement. [laughs]

Spirit You All: The first Kings Kaleidoscope album came out on a confusing hybrid of Tooth & Nail and Bad Christian - did you take the same approach this time with Beyond Control?

CG: Yeah, it's the same thing. Bad Christian is doing the whole vinyl side, and Tooth & Nail is kind of the main player doing all the digital and CDs. We really like working with both of them and we just figure, why not bring both teams to the table. It was a very interesting thing because with Tooth & Nail's schedule we were going to have to wait to release our record next January or February most likely, or it was this spring. And we realized that, like, three months ago. [laughs] So we were like, “Oh man, we don't want people to have to wait to get these new ideas that I've had sitting around.” I cranked it out. It was sort of like a challenge, where the label was like, “Well, if you can do it, we'll put it out in June, but it's literally going to be a rush.”

I turned the record in three weeks ago. Which is kinda normal if you're Kanye and you're just going to stream it, but to actually sell CDs and have a whole campaign, it's pretty much impossible. It's been kind of a mad dash, but I actually like working that way, that you've got three months so engineer and record and write. Finish writing all these songs. So three weeks ago I did all the lyrics to “Most Of It”. That was the last song, and we knew we wanted it to be the very simple concept of, “It's going to be okay". That's actually at the core of the gospel, that it's okay because God is sovereign, you're making the most of it till heaven. And we all have little kids now - I have a little boy who's almost one, and that song was for him. Like, how would you teach him a very simple lesson, that's not theologically exhausting? That he can actually understand?

Spirit You All: Following Becoming Who We Are, what was the goal for this album's sonic direction?

CG: I don't really think of it in terms of goals... Actually, I take that back. The only goals we had were, one: no loud builds. And we almost got away with it! There's one song - “Sabatoge” has one build. You know, they're really effective and they're immediately gratifying, and almost all bands do them, but that was my personal challenge: how can we build intensity without being loud and having all the instruments play at once? And I think a great example of that is on the final song, “Trackless Sea”. There's this bridge that bottoms out, and this big cello swell and you think something massive's gonna come in, but it just keeps rolling and it keeps going with this big cello and this weird percussion. And it actually creates so much more emotion than if we had had a big explosion. For me, it just rips my heart out with a feeling of longing. You want there to be more so bad, but the feeling of wanting more is a greater feeling than if you had just got it. So we tried to do that.

And then the other, smaller goal was, we've always done intricate, elaborate arrangements, and we had a goal of, how do we do intricate and elaborate, but quiet? We're always trying to push ourselves. So on our last record we had a song called "Defender", and that song was very intricate and elaborate and loud the whole time. This record, there's the song "Lost", which is intricate and elaborate, but quiet. Or the song "Trackless Sea" - same thing. There's a lot of mellotrons, there's a lot of vocal harmonies, but it's all quiet. So that was the other challenge we had. But as far as greater goals, I just kind of try to be really fearless and just create whatever really gets me hyped or whatever moves me. I mean, that sounds selfish, but I am making music, in a sense, for myself, and if I really love something then I don't really think about, "What are people going to think about this?" 

Spirit You All: Being a ten-piece, do you guys always travel with the same group when you tour?

CG: No, it's completely variable. It's kind of always been that way. I think on the last record, that was something that was part of the marketing story: "They're this ten-piece band!" But in reality, you can't fly ten people to North Carolina to just play a show. It's so expensive. There are ten people who come in and out of the band, there are ten people who'd come here to the studio here at my house, and they're all the "core", but we play with all kinds of different lineups. We've played with as little as six people, our sweet spot for traveling is I think seven and eight. And when we get lucky, when we play somewhere in the Pacific Northwest or we get somebody who wants to fly all of us out to a show, we bring a full string trio and we can get up to ten people. But it's all the same folks. It's kind of a pain, actually, because I need to make a different rider for every show based on what instruments are going.

Spirit You All: About half the Kings Kaleidoscope fanbase is about to have a stroke because Beyond Control's second-to-last song, "A Prayer", has two f-words on it. Can you share the vision behind the song and the meaning?

CG: [laughs] Well, first I would say I think that for people who haven't actually listened to the record, or listened to that song, just listen to those last three songs in a row, and I think that it will be self-explanatory in terms of what is going on there. The short answer is, that song comes from the deepest part of my gut and my being, and the fear that I face throughout my life - I've had really severe anxiety disorder my whole life, and that's been a major part of my struggle and story. That song is about the fear of running from God or that God will turn his back on me and I will end up apart from him in hell. And the actual lyric is something that is from my journal - I don't know how everyone else has conversations with God, but I have very vulnerable conversations, and God already knows how afraid I am. I usually figure it's good for me to pour out my soul to him, and that's what that song is.

The choice to keep that original version, which is straight from off the top of my head, really, as well as the edited one... It took me a long time, and I really sought counsel and had a lot of conversations with pastor friends of mine and family. At the end of the day, that song is not going to impact somebody who has never felt that way anyways. So that song is there for people who have felt like me. And I know fear and Satan and death - the voice of all of that is not poetic, it's not thoughtful, it's not patient. It's aggressive and demanding and terrifying. And that's what came out of my heart because that's what I was hearing, and so that's what I chose to leave it in the song. It was to say, look, this is the reality of how we feel sometimes, and this is the reality of how God responds to that. And I just want people to know that that is life. It is freaking scary, and God talks to that and he speaks to us right where we are.

At the same time, I know other people have different convictions theologically on language - obviously I don't have that conviction, otherwise I wouldn't have released it. [laughs] But I really respect that, and I know some people want to just buy the CD and be able to play it in their car without their kids hearing it. Some people have told me, "I don't care if my kids listen to that song at all" - the unedited version. But because I respect people, I want to have a different version for them, and that song - it's not really about that word, it's about the meaning and the bigger context, and I think if anything I'm trying to be vulnerable and have different types of people be able to engage with that song in a powerful way.

So I came to my label and said, "Okay, I think that I want to release a version of a song with an f-bomb in it. I want to do it in the most respectful way possible." [laughs] They were like, "What in the world?" Because most artists are trying to do shock jock or something, but there's none of that vibe for me. I'd say, I'm not trying to change anyone's mind about it or convince anyone of anything. I'm just trying to be honest and vulnerable. I think that's important in art, and important as a Christian. If there's any place that I can share my story and my testimony for what it really is, it should be the church at large. And that's what I'm doing.

Spirit You All: What was the idea behind the interlude track "Friendship"? I think I hear someone in the background singing Soulja Boy and "Whip/Nae Nae".

CG: [laughs] Yeah, yeah. That was just something that happened. Blake is my really close buddy - he's the trombone player, and I think he's the longest-standing member of the band. ... Anyway he was going to do a solo for the end of "In This Ocean, Part 2". And I was like, "Alright, man. Here's what we're gonna do. I'm gonna put a mike on you and a mike on me, and we're just gonna go back and forth making up melodies." And we did that for a while, and it just got so funny that I basically looped a beat from that song and was like, "Okay, okay, okay, let's just do this for fun." That's just us having fun in the studio, and, you know, ultimately it will be the track that people skip a whole bunch, probably. But I think it's really important to include that stuff every once in a while, because it totally shows that we don't take ourselves too seriously, we like to have fun.

And I just loved calling it "Friendship" because that has been such a theme for me this past year. In the wake of releasing our first record - you know, that album is so storied with being birthed out of a lot of pain and personal struggle in my life. And I spent the last two years honestly just recovering from that. Still dealing with a lot of residual anxiety and, "Wow, how does my world even work now?" And a big part of that for me has just been in community and friendship, and people around me who make me laugh, continually tell me that it's gonna be okay, even when it doesn't feel like it. So even in a weird thematic way, I'm glad that it's on there. And people can kind of see who we are... we're pretty goofy. So it tells that story well.

Spirit You All: A lot of the album, especially "Enchanted", the first single, is about how technology today increasingly allows us to curate our own realities, living as what David Foster Wallace called "lords of our own tiny skull-sized kingdoms". What was the experience in your own life that inspired that concept?

CG: Dude, that quote is insane. You gotta send me that, I'm gonna use that in all my other interviews. So yeah, the whole album was inspired first by a sermon that I heard at my church on a Sunday where the idea was brought up of choosing, in a sense, to live enchanted with the actual reality that we are in. Knowing that the world is a wild and dangerous place and our existence is completely beyond our control. You know, that scares the crap out of us all the time, and most of my energy goes to creating a perceived safety of some kind. Whether that's a safety with my identity by accomplishing things... Everything so much of the time for me is trying to control my world, to control what I know in order to control how I feel. And especially in the information age, with social media, I feel a huge strain on my being. There's so much pressure to maximize my life and to experience so many things. Yelp is a great example of that. I will never be satisfied getting a sandwich somewhere again, because I have to find the best sandwich shop. You know? So what is it about that? Because I need to maximize my experience. I need to have the best thing. And I'm not saying everything about that is bad - I love that it's pushing people to make good art, there's a lot of beauty that's being created. But at the same time, there's also a lot of unsatisfaction with life that's constantly stirred.

So basically the record goes between these two worlds - trying to buffer ourselves from pain and suffering and danger and the reality of the world, and we end up creating a very cold and isolated and lonely existence. And it's actually pretty miserable, and we might feel like we're safe because we've kind of cordoned things off the way that we understand them, but the reality is nothing's actually changed - we're just locked in our heads when we think we've sorted things out. And the flipside of that is choosing to live beyond perceived control, where life is enchanted and it actually is perilous and we're afraid to open ourselves up to God because he might actually break our hearts and he might not give us what we think we want. We might get hurt, but it is a beautiful adventure with him, and there is actually a deeper joy and a richness to be found there. Tolkien says it, when he talks about a world like that: "A place where joy and sorrow are sharp as swords." I want to live that way, not dulling myself to reality.

Spirit You All: Do you feel the tension of being in a band that you want to be successful, yet also being part of a modern music industry is so relentlessly social media-driven?

CG: Yeah, I think to some extent it comes in waves. So, you have to give people information, you have to get your music out there. And you always want to do it in a way that's exciting and beautiful, but at the same time... So this week, I called one of the guys at our label, and I said, "Okay, here's my idea. The day our record comes out - not like the Radiohead thing, but I'm actually going to delete all of our social media accounts. [laughs] It'll be like, the record's out, you can listen to it, but we won't hype it up or anything like that. It's just out, it's available. And we could actually do an experiment. Everyone always says grassroots marketing is the best - well, how many people would tell other people about the record without us doing it? It would still be on Twitter, just we wouldn't be doing it. I love that idea! And we would keep it off for like a year until we turn it all on again to announce the next thing.

So just toying with that notion... Even with Instagram, when we announced the record we posted nothing but blank, black pictures for a month, with just lyrics. And every day it was like we were interrupting people's feeds: "Okay, there's nothing to look at here that I can covet, it's just the thought from our lyrics. Just one thing to think about." I like messing with stuff like that, and I guess that means in the future we'll have to be creative with how we market and stuff like that.

Spirit You All: Along that same topic of escaping into fantasy worlds: 2016 is supposed to be the year when consumer virtual reality headsets start to really reshape society. Do you have any thoughts about that, and have you tried VR?

CG: I haven't, but I want to. Kings Kaleidoscope needs to make a video game, is what it sounds like. [laughs] We actually were trying to make an Apple TV app for a while to be interactive and stuff, but... No, that's a really good question. I hadn't really thought about that. I think... It's just like everything. I feel like all of that stuff can be so incredibly creative and amazing and beautiful and meaningful, but the other side is that it can be completely distracting and, you know, just dominate our time. So I just think that it depends on how people go about using it.

Spirit You All: Are there any spiritual practices or just basic way-of-life things that you've found are useful for living "beyond control", as it were? That might be as simple as switching off your phone at certain hours or fasting from the internet...

CG: Definitely for me, personally, it's deleting social media apps from my phone for periods of time. So this is almost always the thing for me: put Twitter on my phone, and then I check it all the time, and the more and more and more I do it, I'll go, "Oh my gosh!" And I literally just delete the app. And I go two weeks, and then I have to put it back on my phone to announce something for Kings. And then the same thing happens, and I delete it again. It's the same thing with Instagram - I deleted my Facebook a long time ago. I guess you could call that a spiritual practice. I don't know if I always fill my time with better things - like, maybe then I'll watch Netflix or something... But you know, being really aware of focus and time and distraction. I think being aware of that is important because at the end most of it is vanity and all of it is fleeting. So, it can be entertaining - there's nothing wrong with laughing and being entertained. If it fosters real relationship, that's awesome. But if it's just distracting, then it's kind of a waste.

Beyond Control is out now on Gospel Song Records and Tooth & Nail

Starflyer 59 // SLOW

 

8.3 BEST NEW RECORD

Tooth & Nail / 2016

Jason Martin inherited more than a line of work from his truck driver father - for 23 years now the Starflyer 59 frontman has been delivering albums with the dependability and reassuring regularity that are the profession's indispensable trademark. Now running his dad's company himself, Martin has had to become a "weekend warrior" over the last decade, ceasing live performances and working on music in his spare time. But being relegated to the weekends hasn't slowed the band's steady stream of releases, and certainly hasn't affected their quality. In fact, SLOW, the band's 14th installment, is another indication that Starflyer is at a creative peak, and the new album should gratify their hardcore fanbase while ushering plenty of newcomers into the fold, as well.

Starflyer 59 was one of the very first acts signed to the nascent Tooth & Nail Records back in 1993, and since then the band's prolific output has formed the long backbone of the label's catalog, their releases poking out like vertebrae every one or two years. The new SLOW is relentlessly nostalgic, and much of it finds Martin reminiscing on those heady days of the mid-to-late 90s when, as he sings on "Retired", "I used to be the MVP/I used to be at the center of the scene." The same song has Martin lamenting that, "...there's so much more to give/But there's so much less to live", and it's a sentiment that gets repeated over and over on the album - he's got an uneasy eye on the hourglass of his life, which was once so top-heavy but lately is getting harder and harder to knock over.

Martin isn't bitter about time's passing, he just wishes it wouldn't rush past at such a dizzying speed. SLOW's fantastic title track is the biggest departure from the established Starflyer sound - backed by a plodding slowcore beat straight out of the Low playbook, Martin looks fondly back at his life as a young husband ("Played some shows, and on the drives we thought of baby names"), then fondly again at his current state as a 43-year-old dad of three, wishing it would last forever: "My kids, they grow so fast/I want it slow/So slow".

Jason Martin has always been a musician's musician - in interviews he's even more enthusiastic about the nuts and bolts of songcraft than he is about lyrics - and SLOW's eight tracks are each immaculate pieces of work, tributes to his mastery. They're also tributes to the many styles Martin has cycled through in his career, as well as the sounds he loved as a kid. The album's first single, "Wrongtime", has strong Cure vibes, and though it's an open question when Martin will tour again (let alone play an arena), the darkwave jewel "Told Me So" has a soaring crescendo of crystalline guitar that seems tailor-made for big venues.

Other songs makes dark nods to the entropy at work in a hard-working middle-aged father's life, like "Hi/Low", where a huge, lumbering riff stomps through the center of the song and Martin groans, "The way it looks, I'm right on pace to fall apart like some weirdo". The same goes for the album's closer, "Numb", which ends the deeply nostalgic SLOW by questioning the deceptive sheen hindsight often lends to our memories: "Was it really better back then/Were there really less problems?"

In an interview with NPR leading up to the record's release, Martin made a similar observation: "You look back and think they were great times, and it's probably not true; you just remember the good stuff and shove the bad stuff in a special place. You give me another 10 years and I'll be talking, 'Oh, yeah, that SLOW era, those were such good times.'" That might be true for Jason Martin, but Starflyer 59 fans' memories would be working perfectly if they looked back on SLOW as one of the best albums the band had ever given them.