Best of 2016 (Part 1)

Behold! The internet's final Best-of-2016 list - published almost a quarter of the way into 2017! Spirit You All has been on a necessary hiatus the last several months but is rising back to life and ready to tackle all the great music 2017 has already offered. But first, we need to acknowledge the trove of releases from last year we didn't have time to cover. Like 2015's list, these three posts aren't a conventionally-ranked Best-Of, but rather thirty quality records that deserve your ears' attention. Enjoy, and a incredibly belated Happy New Year to you.


Lenny Smith // You Are My Hiding Place

Even if you've never heard of him before, you've undoubtedly felt Lenny Smith's influence as a mentor/spiritual godfather to many artists in a certain corner of the indie music world: folks like The Welcome Wagon, Sufjan Stevens, Half-handed Cloud, or most obviously the Danielson Famile, to whom he is literally dad. 75 this year, Lenny has composed literally hundreds of worship tunes, and You Are My Hiding Place is his third album to draw from that deep well of songs. With pristine production provided again by his son Daniel, this new collection features a diverse set of sounds ranging from the rollicking, Doors-like "Ho! Everyone Who Thirsts" to the joyful, whole-family sing-along hymn "With All My Heart". They're straightforward songs - almost every word is drawn directly from Scripture - but Lenny's delirious obsession with God makes them into something extremely special and lasting.


Cindertalk // All A Shimmer

Songwriter/composer Jonny Rodgers' use of tuned wine glasses in his music probably nets him a lot of invitations to wine tastings, but skeptical listeners would do well not to dismiss it as just a party trick. All a Shimmer is Rodgers' first full-length under his Cindertalk moniker (though he has a number of shorter releases under his belt, including the soundtrack for the 2016 Psalms short film featuring Bono and Eugene Peterson), but his aesthetic here is confident and fully-formed, with the sounds of wine glasses, tasteful electronics, and his high, reedy singing voice blending perfectly. "Mutter Mutter Mutter" is a delicious slice of minimalist electropop, and Rodgers's spare, enigmatic lyrics come to the fore on the playfully morbid "I'm Only Dying": "Don't be afraid, I'm only dying/It's not the end of the world".


Leonard Cohen // You Want it Darker

Like another stellar 2016 album, David Bowie's Blackstar, Leonard Cohen's final record feels like a message from beyond the grave - as much a last will and testament as a musical recording. Cohen has explored God, sex, death, and the intersection between the three on every one of his fourteen albums, but You Want It Darker, recorded in his living room by a frail, 82-year-old Cohen prior to his passing later in the year, feels especially freighted with portent. As always, Cohen's meditations are densely Biblical, and his special affinity for New Testament imagery and metaphors continues ("Better hold my tongue/Better learn my place/Lift my glass of blood/Try to say the grace"). The old grandmaster marshals every ounce of his songwriting skill on You Want It Darker, but in the end, poised to take the awesome step we all must, the aptest words he can find are a quote from the Genesis account of the Binding of Isaac: "Hineni, hineni/I'm ready, my Lord."


Young Oceans // Voices, Vol. 1

Young Oceans, a collective of musicians in and around Brooklyn led by songwriter Eric Marshall, have been creating an atmospheric, indie-rock-influenced style of church music that provides a welcome reprieve from the constant glut of conveyor-belt worship projects. This first volume of Voices, a series that sees the group re-recording songs from past releases with a number of guest vocalists (this installment includes Leeland and All Sons & Daughters, among others), changes sonic gears and imbues the songs with a congregational feel and a much stronger folk influence, though synth pads still abound. Even though the songs aren't new, most of the reimaginings on Voices, Vol. 1 manage to justify themselves by bringing out new colors and aspects in teach composition, and the result is well worth a listen or three. 


Three-Year Day Job // For the New Tenants of My Old Life

"Fake it til you make it" is the general motto for many musicians, who often prefer to keep how they pay the bills as far from their public persona as possible. Missoula, Montana's Alexander Michael Lindgren, on the other hand, makes his desk job an integral part of his schtick, donning a full suit and tie for his performances and toting his musical implements in a drab briefcase. Inside the case: a four-channel synthesizer and step sequencer, and a Game Boy. Mixing that 8-bit soundboard with gently snarling electric guitar, Lindgren's debut For the New Tenants of My Old Life is a eminently pleasant little collection of ultra-lo-fi, chiptune-inflected pop. The easygoing vibe is disarming, but Lindgren is meditating on some heavy themes - among them his father's death in 2011, and his own coming-to-faith in the ensuing years. Accordingly, New Tenants' predominant sentiments are those of acceptance - and even more, of thankfulness: "I just wanted someone to thank/For the good I have/The bad I have known/And all that is still to come."


The Lower Lights // Old Time Religion

For more than six years now, gospel-folk collective The Lower Lights have been excavating the Christian songbook, reupholstering hymns and classic spiritual songs with both reverence and flair. Their previous collection, A Hymn Revival: Vol. 3 was the first to feature more-eclectic song choices by modern artists like Hank Williams and Gillian Welch. Old Time Religion continues to broaden the search beyond the hymnal with a cover of Dolly Parton's "The Seeker", and a version of "Have a Talk With God" from Stevie Wonder's landmark Songs in the Key of Life. There are still, of course, stirring renditions of hymns and gospel standards - "Run On For a Long Time" and "Down to the River to Pray" hit the sweet spot of rootsy, foot-stomping gospel, and the harmonies on "Leaning on the Everlasting Arms" are downright swoon-worthy. The Lower Lights have killer musical chops, to be sure, but it's their unique approach - integrating a respect for received tradition with a real, fervent urgency - that ensures these songs will remain vital far into the future.


Wovenhand // Star Treatment

David Eugene Edwards is a musical vagabond, and his explorations as Wovenhand over 15 years and eight albums have seen him incorporate sounds and aesthetics from all over the globe. Star Treatment, so named for its lyrical preoccupation with celestial bodies, features the heaviest incarnation of Wovenhand yet, with pronounced metal influences coming through on tracks like the thunderous opener "Come Brave". Along with Edwards' distinct braid of Southern gothic, American Indian, and darkly mystic folk styles, his writing here is even more esoteric than usual. It's a potent combination, and on the resplendent "Golden Blossom", his opaque, scriptural imagery entwines with psychedelic guitars for a revelatory climax: "No more sun, no more sea/Only he, only he, only we".


Brock's Folly // I Have Seen the End

The third record by Brock's Folly didn't get that name for nothing - I Have Seen the End is a self-conscious send-off for the Dayton, Tennessee quintent, tying a nice bow on a short career of earnest, seductively catchy folk rock. Like their 2014 release The Great Commoner, I Have Seen the End is preoccupied with fathers, sons, marriage, church, and the fissures in between. But it approaches those fissures with an overriding sense of hope - and sass. For example, on the closing track, you can practically hear lead singer Justus Stout smirking as he sings, "I don't know what they'll try to tell ya/But the Jesus Movement is alive and well, y'all" and "Soup kitchens are the churches of the future". It's good stuff, and it ensures that the farewell to Brock's Folly is quite a sad one.


Benny Hester // Benny...

In 1972, 23-year-old Benny Hester had his dreams of music stardom wrecked when a fire destroyed the masters and every printed copy of his debut album Benny..., which was supposed to introduce him to the world. Hester moved on, however, and later found success as part of the exploding CCM industry, becoming widely-known for unpasteurized 80s cheese like "When God Ran". Now Benny..., rescued and finally given a proper release almost 45 years later, provides a glimpse down a road-not-taken for Hester. Elvis' famous "TCB" or "Taking Care (of) Business" band plays backup here, fleshing out the youngster's baroque pop ditties and psych-inflected ballads that channel other post-Beatles rockers of the era, from Elton John to Neil Young. More than just a curio or an artifact, it's a solid record in it's own right, and the ellipsis that trails off in the title feels quite appropriate - like this version of Hester was cut off when he had much more to say.


Thrice // To Be Everywhere Is to Be Nowhere

With To Be Everywhere Is to Be Nowhere - the beloved post-hardcore outfit's first studio album since 2011's Major/Minor - Thrice proves it's lost none of its chemistry or cohesion over its long hiatus. The big, bone-shaking riffs and reflective interludes are back in full force, and singer Dustin Kensrue recalls the greats of stadium rock like Bono or Chris Cornell with his soulful, crystal-clear yowl. To Be Everywhere is also the band's most geopolitical album yet - "Whistleblower" references Edward Snowden, and Kensrue takes trenchant aim at American wars in the Middle East, as well as drone warfare in "Blood on the Sand" and "Death From Above". To Be Everywhere Is to Be Nowhere doesn't break much new ground for the band, but that doesn't matter much - as long as they keep writing songs as catchy and hard-hitting as "Hurricane" and "Black Honey", they can move at whatever pace they'd like.

Grab a phone and watch Chance the Rapper's awesome video for "How Great"

Probably the only event this year harder to foresee than Donald Trump becoming a major US party's presidential nominee was Chance the Rapper borrowing a Chris Tomlin song whole-cloth for his third mixtape. Coloring Book was released earlier this year to much acclaim and much hubbub over its Christian references and gospel stylings (though the weirdness of "How Great Is Our God" being on such a massive hip-hop album is totally lost on non-Christian music critics). Now Chance's version of "How Great" has gotten an official music video, which he unceremoniously shared on Twitter. The song has two distinct halves, the first featuring Chance's cousin Nicole and a gospel choir singing the contemporary worship standard, while the second features Chance and Jay Electronica spitting Scripture-heavy rhymes accompanied by the choir.

The video was shot on an iPhone and meant to be viewed on one, with an orientation that flips 90 degrees at every cut, making you keep rotating the phone to keep the picture right side up. Honestly, it's kind of annoying. Let's hope this style doesn't catch on. But if you happen to be reading this on a computer, you should still grab your smartphone or - for those blessed, beautiful folks who don't have one - use someone else's, because it's a wonderful video and absolutely worth the trouble. Check it out:

The Chairman Dances share video for their slice of garage-fuzz gold "Augustine"

Time Without Measure, the new LP by The Chairman Dances, is far and away one of the most unique concept albums to come along this year - a left-leaning hagiography of Christian heroes, it's like a book of saints edited by Howard Zinn and Cornel West. One of the record's best tracks, "Augustine", recently got a music video in the form of a layered motion collage featuring lead singer Eric Krewson, guitarist Luke Pigott, and (briefly) backup vocalist Ashley Cubbler. The song reaches far back in history to honor the Church Father, but listen for clever lyrical hat-tips not just to John Calvin, but to "I Dreamed I Saw St. Augustine" by Bob Dylan and the Velvet Underground's "White Light/White Heat". 

Watch the video for "Augustine" by The Chairman Dances below.

Listen to the stirring "Be'elohim" by Tel Aviv's Miqedem

For all you hear about the Judeo-Christian foundations of Western civilization, it's easy to forget the obvious fact that the roots of the faith are in the East. Miqedem, the self-titled debut by the Tel Aviv five-piece (their name means "from the east") is the perfect corrective. The record pulls entirely from the Hebrew Tanakh, blending theatrical folk rock dynamics with a range of Middle Eastern instrumentation. The album's fantastic first track, "Be'elohim", repeats just a single verse from Psalm 44 (verse 8 in the Hebrew, 9 in the English). Read the lyrics and translation below, and listen to "Bel'elohim" below that:

 Be’elohim hilalnu kol hayom

Veshimcha le’olam node


In God have we gloried all the day

And we will give thanks unto Your name for ever.


The Soldier Story // Flowers For Anonymous



Off Atlas / 2016

New Haven-based multi-instrumentalist Colin Meyer has had his hand in many projects over the years (most notably the 00's pop-rock outfit Ten Shekel Shirt) but his solo endeavor The Soldier Story is where his muse runs wild. Flowers for Anonymous is his third record under the moniker, the fruit of three years in his basement studio which saw him doing absolutely everything for the album from playing to mixing to cover art. While these sorts of DIY ultra-solo projects can have a stilted, airless quality to them, Flowers for Anonymous emphatically does not. This is a quality collection of precision-cut math rock and singer-songwriter tunes that oscillate between latter-day Pedro the Lion and The National after a dose of antidepressants. 

Flowers for Anonymous is one of two maiden releases for Meyer's upstart label Off Atlas - the other is All a Shimmer, by label co-founder and frequent collaborator Jonny Rodgers, who performs as Cindertalk. Meyer handled percussion on Rodgers' soundtrack for the recent Bono/Eugene Peterson doc, and his deft sense of rhythm is what stands out immediately on Flowers for Anonymous - the opening track, "Artifacts of an Abandoned", is a captivating, chaotic whirlwind of syncopation.

The song seems to be for a jilted spouse - Meyer sings about how "he took the last glimpse of light from you" before offering comfort in the reality that, "there's still a sound/there's still a soul/in your bones". The record is full of cuts like this, written for (as Meyer puts it, referencing the album title) "the unloved, the forgotten, or the abandoned. The flowers aren't necessarily from me, and they're not for an individual, but for the nameless or the anonymous."

On "Talk With Our Eyes", the nameless addressee is society as a whole, and Meyer anxiously laments the loss of our universal mother tongue - body language - in the modern age. The Soldier Story's lyrics have grown less frilly with every release thus far, but it's hard to imagine them getting any more direct than the song's first line: "Everyone is staring at the screens in their hands". 

Elsewhere, Flowers for Anonymous' focus is more intimate - "Life is Short" is like a tender note to loved ones scrawled by a man in some great peril ("Before I go/I'm telling you everything you should know"), and a pair of other songs explore romantic love. "Right Here" is an uncomplicated love song, while "We Were Lovers in the Garden" meditates on the broken imago dei in man and woman, mourning for the paradise that's been lost.

Meyer's oaky voice and evocative delivery make these low-key singer-songwriter tracks more than worthwhile, but by and large they don't have the same staying power as the complex, angular slabs of math rock (like the aforementioned "Artifacts of an Abandoned") that dominate the other half of the album. The closing stretch of "Constant Crisis", where Meyer creates a dizzying tangle of tones by piling guitar on guitar on guitar, is another standout in this vein, but the high point of the whole record is the fantastic "Drifting Apart".

Here, Meyer traces the disintegration of a friend's faith, remembering someone hungry for grace ("Broken heart, but you were so complete") before lamenting, "But I've watched you slowly undress/Every garment of white you wore". The song's raw guitar, bass, and drums run parallel and yet remain untethered, shifting and corkscrewing around one other as Meyer slowly twists the sonic kaleidoscope. And should he be accused of sitting in judgement, he ends with a sad and bitter disclaimer: "I'm not casting stones/I am grieving you". Not all the "flowers" on Flowers for Anonymous are gifts of consolation - this is more like one you'd place on a casket as it's being lowered into the ground. 

The Chairman Dances // Time Without Measure



Black Rd Records / 2016

The Chairman Dances' new record dropped just a couple weeks before the recent, high-profile canonization of Mother Teresa by the Roman Catholic Church - an interesting coincidence because with Time Without Measure, the Philly five-piece have mounted something not unlike a canonization. Frontman Eric Krewson calls it a "book of saints", and all ten songs live up to the description, remembering a diverse collection of faithful figures from the past, though with a particular focus on activists and political dissidents from the last century or so.

Time Without Measure is explicitly dedicated to disciples of Christ, but it becomes clear just a few seconds in who else Eric Krewson is a disciple of: John Darnielle of The Mountain Goats, whose influence hovers over the album like the Spirit over the waters. Krewson's voice is a near-doppelgänger to the invincibly nasal Darnielle, but the similarities in songcraft between the two are just as uncanny. Krewson shares Darnielle's hyperliterate nerdery (the record is strewn with references and winking callouts), but also, and more importantly, he shares a talent for left-field biographical snapshots that bring historical figures to startling, immediate life. For example, Dietrich Bonhoeffer's song visualizes the German pastor huddled fetally on the floor when the Gestapo finally smash his windows and drag him off to prison, and the buoyant, tambourine-and-handclap-spiked "Fannie Lou Hamer" has her belting out hymns on the bus ride that galvanized her as a civil rights leader.

Time Without Measure commemorates a wide variety of saints, from the no-brainers ("Augustine") to lesser-known inclusions that might necessitate a little research ("Peter Gomes and Nancy Koehn", which adapts a eulogy for Harvard's idiosyncratic and beloved campus minister). The Chairman Dances' sonic palette is just as eclectic, drawing from all over the indie rock spectrum: "Augustine" is a gloriously catchy piece of Yo La Tengo-esque garage pop, while "Peter Gomes"'s crashing, cathartic builds make it one of the record's most indelible tracks.

Of course, Christian sainthood has always been bound up, almost inextricably, with death. "Thérèse" paints a grisly but tender portrait of Saint Thérèse of Liseaux as she wakes in the middle of the night to vomit "a shower of roses" (blood) onto her already-drenched sheets. Depressive and resigned to the tuberculosis that eventually takes her at age 24, Krewson softly sings for her, "You would have thought that I'd protest..." 

Resolve in the face of an grim fate is the theme of "Catonsville 9", too. Memorializing an iconic Vietnam protest led by Father Daniel Berrigan involving torched draft records, the cut is a leisurely duet that has husband and wife Thomas and Marjorie Melville contemplating the prison time they will surely serve - apart from each other - for their crime. Yet they hold on to their convictions, and their napalm, taking bemused comfort in the fact that at least "there'll be conjugal visits."

In the middle of Time Without Measure is "Jimmy Carter". Though it has ostensibly little to do with the former US president, it includes a nod to that famous Flannery O'Connor quote about how true faith intensifies rather than numbs life's pain: “What people don’t realize is how much religion costs. They think faith is a big electric blanket, when of course it is the cross. It is much harder to believe than not to believe." That's as good a definition of a saint as any other: someone who embraces the cross, knowing all too well that it's no electric blanket. And for those trying to do the same today, it's great to have a record like this one by The Chairman Dances - a reminder of what that embrace looks like when it's done really, really well. 

Wesley Randolph Eader // Highway Winds



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.




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.