Lee Bozeman // The Majesty of the Flesh EP

a3663438318_10.jpg
 

8.6 BEST NEW RECORD

Velvet Blue Music / 2017

Maybe one of the reasons Lee Bozeman has been preoccupied with the body over the course of his career as frontman and lyricist of Luxury is that he's felt its fragility. In the trailer for the forthcoming documentary about the band, there's camcorder video from 1995 of a battered young Bozeman laid up in a hospital bed following the horrific crash of the group's tour bus. At another moment in the trailer the band's drummer Glenn Black breaks down crying as he recounts hearing Bozeman's agonized screams as the hospital doctors went to work on him. Bozeman tells the story from a cool remove: "...almost immediately they started cutting into my sides - they were inserting chest tubes. It's a kind of unique pain that I'd never experienced before." But while the tour bus disaster might have acquainted him with the body’s capacity for pain, his new solo EP The Majesty of the Flesh dwells on another capacity: pleasure.

The Majesty of the Flesh is Bozeman's first proper solo release (all previous efforts used the moniker All Things Bright and Beautiful), and while the perennial comparisons to Morrissey and The Smiths are still apt, the EP's four diverse tracks have Bozeman operating far afield of Luxury's usual wheelhouse. "The Sound of the Orchestra" for example, builds upon a groundwork of metallic drum machine, and the gorgeous "I Am My Beloved" paints its sensuous portrait of courtship with insistent strings and a warm blur of finger-picked guitar.

An Orthodox priest now serving a parish in Waxahachie, Texas (the album cover is a shot of his green-and-gold vestments) Bozeman's meditations are vigorously Christian while being provocatively allusive - the aforementioned "I Am My Beloved" portrays the premature consummation of a marriage with metaphors that would make a florist blush: "And we married too soon/Couldn’t wait until June... The pistil is brittle, the sepal all bruised". Similarly, the EP’s bombastic post-punk title track has the artist raising a glass to Dionysian carnality ("Out in the woods in the heart of the night/Giving names to the stars in the sky/We ran in the nude/Barbarian mood!"), joyously extolling what the French call la petite mort.

But The Majesty of the Flesh’s high point is the lumbering, six-minute masterpiece “Nice Touch”, where Bozeman’s scathing assessment of the social, religious, and political landscape is wedded to the menacing groan of a saxophone and bass synth. He seems disgusted with contemporary society’s performative facade, with a world where deep convictions are donned and discarded as appearances demand (“They say that money is a nice touch/They say that outrage is a nice touch/They say that a Bible is a nice touch/You don’t need to read it, it won’t mean much”). The song's chorus is a reactionary spasm against that nihilism, a statement of hope in the sublime and the true: “But what do they know?/Maybe someone had a vision of God/What do they know?/Maybe I’m human, maybe I’m loved”. 

Bozeman finds traces of the divine in great art, too - on the same chorus, he sings “But what do they know?/Maybe someone saw Olympia”. That’s a reference to painter Édouard Manet’s famous nude, continuing the EP’s constant celebration of the physical. But it’s a celebration undercut by the body’s aforementioned fragility and its foregone doom. Even on the title track, a song about awakening anew to bodily pleasure, the coda makes its insufficiency crystal clear. The riotous guitar and drums fall away, replaced by an elegiac piano as Bozeman intones, “Oh, the majesty of the flesh... It’s an idol we made, a glorious mess” - followed by the only words there are left to say, straight from the Apostle Paul: “Who can save us from this body of death?”

Motherfolk shares cathedral-set long-take video for “Fold II”

Screen Shot 2017-11-12 at 11.52.23 PM.jpg

Ohio’s Motherfolk made a strong impression with their 2016 sophomore record Fold, and now they're sharing a series of live performance videos in support of its newly-released deluxe edition. Fold's gutsy folk-rock is sprinkled with found-sound recordings and other production flourishes, but this new video for "Fold II" pares the six-piece down to original members Bobby Paver and Nathan Dickerson to raw effect. The video was filmed at St. Francis Xavier Church in the band's native Cincinnati, and features a single long shot that opens tight on Paver's guitar and slowly skates backward down the sanctuary aisle to reveal more and more of the cathedral's dazzling interior.

Part of a series of three tracks that punctuate and bookend the record, "Fold II" has Paver addressing God, asking "Are you happy with what you've done?" and asserting "You made us bound to fall", before finding resolution in the song's last verse. Check out the video for "Fold II" below.

Vito Aiuto of The Welcome Wagon on poetry, their new album, and putting the Heidelberg Catechism to song

IMG_2333.jpg

Though they started off as the amateur pals of Sufjan Stevens who only recorded a debut because the musical megastar pushed them to as a pet project, Vito and Monique Aiuto have now been playing music together as The Welcome Wagon for going on sixteen years. They're seasoned musicians, and they've grown to take their career as The Welcome Wagon more seriously, even as Monique continues to work as a public school teacher and Vito, a Presbyterian minister, continues to pastor a congregation in their home neighborhood of Williamsburg, Brooklyn.

While the duo's first album had Stevens' ornate folk arrangements all over it and their sophomore effort brought in more earthy gospel textures, The Welcome Wagon's newly-released third record, entitled Light Up the Stairs, is their most sonically diverse yet. Monique's downy-soft voice carries the quietly exultant opener "Galatians 2:20", while a surprising indie-rock vibe inflects tracks like the Yo La Tengo-esque "All These Trees".

Spirit You All spoke to Vito over the phone about recording Light Up the Stairs, his other other career as a published poet, and why seeing a series of Caravaggio paintings in Italy might help sanctify your soul:

SYA: Light Up the Stairs has much more of a rock feel than your first two records. Was that something you guys set out to do, or something that emerged as you were making it?

VA: It was both, but more the latter. I write most of these songs on acoustic guitar, and they tend to be pretty quiet, though they kind of got more dressed up in the orchestration that Sufjan provided on the first one. So we were all together at Dan Smith’s studio - Dan Smith of the Danielson Famile - where we recorded the bulk of the album, and our producer Jeremy [McDonald] did two things that sort of changed the complexion or the sonic palette of the record. One was he wouldn't let me play acoustic guitar on almost any of the tracks. He came over just as we were plugging in for the first song and he handed me an electric guitar and he said, "I want you to play this."

The other thing that was different was Anthony LaMarca from The War on Drugs played drums. He also played a ton of guitar - if you hear any good guitar on the record it's him, not me. But we recorded live with him playing drums for a great majority of the record. Both those things made it feel alive to me and vibrant and kinda rocky in a way our stuff hasn't before. I really liked it.

SYA: Your previous albums had covers of everyone from The Velvet Underground to The Cure to David Crowder, but I can't spot any on this album - are there any cover tracks on Light Up the Stairs I'm just not recognizing?

VA: Well, there's really only one, and it's of a song by Sufjan called "The Greatest Gift". We didn't print the lyrics - I can't even remember why, it wasn’t super intentional - but that song's not out yet. It's about to come out in two or three weeks, and it's an outtake from Carrie & Lowell. I had heard the song years and years ago - he played it at a wedding I officiated, and I had always thought about that song. And then I heard a recording that he made of it and I said, "Man, that's a lovely song. I really like it." And he said, "Well, I'm not gonna put it out. I might put it out in some EP or something later, but it doesn't fit with what I'm doing." And I said, "Well, can we do it?"

I'd always wanted to cover one of his songs because we're really close and, you know, I kind of made it a point to cover some of my other musical heroes like Dan Smith - we kinda reworked one of his songs - and we also covered Lou Reed and The Smiths... You know, in some ways it's kind of audacious to cover those folks' songs, but on the other hand... I don't know if "compliment" is the right word, but those people helped us so much, either from a distance or from up close. And Sufjan really helped us up close, so we were really proud to cover that song. And it's just an incredible song so we were super happy that he was gracious enough to loan it to us.

SYA: Speaking of reworking, you hear a lot of artists doing renditions of the Apostles' Creed, but I've never heard a musical version of the Heidelberg Catechism before.

VA: Yeah, that was really fun to write because there's no rhyme or meter to it. I've been rewriting hymns and gospel songs for a while now and, you know, oftentimes they line up and the chords fit in really easily and it can be done without too much trouble. This one was a lot harder to do, but it was good. You know, constraints provide the grounds for creativity, and that song is probably different than a lot of other songs I wrote because it just had to be. I tried to figure out how you could fit those words into something that you could sing.

And I just love that catechism. We sing that song in our church every week now - you know, it's so short. I was in church not long ago and looked over, and there was one of the children of our church who is three or four years old, singing the Heidelberg Catechism. And I thought, "Well, that's tangible proof that my life has not been a complete waste of time at this point. There's one child who has memorized the Heidelberg Catechism first question and it’s inhabited that person's heart a little bit.”

SYA: Has poetry always been a passion of yours? Did your experience writing it translate to songwriting at all? Are there any hopes you have for yourself as a poet in the future?

VA: I always have loved reading and writing, and I wrote some poetry when I was young, in high school and so on. So when I got to college what happened was I fell in with a group of friends who were all writing poems. I find that whatever community I'm in ends up influencing my life a lot. So it wasn't just that I wrote poems because the people around me were - it was something that I'd always kind of loved. But it was being in a community like that one - where somebody would write a poem and you would be excited by it or be moved by it, and then you would want to contribute to it and you'd want to send them a poem. And I was in workshops with lots of different people that I knew, and you'd be turned on by something that they did, or they'd turn you on to a particular poet... that was the fodder for those relationships.

And when I moved to New York, that happened with music. We knew a whole lot of people who were musicians and who had bands and whose lives were stuck together by making music together. I didn't grow up playing music - I grew up listening to a lot of music and really loved it, but I didn't know how to play an instrument. But part of the reason I learned was because I wanted to be part of that community. I wanted to participate. And some of the stuff translates over - you know, writing lyrics for a song is a kind of poetry. It's not exactly the same, but it's certainly similar. I think a desire to say something in a powerful way or in a disturbing way, or just to be heard... You know, I think that anybody who's a musician or a poet or anything like that - anyone who is a performer or an artist - there's something deep inside of them that wants to be heard. And depending on what medium you pick, you find different ways to say it or to be heard and to try to get other people to listen to you. Right now I do it more through music, but I still love to write.

One thing is time. I mean, I write a sermon almost every week, and that takes a lot of time, and I love to write songs and that's part of who Monique and I are as a family, so there's not quite as much time to write poems. But I still think of it as a part of who I am, and reading poetry is important to me.

But it depends. I mean, one thing about music that's - I don't know if you want to say "better" than poetry? - is that it's so much more accessible. It's accessible in that a lot of people can go to a club or you can all sit down in a living room. While poems can be a little bit hard to get into and they can be a little bit hard to share and, for right or wrong, a lot of people feel that there's a special language that you have to speak or a secret knowledge that you have to have in order to understand or like a poem.

And a lot of the poetry I wrote was pretty obscure... So, you know, I have aunts and uncles who bought the book of poetry that I had made and just sort of said, "Hey, I got your book of poems!" "Oh, you did?" "Uh, yeah." *laughs* And that was as far as it went. But when they bought our record... you know, a three-minute pop song is just easier to digest and it's easier to share and it's easier to put on when you're making dinner at night. And I'm not afraid to admit that I like that kind of accessibility, and I love the medium - it's influenced my life a ton and some of the greatest emotional connections I've had with people, or with God, or with myself are because of music. You know, listening to music was a huge coping mechanism for me when I was a kid, and it still is, too. I'm way off the track of what you asked, though. *laughs*

SYA: What’s going on with the album cover?

VA: Yeah, that's a great question. You know, our first two album covers were decidedly... straightforward? They were even a bit campy. And they very much communicated who we were as a band - husband-and-wife, pastor-and-wife... And I love those covers. But for this one, we didn't want be hemmed in by it having to be a picture of Monique and I - you know, smiling into the camera, or perpetuating part of who we are, which is that we are a band and we are a pastor and a wife. That conceit has already been established.

Monique is responsible for all the visual stuff for this record - so for this one as we talked about what some of the themes of the record were or what we wanted to say or how we wanted to be heard, we definitely decided that we wanted to be led by our own lights and by our own intuition rather than, "Well, we need to make it look like the other ones, or we need to communicate something or other..."

Like I said, on the first one there's a lot of text, and it looks like an album cover you would have pulled out of the gospel section of a used vinyl store in the 60s or something. This one, we want to put it in people's hands and let them appreciate it or love it or be confused by it without the constraints of, "Hey, we are this gospel band and this is our third record." I just wanted to give Monique the liberty to have the visuals communicate whatever she wanted to.

SYA: What’s that sort of glass box thingy? 

VA: We love the beach and we spend a lot of time on the beach and Monique started to make these molds for sandcastles, and one of them is on the cover and kind of sprinkled throughout. It's this plastic mold that she made that has the initials of the band and some other imagery that she wanted to include in it. We just started playing with that a lot. We were on the beach in New Jersey and a bunch of kids came and gathered around. Because it’s kind of weird - what we were doing with it was a little odd, and it drew a crowd.

SYA: Your first two albums were both with Asthmatic Kitty, but this one was Kickstarted and now released through Tooth & Nail and Gospel Song Records. What was the reason for the switch?

VA: Asthmatic Kitty was contracting a bit - getting a little bit smaller. It wouldn't surprise me if we did a record with them in the future, we still have such a great relationship with everybody there... But when it came time to do this record, we knew we had to do it a different way. So we did the Kickstarter, and our original intention was just to self-release it. But after we raised all the money - I mean, it was so much work to even just do the Kickstarter. As you know, trying to do a pet project that you care about when you have another job or when you have other things that are going on in your life is really hard to do. Making the record and writing songs and playing and recording - those are all things we have some proficiency in, but I didn't have any idea how I was gonna, you know, sell it.

I mean, we don’t have the stuff for the Kickstarter yet, but when it gets sent to us we’re gonna have to send it all out. And I thought, I can’t do this for the next year. You know, two or three times a night, mail out three or four vinyls or CDs or whatever. *laughs* And I just didn't have the first idea how to do it. So coinciding with this we started talking to the folks at Gospel Song and Tooth & Nail and they were gracious enough to say yeah, they'd come and do this with us. It was a little bit of a different arrangement than in the past because the record was already made, and we'd already put it all together.

So we'll see! It feels funny - and I've said this to the folks at Gospel Song - it feels weird because with the first two records on Asthmatic Kitty, I knew everybody and it was just a bunch of friends doing a project together... I don't think I ever signed a contract with Asthmatic Kitty. I really don't. I may have signed one for the second record, I don't really know. They've certainly been more than kind to us and generous and... I mean, the very fact that I didn't sign a contract and they still sold our record... *laughs*

SYA: Is it a conscious decision for you guys to have no official Welcome Wagon fanpage or social media accounts?

VA: It's been an official decision based on omission. I mean, neither of us are on Facebook, and I suspect we may have shot ourselves in the foot over the years by not having those things. I think if we started doing that when the first record came out, we probably would have built up more, you know, connections with fans and connections with organizations that can help but, you know, we never did that. And a large part of it is that we've both always had full-time jobs and a family, and it's just really hard to do. I know people that do it, but maybe I just don't have as much energy. Or maybe I'm lazier than most people, which is entirely possible.

It just hasn't happened. Like I said, I know people who do it, and the thought of getting on social media and doing these things... the person who did PR for us for the second record told us to do it. You know, "Send something out every two weeks. Do liveblog or, you know, vlog every few weeks and that'll really help you." And she was entirely right, you know. Totally correct. But we are persisting in our strategy of releasing records every five years and then being strangely silent in the interim. That really works well.

SYA: What's the last piece of art you experienced that really captivated you, that hit you like a bolt of lightning?

VA: Oh, I know exactly what it is. So this summer Monique and I and our son were in Italy, and we went to a church that has a side chapel in it that has three Caravaggios in it. And they're all around the life of St. Matthew. And the one on the left - in the chapel, it's over on the left wall - is The Call of St. Matthew, where they're in a pub or some kind of tavern and Jesus has come to the door and he's pointing right at Matthew. And actually I think Caravaggio painted himself into the painting - I think he's behind Matthew. But Jesus is pointing at him and there's a ray of light coming through. And then in the middle - I don't know what the title of the second one is, it's maybe The Inspiration of St. Matthew? - but it's Matthew writing his gospel. And there's an angel above him and he's receiving this inspiration. And then the third one, on the right, is The Martyrdom of St. Matthew. And he's on the ground about to be crucified and there are all these soldiers around him.

And so there we are standing there, and to look at this art you have to drop a euro into this little slot and then a light comes on for ninety seconds. So there’ll be like sixteen, eighteen people standing around - all these tourists, people from Germany and Japan and different places… and then the light would go off, and then someone else would go over and we’d all take turns putting coins in to look at it. And it was just… It was incredible. It’s different than seeing things like I’ve always seen them in art books. Which is fine, but it’s not the same thing as seeing them up close and seeing the craft behind them and also seeing just the visceral power of what the works are communicating.

And, you know, I’m a Christian, and so if you look at those three paintings, that’s the arc of the Christian life: Jesus calls you, and then you have work to do, and then you die. *chuckles* And those three things are actually happening all the time. You know, I’m being called today, and I have work to do that I did yesterday, and I’m dying right now. Trying to die to myself. And there’s death involved in your life all the time, every day. It’s permeating your life.

I wish I could go back. I wish I could see that once a week. I think I’d probably be a better person if I could see that once a week.

IMG_1081.jpg

Light Up the Stairs is out now on Gospel Song Records and Tooth & Nail

The Collection's David Wimbish talks losing his faith, the poetry of Rumi, and new album Listen to the River

The Collection (David Wimbish at center)

The Collection (David Wimbish at center)

It’s common for a bit of winnowing to happen in the time between a band’s first and second album, but in the three years since its debut LP Ars Moriendi, Greensboro, North Carolina’s The Collection has been through an extraordinary amount of change. Born from an intentional community partly inspired by Shane Claiborne's The Irresistible Revolution, the collective originally featured a dozen-plus members who joined bandleader and songwriter David Wimbish onstage to perform motley, raucous folk anthems brimming with gang vocals, woodwinds, brass, and strings. While The Collection's debut was defined by an all-hands-on-deck, kitchen-sink aesthetic, sophomore record Listen to the River finds the group almost halved in size, displaying tighter songcraft and more confident musicianship burnished by the intervening years on the road - tracks like the kinetic pop gem “You Taste Like Wine” outclass anything to be heard on Ars Moriendi.

Still, those sonic changes are small in comparison to the other shifts the band has undergone. David Wimbish and his wife Mira Joy’s divorce featured heavily on his 2015 solo EP On Separation, but Listen to the River’s lyrics are primarily concerned with a different separation, namely Wimbish’s departure from Christianity. While Ars Moriendi's expressions of faith were mingled with more than a little questioning, Listen to the River represents a definite break for the “domestic missionary kid” who grew up with Wycliffe Bible translator parents and served as worship director at a local church for five years. Like other Collection releases, it’s still replete with biblical language and imagery, but Wimbish now laces in references to a number of other religious works such as Siddhartha by Herman Hesse and the Tao Te Ching.

Spirit You All spoke to Wimbish via Skype about the the spiritual crossroads that Listen to the River chronicles, the temptation to continue catering to an audience still made up largely of believers (“If you look at our related artists on Spotify, it’s all worship bands”), and where Aaron Weiss of mewithoutYou steals all of his lyrics from:

SYA: How does The Collection look different as a band than it did three years ago when Ars Moriendi came out?

DW: It's really different. The Collection started when I moved to Greensboro and met all these really amazing people, and I'd written this record and was trying to find people to play all the stuff I'd put on it. All these people ended up moving into the same neighborhood together, living in the same houses and the houses next door. We were doing a lot of stuff together - potlucks once or twice a week, and people were going through the Book of Common Prayer together in the mornings... The band kind of came out of that. Since we were having a lot of meals together, we just thought, let's play music together too. Whoever was available would just get together and play.

That's how Ars Moriendi came together. I'd written most of the songs and a lot of the parts, and we just tried to get all these people on the record - I think it was upwards of twenty. Trying to coordinate that many people to come in and lay down thirteen songs is really absurd - it took us two full months of recording, whereas a lot of times you can do it in two to three weeks.

So that's how the band looked at that time, which was super fun and totally unsustainable. Just because, when you're first growing your thing, you go out and play a show and you feel lucky to get a hundred bucks. And then you're like, "Well, there's thirteen people, plus gas, plus food..." - that hundred bucks does not go very far. So I and my ex-wife decided we wanted to start touring a lot and moving around the country. We pitched to the band that we wanted to put together a touring version of the band because we knew not everyone could do it. We thought it might just be the two of us, but it ended up being this great group of seven people. That's mostly how the band has looked for the last three years since then, and we wrote and recorded the new record with that group.

SYA: What was Listen to the River’s songwriting process like, especially compared with the previous album?

DW: I write very visually, so if I know who's going to be playing different parts in a song, I can write the structures based on the mental image of who's in the room, who's playing it. With Ars Moriendi it was like we could have any instrument played by anybody and bring them in for it.

But with Listen to the River, we'd been touring as this solid group of people for a while, and there's something about touring together where you begin to trust each other a lot. I really wanted to do something more as a group, and that was very different. So rather than saying, "Does this song need a string section?”, it was like, "We have this song, so what is the clarinet going to do? And what is the trombone going to do?" It was more about how do we fit these instruments into the songs. I'd never written a record like that, so it was really fun - fun and also pretty tough, because I think I'm a bit of a control freak.

SYA: What kind of sound were you aiming for with Listen to the River?

DW: The big thing for me was melody. I was listening to a ton of pop music, actually - especially these really powerful women like Adele and Sia and Beyoncé. And I started to get to this place where I was just like, I want to feel like the melodies that I write are really singable so that, if I take away the music and just have the melody, would I still want to sing it? That kind of thing. That was a big focus for me. And it was good to be able to focus on that because the rest of the band was kind of able to do their own thing. Whereas in the past I was, you know, jack of all trades, master of none. On this I felt like I got to focus just on vocal melody a lot.

And then we started listening to sounds that are in pop music - we don't want that specific sound, but how can we create the same effect with a different instrument? So this song "The Older One" that's on there - there are these big horn swells, and we thought, we want to figure out how to make the horn section sound like a synthesizer. So how do we do that? We ended up going, "Okay, you try playing this trombone like a synthesizer, and you play this clarinet part like a violin", and we'd see if we could make these instruments sound like other things, or make the music accomplish something different. That was definitely a big difference.

SYA: You mentioned “The Older One”. Is there a connection between that song and “The Younger One”, “The Middle One”, and “The Doubtful One” from Ars Moriendi?

DW: Yeah, all those songs - well, except for "The Doubtful One" - all those songs are written about my siblings. I have three siblings. They were kind of snapshots or interpretations of where each of my siblings were at a certain point in their life. My plan was that Ars Moriendi would have all three songs, but when we got to it it turned out that "The Older One" was not very strong, and the other ones were a lot stronger. So then I felt determined that I had to write an "Older One" song for the next record and put it on there.

"The Doubtful One" is kind of an autobiographical interpretation, as well. So they're all connected in that way.

SYA: What’s the background for the spiritual crisis that this album documents?

DW: Well, I think I got very burnt out. We were doing The Collection, and I was working at a church, and within that community we basically had a house church going that I was leading a lot of. So, you know, I was doing like four or five things where I was leading these huge groups of people... At the same time, I started really questioning certain foundations of things. Like, you know, you just start reading any science textbook and go, "I don't know if there actually was a giant flood that covered the whole earth a few thousand years ago..."

The big one for me was that I just started meeting a lot of gay friends. And I just started being like, I cannot understand how a God who calls himself love - not just that he is loving, but that he is the epitome of the thing we call "love" - would be less loving than I could. Like, I would never take one of these people and, like, let them burn for eternity because of this thing that doesn't feel or seem destructive. But this God of love could do that? That feels really ridiculous.

And that started happening around the time when my ex-wife's dad also died very suddenly. While we were going through that process - which was part of writing Ars Moriendi, too - that was the big question people asked: "Was he saved? Was he a Christian?" And in a typical sense, no. He wasn't a Christian. So I started being like, "What? What kind of loving God would do that kind of thing?"

I think that through all that, I hit a pretty destructive, tough place in my life. I have this specific memory of being in my car and just crying and praying, and halfway through that prayer being like, "I'm not talking to anybody. I'm just talking to myself in this car." So I just stopped halfway through, and I think the next couple years I didn't do anything else. I was very depressed. I got very into astronomy, too, and the more that I read those kind of things, I think that that also wasn't healthy - it made life feel very pointless.

But yeah, somebody had given me this book of Rumi poetry and my family was on this trip at the beach and I was just like, okay, I'm gonna see what this is all about. And I opened to the first poem - actually, there's a mewithoutYou line that's taken directly from it. If you start reading Rumi, you'll be like, "Oh, every Aaron Weiss line is, like, word for word." It's either John Donne or Rumi. *laughs*

But there's this one poem where he’s talking about the world, and he says, "How did I end up in this brothel for drunks?" This is a paraphrase, but he basically says "I don't know where I came from, and I don't know where I'll end up when I die. Whoever brought me here will have to take me home." And I was just on the beach crying. Because I was like, "Oh my God, this guy from the 1200s is saying all this stuff that I've been wondering.” It just felt so sad and desperate but also so hopeful. So I soaked in that book - I mean, I was just flying through that book - and then started diving into some other Sufi stuff. And I went on this big journey. I was like okay, if I'm having trouble knowing what I believe, I don't want to just sit around. I don't wanna be the kind of person that says, I don't know what I believe, so that's it, and now I guess I'll be depressed and bummed-out my whole life. It's like, okay, then do something about it. So I started buying every religious book that I could and going through them. So you know, I was reading the Qur'an and the Bhagavad Gita and the Tao Te Ching and Thích Nhất Hạnh and Gandhi and Yogananda and all this stuff. And I think through that I started to feel this kind of revival of... not the literal meanings, but I guess of the essence of the things that I grew up with.

And I started to realize that the essence of these things Jesus said still meant so much to me, and to some degree I stopped caring about if I could prove Noah's ark. It doesn't matter... I mean, what are those stories communicating? There’s some kind of hopeful thing that we’ve called God...

The Kaballah - which is like the mystic sect of Judaism - their word for God is the Ein Sof. And it basically means “nothing” with a capital N. It’s this idea that everything in our world, whether it’s an emotion or a house or a table, is something that’s tangible and something you can touch or feel. Even the emotion of something like sadness is something that you can wrap your brain around. And then we have this thing we call God, which is... the stuff that’s not that. *laughs*

So yeah, all this stuff just started to shape this understanding of religion being these beautiful stories of trying to explain this unexplainable thing we call God - you know, the Ein Sof... But it's still changing all the time, you know, and hopefully it always will be. I hope I'm always learning and changing.

SYA: Since it came out in 2009, David Bazan's Curse Your Branches has become kind of the touchstone "breaking-up-with-God" album. Do you see Listen to the River as that type of record, or something different?

DW: That's a good question... I hope I never have to make a breaking-up-with-God album. The hard thing about writing lyrics about spirituality is that, hopefully, spirituality is always changing - changing and growing. But the thing that makes that hard is that every record is gonna feel like it's talking about something new that may kind of disregard the past records. I think what I was trying to do with Listen to the River was be as honest as I could be about where I was at, but also respect and acknowledge where I have been - not discounting the fact that other people who listen may be identifying with places I no longer am but could mean something to them.

So it doesn't feel like a breakup album to me, but to be honest I felt a lot of second album pressure. A lot of bands talk about how after you put out your first album you have a little momentum, and so for the second one you're like, what are people going to think? I felt like I had to take steps into new territory - the new territory that I was moving into in my spiritual life. I had to take steps toward being honest because I was feeling a lot of the pressure of, "Oh, I need to use certain language that our fans will like. What if we lose all the people that listen to us?" It was pretty tough to get to that place of being honest. Some of the lines are probably more breakup-y sounding - the opening song is probably the biggest one - but I think statements like that were important for me to kind of publicly move into new territory.

So yeah, I would say it's not a breakup album. But it is a reconstituting album. Something like that.

a2549176489_10.jpg

Listen to the River is out now on CD and LP via Burnt Toast Vinyl

Listen to "D.Day" from weirdo-country artist JaHool's Bandana's newest album

a3725504396_10.jpg

In a secluded corner of Bandcamp, an artist named Ross Tuttle is speedily cultivating one of the site’s most unique and idiosyncratic oeuvres. A South Carolina native currently studying theology in Vancouver, Tuttle has put out a string of four ultra-lo-fi releases over the last several months under the moniker JaHool's Bandana, with the project acting as “an outlet for all these indulgent songs i've been writing which keep coming out as an awkward mix between silly country songs, spiritual angst, and young love <3.”

JaHool’s Bandana's latest release is entitled ( i will )L-I-V-E-E-T-E-R-N-A-L-L-Y, and it's low-stakes stuff (as you can maybe tell from the cover art), but the tossed-off, reactionary aesthetic is a big part of its charm. The album's five brief tracks are intriguing and odd, with Tuttle's swooping twang recalling Joanna Newsom, of all people. His sly humor is on display on "D.Day", where he reads deep significance into everyday experiences like seeing a shaft of light or brushing the hand of a classmate ("I accidentally touched your hand/Passing papers, ooh, can be pretty sensuous, man"), all the while asking Dorothy Day to intercede for his soul. Listen below.

Watch Madison Cunningham and Osso String Quartet’s performance of "Little Things With Great Love"

IMG_2324 copy.jpg

For anyone who cares about good worship music, the Porter's Gate Worship Project is like manna from heaven. Over the summer, the initiative convened a huge, ridiculously talented pool of musicians (there are way too many to list) in New York City to collaboratively write and record songs for the project’s first volume, entitled Work Songs.

Mason Jar Music put together a live video for the album’s opening track, by singer-songwriter Madison Cunningham, and it is astonishingly beautiful stuff. "Little Things With Great Love" was written by Audrey Assad (with Cunningham and Bifrost Arts producer Isaac Wardell providing additional lyrics and melody), and was inspired by Mother Teresa's famous statement, “God does not call us all to do great things, but calls us to do small things with great love". The deeply poetic verses are perfectly served by Cunningham's silken delivery, and the emotive, shuddering accompaniment by members of Osso String Quartet multiplies the song's impact many times over. Watch “Little Things With Great Love” below. 

Digre // The Way of a Pilgrim

a1578400755_10.jpg
 

5.3

self-released / 2017

For anyone who grew up playing 8-bit RPGs, the sound of dungeon synth music will instantly call to mind long journeys, but Swedish chiptune artist Digre's The Way of a Pilgrim is almost certainly the first time the genre's metallic bleeps, bloops, and drones have signified a spiritual sojourn rather than a trek through an enemy-filled overworld.

A "searching pagan" and black metal musician (how Scandinavian), Olof Svante converted to Eastern Orthodoxy after witnessing the baptism of a friend at a parish in his small town of Umeå and being moved by its power. He gave up black metal at the counsel of his priest, but returned to music as Digre, making dungeon synth-style chiptune with Christian themes - his first release, Martyryxan, took many of its melodies straight from Orthodox choir sheets.

The Way of a Pilgrim, on the other hand, is entirely inspired by the 19th century Russian text of the same name, a well-known work of spiritual literature. (J.D. Salinger fans might remember the book as figuring heavily into Franny and Zooey) In it, the unnamed Pilgrim recounts his quest to discover how to follow Scripture's exhortation to "pray without ceasing". Among other adventures, he encounters a starets (or "spiritual father") who tells him about the Jesus Prayer - "Lord Jesus Christ, have mercy on me a sinner" - and instructs him in how to pray it continuously, so that the prayer almost becomes a kind of breathing.

The Way of a Pilgrim's seven tracks each represent a different part of its protagonist's journey, and they range from dreary slogs to triumphal hymns like "Feast of the Annunciation”. And appropriate to the hard-bitten asceticism of the source material, The Way of the Pilgrim's chiptune compositions are austere, with nary a hint of embellishment added to their NES-era tones. Indeed, the album probably would have benefited from some extra instrumental flourishes, or maybe a broader palette of 8-bit sounds - even compared to modern dungeon synth contemporaries, these songs are absolutely skeletal. Still, Digre's project would be remarkable for its oddity and total uniqueness alone, and for anyone with an interest in Russian 19th century prayer manuals, old-school dungeon-crawlers, or both, it’s well worth checking out. 

Jay Tholen // Celestial Archive

a3297034519_10.jpg
 

7.8

self-released / 2017

"You don't suck, you don't suck, you don't suck..."

Such is the backing refrain on "You Are Someone Special", the upbeat encouragement-anthem from Jay Tholen's new record. You could miss it on the first pass if you're not listening for it, but the line is everything great about Tholen and his music in microcosm - giggle-inducing, weirdly uplifting, and as earnest as a kid's picture drawn just to tell you they love you.

Sincerity pervades everything about Celestial Archive - you can practically feel Tholen straining to reach through your headphones with a big, squishy hug like Dropsy, the main character of his recent computer game. Tholen's parallel career as a game designer has become his main jam over the last few years, but Celestial Archive is the first time he's bent his programming skills to serve his music, rather than the other way around. Enter the "Celestial Archive Multimedia Experience". A charming webpage partner to the album clad in late-'90s internet flair, it gives background on each song and even lets listeners play along with the tunes using a built-in synthesizer. Reading tidbits about Tholen's adoration of breakfast (“the greatest non-divine meal”), or his "slime socks", it's impossible to experience Celestial Archive as anything but a labor of pure love.

Of course, even without the Multimedia Experience, Celestial Archive is a resoundingly successful endeavor. Compulsively singable melodies appear, disappear, and reappear transmogrified at later points amid piles of sound that smack of everything from retro electronica to vaporwave to chillwave to Eno-style ambient. The way-too-short, Neon Indian-esque cyclone of noise "Do I Deserve This?" manages to be deeply thought-provoking with just a few vocal samples, while the joyous prog-rock boogaloo that ends "You Are Someone Special" is the perfect culmination of the track's radiant positivity.

Tholen spends much of Celestial Archive marveling at God's intricate design and care for his creation, down to the finest details. Tholen got married last year and moved to Germany after a long international courtship, and that sense of wonder at God’s master plan encompasses his relationship with his wife. While lots of googly-eyed lovers attribute the way they met to some vague cosmic destiny, on "Celestial Archive of Divinely Authored Plans", he traces God's sovereign orchestration all the way back to the foundation of the planet: "When the plan was made, the boundaries were laid, and the landforms were raised/I think he knew this would be the place/Where you'd meet me and I would meet you". 

The level of micromanagment that he describes - stacks of heavenly file cabinets stuffed with papers outlining everything you’ve ever done or will do - can get slagged as an existential straightjacket, but for Tholen, it’s the source of deep comfort and security. That’s because it’s grounded by an even deeper belief in God’s radical goodness. Those axioms shape everything about the wonderful Celestial Archive, whose simple thesis is summed up in the middle of the track “He Wrote It All Down”: "It's good to know that all you've been through was carefully arranged/By a God who really loves you".

Kesha has a new video and it might actually give you chills

Screen Shot 2017-08-31 at 3.34.24 PM.png

Yep, that Kesha.

Over the last several years, the creative output by The Artist Formerly Known as Ke$ha has been eclipsed by her high-profile legal battle with her producer Dr. Luke, whom she has accused of continuous sexual, physical, and emotional abuse. Multiple lawsuits from both sides concluded with no convictions, but Kesha has by no means let it go.

Or, maybe, she has. On her new single, "Praying", Kesha directly addresses Luke with a message that is shocking for the audacious grace it displays. After stating that "You brought the flames and you put me through hell", she sings that, "I hope you're somewhere prayin'/I hope your soul is changin'". 

She said this about the song: "I've found what I had thought was an unobtainable place of peace. This song is about coming to feel empathy for someone else even if they hurt you or scare you. It's a song about learning to be proud of the person you are even during low moments when you feel alone. It's also about hoping everyone, even someone who hurt you, can heal."

The song's music video, directed by Jonas Åkerlund, features stunning visuals, many of which come courtesy of on-location shooting at the late Leonard Knight's incredible, wonderful folk/outsider art landmark Salvation Mountain in the Colorado Desert. Check out "Praying" below. 

STREAKING IN TONGUES debuts video for the tenderhearted lament "Baby Bird"

The_Song_of_the_Birds_1935_05_teach.jpg

In 2016, songwriter Ronnie Ferguson shut himself in a remote cabin in northern Michigan to sit, pray, read a pile of spiritual books, and face the grief that had lingered since his father's death when Ronnie was only a teenager. STREAKING IN TONGUES' Life Support was the eventual product, a raw document of Ferguson's depression and grieving process. Like similarly-themed records, Sufjan Stevens' Carrie and Lowell and this year's A Crow Looked at Me by Mount Eerie, it's a gauntlet of a listen, but a work of sterling quality.

Today, Spirit You All is proud to premiere the music video for one of Life Support's most beautifully melancholic tracks. The visuals for "Baby Bird" come directly from the 1935 Dave Fleischer cartoon Song of the Birds, and somehow the film clip syncs perfectly with the song's tragic themes of guilt and isolation (as well as, you know... birds). Watch it below.