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

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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.

Watch John Coltrane's stunning elegy for the victims of the 1963 Birmingham church bombing

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54 years ago today, four members of the Ku Klux Klan planted dynamite beneath the front steps of the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama. Four young African-American girls were killed in the explosion, and many others attending the Sunday morning service were injured.

Jazz legend John Coltrane wrote "Alabama" in the immediate aftermath of the tragedy, and he modeled his tenor sax playing on the cadence of Dr. Martin Luther King's eulogy for the four girls, delivered at their funeral in the bombed church's sanctuary only three days after the attack. On December 7, 1963, Coltrane and his quartet played the piece on the television program Jazz Casual. It's a singularly powerful, gut-wrenching dirge, one that evokes a bottomless sorrow, but also, as Dr. King says in his speech, "God is able to lift you from the fatigue of despair to the buoyancy of hope, and transform dark and desolate valleys into sunlit paths of inner peace." Watch it below.

Nathan Partain // A Lovely Wait

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6.1

self-released / 2016

Two years ago, Indianapolis musician Nathan Partain gave us one of recent memory's best worship records with Jaywalker, an LP that mixed rollicking Creedence Clearwater Revival-style roots rock with the wide-eyed urgency of a revival tent preacher. Now Partain is back with another set of songs, though with a decidedly different tack. While Jaywalker channeled CCR and Sweetheart of the Rodeo-era Byrds, A Lovely Wait is a more modest, acoustic affair that fits snugly with folk-worship contemporaries like Sandra McCracken and Cardiphonia/The Liturgy Fellowship, of which Partain is a co-founder. His version of Psalm 136, "The Lord Is All That Is Good" was one of the standouts on Cardiphonia's Psalms release a few years back, and these eleven devotional songs have roots sunk similarly deep into Scripture.

Case in point: opener "You Were Not My People" traces the Biblical metanarrative of a God in relentless pursuit of a people who spurn him again and again. The verses initially echo the Law and Prophets, but culminate in the Incarnation and Crucifixion: "You spit on me, even as I kissed you... You crucified, and I let you".

Two other songs highlight different aspects of the anticipation implicit in the name of the album. One is the title track, where an the beat of an anxious snare throughout mirrors the longing of the chorus, "So I eat the dust, I wear the ash/I bear the hunger, I keep the fast". Album closer "We Shall Sing", on the other hand, practically shivers with joyful expectation - the celebratory guitar riff swings through the song like a wedding bell, and Partain echoes the Apostle Paul in Romans, singing, "The whole world of despair is not worth being compared/To what we shall see". A lovely wait indeed!

Bjéar // Bjéar

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7.3

self-released / 2017

It's a common thing for artists to look to far-flung cultures for inspiration, but Brae McKee, chief member of South Australian band Bjéar, found his in Iceland, on precisely the opposite side of the planet. And while the influence of the island nation's musical acts (most notably Sigur Rós) is certainly perceptible in Bjéar's sound, it's Icelandic folklore about elves or "huldufólk" that serves as the aesthetic touchstone for the group's debut record. The "hidden people" themselves never show up lyrically, but Bjéar's ethereal atmosphere manages to be evocative of the volcanic, otherwordly landscape where stories about them arose.

Despite that definite Sigur Rós influence, Bjéar owes its biggest stylistic debt to pre-22, a Million Bon Iver, whose sound is all over the first track, "Sierra". Opening the album with a gentle shiver of strings, the song sketches a picture of a northbound drive in the snow, and McKee's clipped falsetto refrain couldn't be more Vernonian when he sings, "I don't wanna waste my time/I don't wanna lay my line", giving way to sublimely triumphant trumpets.

Bjéar was recorded and produced entirely in McKee's home studio, but it's lushly appointed nevertheless, with some lovely instrumental flourishes; that the band is able to pull off moments like the breathtaking violin coda of "Firefall" is a testament to his considerable talent as a producer and arranger. On top of that, each of its nine tracks flow seamlessly into one another, strengthening the impression of a unified aesthetic whole - there's a assured coherence to Bjéar that's uncommon to debut records.

Nevertheless, "Cold", which centers on the arresting image of a mysterious inferno in a darkened wood, stands as the LP's cathartic high point. "It's a cold dark forest where we found the fire/And it burned me down and consumed my heart", sings McKee as the snare drum intones martially, before altering the line on the next verse: "It's a cold dark forest where we found desire". The song's got a reverent, numinous quality to it - it's almost a burning-bush moment - with its protagonist stripped existentially bare before something fearful and awesome. Though it's bound to remain ineffable, Bjéar is chasing that wonder through their music, and wherever the chase takes them in the future, it will certainly be worth following.

Loud Harp shares lyric video for "Immanuel" from upcoming record

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Post-rock-influenced worship duo Loud Harp recently announced a new album, and as part of the record's Kickstarter campaign they've shared a brand new track with a fetching lyric video to boot. From the sound of "Immanuel", Hope Where There Was None is picking up stylistically where 2014's Asaph left off, with shoegaze-y tones and punchy drums that slowly swell around a resolutely sanguine piano melody. Check out the lyric video below, and support the band by pre-ordering on Kickstarter here.

Hear Wilder Adkins's tribute to the Civil Rights Movement "Side by Side"

Last year's Hope & Sorrow by Wilder Adkins was a record aglow with a Wendell Berrian affection for nature, as well as for the unique charms of the Southern lifestyle. His newest single, however, released on Martin Luther King Jr. Day, reflects on Southern history, specifically that of his home city of Birmingham, Alabama. "Side by Side" is a tribute to the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s, and a somber nod the 16th Street Baptist Church Bombing. According to Adkins, it's "an anthem for peace and a call to keep hoping and never give up fighting darkness with the power of light." (Side note: the Greek words at the top of the icon-like art mean "hope" and "sorrow")

Listen to "Side by Side" below.

Folksinger Seth Martin on protest and the power of roots music in a rootless age

Many experienced the political turmoil of the last year as a nauseating, all-consuming blitz, but for American folk artist Seth Martin, the turmoil was particularly inescapable. Not only was his home country in a state of upheaval, but so too was his adopted home of South Korea, where a stranger-than-fiction scandal led to massive demonstrations that drew over a million protesters and eventually resulted in President Park Geun-hye's removal from power.

Brought up near the mountains of Toledo, Washington, Martin has been recording music for over a decade and performing for even longer, often with a crew of musical comrades dubbed the Menders. Among the Menders's former tour companions are the legendary anarcho-Christian collective Psalters, four members of which can be heard on Martin's most recently released record, This Mountain. The album marks something of a turning point for Martin - not only has his songwriting shifted from a barefoot pastoralism to anxious, Guthrie-like woe-betides, but the newly-married musician has settled in South Korea long-term with his wife, visual artist Nan Young Lee. He's even adopted a parallel moniker (이산 - literally meaning "this mountain") for when he performs in Korean-language settings.

When Spirit You All met with Martin at the couple's home on a recent March evening in Seoul, (Editor's note: Spirit You All is based in Seoul, too, if you're wondering. We don't have the funds for globe-hopping interviews) it was only days since South Korea's highest court had approved President Park Geun-hye's impeachment and formally removed her from power (but weeks before military tensions started to ratchet up on the peninsula thanks to provocations from... people who should know better). We talked with Martin about he and his wife's involvement in the protests that led to the removal, as well as his new record and the enduring relevance of folk music:

SYA: What has your involvement in the recent, nationwide protest movement against (now-former) President Park Geun-hye been like?

SM: The short of it is that almost every weekend for the last several months, Nan Young and I have been at [historic city center] Gwanghwamun together, singing and marching and crying and yelling and laughing. On my personal end, everything I'm learning I'm trying to share through music and through writing. Sometimes actual published articles, but usually through online updates to whoever's reading, whoever's listening to me.

I feel a burden, or a responsibility, to use my voice as a writer and a musician in a different way than I did before. When I was in the States, I focused much more on spiritual and environmental "mending" and seeking peaceable relations. That's still what drives me now - the "mending" concept of seeking whatever brings us closer to home and to each other and to God. But being an American who mostly speaks English in a modernized South Korea, how that plays out is very different. 

I'm trying to learn to listen more. It sounds obvious, but with a long tradition of racism, colonialism and Orientalism, it still needs to be said: Koreans know more about Korea than a Westerner like me. My job is to lend support to whatever seems good, in whatever way I can. I believe there is a communication gap or a communication twist that happens when [information] comes through the pipeline back to the States. So I do have a valuable voice. I don't say so much my own opinion as I validate and say in English that what's going on here isn't what you're hearing in the news. Like any other place, this is an amazing, complicated place full of people who are doing hard work and are trying to make their lives better.

I start with the premise that I know very little. But the majority of my friends being Korean, I try to soak up everything I can, and when I have a chance to express or say something to a non-Korean audience, I try to reflect what they say. And almost always, it's counter to what everyone expects.

SYA: Apart from maybe your first album, The Iraqistan War and Other Stories, this is your most topical collection of songs. What motivated that shift?

SM: Time and place. I feel like the last two years, I've found a much more concentrated voice. It's not necessarily a voice I'll keep for future albums, but it definitely came about during the year before I came back to Korea [permanently] with Nan Young. There were similar things happening in the States and in Korea. One of them was poverty. (laughs) I should say, I am privileged and lucky, but it was always living to the last dollar and uncertain.

Also, I think, getting more involved than I ever had been in solidarity actions here. More direct things, like going on anti-nuclear, anti-militarization peace walks and stands, moving away from the abstract to focusing on concrete controversies and issues right now. And then I also have been studying so much of the art and the legacy of topical songwriters, and learning to hone and change some of my skills to communicate more clearly about specific things. So those things all mixed together.

Then on a personal level, I'm in a different culture and trying to ask questions like What kind of American am I? and What do I identify with? In this historical moment, my own country and my own heritage and my own religious foundation all seem to be in the death throes. Or maybe committing some kind of weird prolonged suicide and taking everyone else down with them. Yet I'm still in love with my homeland. I'm still in love with the people who raised me. I'm still a Christian. And I'm still in love with the legacy of American music and labor. So trying to distinguish those things in my own identity, while being in a different culture and seeing my home from the outside really sharpened my focus and my desire to communicate in a way that linked directly to these specific older traditions.

Every song on the album is not just influenced by but lives directly within the older songs. I intentionally used the old melodies, and that was almost a meditative, therapeutic practice. Like, when I'm walking or taking my commute, I'd listen to these older songs - hymns, labor songs, protest songs - that moved me, reminded me about what I love about home, and also made me nostalgic and touched me and gave me something to be proud of in my own heritage. At some point the concept emerged to make a whole batch of songs that speak to now the way those songs originally spoke to their time.

I tried to match the tone or the voice of the old song, to continue believing that the song is alive, all the culture connected to it is still alive, and then add my voice to it. It's something that's simultaneously humbling and also probably requires a lot of ego because you're putting yourself under a tradition - but also claiming that. So you're simultaneously honoring it, saying, "I'm incomplete without you, tradition." But also, "I'm ready to break and change you because I'm the most current form of you." You know what I mean? (laughs)

SYA: Can you provide some background for the track "Gureombi Norae"?

SM: I tried to tell the narrative as best I understood it from my Korean friends. Gureombi is the name of a volcanic rock formation that was almost completely obliterated - dynamited - in 2012 to lay the groundwork for the Gangjeong Naval Base, which is a joint South Korea-US naval base that docks warships that will be part of the war with China, if needs be. And hundreds of villagers and activists have been arrested trying to stop that base from happening. When one group was arrested, one of the police leaders said to them, "I'm not arresting you - Samsung is." It's a terrible story of local, small, not-very-powerful people getting wiped out by modern business contracts and the war machine.

Gureombi is the name of the main rock which is a UNESCO World Heritage site. But it was dynamited, and I tried to tell the story through the eyes of a long-time villager, watching it, wanting to stop it, not knowing what to do. It's connected to the melody of the old American hymn "Farther Along", and that hymn is also referenced by the Woody Guthrie classic "I've Got to Know". So ["Goreombi Norae"] connects that spiritual tradition and that activist tradition together. Legend says "I've Got to Know" was Woody Guthrie's almost-last or last song he wrote before he died. According to Utah Phillips and others in the folk tradition who have updated the lyrics, he was writing mostly about the bombing of Korea. "Farther Along" is a church song that's talking to someone who's depressed and sad, and basically says, "Why do the evil people not suffer? Why do they get on?" And the great spiritual truth that is so powerful for those who are suffering is, "Cheer up, we'll understand it farther along." But Woody Guthrie felt that that sentiment sometimes kept people from fighting back. So his version takes a similar lyrical bent, but he says, "I've got to know now." So I took that, with the history of those two songs, and made it about Gureombi.

This Mountain is available now on Bandcamp

*All photos by Grace Hilton*

Best of 2016 (Part 3)

Behold! The internet's final Best-of-2016 list - published 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 (here Part 1 and Part 2) aren't a conventional ranked Best-Of, but rather thirty quality records that deserve your ears' attention. Enjoy, and a incredibly belated Happy New Year to you.

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Sho Baraka // The Narrative

Sho Baraka's incredible new record The Narrative could not have come at a more urgent time - anyone left feeling homeless by the prevailing, Manichaean political and religious dichotomies of our day will inhale it like oxygen. Based in Atlanta, the rapper has three ambitious albums under his belt already, and The Narrative broadens the scope even further, bristling with ideas and historical references that literally cross millenia. Like several of his Humble Beast labelmates, Baraka isn't bound by hoary conservative/progressive labels - he's preaching the Gospel here, with all its attendant implications, and his candor and wisdom are electrifying. It's not the Sho Show the whole time, though - producer Jamie Portee avails himself admirably with James Brown-channeling horns on "Soul, 1971", and Jackie Hill Perry and Lecrae contribute blistering verses to "Kanye, 2009" and "Here, 2016", respectively. For the politically alienated and the spiritually frustrated, for music fans in general, The Narrative is manna from heaven, and a bona fide masterpiece.

 

Harrison Lemke // Fertile Crescent Blues

The Mountain Goats didn't release any new music in 2016, but John Darnielle's musical progeny had a banner year. Whereas The Chairman Dances's wonderful Time Without Measure took strong cues from more recent, full-band incarnations of Darnielle's Mountain Goats, Harrison Lemke's new LP harkens back to the lo-fi era of The Coroner's Gambit or All Hail West Texas, when it was just Darnielle recording on his Panasonic boombox. A concept album about "the generations of Adam & Eve", Fertile Crescent Blues reads between the lines of Genesis, offering midrashic takes on the familiar narratives. Some of the most striking are Lemke's epilogues: the title track is a portrait of the post-Fall couple eking out subsistence in a newly broken world, while "Postdiluvian Homesick Blues" has Noah digging up drowned flood victims in his vineyard, "Skulls still adorned for their last festivals/So cruel but so beautiful/When last they sang with life". Songs like this always have to navigate between the rote and the irreverent, but Lemke nails it on Fertile Crescent Blues not because of a lack of fidelity or imagination, but a surplus of both.

 

Hiss Golden Messenger // Heart Like a Levee

M.C. Taylor has worked his fingers to the bone over six Hiss Golden Messenger releases, and his newest comes just as the years of toil have begun to pay off, a full-time music career beginning to seem viable. But the fruit of success is bittersweet - with an emphasis on the bitter - and Heart Like a Levee has Taylor dealing with the crushing guilt of a father who has to tour for long stretches of the year, asking if the career of his dreams is worth the cost to his family. Friends and collaborators from Megafaun and Bon Iver help with the arrangements on Heart Like a Levee, and Taylor's music has never sounded as lush or enchanting as in the gorgeous polyphony of strings and saxophone that closes "Ace of Cups Hung Low Band". There are no clear-cut solutions on Heart Like a Levee, but Taylor finds a way through the anguish on "Highland Grace", where he repents of being a "fool of the rule", and lets grace have its way with him, finding that "loving her was the easiest thing in the world".

 

Civilian // You Wouldn't Believe What Privilege Costs

A four-piece based in Nashville that hawks a cerebral brand of razor-sharp indie rock, Civilian makes a good impression on their debut LP for Tooth and Nail Records. Civilian's sound strongly recalls Death Cab for Cutie, though Civilian's sound hits a bit harder than Death Cab. And although frontman Ryan Alexander allows himself a Gibbardian romantic rumination or two, You Wouldn't Believe What Privilege Costs finds him venting societal and political anxieties for most of its runtime. "Reasons" voices skepticism at power grabs couched in religious language (There's reason to believe/We're a gun in the hand of a conman"), while "I Told You" is a stinging critique of rapture-ready theology: "They say, 'This beautiful garden is just a burial plot'/They couldn't be more wrong". Privilege is a solid intro to a talented band, and an effective appetite-wheter for more from them in the future.

 

Damien Jurado // Visions of Us on the Land

Dreamlike is the first word that comes to mind when trying to describe Damien Jurado's latest record, but that would be redundant - Jurado's entire Maraqopa trilogy, of which Visions of Us on the Land is the final installment, unfolds within a vision or a dream. The "plot"; as it were, is opaque (astute commentators say that's not really the point anyway), but Jurado's shining, liquid mercury voice, coupled with the textured, psychedelic soundscapes he crafts with producer Richard Swift, conjures a fantastical alternate reality that it's a pleasure to return to again and again. Visions' songs are pregnant with meaning, but it's a meaning that is only apprehensible through experience - or, as he sings, musing on what, if anything, lies beyond death: "There's only one way in/And it's through".

 

Joseph // I'm Alone, No You're Not

The late 90s were the Age of Hanson, but with the emergence of acts like First Aid Kit, Haim, and now Joseph, the late 2010s are apparently the Age of the Sister Group. Allison, Meegan, and Natalie Closner hail from Portland, Oregon, and their "genetically perfected harmonies" went a long way toward making their debut, 2014's Native Dreamer Kin, a memorable one. Their sophomore effort, I'm Alone, No You're Not, recruits famous Saddle Creek alum and Monsters of Folk member Mike Mogis as producer, and it pays off in spades, adding layers of studio polish to the sisters' songs, which swing effortlessly between delicate refrains and full-throated anthems. The Job-inspired "Whirlwind" is a terrific Florence and the Machine impression, but it's on the fantastic "Blood & Tears" where the sisters perfectly triangulate their adrenaline-shot sound, a declaration of love that's less romantic confessional than bellowing war cry.

 

David Åhlén // Hidden Light

Swedish musician David Åhlén's lovely 2016 record Hidden Light is the elusive, unicorn-like heir to a rarified musical tradition, one with no agreed-upon name, but which we can informally dub "Difficult Worship Music". Devotional music is commonly (and not without reason) accommodated to the lowest-common-denominator, and so the pantheon of Difficult Worship Music - which could alienate the listener with left-field musical choices, strange sonics, or a lack of resolution to its melodies - is small indeed (Glen Galaxy's 2011 album Thankyou probably stands as this miniscule genre's masterwork). Hidden Light is far less abrasive than Thankyou, however, with ethereal harmonies that float, fog-like, through Åhlén's sparsely-orchestrated compositions. The opening track "Morning Prayer" is a nuanced meditation where Åhlén's invitation to "invade my heart" is backed by a trumpet as gentle and delicate as spun gold. Despite its total lack of chorus, you're likely to hear its tones drifting on the liminal edges of your mind after the first few times you hear it. The album's other songs diverge from that sound significantly, but all have the same experimental DNA, earning Hidden Light a well-deserved place in the DWM Hall of Fame - hopefully Åhlén will contribute again soon.

 

The Gray Havens // Ghost of a King

Husband-and-wife duo David and Licia Radford have had quite the meteoric career over the last few years. As The Gray Havens, they released a well-received EP, followed by an accomplished debut LP in 2015, both of which were grounded by strong songwriting fundamentals and a direct and sweeping folk-pop sound. 2016's Ghost of a King ups the sonic ante once again, with frequent Andrew Peterson collaborator Ben Shive on the boards, putting a shellack of gleaming studio polish on the Radfords' messianic visions. But the aspect of Ghost of a King the Gray Havens deserve the most credit for is "Diamonds and Gold", a CHVRCHES-style electropop track that couldn't seem more ill-advised but somehow turns out goofily fun. Kudos to David Radford for the attitude he puts on those half-rapped vocals - that's true bravery right there.

 

Bill Mallonee // Slow Trauma

Bill Mallonee's electric guitar was part of what made Vigilantes of Love such a revelation to listeners in the 90s, but in the years since, his heavily acoustic solo records have turned deeply poetic lyricism and classic Americana atmosphere into the hallmarks of what we think of when we think Bill Mallonee. Slow Trauma puts the spotlight back on Mallonee's electric guitar chops in a big way, and they don't disappoint. The songwriter has a tragedian streak a mile wide, and Slow Trauma is packed with tales of aimless, heartbroken wanderers of the American West. Take the depressed, melancholic "Doldrums in Denver", where every instrument sounds mired in molasses, or the phenomenal, layered weave of guitars in the last minute or so of "Only Time Will Tell". It's a song you wish would just roll on and on, like the train tracks that bear Slow Trauma's weary passengers onward, into the slowly setting sun.

 

STREAKING IN TONGUES // Life Support

It's appropriate that the trailer for the new record from STREAKING IN TONGUES is a clip from The Exorcist III; Life Support is the sound of a man fighting off the devil. Ronnie Ferguson's father died when Ronnie was in high school, and when the 34-year-old songwriter and bandleader of STREAKING IN TONGUES relocated to the backwoods of northern Michigan - hours away from friends and bandmates - his long-submerged depression and grief returned with a vengeance. Life Support is a harrowing chronicle of the period, played and recorded almost entirely by Ferguson himself in his bedroom, and the 12 ramshackle, experimental tracks recall both Elliott Smith and Daniel Johnston in their raw interiority and desperation. This is staring-into-the-abyss stuff, and on songs like "Devil in My Ear", the abyss has grown teeth and claws and is beating down the bedroom door. And though it's an album that's swollen with pain, it's gilded with a hope against hope that God is actually real. Ronnie Ferguson has made an incredibly intimate, idiosyncratic record in Life Support, but on the heartbreaking, out-of-joint lament "Born to Bruise", he's getting at something universal when he sings, "I've gotta believe or I'll scream".

Best of 2016 (Part 2)

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 (here's Part 1) aren't a conventional ranked Best-Of, but rather thirty quality records that deserve your ears' attention. Enjoy, and a incredibly belated Happy New Year to you.

 

Seth Martin // This Mountain

Released on the fateful day of the US Presidential Election, folk musician Seth Martin's new record might be the most timely of the year. Martin's music has always had a strong social conscience, but This Mountain is his most topical album ever, a scorched-earth indictment of the political and cultural mileau circa 2016. Martin touches not just on American issues like the Dakota Access Pipeline, war refugees, and police reform, but takes on injustice in his adopted home of South Korea, too, excoriating the government's coverup following the Sewol Ferry incident. And though the lyrics couldn't be more current, musically Martin is reaching far into the past, repurposing folk melodies that are rarely less than 100 years old. Maybe that's part of why his songs have the ominous ring of prophecy to them, not least when he echoes Isaiah on "It Takes a Worried Mind (To Sing a Worried Rhyme)": "It takes a mountaintop to fill a valley in".

 

Sandra McCracken // God's Highway

In 2015, singer-songwriter Sandra McCracken took a turn toward church music with an excellent record called Psalms. Laid down in a matter of days with friends gathered around a piano, it had songs like "We Will Feast in the House or Zion" that were memorable for their depth and elegant power. God's Highway is a sister album to Psalms, recorded in the same fashion, though McCracken distinguishes it with some subtle musical choices - "Trinity Song", for instance, incorporates elements of the Taize style of contemplative prayer and worship, paring back the verbiage for a more spacious and meditative feel. And on "Love Will Bring You Home", she pens some staggeringly beautiful poetry, moving again beyond the bounds of strictly congregational music : "The bridegroom sun runs across the sky/With legs so strong, he runs to meet his bride/With every sunrise/With every sunrise". No matter what genre or mode of songwriting McCracken tackles next, if it's as lovely as God's Highway, it will be more than worth following her.

 

Glowing Moses // Cosmonaut EP

First impressions are the most important, and even aside from their fantastic, why-didn't-I-think-of-that band name, these Cleveland, Ohio upstarts make a good one with their debut EP, Cosmonaut. The young outfit makes hooky, caffeinated rock n roll in the vein of Built to Spill, with scorching guitar solos and sharp production. On "Cold Ghost", frontman Cole Harmon amusingly turns the heaping-burning-coals aspect of being kind to your enemies into smack talk: "Well I've got news for you/I forgive you". There's more Glowing Moses is trying to say in these spiritually-preoccupied songs, but they're all geared toward one thing: fun.

 

Citizens & Saints // A Mirror Dimly

Citizens & Saints have a hybrid arena-rock/worship sound that they've refined significantly for their third full-length, and it stands as easily their best work yet. The Seattle band take some musical risks on A Mirror Dimly, and they pay off in spades on tracks like "Faith", a danceable number with a wobbly synth in the background that sounds like it's courtesy of nu-disco wonderboy Todd Terje. And on top of that, bandleader Zach Bolen's impassioned howl can raise goosebumps on the soaring refrains of songs like "Madness" and "Doubting Doubts". It might not seem like much to say for a genre that sees about as much innovation as Easy Listening, but in its particular niche, Citizens and Saints' A Mirror Dimly is the cream of the crop.

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Anthony Quails // Before the Bright Lights

It's the best of times and the worst of times in music these days. Artists are creating material that's more diverse and sonically sumptuous than ever before, but it's offset by lyrical poverty - a poverty that's especially pronounced in folk music and singer-songwriter fare. Chattanooga, Tennessee's Anthony Quails, though, is doing his part to keep the tradition alive, stewarding the increasingly lost art of storytelling in song. His new Before the Brights Lights is an old-fashioned country-and-folk record that takes its time and puts Quails' gentle voice front-and-center as he spins heartfelt yarns that skirt the line but never lapse into sentimentalism. Highlights are "In the Name of the Lord", told from the perspective of a medieval Crusader whose journey to the Holy Land ends with a surprising revelation, and "John Harvey Walker", which tells the story of a wrongfully-convicted death row inmate through the paradigm of the wrongfully-convicted Christ. The latter feels like something Johnny Cash could easily have written, and Before the Bright Lights is a sure thing for anyone with an soft spot for him or for thoughtful, earnest music of any genre.

 

Branches // White Flag

A California foursome that rose to fame partly for its wildly popular cover of The Darkness' "I Believe in a Thing Called Love", Branches make music defined by tight musicianship and a way with poppy, anthemic choruses. White Flag is their second full-length, a follow-up to 2012's Thou Art the Dream that transforms their sound a bit, straddling the formerly folky vibe and a newer indie-rock aesthetic. It sounds like Mumford & Sons made a record halfway between their much-ballyhooed switch from suspenders to leather jackets. It's a good fit for Branches, and there are quite a few memorable moments on the slickly-produced White Flag, like the electronically-tinged opening track "Carry", or "Sparrow", which takes lyrical cues from "His Eye Is on the Sparrow". Here's hoping that Branches can continue to push themselves sonically while writing tunes as solid as these.

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Dave Dobbyn // Harmony House

"I'm being followed by a great big ball of light", Dave Dobbyn sings in a pitched falsetto on Harmony House, his first album in eight years. The song and the album proves that the New Zealand legend still has his knack for writing songs with striking imagery and enough melodic verve to stick in your mind long after the record stops. Dobbyn might just have turned 60, but that doesn't mean he's settled into a musical rut - the songs on Harmony House are a diverse bunch, and he sings with a conviction that is captivating. The standout is the 70s-psychedelia-channeling, reverb-heavy "Waiting for a Voice", which has Dobbyn wailing like John the Baptist that Heaven is at hand; when he commands, "Get into the water, man, and lose your sin", you want to obey.

 

Half-handed Cloud // Jiminy Circuits EP

John Ringhofer aka Half-handed Cloud hasn't put out a full-length record since 2014's career highlight Flying Scroll Flight Control, but in the intevening years he's shared a few smaller, scrappier EPs, which his new 7-inch Jiminy Circuits comfortably sits next to. The EP was released through Plastiq Musiq, and for the first time it puts Ringhofer in front of a Roland RH-09 analog synthesizer (Plastiq is a specialty label dedicated to new music created with old synths). The results are winning, to say the least. Ringhofer bounces from melody to melody like an attention-deficit pinball, and his childlike singing floats among the sounds of antique electronica, delivering charming lines that will bring a smile to your face: "Show us you're the ghoul that we can trust/Listening for your whispers and your gusts". Early genre pioneers like Kraftwerk are known and beloved for their emotional impassivity, but with Jiminy Circuits, electronic music has never sounded more huggable.

 

Chris Bathgate // Old Factory EP

Ann Arbor, Michigan's Chris Bathgate took a leave of absence from the music scene for the last five years (he reportedly did a lot of hiking) and picked up some new musical tricks along the way. The five songs on Old Factory take the filled-out folk-rock template of 2011's Salt Year and add new elements like the heavy percussion and slithering, sitar-like guitar on the fantastic track "Big Ghost", or the off-kilter piano and halting strings on "Calvary". The latter is a memorably ambiguous but optimistic portrait of trauma - and life in the altered light of its aftermath: "Ain't it good to be alive/With the wound still in your side?". Old Factory leaves you wanting more, and thankfully we won't have to wait long because he's got a new LP, Dizzy Seas, dropping in May.

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Joel Brandt // For Your Weary Head EP

British Columbian songwriter Joel Brandt's new EP is dedicated to those affected by mental illness, but it will comfort anyone feeling wrung-out and exhausted by the relentless onslaught of fear, alienation, and anger on all sides. For Your Weary Head instantly recalls Everything I Long For, the classic album by Hayden, another tenderhearted Canadian depressive who trafficks in lo-fi bedroom recordings. Brandt released For Your Weary Head during Advent, and "Lullaby for Grown-ups" is an affectionate instruction manual in taking a load off for folks who are home for the holidays, while the incredibly moving "Rosemary" is a lament for sufferers of mental illness, and a reminder that humanity's problems are far more endemic than we'd like to think. "It's not war/It's not poverty", Brandt sings before meekly offering a prayer: "God, give us what we need for our heads/Not a roof but some blessed relief/Hope for tomorrow and some present peace/Just one good day and restful sleep". For Your Weary Head is no panacea for the world's woes, but it's a beautiful act of humility and burden-bearing that will bless anyone who hears it.

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.