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ambitious albums under his belt already, and The Narrative broadens the scope even further, bristling with ideas and historical references that literally cross millenia.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.

Best of 2015 (Part 3)

This series of three posts (Part 1 and Part 2) doesn't hew to the usual "ranking" format of most year-end best-of lists. Instead, since we're quite a ways into the new year already, this is an effort to round up 30 excellent releases from last year that deserve attention but due to time constraints we just couldn't get around to penning full-fledged reviews for. Enjoy, and happy new year everybody.

 

Revolutionary Army of the Infant Jesus // Beauty Will Save the World

A label's interest in reissuing 1987's The Gift of Tears reportedly precipitated the reformation of Liverpool's mysterious Revolutionary Army of the Infant Jesus, and their music has only grown more emotionally and spiritually powerful after a decades-long hiatus. Recalling Popol Vuh and Talk Talk, the ambient soundscapes on Beauty Will Save the World are evocative and tinged with the sounds of world folk music, drawing listeners in with Godspeed You! Black Emperor-like audio recordings. The Middle Eastern influence is strong on the intense "Suspended on a Cross", and on the mesmeric closer "Before the Ending of the Day", radiantly peaceful cellos and the slow toll of a bell accompany a liturgical prayer for divine protection as night falls. Revolutionary Army of the Infant Jesus's music is deeply concerned with the loss of the sacred, but these numinous meditations on the are stark reminders that Beauty really will save the world.

 

Sufjan Stevens // Carrie & Lowell

Well, you knew this would be on here somewhere. Sufjan Stevens' first non-collaborative, non-holiday release in five years, Carrie & Lowell was greeted by those who perceived The Age of Adz as an aberration from the artist's (actually rather capacious) wheelhouse as a welcome return to folky form. But Carrie & Lowell did away with more than Adz's sequenced drums (and Illinois' glockenspiel) - it's the first Sufjan record to drop the gimmicks he has employed so adeptly in the past - there's no Chinese zodiac, Michigan trivia, or apocalyptic outsider art here to act as filter. Instead, these eleven skeletal ballads are an exorcism, with Stevens' emotional fallout following the death of his mother coming through raw and poignant. Carrie & Lowell is a classic in a career already full of them.

 

Sandra McCracken // Psalms

Sandra McCracken has been working the singer-songwriter fields for over 18 years now, but Psalms is the fruit of a reorientation toward church music she's made since becoming worship minister for an Anglican church plant in Nashville. Recorded over just two and a half days in a Brooklyn apartment, McCracken's interpretations of these psalms aren't born from fine musicianship alone, but from a deep acquaintance and mundane reliance on them in everyday life. Like the prayer book itself, the emotions on Psalms span the spectrum, from godforsaken despair to exultant triumph, but they're anchored by time-tested faith. The words of these sacred songs are borrowed, but the sentiment behind them on tracks like the beautiful "We Will Feast in the House of Zion" sounds earned.

 

Twenty One Pilots // Blurryface

Columbus, Ohio duo Twenty One Pilots went into overdrive last year with Blurryface, a concept album centered around the shadowy eponymous character who acts as the embodiment of modern narcissistic insecurity. He, as the album says, cares what you think. Tyler Joseph and Josh Dun double down on pretty much everything that distinguished their previous record 2013's breakout Vessel - there's the frantic, sugar-rush pace, the tightly-wound harmonies and suburban-white-boy rapping, and the conscious, purposeful genre-schizophrenia that never lingers on a specific style for very long. And for once, the coherent theme helps to anchor their honest, neurotic lyricism more firmly and meaningfully than it has in the past. Despite the plain efforts to push their sound further, (and the oft-repeated put-downs they aim at supposed Top 40 pap, which seem misguided now that "Stressed Out" is apparently perched at the top of those same charts) Twenty One Pilots is accessible bubblegum pop, and some rather catchy bubblegum, at that. 

 

Evan Mazunik Trio // Restoration

Denver-based composer and keyboardist Evan Mazunik has worked with a host of excellent acts from Danielson to The Welcome Wagon (his CV includes many other projects such as providing scores for silent films like The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari and Dreyer's The Passion of Joan of Arc), but in December he shared this wonderful collection of hymn interpretations recorded with his jazz piano trio. Mazunik's playing is by turns blissful, reverent, and jaunty, and he and his bandmates' improvisations can turn on a dime - the ascent-descent-ascent of "Sons and Daughters (O Filli Et Filiae)", for one, is captivating. The same goes for the ebullient rendition of "The Glassy Sea (Holy, Holy, Holy)", where Mazunik's piano imitates the titular sea, eddying, rippling, and settling like water itself. 

 

Nathan Partain // Jaywalker

If this album by Indianapolis' Nathan Partain had been forty minutes of white noise, it still would have scored a spot on this list thanks to that amazing cover art. Happily, though, Jaywalker a terrific record loaded with crunchy roots rock and suffused with Partain's grace-addict conviction and fervor - "Jesus suffered and paid blood to buy the lowest of the low/Hallelujah! Amen! That's me!" he sings on "I Am One of Those". The same goes for "Love is a Gift" where he screams himself hoarse over a ferocious electric guitar, and for the lovely closer "The Lord is My Joy", where wisps of backing vocals harmonize euphoniously with the singer.

 

Andrew Peterson // The Burning Edge of Dawn

After publishing the 700-page final installment of his Wingfeather Saga quadrilogy in 2014, troubadour-author Andrew Peterson was understandably tuckered-out. But record contracts wait for no man, and in early 2015 he found himself back in the studio starting almost from scratch. The writing and recording of The Burning Edge of Dawn were nearly simultaneous, but amazingly, the setup worked. Peterson's thoughtful poetic flair is fully intact, and one of the record's many striking lyrical moments comes on “Every Star is a Burning Flame”, when he runs across the spot in Louisville where Thomas Merton had a mystical experience, and prays for the same transfigured vision: “I wanna look into the night and see a million suns rise”.  And while he's always seen himself as a songwriter first and a musician, the album is no sonic slouch - the pyrotechnic closer "The Sower's Song" is one of the very finest things he's ever recorded. The songs on Burning Edge of Dawn have an immediacy and unity thanks to the particular season of of life they sprang from; as Peterson shared in an interview, the record is not about finally emerging from the dark woods of depression, but rather the moment "when you see there's an end to the woods." Accordingly, they're some of the most despondent he's ever penned, but always eclipsed by hope and a sort of grave joy in the sunrise that's setting fire to the the horizon. 

 

Circle of Hope Audio Art // Finding Home

The Philly/Jersey-area church Circle of Hope has an active community of over two dozen musicians serving i, and while they focus most on actually facilitating worship, in December they released this diverse collection of some of the community's favorite pieces. Coming Home's nine tracks are all over the aesthetic map - the spoken-word piece "The Buzzing of the Bee" is a bit overwrought, but its indictment of drone warfare sits comfortably among these often justice-oriented worship songs. Similarly, Matt Sowell's hypnotic solo guitar on the wordless "Luke 7" makes you want to go read Luke 7 again. The standout, though, is the dynamite world-punk praise song "Rest in Your Walls", which could pass for a new recording by Philadelphian neighbors Psalters.

 

The Innocence Mission // Hello I Feel the Same

The Innocence Mission's music has such an impossibly warm sound, it's like they record to analog tape from directly beneath a sitting mother hen or something. It's been five years since their last album proper (the Peris' both released solo efforts in the interim) but Hello I Feel the Same has everything you love about the group in spades: that incredible warmth, their unhurried living-room folk timbre, and Karen Peris' unmistakable croon, which only grows more ineffably soothing with time. Her songwriting is similarly comforting - the title track is a refreshing affirmation of empathy rather than alienation, while on "Fred Rogers" she dreams of meeting the unshakably kind man, who "would smile on me and tell me how I could make things better".

 

The Brilliance // See the Love EP

2015 was a banner year for The Brilliance thanks to their excellent pseudo-debut Brother, which came out in January and a stint touring with John Mark McMillan later on. They couldn't let the year run out without sharing a little bit more, though. Ten days before Christmas, they dropped this lovely four-track EP, which couldn't have been more timely - the brief but intense “Run” features a striking couplet reminding us of our infant Lord's refugee flight from Herod, while the gorgeously harmonic title track is a holy protest song calling listeners to embody the love that's been given to them in Christ. The kicker is the terrific remix of “Brother” featuring Humble Beast's Propaganda, who steals the show with a perfectly-pitched verse that elevates the subtly reworked track. Here's hoping these guys work together again in the future.

Best of 2015 (Part 2)

This series of three posts (Part 1 and Part 3) doesn't hew to the usual "ranking" format of most year-end best-of lists. Instead, as we move into the new year this is an effort to round up 30 excellent releases from last year that deserve attention but due to time constraints we just couldn't get around to penning full-fledged reviews for. Enjoy, and happy new year everybody.

 

The Most Serene Republic // Mediac

Toronto's The Most Serene Republic sure took their sweet time with Mediac. It's been six years since their last full-length, ...And the Ever Expanding Universe, but their brand of elaborate brand of indie rock has lost none of its flair. Neither have lead singer Adrian Jewitt's cerebral-traffic-jam lyrics, like on “Love Loves to Love Love”, where he takes on rapacious neo-capitalism's unreasonable demands on humanity and the planet (“Earth's cigarette is down to the filter”). The brassy, compulsively listenable “Ontario Morning” is by far the album's most accessible track, but faithful listeners will be rewarded as each listen helps to reveal the melodic strands buried within Mediac's tangled cacophony.

 

Jon Foreman // The Wonderlands

These Jon Foreman EPs are as high-concept as they come: eight year ago, the Switchfoot frontman released a cycle of brief albums inspired by each of the four seasons, and similarly, each of the twenty-four tracks on 2015's Wonderlands series of EPs corresponds to an hour of the day. That works as a framing device, but Foreman's real stroke of genius with this new project was to recruit a different friend/collaborator to produce each song. While the Seasons EPs didn't stray too far from an acoustic folk sound, there's a different sonic flavor to each of the tracks on The Wonderlands - "Good For Me" sounds like Bone Machine Tom Waits, and the static bloom of electric guitar on "Ghost Machine" recalls My Bloody Valentine. And that diverse instrumentation is always accompanied by Foreman's humble and perceptive songwriting, which has lost none of its wit. As he sings on Sunlight's opener with that unmistakable vocal fry, "Whenever I start cursing at the traffic or the phone/I remind myself that we have all got cancer in our bones/Don't yell at the dead, show a little respect/It's terminal".

 

Son Lux // Bones

Ever since Ryan Lott's 2008 debut as Son Lux, the project's sound has been growing steadily more experimental and intricate, and for his fourth LP, he finally recruited some help in the form of drummer Ian Chang and guitarist Rafiq Bhatia. The new trio setup is apparently working like gangbusters, because the head-spinning array of sounds on Bones is willfully strange yet accessible. That goes for the bizarrely jutting symphonic chorus of "Change Is Everything" as well as for the industrial trip-hop of "Now I Want", where Lott sounds like Odysseus lashing himself to the mast: "Is this less of me, crying out to be free?/Don't believe me".

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Cardiphonia // Songs of the Psalter: Volumes 5.1 & 5.2

Over the last several years, the Cardiphonia collective of songwriters and musicians has been the fount of - not every - but many, many blessings for the Church with its crowdsourced worship compilations. Each one is organized around a different theme, and this year saw the release of the first volumes of a project aimed at producing fresh musical takes on all 150 psalms (these two albums cover 135-150). The takes on Songs of the Psalter are all over the folk/Americana spectrum, and there are new songs from well-known acts like The Welcome Wagon, but a lot more from musicians you may never have heard of. That means that, on top of the wonderful tunes themselves, Cardiphonia is a great pathway even more excellent devotional music down the road.

 

Low & Behold // Uppers

Low & Behold is a duo of Starflyer 59's Jason Martin and Demon Hunter's Ryan Clark, but the sound of their debut is nothing like either of those claims to fame. Recalling both Depeche Mode and New Order-y darkwave, Uppers is full of driving, low-to-the-ground basslines and atmospheric synths, with Ryan Clark putting on his most menacing Ian Curtis cant. This ten-track record apparently took seven years to finally come together in the form we're hearing it, but hopefully Martin and Clark can carve out some time for a follow-up, because the seemingly-mismatched pair has some serious chemistry.

 

J Han // Tower Ivory

First things first: for his debut full-length, rapper J. Han didn't miss the opportunity to title one of the tracks “Han Solo”. Now that we have that out of the way... Han's goofy and earnest persona is present all over Tower Ivory, especially on “Chukkas”, where he spends the song extolling his favorite footwear. That song, along with “Shalom”, form the album's one-two punch thanks to some solid guest verses from, respectively, Mickey Cho and John Givez, who vibe well with their host. Han has been rapping for a while with his Good Fruit Co. labelmates in AMP, but Tower Ivory shows he's got the MC chops to go it alone, too.

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The Gray Havens // Fire and Stone

Sometimes it's tough to place the lyrical influences of bands, and sometimes it's not. Folk-pop duo The Gray Havens is definitely in the latter category – it's like Dave and Licia Radford were locked in a basement with a Bible, The Lord of the Rings, and the collected works of Jonathan Edwards, and stumbled back out months later with Fire and Stone. The Chicago-based couple's songs are pretty much wall-to-wall literary/biblical references, and they're at their at their best in the show-stopping last half of “The Stone”, where the “heart of stone, heart of flesh” metaphor from Ezekiel is mashed up with the image of the stone rolled away from Jesus' tomb.

 

My Brightest Diamond // I Was Wild EP

My Brightest Diamond's Shara Worden has spent most of the last half of the year putting on her opera “YOU US WE ALL” at the Brooklyn Academy of Music, but in April she shared I Had Grown Wild, the third and final release in a series that started in 2014 with both None More Than You and the full-length This Is My Hand. Most of the six-track EP is remixes of songs from the latter album (including an incredibly good French version of “This Is My Hand”), but the two originals are essential listening for fans, especially “Say What”, where Worden matches lines from Billie Holiday's “Strange Fruit” with a reference to Eric Garner's final words (“I can't breathe”) in an appeal for empathy between white and black Americans.

 

John Mark & Sarah McMillan // You Are the Avalanche EP

John Mark McMillan recorded a ripper of a live album (Live At The Knight) this year, and while it features a couple of these songs, it'd be a shame to not mention this little EP. John Mark collaborated with his wife Sarah on You Are The Avalanche, and it's drawn with the same sonic palate as last year's reverb-heavy Borderland, where the drums are like bowling balls hitting hardwood. These five tracks lend themselves more to corporate worship than the songs on that record, but “Walk Around My House” is quite personal. After the birth of their first child, Sarah found herself under de facto home imprisonment thanks to the baby, and the song is a cry for God to show up in all his fullness and reality in that cloistered environment just like he does everywhere else.

 

Michael Van Patter // Songs in the Night

The Lord gives and the Lord takes away in many different ways, but it's hard to conceive of one more baffling or brutal than childhood cancer. Michael Van Patter's son was diagnosed with leukemia when he was just ten months old, and the Dark Night of the Soul Michael went through in the following months was when the music that makes up Songs in the Night started pouring out of him. These tracks are as raw as they come - Van Patter's confusion and grief are like an exposed electrical socket - but his spare, elegant folk arrangements and direct lyrical approach give them a terrible beauty. When he sings "Little boy, you were beautiful, with your bald head and your bright eyes" and then "Little boy, facing a giant/It was not a fair fight, was it?", the sadness is almost too much. Impossibly, though, it's shot through with a luminous and paradoxical hope in God and his faithfulness. Songs in the Night is one of the most unpretentious, honest, and devastating things I have ever heard, but I can only imagine the balm it might be to those already devastated by the kind of pain Michael Van Patter is singing about. And there will be those people, because suffering is the only constant in this world, next to the great love of God.

Best of 2015 (Part 1)

This series of three posts (Part 2 and Part 3) doesn't hew to the usual "ranking" format of most year-end best-of lists. Instead, as we move into the new year this is an effort to round up 30 excellent releases from last year that deserve attention but due to time constraints we just couldn't get around to penning full-fledged reviews for. Enjoy, and happy new year everybody.

 

Timbre // Sun & Moon

When Nashville harpist and composer Timbre Cierpke set out to make a record inspired by the George MacDonald fairy tale The Day Boy and the Night Girl, she took the Peter Jackson approach, turning the slim 60-page volume into a huge, sprawling double album. But unlike Jackson's recent Hobbit films, Sun & Moon is a rousing success, one that's enjoyed best when you have a spare two hours to fully appreciate the record's epic sweep and singular synthesis of "harp rock" and classical. Female harpists working in pop music have a tough row to hoe thanks to their default label of "Not-Joanna Newsom", but Sun and Moon's ambition is so huge and its execution so sound that it can't be described as anything but "Timbre".

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Half-handed Cloud // Foiled N°2 EP

John Ringhofer aka Half-handed Cloud has over the last decade been quietly amassing a parallel discography. His self-released Homemade series of EPs is scrappier than the full-lengths released by Asthmatic Kitty, and they play like pages from an audio sketchbook. Each track on Foiled N°2 (and its sister, Foiled N°1) is a brief sound-collage, and the ramshackle instrumentation, knit together with John's sing-song recitation of Pauline epistles by squealing tape transitions, is a whimsical treat.

 

Josh Garrels // Home

Portland's Josh Garrels has always had more of a soul inflection to his voice than many of his white-guy-plus-guitar songwriter contemporaries, but where that sound used to bleed in at the edges of previous records like Love & War & the Sea In Between, for 2015's Home he let it soak for a good long time. Home has the sound of a confident musician stretching himself and enjoying the hell out of it, like on "The Arrow", where the singer lets loose with some seriously funky yowls that reach way up into the upper register. Another highlight is the silky "Heaven's Knife", where Garrels reenacts the divine surgery in Genesis 2, proving again that he's a true romantic with the knack for a killer love song.

 

Ivan & Alyosha // It's All Just Pretend

Seattle's Ivan & Alyosha curry enough favor already with their Brothers K-derived band name, but their latest LP It's All Just Pretend is loaded with enough hooky indie pop to make anyone a convert. These guys are worthy tunesmiths, but their songwriting is enjoyably self-effacing, too - on the amusing "Bury Me Deep", lead singer Tim Wilson eschews blaming the usual culprits (society, money, God) owning up to his depravity. The same goes for the album's infectious title track, which features this refreshingly humble admonition: "If you find yourself between the dark and belief/Remember to think on your knees".

 

Geology // North

mewithoutYou's bassist Greg Jehanian had a busy year what with the release of Pale Horses, but he still found time to remix and add a couple tracks to his side/solo project Geology's North EP, bumping it up to full-length status. North is resolutely lo-fi rock with a folk bent, and Jehanian's textured guitar work and spiritually wonderstruck (as well as Flannery O'Connor-referencing) lyrics keep things interesting. One of the highlights is "G-Minor", which repurposes the opening track's energetic chorus as a broken-down slowcore jam. That track and the many other affecting moments like it are more than enough reason to hope Jehanian keeps up his geological endeavors in the future.

 

Torres // Sprinter

Torres' Sprinter is a drastic shift in tonal course and an excellent sophomore effort, but beneath that is a conflicted negotiation with her Baptist upbringing. Here, the Brooklyn musician doubles down on the intensity that defined her self-titled debut while merging her Van Etten-y sound with a malevolent garage-rock aesthetic that fits like a glove. It's no wonder a member of Portishead played a role in conjuring the inky grime this record is submerged in. On Sprinter, the songs are packed with biblical references, and Torres holds onto her faith ("If I don't believe then no one will," she intones on opener "Strange Hellos"). But she takes trenchant aim at hypocrisy in the Church, in the form of self-righteous, porn-addled preachers and conscious ignorance cloaked in belief: "If you've never known the darkness/Then you're the one who fears the most".

 

Lowland Hum // Lowland Hum

There may be no musical niche more difficult to gain distinction in than that of the husband-and-wife folk duo, but North Carolina's Lowland Hum are doing just fine with their self-titled debut LP. There are no attention-grabbing gambits on Lowland Hum - even its album art could hardly be more understated. Instead, Daniel and Lauren Goans rely on their easygoing musical charm and the intriguing, often oblique narratives of their songs. No wonder they sometimes dole out handmade lyric booklets at their live shows. But there's no mistaking the repeated refrain on the album's devastating closer "Under the Rub", where Lowland Hum put their finger on the plainest symptom of our universal spiritual sickness: "I can't stop looking at my cellphone/Can't stop looking at my cellphone".

 

JGivens // Fly Exam

Las Vegas rapper JGivens' Fly Exam is tough to separate from the flurry of memorable music videos Humble Beast released in the lead-up to the album, but the solid final product suggests he's found a fitting new home at the label. Givens' previous record, El v. Envy featured an overload of hyped-up samples clipped from everything up-to-and-including Disney scores, but Fly Exam dials that flashy approach back, keeping the focus on the MC's intricate bars that he packs in between the beats like sardines. Givens' lyrical complexity rewards repeat listens, and the Icarus-like tale he spins is memorable, arcing from prideful swagger to eventual comeuppance at gravity's hands. As Givens would say, thank God for jetpacks.

 

Sara Groves // Floodplain

There is something superheroic about Sara Groves - she's somehow been standing tall for almost a decade and a half, creating album after elegant, uncompromised album in the CCM wasteland even as that particular industry came down around her ears. Now, at 43, Groves is nothing short of a master songwriter, and on Floodplain she exudes musical confidence, knowing exactly when to let a folky instrumental linger or to clip a chorus short for maximum effect. Each track is loaded with a life's worth of wisdom, worry, and joy, but Groves carries them off with such a deft touch they seem featherweight. And the insights she laces her songs with seem less like a clever songwriting than implicit, divine truths we didn't realize we were privy to until she pointed them out.

 

Bill Fay // Who is the Sender?

Bill Fay's story has some striking similarities to another Christian folk musician from the 70s, Linda Perhacs, whose commercial failure of a sole album accrued cult status over the ensuing four decades and paved the way for a wonderful late-life effort in the 2010s. After a 41-year interval, the English Fay released his third album, Life Is People, in 2012.  Even more than that record, Who Is the Sender? is anchored by his ecstatically sad piano lines that fluidly loop and twist through the tracks, each one full of Fay's spiritual and social ruminations which are alternately despondent and brimming with transcendent hope. That hope is at its most fragile and brilliant on "Something Else Ahead", where Fay likens our cosmic myopia to fishes in a bowl, without an inkling of the wide world around them - it's a treasure of a song, and one of the year's very best.

Gungor // One Wild Life: Soul

 

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Hither and Yon / 2015

Gungor isn't much for laurel-resting. When Ghosts Upon the Earth was released in 2011, the envelope-pushing, post-rock-influenced "liturgical" worship album quickly established them as the foremost standard-bearers for Good Christian Music. A less ambitious band might have mined that Sigur Rós-lite sweet spot for a couple more years. Instead the collective, which orbits husband-and-wife duo Lisa and Michael Gungor, took a sharp left with 2013's consciously electronic, experimental I Am Mountain, but with only fitful success. Tracks like the beautiful, autotune-soaked "Wandering" were outliers, and a lack of compelling hooks meant that a listen to I Am Mountain always somehow passed like a ship in the night. Their massive new One Wild Life project is a vindication of the sonic overhaul - Soul, the first installment in a trilogy of albums, is simultaneously the most complex and most accessible music they've ever made.

The shaping concept of One Wild Life - an exploration of the soul, the spirit, and the body - at first sounds too nebulous to be anything more than pretense. How do you make an entire album about the soul, especially when you've got Spirit coming out in just six more months? Yet this first record is surprisingly coherent, and Soul keeps a tight focus on its namesake: theconsciousness that makes us anomalies among the rest of the known universe.

But what are we? The track "Am I" is an existential crucible where that question weighs like an millstone. On it, Gungor stares down the barrel of nihilism, self-deification, self-loathing - everything a human being estranged from its meaning faces. "Am I a ghost?/Am I an animal?", Michael asks despondently over seething, malevolent strings. Then, "Am I meaningless?/Am I anything at all?". It's a moan of inverted Cartesian skepticism, and Gungor is still moaning when the song ends. Resolution doesn't come until the next track, "You".

When Gungor announced in 2013 it would be straining out the "church music" part of its musical persona to form a side project called the Liturgists, it sounded like they were rebranding as a secular pop act. That was maybe half true: Gungor now releases through their own Hither and Yon record label, which removed them from the CCM ecosystem, and their Liturgists output does hew closer to a more explicitly worshipful, contemplative style. But Lisa and Michael Gungor are deeply religious people, and God will always out in their songwriting (indeed, a re-recorded Liturgists song even makes its way onto Soul in the form of album-closer "Vapor"). What the new pop sensibility does is open a host of new topical possibilities - these songs have a personal bent that wouldn't have been appropriate under the old worship-band schematic.

They take full advantage on the aforementioned "You", where Michael narrates his own journey of faith, doubt, and resurrected faith. Over halting acoustic strums and echoing harmonies, the pastor's kid and former teen worship star relates how he "prayed in tongues, was born again" at ten years old. As he grew up, questions pried open the seams of belief, and he eventually realized all the devotional passion had been nothing but hoodwinking himself: "it was only ever me." That is, until he found himself at the feet of "Jesus, Savior, Lord, and King" once again, confessing "maybe it's always ever been You." The song paints a holistic picture of faith where doubt is just a spoke in the cosmic wheel of divine grace drawing us upward.

The emphasis on the soul continues on the buoyant "We Are Stronger", where Gungor locates the ground of human dignity in the imago dei. Using Black Lives Matter as a springboard, it's a deeply Christian recognition of the Creator's likeness in those who are most frequently dehumanized: "Every black life matters/Every woman matters/Every soldier matters/All the unborn matter/Every gay life matters..." But the final article, "Fundamentalists matter" lands artlessly. Leaving aside the fact that some of those fundies might not appreciate the label, "We Are Stronger" proves that the angular word fundamentalist will never, ever sit flush in a pop song. That's not to say that Gungor doesn't have reason for the pejorative - they were, after all, bizarrely divested by the conservative evangelical establishment last year for not affirming six-day creationism. 

I Am Mountain saw Gungor flirting with 80's-style synthesizers, but on Soul, they go all out - the track "One Wild Life" finds them in full-on Chvrches synth-pop mode. The album's tremendous, anthemic high point is "Us For Them", and the song's gravity comes from a guttural synthesizer blast that sounds like a tuba from hell. The superb composition is partnered with the most incisive and nearly prophetic lyrics Gungor has ever penned: "Prepare the way of the Lord/Wielding mercy like a sword...If it's us or them, it's us for them". At a time when many American Christians are armoring up for a grueling culture war, it's a profound call to the radical love of our Lord who laid down his life for the sake of those who hated him. The Church shouldn't be a cultural combatant. Instead, she should look like Keshia Thomas, throwing herself in harm's way to defend the dignity of her enemies, even if the "enemy" is sitting in the next pew over.

The Gungors had a child recently who was diagnosed with Down Syndrome, and the album's first music video, "Light", is an intimate video diary of her first year, dedicated "to all the of the wonderful adults and children with special needs." While the iPhone footage from the delivery room and a first birthday party are pretty gooey and smack a bit of oversharing, the parents' overwhelmed wonder at this new person who's been given "the gift of life" is shameless. That wonder shows up most poignantly on "Lion of Rock". Michael Gungor, perched upon the titular edifice, espies his wife taking a walk on the beach, and is struck by the fact that she's just a speck, yet of such immeasurable value: "The tiniest body containing a glory of heaven and angels and God". That reverence for the eternal that's laced into these temporary tapestries of flesh, bone, and nerve runs up and down One Wild Life: Soul, but the praise always points beyond, to the source and Creator of it all.