Lee Bozeman // The Majesty of the Flesh EP

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8.6 BEST NEW RECORD

Velvet Blue Music / 2017

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

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

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

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

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

Digre // The Way of a Pilgrim

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5.3

self-released / 2017

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

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

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

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

Jay Tholen // Celestial Archive

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7.8

self-released / 2017

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.

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.

The Soldier Story // Flowers For Anonymous

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6.9

Off Atlas / 2016

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Chairman Dances // Time Without Measure

 

7.6

Black Rd Records / 2016

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

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

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

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

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

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