Monday, February 22, 2010

Albums to Live By (5-1)

5. Switchfoot - Learning to Breathe

This honest, enjoyable rock music with song-writing comfortable (but not self-assured) in its own Christian skin came to me at a time when I was searching for such comfort, not to mention confidence, myself. Something about the genuine thoughtfulness mixed with humble optimism really hit home for me, and provided a few anthems for my inner life as a pastor. "Maybe redemption has stories to tell, maybe forgiveness is right where you fell." Something about being allowed that "maybe" compelled me to own it and move with the rest of it. I appreciate the forgiveness theology of Innocence Again and Learning to Breathe, the confession of Erosion, and the hopefulness of Living Simple. The latter song concludes the album nicely by building off of an ancient Simone Weil quote declaring the hope of the world:

"All, will be
made well, will be
made well, will be
made well, will be
made well. . . .
Is this fiction? Is this fiction?
The best gives himself to the worst?
Is this fiction? or divine comedy?
Where the last of the last is the first?"

4. The Choir - Free Flying Soul

"As the sign of the covenant dimmed in your sky, will we ever find gold? Follow all seven stripes across my eyes, am I young or old?"

Thus begins this this "organic" concept album which for years has retained for me a sense of freshness--not the freshness of a blast of air but of newly turned spring soil. I love the downright earthiness of this seamless collection of songs. Salamander, Slow Spin, The Ocean, and Butterfly are containers for every subtle but all the more profound expression of wonder and worship. These are not metaphors. The songs are about animals and things. Period. But as such (and precisely not as mere symbols) they are about so much more. Reminiscent of prayers of Francis of Assisi. Such an anomaly in the world of "Christian music".

My favourite song begins, "Listen to the warbler's melody", and continues: "You must believe it true, when I swear we're alive. Beware the deciever, he's a killer and a liar, your spirit and your eyes are on fire. Celebrate the wonder of lunar light. Listen how the coyote sings at the sight." The guitar parts beneath it are like rolling thunder or seismic activity. Remarkable stuff. It hits the soul through the body.

3. U2 - Achtung Baby

I grew up in the age of youth group videos that scared you away from rock'n'roll. Then in grade 11 my friend phoned in on a whim and got us floor seats to U2's Zoo TV tour. I had heard enough radio to know this would be an event. It was my introduction not only to U2 but to rock music in general. The concert was intended to be an unprecedented bombardment of the senses, everything rock and roll writ large. For me, multiply that effect times 10. I sometimes joke that this is my "other" conversion experience.

Anyway, I listened to this album again to remind me where it should be in my list and suddenly found myself coming back to it repeatedly. Even Better than the Real Thing, The Fly, Mysterious Ways, and One---these are epics of modern music that will always be under my skin. I can still remember goose bumps as Zoo Station crumbles to a start. I absolutely love the song about Judas: Until the End of the World. There are few songs as soaring as Love is Blindness. I can still imagine the Edge seizing 40,000 people at once with its arching solos to conclude the show that fateful November night in 1992!

2. Five Iron Frenzy - Our Newest Album Ever

This is the album that represents a whole crazy half-dozen-year episode of life and music that was the strange, upbeat, and smart ska and punk music phenomenon of the Christian sub-culture that was my early-to-mid 20s. I don't know how to explain what this band did for me. I think it helped find a new way with an old story. It was awesome to have people who shared the faith in such unstereotypical ways, writing music that was hopeful, honest, intelligent, and even fun (not something I normally go for in music).

The difference maker for me was that Reese Roper wrote some really great songs. I'm not sure I've enjoyed reading lyric sheets as much as I did these ones. So, when this band was about to call it quits, I still hadn't seen them, and so a couple good buddies of mine and I drove 35 straight hours to do so. It was worth it. I didn't care that I had to share the experience with a bunch of pre-teens. Every New Day live was a highlight of my life. That song just hits the deepest possible nerve. I'm not sure I even listened to ska all that much in the years after that concert, but a month later my son was born, and his middle name was Reese.

1. Michael Knott - Life of David

Michael Knott has fronted a number of bands and projects, most notably L.S. Underground. (LSU's Grace Shaker is an awesome album too, and I'm kicking myself it isn't on my list. Another one is The Grape Prophet Speaks, which is incredible). But the stuff that got me most was when Mike Knott went solo. This is the pinnacle of his musical achievements in my opinion. When I pick up a guitar to play it is 9 times out of 10 to play a song off this album.

Life of David contains confessions and laments that resonate with the Psalmist without borrowing any words directly. Lots of times it is artful and not overt, and it lets the music take care of things, evocatively. Other times it just comes out and says it:

From The Chameleon:

"I am the adultress,
And the penitent man,
I'm the cunning culprit,
And the little lamb.
I love all God's creatures,
All but one.
This chameleon."

From Halo:

"Hell no . . .
I don't mind if your halo don't glow
like it used to glow
I don't care if you change your mind
every tempting road

She's always reaching out for heaven
Says its a hard place to find
I swear and say its everywhere
Freed is the taker's line..."

For more on Michael Knott, here are some links. Picture. Paintings.

As for my list, well, that does it! Thanks for reading along.


Tony Tanti said...

I knew there'd be some five iron frenzy on here.

Nice little list Jon, reminds me of your music reviews in the Phat Papyri.

Philbert said...

Hey, Jon.

I'm appreciating the recent posts, especially the parenting one. Maybe PHDs are good after all :).

Thanks for including FIF. Their music was so instrumental in my past as well (as I'm sure you know).

Jon Coutts said...

Wow, a reference to the Phat Papyri!! Nice work tanti. I never actually did music reviews I don't think. Maybe one or two. But that is where the title "this side of sunday" was born. Little piece of trivia there.

Philbert: yeah, I second guessed whether FIF should have been #1. Probably is. Except I listen to Knott a lot still. I was just telling a friend here about when we met Roper. A great moment.

Glad the parenting stuff was appreciated. I wish I could write more on it. But I'm mostly a fool.

Matthew A. Wilkinson said...

The mood of Achtung Baby is my favourite part of it. The soaring, midnight something-or-other.