Thursday, February 18, 2010

The Perfect Album

In 1994 Mary Chapin Carpenter released "Stones in the Road" the follow-up to her highly successful pop/country crossover album "Come On, Come On". It is much to my chagrin that I only just ordered my CD copy of this remarkable recording this week, having spent the last 16 years content to listen to my pirated cassette tape recording of the original CD. (Please forgive me Mary!)

This 13 song tour de force extends beyond 45 minutes by two songs - I know because I had to put them on the "B" side of the tape along with some Eagles tunes from their "Hell Freezes Over" CD, also released in '94 (and yes, I DO own the CD of that album so calm down Glenn!). I cherry picked the tunes from the Eagles CD, but I couldn't from Carpenter's recording because they were - and still are - all exceptional songs.

"Stones in the Road" is one of those rare "perfect storms" of music recording were the songwriting, musicianship, recording and production all are as near perfect as God allows in this world. It remains among the very few albums I would absolutely have to take on my desert island exile and it would, I am sure, be listened to in its entirety on every occasion even under those circumstances - even if my stash of albums was quite meager.

The music and lyrics on this album are so mature, so assured, so honest and so believable that I suspect younger listeners will not be able to fully appreciate them. Some experiences are complex and nuanced and cannot be fully enjoyed until personal experience and maturity makes it possible to access the deeper truths they contain. For instance, before I was a father I could watch TV-borne pleas for aide on behalf of disadvantaged children feeling little emotional impact - this is not so anymore. "Stones in the Road" is that kind of album - like a truly fine wine or accomplished painting or sculpture - the depth to which it can be appreciated is directly proportional to the depth of the person experiencing it. And then miraculously, it takes you to deeper levels of experience and understanding as you resonate with its honesty and truth.

Carpenter infuses her songs with brevity - "the soul of wit" - honesty and delivers each song with a fluidity and grace few artists can muster. Her dusty alto is perfectly suited to the folk/country/rock arrangements and instrumentation. Each song - with the possible exception of "John Doe # 24", which is more like a jazz/tone poem - has a strong melody and, in the majority of cases, a captivating musical hook. It simply must be said that this album is one of the strongest ones I have ever heard in 40+ years of listening when considered from a purely musical perspective. Every tune is "right" and is played and recorded "right". It seems impossible to imagine anyone covering any of these tunes without owing much to the original.

She covers the gamut from loves lost ("House of Cards"), to coming of age in historically significant times ("Stones in the Road") and facing the adult ennui that ensues, to the humor and anticipation of new romance ("Shut Up and Kiss Me"), to spiritual and relational healing ("Jubilee") - all without ever succumbing to being the slightest bit maudlin or overweening. If there is anything that is to be called disarming about this set of songs, it is in the way Carpenter opens herself up and allows us in with such easy grace that we might find ourselves overwhelmed by the immersive intimacy she creates.

If you are mature enough to engage this music - and well read enough as it does require knowledge of mid to late 20th century North American history and culture to be fully appreciated - then dive in and immerse yourself in the experience. It is truly a blessing that this album is still available, as it was popular but not in the extreme sense.

My wife and I listened to it in full last Monday at the end of an extended music session wherein I had covered playing a lot of songs by artists whom we have listened to and appreciated over the years as well as some newer stuff too. After the last song on "Stones in the Road" it was time to end our session and as I commented to Susie I said, "I don't know if we own a more perfect album than that one. I can't believe we still don't have it on CD." She agreed and it was understood that this gross oversight was to be corrected immediately.

In the song "Why Walk When You Can Fly" Carpenter writes:

In this world there's a whole lot of trouble, baby
In this world there's a whole lot of pain
In this world there's a whole lot of trouble
But a whole lot of ground to gain
Why take when you could be giving, why watch as the world goes by
It's a hard enough life to be living, why walk when you can fly

When the Amazon order gets here we're gonna hook up the iPod in our car and fly away.


Music & Faith

As a person of faith I constantly find wonder in the world because I see the hand of God in action everywhere. For whatever reason I was created to be particularly sensitive to music - and I know I'm not the only one. My appreciation of music has undergone several times of rediscovery as I have been able to integrate personal experience, emotional understanding and a widening perspective into my experience of enjoying music.

Perhaps this whole process is becoming more poignant as I develop difficulty in hearing. Time and some audio abuse seems to have worked its harsh consequence upon my sense of hearing. I strongly suspect that I will outlive my ability to hear properly - but there are no hearing aides in my ears yet. And while that is not yet the case, I have decided to keep on listening.

Music reviews were a staple of my earlier pursuit of this life long love. Finding a reviewer whose taste and sensibilities complimented my own while still being able to introduce me to new musical experiences was a discovery that I would savour. Radio DJs were also useful before playlists were corporately programmed - designed to meet content requirements (thanks sooooo much CRTC) and reach advertising demographic groups (NONE of which I belong to!). These days corporate media hustling, narrowcasting and the proliferation of musical genres, which most folks seem to strictly confine their listening within, have pretty much killed most of the good reviewers.

I am convinced that a good recording can - when the artist honestly pursues the truth - bring us an appreciation of the divine and the human and the place they intersect. It is no coincidence that the Psalms (songs of the Bible) are among the most quoted ancient Scriptures in the New Testament. I find I cannot memorize more than a few lines of prose - the post-modern equivalent being reciting movie catch phrases - from important sections of Scripture, speeches or books & writings. But I can easily commit to memory a large catalog of songs, poems and music. Ideas wrapped in music have a staying power beyond the mere spoken word.

So I'm going to spend a number of posts reviewing the very best recordings I have ever experienced. Some will seem quite old - what the HECK IS old anyway? - some will be newer. All will, I hope, hold the common thread of having the air of truth about them, even if they make the list because they are essentially just great fun as opposed to being deep and transcendent musings on the human condition.

I hope to cover a wide range of genres, but I won't cover everything because there are some music categories that I just don't - and probably never will - appreciate. So be it. I am biased, as we all are. I hope my bias is a useful bias. Anyway, I'm not too worried - Perez Hilton I'm not, THANK GOD - so my little scribblings will not in all likelihood do much damage or cause much of a groundswell. Never the less - enjoy!


Monday, February 15, 2010

Owl City - Ocean Eyes

Adam Young had insomnia while working for a Coca-Cola warehouse. Coincidence?!? We think not! However, this affliction turned into a creative stream of self-produced music videos that Adam recorded in his parent's basement in their home in Owatonna, Minnesota. He uploaded them to his MySpace page, building a steadily growing fan base and allowing him to self-produce and release his music. Creative therapy for his insomnia, indeed!

The practical outflow of this was that he was 'discovered' by Universal Music and released his third CD, Ocean Eyes - his first major label release - last year and saw his tune "Fireflies" climb to #1 on the Billboard Hot 100 and in the UK charts as well.

As I have said before, I'm not a great fan of electronica/dance but there is an engaging and infectious quality to Adam's music that I believe is universally appealing. Then there is the fact that the CD is currently on sale at HMV for a mere $9.99 and you have an irresistible musical antidote to the winter blahs.

The reality of pop music like this is that it often has a short shelf life, but Adam has something real and substantial happening here and I think this CD might yield a couple tunes that will climb into my medium rotation. The real potential lies in the fact that Adam is so young and has so much more time to develop as an artist. The mind boggles at the possibility. I'm not given much to predictions, but this man has possibly a very bright future in scoring movies. A Grammy might be hard to achieve, but an Oscar may definitely be in the future for Adam Young one day.

As long as he can still dream and realize those dreams into his unique musical vision - insomnia notwithstanding.

If you haven't heard/seen "Fireflies" then here you go:




Eric Clapton & Steve Winwood created a live concert CD/DVD package of their 2008 collaboration concert series in Madison Square Gardens. It's on my "to buy" list and will be the subject of my next review.

Wednesday, February 03, 2010

A Cup of Water

Michael Spencer has been a clarion clear voice in the post-evangelical wasteland for some time now. In addition to posting blog articles that have been elevated by the Drudge Report and caused comment on mainstream media (dubious though that accolade may be) he has also moderated the most civil, engaged and thought provoking conversations in North American Christianity to date on his blogsite.

His blog output is prodigious, he creates a regular podcast, teaches (his "real" job) and preaches. I am in awe - and I am also blessed by his boundless energy, thoughtful application and unwaivering love for Christ - and His church.

Michael has a new book on publishing pre-release on and I agree with Bill Kinnon in that it will be both very good and very important. Ordering it would be a great source of encouragement to Michael and wouldn't hurt y'all one little bit either.

Michael has recently been diagnosed with cancer and his job at a small, private high school has ended for now along with his limited medical coverage. As he is a citizen of "The Land of the Free and the Home of the Brave" he has no medical coverage in a country where band-aides distributed by HMOs cost, on average, $19,000 plus tax. If you have a few spare bucks you can send him some here. That link's gonna take you straight to PayPal.

He's a brother. The least you could do is pray for him.