Sufijan Stevens, Songs for Christmas

I wrote this review last year on Christmas Eve for my now languishing livejournal account. Keep in mind this Sufijan Stevens’ Christmas album came out two years ago. I find however that Christmas albums keep their relevance longer than other albums. Christmas introduces more universal themes that make older music mre palatable than other music of similar age. I plan on excavating my Christmas music collection now that Thanksgiving is over and playing it ad-nauseum until Christmas is a few weeks past (until Epiphany?). I love Christmas music and somehow my standard of quality is adjusted…a few notches lower…not sure why. I decided not to give a point value for quality and clean for this album. I reviewed it last year and also I don’t quite trust my quality radar when it comes to Christmas music.

“I didn’t buy this Christmas album last year when it came out even though its rave review on NPR piqued my interest. Songs for Christmas is a monster box set which includes 5 discs and extensive liner notes. Over the course of five years Sufijan had recorded at home these discs which he then sent out to friends and family as Christmas gifts. He also used them as “Christmas therapy” for himself

“I had never heard of Sufijan until last year and a huge box set seemed like a big commitment. This year however, I craved serious Christmas music to an extent that listening to jingle bells and deck the halls laden secular christmas compilations (which I seem to have collected over the years) didn’t do it for me. Plastic Santas, candy canes, and good ol’ american consumerism made me want to puke. I NEEDED to listen to music about Jesus, why do we celebrate Christmas, whats the point etc… The only music that I could stomach was Rebecca St. James’ CD from 1997 or so. Some would say, even for a Christian artist, her music is too “religious” but it was perfect for me. I discovered the carol, O Come O Come Emmanual, anew this year because of her. The words speak of a dark cloud of sin looming over us that is only dispersed with the news of Jesus’ birth and death on the cross. This was perfect for my candy-induced nausea–yet I wanted something new as well.

“Sufijan Stevens is an indie artist and sounds like an indie artist. To me, he sounds like a solo-artist non-band version of Arcade Fire and Polyphonic Spree. They all have that scruffy indie-orchestral aesthetic, lushly layered and optimistic but also paying tribute to the overwhelmingly depressing aspects of life. Josh (my husband) hates this type of music, but I can enjoy it when its not bad.

“All five discs together, present a wonderful mix of traditional Christmas hymns, Sufijan’s own Christmas creations and even a couple of just plain hymns (Amazing Grace and O Come Thou Font). Musically and lyrically the box set is varied and diverse. Among the many themes he explores are, the joy of Jesus’ birth, the giddy fun of consumerism, family strife, coming together in spite of family strife and winter cold.  As many instruments as could be found in his house were included. Upbeat, serious, sparse and luscious sounds make the album shine. I am not surprised to find out that Sufijan is a Christian, yet he is not obnoxiously so. It comes out because it is part of who he is, not because he is trying to “send a message.” In fact he wasn’t trying to send a message at all. Possessing an “inherent aversion to the standard Christmas carol” he embarked on the project in the beginning as an exercise to make himself “appreciate” Christmas more. In his liner notes he expresses that the experiment must have worked. This compilation is magnificent and honest.”

links:
review on pitchfork
what his website has to say about it

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Son Lux, At War with Walls and Mazes

Quality: 5

Clean: 5

Genre: electronic, alternative

sonlux

So far, At War with Walls and Mazes is my favorite album of 2008. It is a perfect blend of all my favorite components of music. My husband makes fun of me that the music I like is always the same, all containing electronic blips and glitches (bjork, psapp, Imogene Heap). Son Lux has these electronic sounds that I like but they are blended into an ornate tapestry. Son Lux’s use of electronics to make music reminds me of when you go into a cathedral at just the right time of day when the sun is shining through the stained glass windows and all the glints and glares reflect off the icons and the cross and make the room feel rich and perfect and holy. Son Lux also incorporates a wide variety of classical instrumentation: piano, strings, flute, an operatic background voice, acoustic guitar. Its not just that he uses these instruments, but he does so in a very classically trained way. As if he is fusing symphonic orchestra music with modern electronics. I am reminded of a rock opera such as Andrew Lloyd Webber’s Requiem (see the song Hosanna).

I classify Son Lux as “electronic” not to be confused with “dance” music. The album does not have a happy poppy feel and is not danceable. Rather, it feels thoughtful, forceful at times, maybe even morose.

Son Lux’s lyrics continue in the cathedral theme: they are brief and simple and repeated over and over like a meditation or mantra. Sometimes the lyrics hint at scriptural references, sometimes of powerful experiences such as betrayal and reconciliation. They get me thinking not about what he means (like Coldplay did), but of what associations they bring to my mind. Son Lux’s lyrics are powerful and demonstrate poetic skill. Perhaps the most interesting lyrics are for the song Weapons:

Put down all your weapons,
let me in through your open wounds

Son Lux is not signed with a “Christian” label and I would not label him as a “Christian” artist…but you know by now that I don’t like that label anyway. He reminds me in a way, of Johnny Cash: their lyrics only let out little hints of a profound belief. I like not knowing, and being able to let the mystery be itself.

Whereas Break is the song put forward by the label to promote the album, my favorite songs from the album are Wither and Betray.

Break lyrics: Where have all the wicked gone?
Is there no one left to break you down?
Where have all the holy gone?
Is there no one to condemn you?

Where have all the wicked gone?
Is there no one to condemn you?
Where have all the holy gone?
Is there no one else to break you down?

links: myspace, anticon records, pitchfork review

Lecrae, Rebel

Quality: 4

Clean: 5

Genre: rap

Its been along time since I wrote a blog entry. Reviewing entire albums takes more time than just one song and I am a processor, (aka slooow thinker), so today’s review has been along time coming. Historically, I haven’t been a fan of rap. The fact that I like listening to Lecrae is new and different to me, and I suspect that the only reason I haven’t liked this genre in the past is because it normally is very shall we say perverse in many avenues. Its hard for me to review a genre that I know little to nothing about but I’ll do my best.

Rebel is Lecrae’s third album and the title states his theme which he spins out in many ways. What he means by rebel he explains in the first song: Rebel Intro. This is one of my favorites on the album and there are a few quotes by Seattle pastor Mark Driscoll (my husband went to his church Marshill before we got married).

I’m in rebellion (repeat a few times)
to all my rebels out there, rebelling against the culture, being transformed,
do not be conformed to the ways of this world, to this age
welcome to the revolution

Jesus was a rebel, renegade, outlaw, (something), troublemaker
but he never sinned naw
and he lived his life by a different set of rules
the culture ain’t approved
so you know they had to bruise him
that’s the way they do
man they smell so gangsta
everyone the same
everybody do the same stuff
tattoos, piercings, smoking up and drinking, money, sex
plus them extravagant weekends
man if that’s the high life I’ll puff puff pass that
(can’t tell what he says here)
I guess I’m passed that
I’m in rebellion
I’d rather have a dollar in my pocket then a million in scandal.
(don’t know what he says here)
I remain a rebel while the rest of them just carry on
this is what I live for, this is what I’m buried on
Jesus is the truth that means one of us is very wrong.
Think about it!

Chorus: I’m in rebellion (repeat)

Mark Driscoll: I know in our day, rebel means sinner, but everyone is sinning so its no longer rebellious to sin.
Jesus was a rebel who was counter-cultural.

Lecrae: no glory in me all glory is to the king on the throne
you either love him or you leave him alone
but you can’t do both
yeah I know you heard that once in a song
I pray you hear ten more before you’re gone
Hey listen I’m on stages, corners, crowded streets
Yeah I rap the bread of life because they dying to eat
hey I’m a rebel, you know the kind that die in the street
cause you refuse something something won’t eat the king’s meat

Christ rebelled by shunning the culture
he ate with the sinners, gave the pharisees ulcers
he never got married, he was broke plus homeless
yeah that’s the guy I roll with
your boy got a wife, no I never cheat, I’m praying for humility
(can’t tell here)
forget about the drugs, rebel against pornography
this ain’t how it oughta homey its how its gotta be. Rebel!

Chorus

Mark Driscoll: you’re just a conformist, if you’re drunk and naked
driving around on a loud motorcycle,
smoking cigarettes, and breaking commandments,
getting pregnant out of wedlock.
Everyone’s done that. That’s so tired!
If you really want to be a rebel read your bible, because no one’s doing that.
that’s rebellion, that’s the only rebellion left.

The whole idea on this album is to rebel against sin by living a life glorified to the Lord. This plays out in various ways, whether it is abstaining form certain activities (like in Rebel Intro), not giving into our temptations (like in Indwelling Sin) or repenting when we make mistakes (like in Desperate). One of the most interesting songs, The Bride, urges us to not give up on the church because she is Christ’s bride.  I like the message of this album because it reminds us that living a life for the Lord is difficult, and we have to make sacrifices..we have to rebel ;). I think alot of Christians take the safe route because they (myself included) are afraid of sinning, we don’t want to fail. Living for the Lord therefore gets a safe, boring and clean reputation, when really and truly it is anything but that. It involves taking risks, heart break, and discipline.

My other favorite songs of the album are Don’t Waste Your Life, Identity, and Live Free.

Don’t Waste Your Life, is about living your entire life for the Lord. A theme throughout many of Lecrae’s songs on this and prior albums is pointing out our culture glorifies money and its many friends, but that money doesn’t satisfy our deepest longings. This song does this as well, and puts it in context of the rebel theme. Don’t Waste Your Life challenges us to not just give a portion of our lives to the Lord, but everything. The lyrics are profound to me because of the whole Wall Street mess this year and because I recently moved to a new area, my husband recently got a better job and we are looking to get a house, kids a a dog soon. Here is the last verse:

So yeah, still (something) Christ
trying to figure out what to do with your life
you make alot of money hoping you’re doing it right
because the money is god, you better stick with it right
stay focused
you ain’t got no ride, your life ain’t rapped up in what you drive
the clothes you wear, the job you work, the color your sin,
naw you Christian first
people think they’re living for their jobs,
get a little money, they start living for their car
get ’em a wife, a house, kids and a dog,
then they retire, living high, going whole
yes but they never lived at all
to live is Christ and that’s Paul I recall
to die is gain so to Christ we give it all
getting a treasure we can’t buy in a mall

your money, your singleness, marriage, status your time,
they belong to you to show the world that Christ is divine.
that’s why its Christ in my rhyme
that’s why its Christ all the time
See my whole world is built around him
he’s the life to my lines
I refuse to waste my life
he’s too true to chase that ice
here’s my gift of time
cause I’m constantly trying to be used to praise the Christ
If he’s truly raised to life,
then this news should change your life
then by his grace you should put your faith in a place that rules your days and nights

Identity shuns materialism (status, looks, makeup, cars etc.), as something to give us our identity. Lecrae raps that our identity is found in Christ instead. Guest Da Truth, gives the music a bit of his flavor. Its more gospel sounding than the rest of the album.

Live Free, starts out with a computerized voice which is sort of funny but I like it. there are variety of musical styles included, rapping and singing, and two guests Sho Baraka and Jai. Its about how as Christians we are free from sin and don’t have to fall into our old traps. The first half of the song Lecrae raps about different people who are Christians yet they are still don’t allow the Lord to rule their lives. The second part of the song (at about 3:00) is more powerful to me. A female voice continues with the chorus and adds some victorious melodies. The background music, in a minor key, blends with her voice. It sounds happy and sad at the same time, perhaps laced with regret and tired from the fight, but relieved to be free in the present. Over her singing, a male rapper adds with his tough voice that he now lives “free by his mercy and grade, tell the world I’m gone. Live free by his patience and peace, tell the flesh I’m gone. Live free by his joy and love, tell the lust I’m gone. Live free by his truth and his justice, tell the hate I’m gone.”

Rebel is a powerful album with 4-6 excellent songs, but there are 15 in all! Not all of them are as fabulous as the 4 I highligted, so for this I give it a 4 for quality.

Links: myspace, reach records