Needtobreathe – The Outsiders

Needtobreathe- The Outsiders

Quality: 4

Clean: 5

Genre: bluesy-southern-alt-country, rock, christian

I recently started listening to the local Christian radio station. Most of the music on this and other Christian music stations is pleasant, predictable and worshippy, although there are some standouts. I discovered Needtobreathe on this radio station. Their single, Lay ‘Em Down, from their third album, The Outsiders, sounded more like O Brother Where Art Thou than Christian radio material. There is foot stomping, guitar, and even the vocals sound more like wailing than singing (in a good way). The lyrics, like an old southern gospel tune, urge the listener to lay all troubles at the river. I enjoy this style of music so I bought the whole CD. The rest of the disc isn’t as blue-grassy but it retains its crunchy, independent, southern feel.

The Outsiders is a good album for several reasons. First, unlike many albums produced these days, the album sticks together as a cohesive whole. Even though Lay ‘Em Down was released as a single, it isn’t the only good song. Actually it doesn’t stand out when played in context of the entire album because it all is high quality stuff. The themes of the lyrics and music fit together with the rest of the songs.

Second, the entire disc displays strong guitar, piano, hand-clapping, percussion and vocals. There are some slow songs and some faster. There is variety but also unity with the music styles.

Third, the lyrics express a deep faith and desire to please the Lord while coming to terms with inadequacy in sin and redemption in Christ. While humbling and introspective, the lyrics aren’t flashy or in-your-face. At the same time they aren’t too understated either. They call out against apathy, for trying to please the Lord, against trying too hard and missing it all, for laying burdens down and against pain. The songs are universal enough that anyone can empathize with the themes. While each song doesn’t croon “Jesus” every chance it gets, neither are the lyrics so understatedly “Christian” that the listener can’t tell a difference.

The Outsiders, is a disc that a variety of people could enjoy. It is clean and appropriate for young, old, Christian and non-Christian. While I wouldn’t put a Sandi Patty CD on if I had a party of mixed faith people coming over for dinner, I would feel very comfortable putting on The Outsiders.

  1. The Outsiders
  2. Valley of Tomorrow
  3. Through Smoke
  4. Lay ‘Em Down
  5. What You’ve Done to Me
  6. Hurricane,
  7. These Hard Times
  8. Stones Under Rushing Water
  9. Prisoner
  10. Won’t Turn Back
  11. Girl Named Tennessee
  12. Something Beautiful
  13. Garden
  14. Let Us Love

You can listen to all their songs in full on their website:

Needtobreathe.net, (listen to The Outsiders)

Jars of Clay- Christmas Songs, and Mindy Smith- My Holiday

Jars of Clay- Christmas Songs

Quality: 4

Clean: 5

Genre: Christmas, alternative, rock

I haven’t kept up with Jars of Clay that much since their first release in 1995. They have been prolific since then however and carved out a little niche for themselves in the alternative-Christian sector. Their Christmas album, Christmas, Songs, was released in 2007 but I didn’t pick it up until the end of the season last year, so didn’t really listen to it until this year.

One of the ways I personally try to keep Christmas fresh and meaningful is to pick a favorite Christmas carol every year. I do this by listening to the words of the carol, thinking about them and celebrating the truth that is contained within them the entire season. Past favorites have been O Holy Night, and Come Oh Come Emanuel. I seem to like the dark reminder that the reason Jesus was born was because of sin. Remembering sin and its ugliness helps me truly celebrate the hope of Jesus’ birth. This year, as I listened to Jars of Clay’s rendition of I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day, I was struck by the modern reminder of sin and hope. I had never paid attention to the words, especially the second verse,  until I was reading the liner notes to this album.

In despair I bowed my head,
“There is no peace on earth,” I said.
For hate is strong and mocks the song
of  peace on earth good will to men,
of peace on earth good will to men,
of peace on earth good will to men.

Then pealed the bells more loud and deep:
God is not dead, nor does he sleep;
the wrong shall fail, the right prevail,
with peace on earth, good will to men.

I was struck with what a common thought this must be among people. That there is no peace and hate is strong, but that Christmas presents an answer, a hope for us all to cling to.

After listening closely to I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day, I read the back of the liner notes jacket: In the Christmas Season, here are ways to celebrate peace in the midst of chaos (insert list of charities), and I realized that this was their theme: Peace in the midst of chaos. Instead of putting a smattering of Christmasy songs together to make a buck, JOC had actually put thought into the album, had come up with a theme, and most of the songs represented that theme. Peace is Here, In the Bleak Midwinter, I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day, even God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen. There is a fair share of just plain fun songs, for example: Hibernation song. But for the most part the album is reminding us that there is peace in the midst of chaos.

The music of this album is characteristic of JOC, containing a hint of strings, solid guitar and percussion, and even some Christmasy sounding bells/chimes at parts. There is a balance between organic real instruments and electronic elements. In the Bleak Midwinter is a highlight musically as it contains a beautiful horn part. Drummer Boy is also a hit with its minimal drum beats at the begging and then climaxing with a really fun snare part in the second half of the song. JOC keep the album interesting but not too crazy. It would be appropriate to put on for the rents and even g-rents.

Christmas Songs has been my favorite Christmas album this year, and I would recommend it unreservedly to anyone who likes Christmas music.

Mindy Smith- My Holiday

Quality: 3

Clean: 4

Genre: Christmas, folk, alt-country

Mindy Smith’s My Holiday is another “new to me” release from 2007. I normally like her style. Its a little country, but not too much for a non-country fan like me to be put off. Its more folky, which I like. Her voice and lyrics are sweet. My Holiday however didn’t sound Christmasy to me. It could have been any other album, it was a little too country and a little too bland. I didn’t pick up on a theme, which always increases my enjoyment, and the songs were more just fun, sugary, happy happy.

My favorite song would probably be the forlornly sung The Christmas Song because it sounds the most like a Christmas song with strong piano and jazzy percussion and even a clarinet solo.

It is a nice album, but I haven’t played it much. It doesn’t stand out in my Christmas album collection but I’ll play it a few times each year.

Beyonce- Single Ladies (Put a Ring On It)

Quality: 4

Clean: 3.5

Genre: R&B, pop

single

Single Ladies (Put a Ring On It) is Beyonce’s second single from her album I Am Sasha Fierce. On first listen the music and lyrics converge to create an empowering go-girl kind of message. The beats are heavy and strong, as if Beyonce is shaking a finger in your face. Very danceable and fun, the music is also somehow feminine as if not to separate Beyonce’s power from her female-ness. Have you ever seen the 80’s movie Xanadu? There is a moment in the film where Olivia Newton-John emerges from another realm into our human world. All decked out  in crazy 80’s hair and makeup, her power and beauty do not belong on Earth…the same other-worldly 80’s sound effects are in Single Ladies, signifying that Beyonce too is too much for this world. Lyrics also reinforce the message. I love the way the song begins. Beyonce calls out: All the Single Ladies, all the single ladies, saying: Step UP!! Be strong, you are strong! The chorus is also great: If you like it then you shoulda put a ring on it…oh oh oh oh oh oh oh oh oh oh, telling all the dead-beat boyfriends in the world that there will be no more taking advantage, no more wasting of time. That all the single ladies are not going to be satisfied with less than what is deserved, which of course is the love, respect and commitment that an engagement/wedding ring symbolizes. I like this message. I wish more of my single friends would not compromise for a man. I wish they knew that they are beautiful and capable without one and that they are worth waiting for. They don’t need to change who they are when they meet someone, nor do they need to lower their standards. I love Beyonce for this message.

On consecutive listens however I start hearing other parts to the lyrics. Imagine the situation: you’ve been with a guy for three years, but instead of him proposing like you had hoped, he dumps you. Of course you are devastated and cry your eyes out. But now you are starting to recover and need some validation. Are you really worthless like he said?  So you go clubbing with your girlfriends. You dress to kill and receive lots of attention from the men-folk. They think you are hot and it feels good. So you dance with provocatively with them, and you receive the attention you wanted. Your ex is even there and he’s jealous because he knows you look good. This feels even better. Your confidence is restored and you feel like a woman again.

My problem with the picture painted above is that confidence is restored not because of the content of her character but because of her body.  Every woman wants to know that she is beautiful but it should not be the source of her total self-worth. When the first thing men notice about you is your body, they sometimes aren’t interested in getting to know the rest of you. They may spend time with you but they are really spending time with your body. Beyonce even underscores this when she sings, “if you like it then you shoulda put a ring on it.” Why didn’t she use the word “me”? because she was referring to her body. This might have been the problem with her prior boyfriend.

Overall I think this song is fine. Its catchy and the message is mostly positive but the details are a little shady.

Lyrics:

All the Single Ladies, all the single ladies
Now put your hands up

Up in the club, just broke up
I’m doing my own little thing
Decided to dip, now you gonna trip, another brother noticed me
I’m up on him, he up on me, don’t pay him any attention
Cause I cried my tears, gave him three good years, can’t be mad at me

If you like it then you shoulda put a ring on it…oh oh oh oh oh oh oh oh oh oh
Don’t be mad once you see that he want it
If you like it then you shoulda put a ring on it…oh oh oh oh oh oh oh oh oh oh

I got gloss on my lips
A man on my hips
Got me tighter in my Dereon jeans
Acting up, breaking my cup
I can care less what you think
I need no permission, did I mention, don’t pay him any attention
Cause you had your turn, now you gonna learn, what it really feels like to miss me

If you like it then you shoulda put a ring on it (repeat)
Don’t be mad once you see that he want it

Don’t treat me to these things of the world
I’m not that kinda girl
Your love is what I prefer, what I deserve
Here’s a man that makes me, then takes me, and delivers me to a destiny to infinity and beyond
Pull me into your arms
Say I’m the one you want
If you don’t then, you’ll be alone, and like a ghost I’ll be gone

All the Single Ladies, all the single ladies
Now put your hands up
Oh oh oh oh oh oh oh oh oh oh oh
If you like it then you shoulda put a ring on it
Don’t be mad when you see that he want it
If you like it then you shoulda put a ring on it

Owl City- Fireflies

Quality: 3.5

Clean: 4

Genre: electronic, bubblegum synth-pop

owl city

I heard Fireflies on the radio which seemed a little out of place. Living in a somewhat rural area, all of the radio stations are either Country, Christian or Ryan Seacrest. Ryan of course only plays the most popular, never anything different or interesting.  You know how it goes: mostly R&B, some Miley, Lady Gaga and once in a while a generic alternative song.  Owl City doesn’t fit those molds.  Electronic beats, and lyrics not about dancing or baby-making, I found the song refreshing. Given, I haven’t been up with the latest Indie releases, I haven’t prowled the internet for interesting and new music for about ten months. My music canvas has been mostly blank so Fireflies was like an invitation to listen to music again.

The lyrics are cute, puzzling and peppy. Falling asleep, or not being able to, and that funny line between the two states of being where reality is blurred seems to be the topic, though it is not clear. Although I’m not exactly sure what he is talking about, I don’t mind because its different and unexpected.

You would not believe your eyes if ten-million fireflies lit up the world as I fell asleep,
Cause they fill the open air, and leave tear drops everywhere,
You’d think me rude but I would just stand and stare.
I’d like to make myself believe that planet Earth turns slowly,
Its hard to say that I’d rather stay awake when I’m asleep,
Cause everything is never as it seems.
Cause I’d get a thousand hugs from ten-thousand lightning bugs as they try to teach me how to dance,
A fox-trot above my head, a sock-hop beneath my bed,
A disco ball is just hanging by a thread.
I’d like to make myself believe that planet Earth turns slowly,
Its hard to say I’d rather stay awake when I’m asleep,
Cause everything is never as it seems.
Leave my door open just a crack (please take me away from here)
Cause I feel like such an insomniac (please take me away from here)
Why do I tire of counting sheep (please take me away from here)
When I’m far too tired to fall sleep.
Ten-thousand fireflies, I’m weird cause I hate good-byes,
I got misty eyes when they said farewell.
But I’ll know where several are, if my dreams get real bizarre,
Cause I saved a few, and I keep them in a jar.

The music is crackly and beepy with simple bass and a little bit of piano and strings–nice and uncomplicated yet not so basic that its just a loop played over and over. Owl City is just one dude, Adam Young, who’s voice sounds a bit like Postal Service, as does the music itself. Yet Fireflies is more bubblegum and less crafted than Postal Service. Fireflies sounds as if Adam composed the song himself in his basement and recorded it purely for fun, without over-analyzing. In fact the internet-lore is just that: living in his parents’ basement he couldn’t sleep, so he wrote and recorded this song. He became popular via Myspace and now it has escalated to a radio hit. That’s how it ended up on Ryan Seacrest’s station.

The criticism of Owl City is that 1. it sounds too much like Postal Service and is therefore unoriginal, and 2. he’s not Christian enough. I guess I don’t mind that it sounds like Postal Service. Its different enough for me that it isn’t in the same category. Postal Service is actual good quality music with style and meaning, while Owl City is just for fun, silly and all smiles. As for criticism #2…I didn’t know O.C was supposed to be Christian. I go back and forth between the whole Christian-band-sounding-Christian-enough thing.  Perhaps if I had the entire album, I’d feel the same way I did about Family Force Five, that it was too much fun to be fun. But, for now I just like the song Fireflies for what it is.  I enjoy listening to lyrics about something different and positive for once (unlike the rest of Ryan Seacrest radio Lady Gaga gag gag).

Links: Official site (you can listen to the song here), Myspace, Owl City hater review

Bon Iver- For Emma, Forever Ago

Quality: 5

Clean: 3

Genre: art-folk, indie

I’m a bit late. For Emma, Forever Ago, was released last year, February 2008. Not to mention that last week Bon Iver released a new EP, Blood Bank. But after hearing NPR’s unabashed applause for Emma, I decided I couldn’t skip it just to be with the times.

Bon Iver is pronounced Bon EEvar, French-ish for “good winter.”  Not just a pseudonym for Justin Vernon, the vocalist and composer of the songs, the name is also for the band and for the spirit of the album. “It’s more of a sentiment that I’m trying to attach to what we do musically, as a group and as a project,” he says. “That sentiment being one of, I don’t know, geographical reference. And us being from where we come from, I think that’s who we are. And we are who we are because of where we come from.”

Holed up in a northern Wisconsin cabin in the dead of winter, Justin Vernon wrote the collective of songs in a two month period . There, he confronted his demons. He says: “everyone kind of builds up negative energy in their life, and for me, it just built up a little too long. And I think I went up there to really fix myself. That’s what it was kind of about for me.”

For Emma, is beautifully produced with warm instrumentals. Acoustic guitar is central, but there are highlights of base and electric guitar, snare drum, whistling, brass and others. Unlike so many other indie artists, the instruments aren’t there just because, but they add to the story of each song, producing their own perfectly crafted artistic affect. Justin’s voice is another instrument, sung in falsetto, it communicates an other-worldly and choir-like feeling. One song, Wolves, surprisingly uses Auto-tune, however it doesn’t sound out of place or pretentious on this organic album. Instead, the emptiness of the computer-generated voice perfectly emphasizes the lifeless love sung  about.

The album is minimal and stark. Somehow though, after listening to it over and over, I am not dragged down into hopeless despair. The music is cathartic, as if listening to it I have worked out some of my own issues. NPR’s article expressed of Skinny Love perfectly what I was thinking of the entire project: “But as dark as it gets, the song, with its unforgettable steel-guitar hook, is too gorgeous to function as a true downer.” Written in winter, the album embodies the season by capturing the mood of foggy skies and desolate snow-scapes.

How else can I describe the sound of Bon Iver? There are elements of Arcade Fire, Cold Play, Smashing Pumpkins, Antony & the Johnsons, and James Taylor, but, Bon Iver is something all its own. Listen to him yourself and see.

For a Clean rating, I give the album a 3. Most of the time I can’t understand the words, or I catch a few here and there but not an entire song. If I look up the words on some lyrics website, I find that they are quite sad. Skinny Love, sounds like a suicide letter. Other songs are vague, about land, loss, cold. Good poetry, for sure. The music is what carries this album, and its ok that the words are unclear. Similar to Son Lux, the words are the accompaniment, not the star.

Listen to Flume on NPR’s media player. Scroll down to the bottom of the article. The first song is Flume. Click on “Listen.” The media player will pop up in a separate window and will begin to play.

Links: boniver.org, NPR’s interview

Storm, Lifehouse

Quality: 4

Clean: 5

Genre: rock

A friend pointed out to me the song Storm by Lifehouse the other day. The lyrics are poignant, conveying that horrible disorienting sense of being utterly lost. There is also hope however, because the lyrics insist that “if I could just see you, everything will be alright, if I’d see you, the storminess will turn to light.” Whether searching for a lifeline, or knowing there is one and waiting for it to come, having hope or looking forward something better can make a huge difference in the midst or our sufferings.

The story of Jesus walking on the water comes to mind. Especially when Peter walks on it too, and then gets scared and starts to sink below the waves. Jesus then catches him. Maybe Lifehouse was using this story as a metaphor, or maybe just the water itself was the metaphor, but without the story. Either way, it is effective.

Psalm 130 comes to my mind when I listen to Storm. Perhaps because I have had my small portion of sufferings and have clung to these words. Listening to Storm, reminds me of those times. Perhaps also because when I am suffering, no one I know, can truly provide me with the peace that I need. No matter how good a relationship I have with a friend, mentor or significant other, I have to handle my trouble alone. There is one exception. The Lord comforts me and walks with me. He gives true hope. Not just hope that I will feel better, but hope that indeed “everything will be all right,” because he redeems my life. He changes it. He renews it. When I pray, he is with me, the best friend that only he can be. Psalm 130 reads:

Out of the depths I cry to you O Lord!
O Lord hear my voice!
Let your ears be attentive to the voice of my pleas for mercy!

If you, O Lord, should mark iniquities,
O Lord, who could stand?
But with you there is forgiveness,
that you may be feared.
I wait for the Lord, my soul waits and in his word I hope;
my soul waits for the Lord
more than the watchmen for the morning,
more than the watchmen for the morning.

O Israel, hope in the Lord!
For with the Lord there is steadfast love,
and with him is plentiful redemption.
And he will redeem Israel from all his iniquities.

Here are the lyrics to Storm. Listen to the song and read the lyrics together.

How long have I
been in this storm
so overwhelmed by the ocean’s shapeless form
water’s getting harder to tread
with these waves crashing over my head

If I could just see you
everything will be alright
if I’d see you
this darkness turn to light

And I will walk on water
and you will catch me if I fall
and I will get lost into your eyes
and everything will be alright
and everything will be alright

I know you didn’t
bring me out here to drown
so why am I ten feet under and upside down
barely surviving has become my purpose
cause I’m so used to living underneath the surface

If I could just see you
everything will be alright
if I see you
the storminess will turn to light

And I will walk on water
and you will catch me if I fall
and I will get lost into your eyes
and everything will be alright

And I will walk on water
you will catch me if I fall
and I will get lost into your eyes
and everything will be alright
I know everything is alright
everything’s alright

Other Best Of 2008 Lists

I’m a bit behind, but yesterday I finally perused Pitchfork‘s best of 2008 list. Going through the best albums list, at first I felt extremely out of it and old because I had only heard of a had full of the bands.  On the best song list, there are little snippets of some you can listen to on the website. After a few, I had had enough. I was thoroughly annoyed. Sheesh! I only liked a few of the songs and this was supposed to be their BEST of the year. Most of them sounded amateur, undeveloped, generic, and vocally poor. There were a few that I could appreciate/respect, but this was the exception.  I finally and reluctantly came to the conclusion, that Pitchfork can be pretentious. It felt like a relief. I read their reviews because they are known for their witty and sometimes sarcastic opinions plus the fact that they focus on indie or at least lesser known artists. But I can’t think of one artist that I have discovered and loved through Pitchfork. Also, some of the songs, names of artists, words in the reviews etc. can be unclean. This is not a website to send your five year old to check out.

Quality: 2

Clean: 2.5

This morning I decided to listen to NPR’s All Songs Considered year in review. They didn’t let me down. Listening to their radio show from December 8th via the internet, was a pleasure. There were four critics, endeeringly nerdy, funny, and unpretentious, who each shared their favorite new artists, biggest surprises, and favorite songs of the year. I wrote down several artists and songs to check into later. Because it was played on the radio, the show was clean. Son Lux was even featured as one of the best new artists of the year (29 minutes in), making me very excited and like a fellow music nerd.

Quality: 4.5

Clean: 4