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)

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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.

Family Force 5- Dance or Die

Quality: 3

Clean: 4

Genre: rock, electronic, pop

ff5

There is a Christian radio station in town that primarily plays alternative and hard rock music. I try to listen to it because I want to get to know more Christian music, and I feel like I should try to support a radio station that is at least trying to play good music. The problem is that most of the music sounds the same and I don’t even like it all that much. Consequently, whenever I hear a song that is remotely different or interesting, I try to find out more about it. I heard Fever once and had to look it up. It was different from most other songs on this station because it had electronic elements- the vocals are synthesized- and you know I am a sucker for electronic elements.

Dance or Die is Family Force 5’s second album. Their first was heavier, like Linkin Park, or Rage Against the Machine. Dance or Die is more like a throw back to 80’s synth pop, mixed together with music like The Killers and other such indie/punk music.  When I listened to the songs on their myspace page, I liked, but didn’t love them. I didn’t want to give up though, because I’m always trying to support Christian bands that are different/interesting/don’t sound the same as all the bands/at least good. So I cruised over to Christianity Today‘s music review website (which is actually pretty good). The review basically said the album was too much about fun and didn’t have enough substance either lyrically or musically to carry it. I quickly dismissed the review as being written by old people and bought the album.

I frequently wish there was more music out there, without swears or innuendos, that was fun just for fun’s sake. Fun music doesn’t have to mean anything, it can just be fun. I’m not sure if I’ve changed my mind or not, but the pure lack of substance on this album got on my nerves after a while. The lyrics are just silly. For example, Fever, is about a um, fever, that is well, burning up…”somebody call the New York Times, this fever’s gonna make the headlines.” What does that even mean? Actually, I wouldn’t mind it if there was at least one or two songs with some heft to them, but every song is silly,and meaningless. There are some lyrics that made me think: While listening to D-I-E 4 Y-O-U, I wondered if the song was about Christ, you know the whole dying thing and all…or perhaps even a martyr being willing to die for Christ…but there is nothing in the lyrics to suggest such an interpretation. If the band wasn’t signed to a Christian label I wouldn’t have even thought twice. Another song, How in the World, is a pretty sweet love song, that could be interpreted to be written to Christ, but again, there is nothing in the lyrics to suggest such an interpretation. In fact, there is nothing on the entire album to suggest that this band is “Christian.”

I’m breaking my own rules, because I usually think that a band or album should be taken for what it is, on its own terms, and not for what we think it should be or what it was expected to be. Dance or Die, is supposed to be fun. That was the one and only objective and in that, it succeeded. Also, because they are “Christian” the album is free of swears and innuendos. I should be happy and move on.

I’m not happy. I have to agree that Christianity Today’s review was right on. A single song can be fun, but an entire album should have balance. There should be other songs to bring out a theme, or to remind us why Family Force 5 claim to be Christians, or even that they have emotions. Dance or Die, is one of those albums with two good songs, and the rest sounds too much the same to palate all at once.

Fever:

How in the World:


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

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

Fireflight, Unbreakable

Quality: 4

Clean: 5

Genre: Rock

Fireflight could be compared to Flyleaf. Both sound a little hard-core, both have female singers, and both start with the letter F. Fireflight however, is softer sounding. I wouldn’t even call them metal like I did Flyleaf. They are more in the style of hard-rock. I hesitate to use that designation because it brings to mind those classic-rock radio stations that play Led Zeppelin and other 70’s and 80’s music. I could call them pop-metal, or post-grunge and be comfortable. They stay within the realm of guitar, heavy percussion and emotive singing.

Unbreakable has become my current go-to album. I find myself listening to it when I can’t think of what else I feel like listening to. They are catchy, fun and positive. Their music is accessible; not too hard core. They have choruses that are easy to sing along with but just when I think I’m on a track that is generic and getting close to the cheesy line, they throw in an unexpected hook or bridge that keeps me interested. Brand New Day, for example is a slower track, sort of like a ballad but not really. Its chorus is a little too easy for me, it could be on the easy listening radio station. But then at the end of the song, there is a bridge in minor key with a surprising sound of yearning, genuine emotion, and hope. This bridge brings the entire song to life. It makes the chorus sound more genuine, not just a silly sweet song. Its about how we only feel at home in the Lord and even though we are with the Lord now and have our home in him now, we still long for our heavenly home. There are other places like this in the CD. Choruses are sung with layered voices as if a crowd is shouting (but in a musical way), or a harpsichord plays a few notes to bring a sweetness to a harder song.I also like the way the music ties in to the lyrics. When the song is about something sad or happy, the music is sad or happy. The band isn’t breaking boundaries but they do what they do very well. They don’t sacrifice quality in order to be musically accessible.

Different from Flyleaf in another way, Fireflight is way more obvious about being a Christian band. Their lyrics are overtly positive and sing about the Lord as the answer. The theme of the album lyrically would have to be the emotional turmoils we go through in life and that giving ourselves to the Lord, even when we don’t feel like it, is the best and only way out. I like that Fireflight sings about the the different pains, self-inflicted agonies, depressions and hungers that span the emotional spectrum. They also urge the listener to give their angst to the Lord in order to get out of the destructive cycle and heal. Some of the songs are about the individual but a couple are about relationships. Having the courage to get out of bad relationships and healing other relationships by giving up on pride and selfishness are both topics that are explored.

My favorite songs are Unbreakable, and Brand New Day. Unbreakable states the theme of the album well. Healing and rising to strength given from the Lord. Its a powerful song, yet also makes one want to to rock out.

Links: iamunbreakable.com, myspace.com/fireflight, fireflightrock.com

Cold Play, Viva la Vida or Death and all his Friends

Quality: 4.5

Clean: 4

Genre: Rock

I’ve had this album in my hands for some time now. I’ve also been putting off writing a review because this album is hard for me to analyze. I feel like after listening to it I should have something profound to say, but I don’t.

Musically, the word soundscape comes to mind. The first time I listened to the whole album I was driving for 2 hours across the farmlands of Idaho. The gold, honey and rust colored fields of grain, the wild, rugged sage brush hills of public lands and the kooky wooden barns falling over were perfect visual accompaniment to the album. There is a variety of instrumentation, organic and electronic: piano, strings, rock guitar, organ, drums, a lyre? and more. The music brings to mind urgent emotions such as regret, yearning, resignation, hope, and frustration. I can hear a variety of influences on this album such as Radiohead, Jeff Buckley, Arcade Fire, Air, and of course U2. One interesting aspect of the album is that many of the songs have two distinct parts, almost like the movements of a sonata. If you’ve ever been to a classical orchestra concert, the movements sound like different “songs” but they are part of a whole, and you aren’t supposed to clap between them even though the orchestra pauses for a second. Yes, for example, sounds like a completely new song at about the 4 minute mark, but when you look at the track listing, surprise! its still track 6.

The album, and Coldplay themselves, have been criticized for being too universally palatable. They are definitely polite and don’t venture too far into harsh or experimental sounds. What they do, they do skillfully however. If the listener takes them on their own terms, they are marvelous. On their myspace page, they describe themselves as “very heavy soft rock,” so we must keep in mind, they think of themselves as soft, not hard. The album is lush and brings together a variety of influences and sounds. The variety continues in that some tracks are slow and some are upbeat. The album is cohesive as a whole despite this variety and is knit together with highly skilled hands. It doesn’t break new ground however, and for this it gets a 4.5 for Quality instead of a 5.

Lyrically the songs are interesting and thought provoking. Several songs mention the name of God, death, heaven and the church. I’m always interested at what people have to say about those topics so I listened closely…hmmm I couldn’t really tell what was being said. Some of the songs seem like they are making political references, or perhaps they are literary or historical…I’m not sure. On first listen I thought the words were deep with meaning, hinting at wars and rumors of wars. But on 2, 3 and 4 listens through, it seems the meanings don’t go beyond hints. The title, Viva la Vida, or Live the Life, is perhaps a reference to a play about the life if Frida Kahlo, a Mexican painter known for her self portraits depicting the deep suffering of her life. I couldn’t find any information on this however reference however…maybe I’m wrong and its just a nice phrase for an album title. The album cover is a Eugene Delacroix painting of the French Revolution. Another war reference. Maybe its just a theme and hints are all they are meant to be? Its confusing and I leave the record wanting more data instead of being happy to interpret whatever I want. Rolling Stone says what I am feeling nicely:

Coldplay’s desire to unite fans around the world with an entertainment they can all relate to is the band’s strength, and a worthy goal. But on Viva la Vida, a record that wants to make strong statements, it’s also a weakness. Sometimes, to say what needs to be said, you need to risk pissing people off.

I was particular interested in the two songs entitled Lost! and Lost? For my background the titles evoke a religious/salvation idea going about. The interesting thing is that on first listen, the first one (Lost!) sounds almost triumphant, as it to say “I’m lost but I don’t want saving,” and the second (Lost?) evokes more of a weary, humble giving up. The lyrics are the same but the key and tempos are different.

My other favorite song is probably Death and all his Friends because it has a nice instrumental part in the middle, and the lyrics hint at the desire for peace yet not being able to achieve it. It reminds of how humans often yearn for things we cannot have like that verse in Ecclesiastes, “He has also set eternity in the hearts of men.” There is also a second movement to this song which like.

The only song with barely questionable lyrics is, Yes. It is about unrequited lust, yet is amazingly appropriate. It also gets to heart of the problem and reveals the danger involved in acting on lust. The chorus sings: “But I’m just so tired of this loneliness,” but the first verse warns, “my back’s on the line, my back’s on the ropes…night makes a fool of us in daylight.”

For Yes and the ambiguity in general, the album should get a 3 for Clean. The hints at redemption, religion, and the heaviness of live can’t be ignored however. These would give the album a 5. As an average I give it a 4.

Links: pitchfork review, rolling stone review