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.

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