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:


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Best of 2008

I’ve kind of taken a break from the blog for the past month. I like listening to cheesy Christmas music which doesn’t necessarily warrant reviews. This year I enjoyed two new Christmas albums (new to me, they were both 2007 releases): Jars of Clay’s Christmas Songs, and Mindy Smith’s My Holiday. All this to say, I don’t have any new reviews at the moment, and my music budget is spent for a few weeks…But I always like to do a year-end review. So here I have my favorite albums and songs of 2008:

Best albums of 2008:

1. Son Lux, At War with Walls and Mazes

By far my favorite album of the year.

2. Lecrae, Rebel

Christian rap was introduced to me for the first time this year and it changed my perspective on music.

3. Kanye West, 808s and Heartbreaks

Despite the criticism West received for this album and even my own hesitations, it remains tops in my mind for its unconventional yet accessible attitude and sound.

4. Cold Play, Viva la Vida, or Death and all His Friends

5. Nothing stands out. I could put the Twilight soundtrack, or Fireflight’s Unbreakable, but while they are good…they just don’t stick out in my mind. I guess I only have a top 4.

Best Songs of 2008:

1. Black is the Color (DJQ’s Club Edit),  2Devine vs Cara Dillon

This might seem random to you unless you know me in real life. It is just a silly techno song remix but I loooove it and listened to it constantly since I found it. Black is the Color of my True Love’s Hair is an old Scottish folk song. Many singers have covered it and in this version, Cara Dillon, an Irish folk singer, does the honors. I don’t know if Cara and 2Devine made a deal or if 2Devine just took a copy and remixed it with beats. Either way it is an unlikely combination, folk singing and techno, but somehow it works and is beautiful.

2. Son Lux, Wither

3. Chris Brown, Forever

Again, this might seem like a surprise unless you know me in real life. I just love how innocent, dancy, poppy and romantic it sounds. 

4. Lecrae feat. Sho Baraka, Live Free

5. Blue Foundation, Eyes on Fire

On the Twilight soundtrack. Perfectly melancholy and chilling. (myspace)

Honorable Mention: Oceanlab, On a Good Day, Kanye West, Love Lockdown, and Lecrae, Rebel Intro

If I had unlimited money and time I would have gotten around to listening to/reviewing :

1. Girl Talk, Feed the Animals (myspace)

2. Apparat, Walls, (listen for free)

3. Thievery Corporation, Radio Retaliation (myspace)

Kanye West- 808s and Heartbreaks

Quality: 4

Clean: 3

Genre: r&b, electronic, pop

808

I hesitated to post this review here. You might be wondering what Kanye West is doing on a quality and clean blog. It would be like adding a review of one of Madonna’s albums- it almost doesn’t matter what the the content of their music is because their reputations are both so um carnal. Kanye has a reputation for his trash talking bravado, materialistic yet dapper fashion sense and possessing an appetite for causing and basking in controversy. Then there is the way he generally raps about women, similar to other rappers, he treats them like possessions to chalk up on his tally sheet. Kanye is a very talented beat-maker and rapper, consequently he rose to fame quickly. Maybe this is why he has such a big ego, or maybe that is just part of every rappers persona.

Actually what caused me to purchase and then decide to add a review to this blog was the contrast between Kanye’s reputation and the content of 808’s and Heartbreaks. When Love Lockdown came out I was it was not what I had expected. Stylistically and lyrically, Kanye West’s fourth album, is very very different from his past three. The name of the album lays bare the musical and lyrical themes. 808s is a reference to the analogue synthesizer the early 1980’s. It has a characteristically “hollow/tinny” sound which smoothly contributes to the lyrical theme of heartbreak. Instead of rapping, Kanye sings throughout the entire album causing the songs to feel more heartfelt. Instead of the light-hearted, feel-good tempo if his past albums, Heartbreaks is melancholy to its core. The instrumentation is sparse, minimalistic and lonely instead of fully layered and well fed. In the past Kanye has been a little different from other rappers, his production is richly layered and contributes to the message of his songs instead of just background looping. He heavily relies on his favorite tool, auto-tune, as well as as other electronic devices (ie. the electronic voice in Stronger) and uses live instrumentation (actual cello, piano, woodwinds and choirs). Heartbreaks keeps auto-tune as a faithful friend but disposes with the heavy layered devices. There are a few live instruments (including a lovely choir in the first track), but musically the themes are raw percussion with 808 sounding synthesizer beeps and shallow melodies that sound like they came straight from a midi or cheap home-Casio piano.

Lyrically, Kanye’s past songs have been full of bragging how good and easy and full of material possessions his life is. In contrast, Heartbreaks delves into the emptiness of his life, how material possessions mean little  and making lasting positive relationships with women is difficult if not impossible for him. The song that best displays the “emptiness” theme is Welcome to Heartbreak. The lyrics are rich with contrast between the “good life” and his own:

My friend showed me pictures of his kids, and all I could show him was pictures of my cribs.
He said his daughter got a brand new report card, and all I got was a brand new sports car.
Dad crack a joke all the kids laughed, but I couldn’t hear em all the way in first class.
Chased the good life my whole life long, look back on my life and my gone…where did I go wrong?

Kanye’s mother died shortly before he began work on the album. The genuine yet not necessarily romantic heartbreak and grieving portrayed on the album fits with this kind of rift, the kind that rocks you to your core, the kind the death of a mother to a young person (Kanye is only 31) can cause.

The lyrics to several songs give off vibes of a desire for change, yet he is a bit like Peter Petrelli in the T.V. show Heroes. No matter how hard he tries to do what he thinks is right and even to fix past mistakes, he just makes things worse. I can see a man like Kanye deciding to find a real relationship, maybe even invest more in the one he already has. Yet, all he has trained himself to do thus far is treat women shallowly and create relationships based on appearances. One song, RoboCop, reveals the one-sided conversation of a dysfunctional romantic fight, first laying all the blame on the other party, then sarcastically making fun of and putting down that party. He wants to change over night but most people can’t do that. Kanye’s descriptions of the inner workings of his romantic relationships (in the songs, and who knows if they are autobiographical or just songs) reveal a desire for intimacy but a lack in compassion and patience. Perhaps these qualities will develop in time and then he will find and develop a loving lasting relationship, but for now he is caught in the middle; wanting to be someone he isn’t.

I’m fascinated by songs in the main-stream that describe yearning for eternal significance. To me it shows that no one is completely shallow and we all have the same needs at our core. I also know that anyone can change but not everyone does. To me this album shows that universal struggle: “For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing that I hate.” (Romans 7:21).

As an adult it is fun for me to analyze music with contrasting and unexpected images. However, If I had children between the ages of 5 and 15 I might not have purchased this album (perhaps they would be oblivious at a younger age?). It could send a mixed message to them, and they might not be mature enough to filter the bad from the good. None of the songs have swears but they do portray dysfunctional relationships and talking enigmatically about one’s sordid past. Also, unfortunately, we cannot separate the singer and his image from his music. Kanye is not the type of person I would want to put on display or admire around my young children. With older children however, I think that talking and analyzing media such as this would be very healthy. Teenager’s minds are developing the ability to think through complicated issues with contrasting messages. Parents and teachers are in the role to help teach them discernement in recognizing good and evil instead of just cool and uncool.  I think it can be complicated and I am sure I know people who would not go near this album and others who would go to a concert with their children. Here is a situation that is very gray. Also I do not have children so I can only think about and speculate what I would do. Perhaps I would act entirely different.

Love Lockdown:

Welcome to Heartbreak:

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

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

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