Eric Peters – Far Side of the Sea

fss-cover

Every song, when boiled down to it, it made up of music and lyrics. The good ones have depth to be explored, originality on both fronts. The bad ones – well just look at top 40 radio and you will have a good sampling; clever, catchy and shallow as the kiddie pool. Be prepared to jump in the deep end as you listen to Eric Peter’s newest offering, The Far Side of the Sea. Peter’s took his singer-songwriter template and allowed producer Gabe Scott to set the match, burning down to the elements and re-crafting with a fresh template.

In many ways, Far Side of the Sea is not a departure for Peters and that is a good thing. The ache is familiar as he works out his demons, not settling into despair and clinging to hope. His songwriting prowess is the backbone of every song, crafting poetry that takes on new color with every listen and exploration of song. However the project finds a new focus on his vocals and exploring colors from a distinctly “less organic style of production.” From the 80’s synth in the opening track “When the Lightening Strike” to the bouncy, clap and electro-pop of “Gravity (Vincent in Reverse)” to heart breaking “Beautiful One (Nowhere)”, it was clear that was the guitar would not be a focal point.

“When the Lightening Strikes” starts with perhaps the best opening line I have heard in any album in a long time. “I’ll never steal the show, but I once stole a car.” Both a true story and brilliant line, it set’s the tone for the album with the duality of ache, “I don’t want to go home, I want to go home.” Peters’ penchant for memorable lines continues throughout the entire album. “Field of Failure” line “My dying field stretches out into nothing, but come see a soul pulsing Lazarus blood” again captures that line between despair and hope in an evocative way that is impossible to ignore.

Perhaps Peters greatest strength has always been his lyricism. On Far Side of the Sea, the production does not diminish the ability of the lines to sink into the listeners psyche. Instead it amplifies; the painful “life is a whisper that’s spoken and gone, its words cling to those that remain” transitions to a layered vocal explosion at the end of “Beautiful One (Nowhere),” bursting with unreconciled hope as he sings “Come alive, my beautiful one.” The line on “Rusted Parts” “A sad surface that must be scratched, We take our scars, then we give them back, Even now on our darkest days, We look for the things we need to be brave” is given room to breathe, with layers of vocals giving space to allow the words to echo. The closer “Worst Parts”, a sweet tribute to his wife, lays out the plea and statement “Shine a light that will guide me home, I’m still afraid of being known (in all my worst parts)” and lets it echo as the closing line.

There is a reason that Eric Peters fans are so intensely loyal to his projects. His last three have been crowdfunded on the Kickstarter platform to bring these gems into reality. His unflinching honesty allows light to be recognized more clearly when the darkness is evident. Far Side of the Sea may be a departure musically from the typical but it remains a project that deserves to be heard. On “Farthest Shore”, he states “I lost my pride on the deep, dark sea, Fighting a current that carried me, I found my hope on the ocean floor, I’m not the same me anymore.”  Here is to hoping that the hope carries him into creating further projects like this.

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Lessons Learned at The Lone Bellow

When you are going to write a concert review, take notes and write it the day of the concert, first draft done before you hit the sack that night. I did not do that, despite seeing a fantastic show by The Lone Bellow (and opener Anderson East). Therefore, this is not a concert review. Let’s call it a best of montage.

Lesson One – Have a great opener. Anderson East killed it in his opening set. It was the right blend of throwback soul and swagger to get the crowd into it. His smoky voice had the right rasp, his band had the right blend of funky, mustache sporting characters and his horn section provided the right blend of unique. My toe was tapping and knees bouncing from song one but let’s face it, when you are performing at a nice theater, the challenge is to get people on their feet.

East opened up by giving people the invitation to get up and dance and gently mocking the fact that everyone was sitting down in “fancy theater”. What I have immense respect for is that even though people didn’t stand up, he didn’t give up. He kept cajoling the crowd, sitting down on the front of the stage three songs in “to see what it felt like” and then launching into a wicked version of “Knock on Wood” alla Otis Redding that got everyone on their feet. I loved that he said, before that song started, “I can see that you are still sitting down which just tells me that we are not working hard enough.” I have immense respect for a musician who sees it as his responsibility to get you up and dancing.

Lesson Two – You need to have a frontman. The Lone Bellow is technically a trio, have killer harmonies, and they succeed in large part because everyone can sing. The songs that Brian Elmquist sang lead were fiery (“Heaven Don’t Call Me Home”) and achingly beautiful (“Watch Over Us”). Kanene Pipkin’s voice was showcased on multiple songs and showed why she deserves more time in the spotlight. “Call to War” was spot on perfect for capturing the mood of melancholy and hope in the same song. But Zach Williams is unquestionably the frontman. Part goofball, part raconteur, part Southern Baptist preacher with hands waving in the air, he was the glue that held it all together.

Here is the thing. I have been to many concerts of favorite artists of mine that were fantastic musically but missed something. With the Lone Bellow, I discovered that the something that those concerts were missing was the sense of fun, the anecdotes in between songs that offered connection, the willingness to sacrifice dignity for the sake of a good show. Too often, serious musicians in the realm of singer-songwriter or folk are too stoic in between songs. Williams made me wish I could spend the evening swapping stories with him over beers while his music continued to play in the background.

Lesson Three – Harmony is difficult to replicate but when you are good, you are good. For a couple songs in the middle of the set and one of the encore, the trio huddled around a single mic and ditched the bass and drums. It was in these moments that the full beauty of their harmonies were evident. Their voices rose and fell, intertwined with the grace of teamwork that can only come from a divine gift polished with practice. The accompaniment of resonator guitar, acoustic guitar and mandolin served not to lead the song but to compliment the voices. It is a cliche but they were truly better live than on record. How can you capture the fading in and out of voices that come from walking away from the mic as you continue to sing on a record?

Lesson Four – There are multiple variables that have nothing to do with the music that can affect a concert. The venue, the company, the crowd; it can all make or break a show. Thank God Anderson East got the crowd prepped and on their feet. Thank God for good friends to see a show with and a hot date. Thank God for the funky weird 70’s vibe, Egyptian motif of the Lincoln Theater and the good people of CAPA who  bring fantastic acts there. Columbus is a town that has some of the best touring acts coming through and for that, I am thankful. Now I just need to make more money so I can go to more shows.

Lesson Five – Variety is the spice of life and the fuel for a great show. Ever seen High Fidelity? John Cusack’s rules for a mixtape apply for a concert; “You gotta kick off with a killer, to grab attention. Then you got to take it up a notch..then cool it off.” The Lone Bellow doesn’t really have a bad song on their set list, which helps things and they ended with a bang. In a decidedly joyful cover of a closer, The Lone Bellow and friends belted out Prince’s “Purple Rain.” While I am somewhat ashamed as a music aficionado to say that I am not familiar with the song,  it was both too sincere to be ironic and too fun to be taken seriously.  But it was their mixture of rollicking Gospel style, take-me-to-church (if your church is a charismatic, wave-your-hands-in-the-air type of church) and heartfelt, gather-around-a-single-mic-and-pull-my-heartstrings, that was the perfect blend of…beauty. I think that is what musical alchemy essentially is; distill this life’s pain, joy, sorrow, and laughter down to the essentials and package it in beauty.

The Art of the Coffee Shop

DSCF0985There have been two coffee shops that I have called home in my life. They could not be more different, both in layout, personnel, location and style and they are both near and dear to my heart. In fact, at least once a week, I drink out of a cup emblazoned with the name of one or the other. Consider this my ode to Kofenya and Bar Agostini and the art of the coffeeshop/bar.

The woman I affectionately still call boss was still in college when she started Kofenya in Oxford, Ohio. I guess she and her friend and partner were young and naive enough to think that they could start a coffee shop, so they did and I am forever grateful. I hated coffee when I started going to Kofenya. I was dragged there at 7 a.m. (the crack of dawn by college student standards, sleeping in by current standards) by a friend 4 times a week to read, talk and pray. It became a drug I couldn’t refuse… not the coffee, the place.

Walk in the door of Kofenya and you will likely be greeted by a friendly face, perhaps even a stereotypical barista. Those early days, you would almost always be greeted by the boss, because she lived there (practically) but there was the odd cast of characters. An opera singer, a bearded jokester before beards were hip, tattoos and piercings were common, and everyone in between. Even me, a straight laced kid from Columbus, somehow weaseled my way into the Kofenya family. And it was family. Heck, if you were a regular, you were adopted into the family. Original art hung on the walls, pictures plastered columns behind the counter, chalk menu’s were creatively scrawled and music, oh the music. Boss and her partner and the team were savants at choosing the right music. Mellow morning mixes, pick me punk, and even the midnight dance party (goals for graduation? dance on the counter. Check).

Kofenya was and is a lot of stereotypical college coffee shop. And that is what made it beautiful. Because it became the place to go to study, hang out, have deep conversation or just belly laugh. The originality was that it wasn’t copying anything. No, it simply because the things that the boss loved and if you walk in the doors, you felt that love too. And damn, they made a good cappuccino.

My second love affair could not have been more different. Agostini dal 1968 (alternately called Bar Agostini, Panificio Agostini, Forno Gastronomia Agostini) was located a literal stones throw from my apartment in Roma, Italia. One walk around my block was all it took to discover, hey, there is this place that has delicious cornetto (Italian breakfast pastry) and cappuccino that takes 2 minutes to walk to in the morning. Even when I moved the second year, I would walk the five minutes to Bar Agostini, ignoring the three bar’s I passed along the way. The vibrant colors, wonderful smells, and organized chaos was a place I could call home.

You have to understand that in Italy, a bar (coffeeshop) with seating is a rarity. Most often, you walk into a little shop, order your drink at the register, hand the receipt to the barista as you call out your drink, stand at the marble countertop and drink your your drink and then leave. It’s a beautiful thing. Just not a sit down, stay a while thing. So when I discover Bar Agostini and it’s seating (because it is a bakery, tavola calda and bar), I am sure they thought I was one strange American who didn’t speak much Italian, sat down and read and wrote in my journal while drinking my cappuccino and eating my pastries.  But they didn’t tell me to leave.

Instead, they asked me questions and welcomed me each morning with a smile. No one spoke much English, so it was slow going at first. My Italian was pretty bad but they excused it. Signore Lorenzo, the original owner was a perfect Italian gentlemen, fitting the stereotype you see on TV. His seemingly dour face would crinkle into a smile as he welcomed me each morning, seated on his throne of a stool behind the register. His daughter Maria Antonietta, who took his place when his health went downhill, always beamed with a smile, asking me how my day was.

The barista’s were the image of Italian barista perfection. Caught up in their frenetic dance of serving the crowds that would ebb and flow like waves, they still managed a smile, a laugh, a private joke in the midst of the crowd. Andrea (guy, Andrew in English), Roberto, Anna Maria… they became the friends I knew I would see every day. If it slowed down enough, they would ask about my day, my work, ask to learn a new word in english. My favorite? “Cornetto con frutti di bosco” became a beautifully pronounced “Cornetto with frrrruits of the forrrrrest” by Andrea. Maurizio, Maria Antonietta brother, would always emerge from the ovens in the back, covered in flour, to laugh, tell a joke, and tease me about my Italian.

Everything about Bar Agostini brings me back to the way things should be. That the food was delicious was an understatement. The fresh bread, the amazing cornetti, the gelato or fresh fruit juice; there is a reason that I literally spent every morning there. I called it my private chapel; the things I needed were provided and it was where I could get away, put in headphones if I wanted to drown out the clamor and be still in the midst of Roman chaos. And they welcomed me like family. I had a tab if I needed it. Didn’t have money on me? They would give it to me anyway and tell me to pay them later. When I went back two years after leaving Italy, I was welcomed with hugs and kisses and Maurizio joking that when I went back to America, I needed to tell them about “my bar”.

Two places, two completely different atmospheres. One American, low key, sit and stay awhile in peace; the other Italian, chaotic, constant motion. Yet they both have perfected the art of the coffee shop. And I am proud to have called them both home, at one time or another.

PW Gopal – Big Blue Life – a review

*I supported this album in its Kickstarter early days. I am biased. This review is biased. But is true.

There are some voices that are forever recognizable once you hear them. Not only in their tone, but in their uniqueness. Bob Dylan, Frank Sinatra, Hootie and the Blowfish, Louie Armstrong; the genre doesn’t matter, the voice is just, well, the voice. PW Gopal is one of those voices for me. At his concerts he always stood a couple feet away from the mic; heck, he doesn’t really need the mic. His clear tenor booms and begs you to listen. Come closer, it says, I have a story to tell you. Big Blue Life is an album of those stories.

PW released Big Blue Life at the beginning of September, a product of 11 years of travels, stories and people. He describes himself as a “Singer, Songwriter, Abolitionist” and it is in that context that you need to listen to his music. The stories aren’t cranked out from some imaginary life; they come from a life rich in experience.  The album feels more country than anything he has released before with fiddle and slide guitar cropping up often but without any twang in his voice, it defies the typical genre. His voice is too strong, too clear for it to feel the rusty Neu-Folk of the stomp-clap variety. But it is that voice that beckons.

One of the beautiful things about Big Blue Life is that often lighter music disguises heavier lyrics and when the music allows itself to sit in the melancholy, the melancholy is tinged with hope. The opening two, “A Hard Life” and “Change My Stars”, are great examples of this, singing “its a hard life to be along for our sins” and “you found the liars, you found the thieves, in my skin and my bones, it looks like me.” “Change My Stars” touches on the continual theme throughout the album of redemption. “In love you came, in love you are, Hallelujah you changed my stars.” Often the album plays like a love letter to God, to his wife, and to life. Rather than coming across as sappy and disingenuous, it feels as if it comes out of experience.

The stories that crop up deal with heavy topics like infidelity, doubt, loss and pain. “Fall to Pieces” was reminscent of an earlier song by PW, “Still Voices”, and the need for redemption in it feels universal. It seemed to say that we often need to break before we can begin healing. Much like an Over the Rhine lyric that says “you have to hit the bottom before you get set free,” Gopals songs encourage that when we are at the bottom, “sometimes you will feel like you are alone in the dark places, don’t cry…I will sing for you in the dark places.”  One of the strongest songs on the album is “Fifteen.” Ambiguous in  subject matter, it is a song that I can feel in my soul. When he sings “God bless my freedom, God bless my wife, God bless my family and those who stand the line,” I feel the pain in those words and the honesty. Again, rather than a country song that feels commercial about ‘Merica, it feels as if I am talking to a friend who came to those conclusions, Job-like, after loss.

From that place Gopal moves to joy. The title track seemed like a benediction of sorts to go and live and move. It stems from Gopals own words “a reflection of God’s grace and glory. What He offers me, and those around me is a life, big and blue as the sky, unlimited and boasting of His presence.” Rather than feeling like being preached at, it feels like being shared with. The following tracks felt joyful, probably also influenced by his wife as “she came out of nowhere and whispered love.” The result is that “I am stuck on you my life, the good life shines from you, my sweet love. You keep me breathing…til the dawn.” It is a beautiful ode to both his wife and to the life that he has been given. Fittingly, he ties the album with stripped down version of the hymn “It Is Well” that speaks of peace in the midst of storms.

PW Gopal is a storyteller and his stories are worth hearing. Check out his music at pwgopal.com or find him on Facebook at PW Gopal Music. You can also download a sample on NoiseTrade by clicking HERE.

 

*I first met PW Gopal a little over a decade ago. I knew who he was because vaguely we had some family connection and he was friends with siblings of mine. I, being the music nerd that I am, stuck around after a coffee shop concert to congratulate him on a great show. After 10 minutes of talking, he got my address and said he had a sermon that he thought I really might like. A week later I got a CD in the mail of this sermon. He is that kind of guy, caring enough to send a CD to a kid he just met at a concert. His songs speak from that place of love, listening and telling stories. 12 years later, I am glad I am still having his voice speak to me.

 

Taelor Gray – The Mocker and the Monarch – a review


*disclaimer: I have no business writing a review of a hip-hop album. I have no expertise other than my own taste. Read the review at your own risk.

Buy at BandcampBuy on iTunes

All of life is a story. The question is whether the story is well told or not. To dive into Taelor Gray’s new album The Mocker and the Monarch, my thoroughly biased opinion needs to tell the story of why this album is worth your time and money (spoiler: it is). You see, I don’t harbor the myth that music artists live a “charmed life” and that making music isn’t work. I have read enough interviews to know that hours go into the craft (at least for the good ones), that perfecting things in the studio takes the same concentration as preparing financial reports. All of us are judged on our product, not on the effort, so perfection is something that we strive for. So I know that being a musician is work. The lucky ones get paid to do this work. Taelor? Taelor’s Bruce Wayne alter ego works in the corporate world. Throw in his work in the church, being a father, and I don’t know how, but somehow he emerges, Batman with lyrical guns flexed, to drop an album that challenges and inspires.

The Mocker and the Monarch is a cohesive journey that takes go from the opening track “Hollow Man” to the killer closer “Hallow Man.” It is no mistake to see the journey even in the track names. There are no throw away tracks on the album; rather, the thematic journey is about innocence, the loss and redemption. It isn’t a concept album in the sense that there is a overarching story that weaves from track to track but it is thematically consistent. From the confessional opener where he is “just me, working through the wreckage,” you get then sense of where the album will go. Not one to shy from controversy, the tracks address the work-party taboo subjects; politics, abortion, race, sexuality, church, hypocrisy and nowhere does the spotlight shine as bright as when he looks at himself. And by spotlight shining bright, I don’t mean in the “look at me” sense, but in the “exposing my flaws” sense.

#MOCXMON (as he has dubbed it) is leaps and bounds ahead of anything Taelor has released, production wise. Simple and effective on songs like “Famous”, the simplicity allows Gray’s swag to hook the listener without the braggadocio that gets in the way; the music video captures the delivery and touches on the fact that up to this point, he was always better live than on record. This album brings the record up to the live. Other songs explore the creativity of meandering jazz piano riffs, old gospel songs, autotune, and even some old school guitar riffs that took me back to some 90’s hip hop on “Powdered Toast Man.” The album is enhanced by features from a B.Reith hook on “Gorgeous” and multiple guest spots, especially by brother Christon Gray on the closer. The only song that didn’t work for me was “Vogue”; the stilted delivery and dreamy synth didn’t do it for me and lyrical content wasn’t enough to pull me back.

Any production work without true content would be lipstick on a pig. Thankfully Gray doesn’t lack in depth. “Famous”, the second track, starts out the party by calling out hypocritical artists and the gullibility of consumers who buy the image presented. The theme of brokenness and struggle to recapture at times feels hopeless as Tragic Hero laments “I’d teach you to let go but I don’t know how to” on “Gorgeous” and B.Reith croons that “we let strangers destroy us.” When Gray says “this is me moving on, I did it myself,” on “In.Secure,” it feels like he is trying to convince himself that he can be the Monarch.

The album takes off after the aforementioned “Vogue” with the furious “Cold.” Talk about a song that doesn’t hold back. FEMA, racism, politics, sexual assault on campus, transgender issues, abortion. All the issues covered in one song and somehow it remains one of the more upbeat songs on the album, thanks to the feel in the production. It felt like the transition song on the album, as Gray posits himself as the “Black Bruce Lee with bullets in my mouth” and lives up to the billing. It seemed like with this song the journey takes the turn from Mocker and striving to be Monarch to a hands-in-the-air freedom. It is as if the mask drops off and honesty rises to the surface.

That honesty comes in “Powdered Toast Man”, with its 90’s vibe, as he makes no bones when he says “I serve the right king, more servant than right wing.” And yet the next track, he and ArmondWakeUp bare their soul with confessions about lust, Armond saying “these are the fights I face while I work out my soul” and Gray offering “I hope you don’t expect the shallow man to be more than this.” The final two tracks are highlights; “Scapegoats” musically is ambitious and lyrically comes across like a diary entry. Honesty about church and music politics, hypocrisy and his failures, and even about miscarriage doesn’t come across preachy but authentic. The closer continues the heart on the page theme, starting almost as spoken word over meandering piano. It is a sprawling song exploring personal and spiritual life with imagery, wondering “Whats living when death can’t hurt you?” As he seems to wind down, almost broken, brother Christon Gray jumps in, almost conversational, and the song explodes into a climax, “No more metaphors, it’s not just for the conscious rhymes, it’s for my conscience, I swore I wouldn’t compromise.” Forget the Mocker, forget being the Monarch; “a strip search of my motives, broken cisterns in the ground…the King wields the weapon, it’s the spear or it’s the scepter, we ain’t never left Him, we’re holding up the lighters.”

Every once in a while, I come across something in hip-hop that draws me back in. Usually I end up being disappointed, because I want to like it and honestly, it’s not my scene. Digesting The Mocker and the Monarch is like finding a new restaurant; I am glad I was early on the scene but I hope everyone else finds out what they were missing and soon. It is an album that deserves to be heard.

1. Hollow Man // prod. by Wit
2. Famous // prod. by Wes Pendleton
3. Gorgeous (feat. B.Reith and Tragic Hero) // prod. by Wit and 42North
4. In.Secure // prod. by Swoope
5. Vogue // prod. by Wit
6. Cold // prod. by Peace 586
7. Enemies // prod. by Wes Pendleton
8. Powdered Toast Man (feat. Beleaf, Jurny Big, and DJ Efechto) // prod. by Daniel Steele
9. Mike Lowry X Marcus Graham (feat. ArmondWakeUp) // prod. by Daniel Steele
10. Scapegoats // produced by Wit and 42North
11. Hallow Man (feat. Christon Gray) // prod. by Wit and 42North

Free Music Friday – Matthew Perryman Jones

In A Decade:  The Complete Works

One of the things I love about NoiseTrade is how artists are diving into the free music thing and seem to be making it work. Derek Webb wrote a blog post back in 2011 about how giving away your music makes more sense than Spotify or piracy. A follow up of sorts was published in 2013 on how a NoiseTrade model can ultimately further a musicians career more than streaming services.  I have started following so many bands thanks to their NoiseTrade giveaways. In honor of this, I am going to start occasionally spotlighting some artists on Friday’s. If I don’t have a interview to post or review to write, it will be a Free Music Friday! Today’s inaugural post is highlighting Matthew Perryman Jones, who has been on my top artist list since college.

Matthew Perryman Jones’ catalogue is too extensive that to actually write a review of this giveaway would be futile. It lands squarely in the singer/songwriter/folk/pop/rock categories and his voice is… his voice is like polished wood, comforting and familiar yet imbued with wisdom. The first album I bought, Throwing Punches in the Dark, was part of my introduction to folk rock and it continues to be my preferred genre. If you don’t listen to the whole free download, check out the following songs to decide if it’s worth it for you.

Click the Picture or THIS LINK for the free download

10 and 35. Beneath The Silver Moon (Throwing Punches in the Dark) – written for his father who (I believe) got dimensia, this song is a powerful benediction of sorts on a life well lived. When he played a show in Columbus a couple years ago, he shared that he hadn’t played the song since his fathers funeral but he played it that night, in honor of one of the attendees. It was a moving experience.

17. When it Falls Apart (Swallow the Sea) – a perfect little pop song that has a sing-a-long chorus and despite the upbeat light music, lyrically it packs truth.

18. Feels Like Letting Go (Swallow the Sea) – this song encapsulates a lot of the beauty of Matthew Perryman Jones music for me. It musically hits the right spot, not too mellow and building to an emotional climax. Ultimately it’s a song about freedom. “I know that in the dark, there’s a fear of letting go. I know that in my heart, that I fear what I don’t know. And this feels like i’m letting go.”

9 and 26. Echoes of Eden (Throwing Punches/The Distance In Between) – one my all time favorite MPJ songs, both versions are killer. I love the drum beat that the original (9) begins with; combined with sparse instrumentation, it makes it even more effective when the song erupts with music. The remake (26) strips the song, giving it a totally different minimalist feel that still works. “My father told me as I grew older, son to keep on finding faces in the clouds. And dance with mystery and as she holds me she may whisper her secrets in the shroud. And I am listening now.” I wish I could write lyrics like that.

28. Until the Dawn Appears – I love this song for it’s old Johnny Cash gospel sound and for the beautiful backing vocals (Lori Chaffer, whose husband produced the album). The lyrics ache with longing. When he sings “when the shadows will be gone and all these bitter tears, well my heart will hang on that until the dawn appears, O how long?” I believe him.

13 and 30. Save You (Swallow the Sea and Until the Dawn Appears) – this song was probably the first of MPJ’s songs to hit mainstream of any sorts. It is elusive lyrically yet evocative; to this day I don’t really know what he is singing about but the originally poppy version and the slowed down remake ooze with something that hits close to home.

34. Homage to the Suffering (Until the Dawn Appears) – I am a sucker for slowed down, beautiful music. The words and music ache with longing and hope without offering an answer. Sometimes it is good to leave the questions hanging so we can dive deep into the question to find the answer on our own.

39. O Theo (Land of the Living) – I realize these are a lot of slow songs. I love this song for the vague imagery that makes me wonder what the heck it is about. Inspired by letters from Vincent Van Gogh to his brother Theo, I think this song is beautiful.

41. Waking Up the Dead (Land of the Living) and 45. Land of the Living – Both of these songs explode with hope, energy, and joy. Their defiant, evocative imagery is some of his best songwriting. “I want to dance on fire and be born again. I can hear the voice that’s waking up the dead.” Indeed. “You cannot love in moderation,  Dancing with a dead man’s bones, Lay your soul on the threshing floor. I am coming home. I am coming home.”

46. Where the Road Meets the Sun (Duet with Katie Herzig) – I think his duets are absolutely beautiful. Katie Herzig has a unique, gorgeous voice and the duet of the two is more than the sum of it’s parts.

Breaking the Sophomore Curse – Kopecky’s “Drug for the Modern Age”

Free Music Friday – Enjoy a 4 song Kopecky sampler

For a band that has been together since 2007, releasing your second album seems a little…slow. I was introduced to the band formerly known as The Kopecky Family Band with a free EP The Disaster and the companion Of Epic Proportions. I am not going to lie, it was good but didn’t blow me away. It was music I enjoyed listening to but I never shared it with friends. After three EP’s, the band finally released their debut LP Kids Raising Kids. And I never listened to it. Apparently it was well received, getting reviews that said “If you like Fleetwood Mac, try Kopecky Family Band…intelligent and a bit edgy, but still mainstream (NY Times)” and “Quickly fell in love. The Kopecky’s sweet rock songs keep blooming into something irresistible (NPR).”

Most bands that have a well received debut end up having a sophomore slump. The pressure of trying to live up to what others say your music is and quite frankly, sometimes lightening doesn’t strike twice. So when I got a NoiseTrade email saying to check out a 4 song sampler from the newly shortened Kopecky, I figured, what the heck, let’s see what they have to offer. The single for the album was named “Quarterback.” Aside from conjuring images of a humiliating football career in high school, how bad could it be? Here is what Quarterback is… perfect roll-down-your-windows-and-crank-up-the-volume summer music. And I mean perfect.

When a radio hit right now called “Honey I’m Good” sounds exactly like Cotton Eyed Joe, radio is in dire need of some honest to goodness fun music right now. And while Quarterback is about lying to try to get a date, the band laughingly calls it “the worst relationship advice ever.” That’s a far cry from some of the other crap out there. Since I didn’t fully digest the first album, I can’t compare this album to the first LP. It  has hints of 80’s synth, 90’s guitar that gets stuck in your head, and lyrics that are at once accessible yet striving for the profound. The album was written while the band members experienced some of life’s worst storms (death of a sibling, divorce) and the lyrics dive into life, love, relationship and all the things that tear away at those things in our life and reveals something found at the bottom of those things…hope.

You find it sprinkled in the slightly moody opener Die Young, written in the wake of a bandmember’s brother’s death. “If we’re going to die young, we’ll live as if it’s not today.” The album then bursts into life with the supremely danceable song that follows called My Love. Don’t listen to this album for your quiet end-of-the-evening porch rocking session. No, listen to it when you need that pick me up that reminds you of all the good things about the 80’s. It isn’t without it’s melancholy; songs like Closed Doors echo with regret and Thrill  has a dark feel to it, but even these songs don’t drown in despair. And the album doesn’t leave you stuck, it brings you back to the theme of hope.

Their “Drug for the Modern Age” is relationships. In their words, “In this day and age we are all struggling to find a sense of ease and happiness in the midst of war & disease. We see addiction to drugs, alcohol, technology, ageless beauty & want what we can’t have. But at the end of the day true fullness can be found in a greater love and appreciation for all things. Recognizing we are all connected. To me, that’s the Drug for the Modern Age.” That’s a drug that I can endorse.

Art and Morality

Kendrick Lamar released the album “To Pimp A Butterfly” to much acclaim in March of this year. I will be honest, I am not much of a hip-hop afficionado but reviews by Relevant Magazine and by a good friend made me want to check it out. From the reviews, from interviews with Kendrick, from the media reaction, it was “a masterpiece of fiery outrage, deep jazz and ruthless self-critique” (Rolling Stone) and as Relevant Magazine put it; “It confirms our suspicions about Kendrick: He is one of the most important musicians of his generation.” And honestly, I had a really hard time listening to it because of all the profanity.

Now, I want to be able to say I am an appreciator of good art, regardless. I want to say that art needs to be truthful, that art that sugar coats things and dresses everything in Bob Ross happy trees is pleasant yes, but not powerful. Redemption isn’t real without a fall, grace isn’t powerful without failure and need for grace, and art that ignores this is like a taco without salsa; palatable but not preferred. But I seem to continually butt up against this invisible line that screams to me that art needs a moral center and that art that flaunts that, especially in the area of seemingly unneccesary vulgarity loses whatever power it may have had.

With Kendrick Lamar’s album, I realize that I am way outside of my cultural comfort zone. When I read the reviews that dive into the depth of his lyrics, I am encouraged and challenged. But when I listen to them, I get distracted by the profanity and racial epithets thrown around, seemingly without regard. He says “The next time I talk about money, h***, clothes, God and history all in the same sentence, just know I meant it, and you felt it cause you too are searching for answers. I’m not the next pop star, I’m not the next socially aware rapper, I am a human ****ing being.” I wonder if I am more willing to give grace to the guy on the street that says that to me than I am to the public figure who clearly had the time to edit his comments. Is being real overrated, if not put through a filter and refined?

Which makes me wonder about art and ethics in general. When does the masterpiece become indecent? When does the painting cross the boundaries with the depiction of nudity? What makes it cross that boundary? What is a societal norm and what is truly indecent? There were days when it was indecent to have a woman have her shoulders uncovered. Have you seen the old school swimsuits? The ones that were basically like swimming in your clothes? Compare those with even the most modest swimsuit today and you get an idea of cultural norms. Or think of Mark Twain’s The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn; “called vulgar in the 19th century and racist in the 20th.”

I don’t have a great answer for these questions. I am a Christian and that informs and defines what I see as appropriate and not appropriate. Other people will define it different ways and honestly, things like this are pretty subjective and my definitions may change too. I do think that art should come from some sort of ethical or moral framework. Without this, I think it loses it’s power. From my perspective, art should be:

1. Purposeful. Offending for the sake of offending is about as useful as manure on a driveway. It just stinks.

2. True. Or have truth woven into it. No, I don’t mean that fiction is wrong, simply that sometimes fiction can ring true to the way we are made.

3. Made with integrity and excellence. Throwing crap up on a canvas because you know it will sell is a sell out. If you are going to make something, pour yourself into it. If it is less than, you do a disservice to yourself and to your creator.

What do you think about art? I realize I posed more questions than answers and I would love more answers.

Stealing Back My Joy

Sounds Like a Movement is a “a production company that believes every person is a movement in the making.” If you distill what they do on their podcast down to terms that most people can understand, they interview really interesting people Sleeping at Last and the guy who wrote the Lego Movie and post those inspirational interviews. And they do it better and more consistent than I do. Relevant Magazine is a magazine whose tagline is “faith, culture and intentional living.”  They produce and write a lot of great content, relevant to life and challenging to think about, in addition to podcasts and video with really great musical artists.  And they do it better and more consistently than I can.

There are a lot of really great companies, artists, stores, websites etc. out there that produce content/products way more professional, polished, raw, or eloquent than I can or a lot of artists can and yet we still write/paint/create. What is it that drives us to do this? Why is it that some people read Victor Hugo, or heck, even JK Rowling and say “I could never do that” and never try and others read it and are inspired. Why do some listen to “insert your favorite artist here” and give up and others listen and are inspired?

I have been there on both sides of the coin. Not exactly on the musical side, but on the writing side at least. In Les Miserables (book, not the play), there is a chapter “The Heroes” (Chapter 18(21) in Book 15) that is one of the most brilliant descriptions of battle I have ever read. After reading it, it made me wonder why every movie scene or book I have ever read about war never managed to capture the pain, the brutality, the beauty, the glory, the chaos of battle the way two pages in that book did. And it made me think “I could never do that. Why do I keep writing?” It is the same thing when reading Harry Potter or The Wingfeather Saga. Though they are kids books, sometimes I sit back in awe at writers who can capture a feeling, a story, real characters and keep it all in line to pull you into a full blown adventure. And I think, “I could never do that.” Other times I go into a business or a coffee shop and I love the atmosphere and think, “I could definitely pull this off,” or “Why didn’t I think of this?”

My Mom has a sign up in her kitchen that says “Comparison is the thief of joy,” and I had a hearty debate with a good friend of whether that was true or not. He pointed out that comparison can cause us to run harder towards our goal and I took the position that if we are always comparing, we will never be satisfied where we are at. Comparison is often the thief of my joy but it is also the little spark that sometimes lights the fire to show me what makes me truly alive. I think that may be the secret in why we do what we do, even when there are hundreds of others that do it and probably do it better. We find what makes us come alive and we chase after that, even if we know we won’t be the absolute best. I need to forget about comparing and think about striving after doing what I was created for, striving for excellence in that. If I don’t, I become so focused on putting one foot in front of the other that I forget to dream. And don’t get me wrong, there is a time and place for putting one foot in front of the other, but there is also a time to lift up your head to see the destination.

If No One Was Watching…

There is a song called “Who Are You” by a great band, Ivan and Alyosha, where the chorus says “Who are you when no one is around?” I have been thinking on what Taelor Gray said about making music if no one was listening. It was an honest answer and one that I have thought about taking it out of context of music. If no one cared about what you do for your living, or for creative fun, would you still do it?

Honestly, if I knew no one was ever going to read this blog, it would take on a whole new form. It would be more of a journal, something to vent what’s in my head but I don’t think I would care so much about quality or theme. It would be just another blog (which it still may be… so thanks for reading, loyal audience of five). I think part of the fun of creating something is to share it with others. Part of the joy is seeing something you put effort into taking form.

Let’s be honest, not everything we do is exciting or worth sharing. My day job is something that 99% of the world will find uninteresting but this principle applies even then. How would I perform my job if I knew that my boss didn’t care and no one would ever review my work. Weird concept, but what if you were given a task and told “Do this for the next year, we will pay you well and oh yea, no one, not even us, will ever see what you do.” Would you still do it? Motivations are a tricky thing. Depending on your belief system, you may believe (as I do) that Someone is always watching and you live for that higher motivation. But let’s be honest, even for the most devout, it is hard to stay motivated if we aren’t getting tangible feedback.

So what is it that you do? Any why do you do it? I don’t have great answers to this one, but it is something that has been on my mind. Who are you when no one is around? If we break it down to the most elemental that everyone can agree on, are you who you want to be? Or are you someone who is tossed about by the winds of culture and opinion?

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