Guestblog: Lou Carlozo. More Musings on “Christian Music.”

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A few weeks ago I wrote a piece on CCM that triggered a brilliant, incisive response from Lou Carlozo of the Chicago Tribune. Today Lou offers round two on the subject at dickstaub.com! Also, listen to installment # 7 of our first “The Kindlings Muse” podcast today at thekindlings.com

Now read what Lou has to add to his earlier comments!

On Sunday night May 28, I witnessed one of the most amazing concerts I have ever seen: Indie rock pioneer Howe Gelb plied his special brand of Lou Reed-flavored sonic muck, backed by a beautiful gospel choir from Ottawa. You should’ve been there. The crowd at the Old Town School of Folk Music in Chicago was moved to a stunned standing ovation.

And if you couldn’t be there, rush out NOW and get the CD “‘Sno Angel Like You” (Thrill Jockey Records). It’s been a top-ranked album on the rock criticism survey site Metacritic.com for weeks now. The results will move you…

…even if you will never hear them on a single, blessed Christian radio station.

A few weeks ago, I fired off a blog entry that I described to a friend this way: “It took me ten minutes to write, but the frustration has been pent up for years.”

That frustration is with the so-called “Christian” music industry, and how it consistently produces sludge of an inferior creative quality to that which crosses my desk at the Chicago Tribune on a daily basis. I could not have anticipated the ton of emails that would cross my transom–an overwhelming majority from disgruntled music fans who supported my points, and a few from Christian music performers who had some counterpoints of their own.

I did not mean to imply that all Christian music is bad–it never pays to paint with a broad brush and there are acts such as Jars of Clay, Switchfoot, Phil Keaggy and Fernando Ortega, for example, who continue to produce truly challenging and moving art. Some of it I play when I am deeply troubled or craving hope.

But I’ll stick by my original thesis that a good deal of it is crap. As one Nashville insider wrote back, “Most of the Christian musicians/singers I know are dying to make great art but are hogtied by the industry machine and don’t have to clout or gonads to follow their hearts or their art to a brave new world. It’s not that it can’t be created here, but it’s not looking like it will be. The Church possesses Picassos, Mozarts, Pavarottis, Sinatras, Dylans, Cashs, Bonos and more, but its people are enamored with The Wiggles to notice.”

Well put. Why are we as Christians scared of artistic passion? It’s like trying to drape clothes (no doubt from the Gap) on the nude statue of Michelangelo’s David. But you don’t need to despair. You just need to look for CDs that offer edifying, uplifting content–but get ignored by the Xian industry proper because they weren’t made in Nashville. Or contain a few (gasp) curse words. Or weren’t recorded by evangelical bands with an agenda. Or were made by those godless liberals (I mean, they MUST be godless if they are liberal, right?).

Here’s a survey of some of the best stuff I’ve heard over the last year. The next time you’re thinking about buying something from the Inoffensive Section at the Christian bookstore, think twice and buy one of these instead. Honorable mention goes to Sufjan Stevens’ “Illinois” (Asthmatic Kitty), whose music I find too twee for my tastes, but I salute for its sweeping cinematic vision.

1) HOWE GELB, “‘Sno Angel Like You” (Thrill Jockey Records). At present, I listen to this CD at least every few days. The songs combine the contradictory textures of rock band and choir, creating the effect of shimmering angels descending in a dust devil. It’s hard to beat a song such as “Worried Spirits” for capturing the anxiety of a faith crisis, or “That’s How Things Get Done” for inspiring a leap of faith. And the Voices of Praise choir sounds like something you’d hear in a dirt-road sanctuary where Robert Duvall’s apostle might preach the Sunday sermon.

2) JUSTIN ROBERTS, “Why Not Sea Monsters?: Songs From the Hebrew Scriptures and New Testament” (Carpet Square).
This two-CD children’s music effort transcends a whole host of stereotypes. Though the “Monsters” discs address Christian content explicitly, they run as far from the stilted world of Christian music as a faith-based recording can get. The reason? Roberts stays faithful to the power and majesty of the Bible stories he addresses and embraces, but doesn’t forget to make top-notch art in the process. Rendered with consummate craftsmanship, Roberts seamlessly darts between chugging rock rhythms and more pensive soundscapes gilded by timpani, keyboards, strings and an entire menagerie of pet sounds.

3) VARIOUS ARTISTS, “Voice of the Spirit: The Gospel of the South” (Dualtone)
Avoiding the clunky cliches of country pop and ham-fisted Bible thump, John Carter Cash-son of Johnny Cash-assembles a collection as splendorous as a mystery hymnal found on the pew of an abandoned backwoods church. On “Unclouded Day,” Johnny Cash sings with a gnarled weariness of looking homeward joyfully; in a similar acoustic vein, Mavis Staples teams with Nashville uber-talent Marty Stewart to render a version of “Twelve Gates to the City” that stitches bluesy side and melancholy chord changes with gospel righteousness.

4) JENNY LEWIS WITH THE WATSON TWINS, “Rabbit Fur Coat” (Team Love Records)
Lewis-a former child actress-hits the jackpot with an album of understated rock songs, many of which grapple with themes of faith. In “Rise Up With Fists!!!” Watson proclaims, “You can’t change things, we’re all stuck in our ways,” only to declare in the refrain: “There but for the grace of God go I.” Whether casting a skeptical eye at the afterlife or pondering the futility of materialism, Lewis’ observations often cut sharp as a crucifix splinter. And with able backing from Watson Twins, “Rabbit Fur Coat” shines with glimmers of sublime gospel delight. The only misstep is a cover of the Traveling Wilburys’ “Handle With Care” that plays like a stiff attempt at open-mic spontaneity.

5) THE LASSIE FOUNDATION, “Face Your Fun” (Northern Records)
>From the dreamy, distorted guitars that drive “Blow It (Away)” to the synthesizer swirl floating through “Sunset,” “Face Your Fun” is an album brimming with textures that recall the early efforts of U2, The Cure, and The Posies. Bracing from start to finish, this is an album infused with a sublime sense of faith and yearning, as vocalist Wayne Everett sings on “Saturday Night”: “Every time my soul is sinkin’/ Underneath a sandy shore/ don’t stop me from diggin’ for something more.”

6) MARTY STUART AND HIS FABULOUS SUPERLATIVES, “Souls’ Chapel” (Superlatone)
Not many artists have the courage to admit they spent jail time for driving drunk while recording a gospel record. But the broken honesty of Marty Stuart (who has six Top 10 hits and four Grammys to his credit) is as refreshing as the unfettered country grooves on this disc. “Way Down” sounds like a cross splice of “Green Onions” (the Booker T. and the MG’s hit) and a Southern gospel quartet, while “It’s Time to Go Home” sets a sermon-like lyrics (from 1 Thessalonians) to a sprightly minor-key groove.

7) SARAH HART, “Into These Rooms” (spiritandsong.com)
It’s a testament to Sarah Hart’s talent and spiritual poise that she can distill an influence as barbed as Sylvia Plath (her favorite poet) into acoustic music that’s delicate and inspiring-without turning soft and sentimental. Highlighted by piano and cirrus-cloud electric guitar, “His Name Is Joseph” imagines Mary’s nervous thoughts as she contemplates pregnancy. (“So You have chosen this for me/ I accept it willingly/ But as for him, I cannot tell.”) Then there is Hart’s voice, shining and sublime on tunes such as the lullaby-like “Go In Peace.”

8) JONATHAN RUNDMAN, “Sound Theology Vol. 1 & 2” (Salt Lady Records)
It’s as insane an idea as you’ll ever hear: a 52-song double CD with each ditty dedicated to a week of the Lutheran liturgical calendar. But Rundman pulls it off with lo-fi charm and ample wit, with songs such as “Workin’ My Committee” paying tribute to church volunteers (and Martin Luther) over a groove befitting Crazy Horse-era Neil Young. Someday, someone needs to write a story about the underground Lutheran rock scene, of which the Minneapolis-based Rundman is a bona fide star. Because it rocks. In a loveably nerdy kinda way.

9) THE CHOIR, “O How The Mighty Have Fallen” (Galaxy Music)
The first new Choir disc in five years recalls U2, Coldplay and the Wallflowers. From the nitro-burning “Nobody Gets A Smooth Ride” to the lovely, melodic chorus that anchors “She’s Alright,” “Fallen” is a sparkling record built on simple but effective pop strengths, including Singer Derry Daugherty’s whispery-yet-focused tenor. “Mercy Will Prevail,” with Steve Hindalong’s pulsating toms (think “With Or Without You”) delivers this cold-sweat meditation: “Love never fails/ Mercy will prevail/ I wanna swear it’s true, but it’s hard to defend it.”

10) THE AUTUMN DEFENSE, “Circles” (Arena Rock)
Take the Lou Carlozo challenge: See if this record can pull you out of a funk faster and more thoroughly than any 10 random Christian music CDs you can pick out blindfolded. “Circles” is redolent with the textures of a “Pet Sounds” recorded in a Winter solstice snowfall. John Stirrat and Pat Sansone of Midwest supergroup Wilco team up to create a collection of lush acoustic songs that recall the likes of Bread and early Paul McCartney, though there’s nothing ironic or wink-wink going on here. “The Answer” is one of those songs you can play hundreds of times and always feel the goosebumps crop on the back of your neck, as the acoustic guitars and harmonies weave like the summer afternoon vapor trails of high-flying jets.

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