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I am a husband, father of three boys, approaching 40, pastor in a conservative Christian denomination. Yes, I love rock ‘n’ roll, and yes, I, on occasion, get out to see shows.

Yet, listening to 120 Days’ new album, set for March 6 release, it dawned on me how strange the circumstances are surrounding me trying to review 120 Days II: I listen to electro-dance music in broad daylight.

The Norwegian group’s beats and synths envelope me through my earbuds, while the sun pours into the coffeehouse (Alterra Lakefront, Milwaukee). Seemingly incongruous, the music paints a whole different scene than the one I can see before my eyes. “Dahle Disco,” a sprawling, nearly 10 minute affair energizes the air more than a triple-shot espresso. As the track emerges from ambient beginnings, you can imagine yourself in the middle of a film where the turning point is being set up as the main character types madly away at a laptop while sitting in the coffeehouse in the middle of a collection of calm, day-to-day patrons. It’s as if the deep bass sounds have uncovered the master plan to thwart crime and economic chaos. Our hero’s inner thoughts of tension and victory hidden from view but revealed by the soundtrack.

OK, so it’s much more likely that 120 Days II and tracks like “Osaka” are meant for 2 a.m. raves where dark rooms flash with passion, dance, strobes, sweat, and intrigue. However, I’m so far from that scene that I must only try to repurpose the music for my surroundings. So the woman walking to a table with her mocha in hand has a new energy and focus imposed on her in my music-led imagination. The couple coming in from a lakefront run looking a post-exercise coffee have hearts that keep beating fast, ready to take off at a sprint. Two women meeting over lunch are no longer just sharing a casual conversation; their words pulse with the deep beat of “SF,” words which will break their world wide open. If this was a video, this is when all of the people in the coffeehouse would start to sway and jive and float and turn this bright and sunny day into a rush of nighttime mystery and quickened pace.

120 Days
Splendour

Watch how things take shape as Sassparilla’s The Darndest Thing. “New Love” walks in as a pulled back neo-swing blues carrying with it echoes of Tom Waits and Squirrel Nut Zippers (in a quieter moment). “Same Old Blues” picks up with an almost Dixieland trombone as the eclectic instrumentation circles around the blues, bluegrass, and swing. Accordion and harmonica create the lazy river feel for “Bone Colored Moon,” as if the sunnier side of a Greg Brown song painted over with some Mississippi Delta jazz hints.

“Overcoat” and its slide guitar brings back some more Tom Waits dark corners played through that Greg Brown folk and a sultry Norah Jones jazz. Banjo leads into “Confession” as the swing feel of the earlier tracks recedes into the background and lets an Appalachian blues rise up from the foggy hollers. “Fumes” works right into a finger-picking folk that starts heading out of town on the train, slowly swaying side-to-side into the pitch black Texas night.

Then you arrive at “My First Lover.” It’s a frank, adult-language kind of reminiscence of the speaker’s first girlfriend—seemingly an older, more experience woman who led him down the wrong? path. Perhaps it’s a good memory, but the language makes it seem like just rebellion and far from love as if boredom just led to experimentation. The song goes back to that time with energy and rock ‘n’ roll, but with an air of melancholy hanging over the whole thing.

“My First Lover” could easily be edited like Mumford & Sons’ “Little Lion Man” so that it could get airplay, capitalizing on the track’s blend of rock and everything from earlier in the album: blues, folk, and bluegrass. The haunting harmonica drenches the song with suffocating kudzu as the lyric says,

Lock up all your windows
Shutter all your doors
Burn bright that porch light
Because my lover’s in your town
Yes, she’s in your town
Devil’s in your town.

The album closes with “You’ve Got It Bad,” almost a return to the swing of the early tracks, which makes it an odd choice to end the album. All the other tracks seemed to point towards the combination of rock and warning on “My First Lover.”

Meanwhile, as I contemplate The Darndest Thing, I return to track 3, “Bone Colored Moon,” as the lyric delves into the spiritual and foreboding. Picturing what it might mean to get left behind by Jesus and those headed for eternal life, the song begins: “She said, ‘Where were you when the saints left town?’/ ‘I was standing on the corner with my hanging down/’neath that bone colored moon, child of God passing time/The devil don’t want much, but he surely wants he’s owed.’” There’s hunger to be a rescued child of God, lifted out of the devil’s schemes to bring us down. Follow that up with a Gospel tune, and you’ve got quite the liturgical folk punch.

Sassparilla
Fluff and Gravy Records

Jesus said, “Be careful, or your hearts will be weighed down with dissipation, drunkenness and the anxieties of life, and that day will close on you unexpectedly like a trap.” (Luke 21:34).

Be careful, and you might think that Morgan Christopher Geer’s band, Drunken Prayer, is simply weighed down by alcohol. That name would give you that impression. On listening to the new album, Into the Missionfield, you realize that Geer’s also weighed down by dissipation and the anxieties of life. It’s AltCountry core with plenty of bluesy vibes, feelings, and themes. With spiritual touches throw in throughout, though, it seems that Geer takes the name seriously and might just be calling out to a higher power for relief from these blues.

That spiritual moment comes front and center when Geer covers the traditional “Ain’t No Grave” in one of the best versions I have heard in a long time. It’s a blues stomp with punk-like intensity—pounding drums, organ wash, big riff guitars. There’s almost a soul dance feel until the bridge which pulls it all back for a Gospel sway. But then the urgent pounding comes back with abandon to close out the track.

Geer shows an incredible range, though, so while “Ain’t No Grave” might be a standout here, it does not necessarily sum what you’ll find on Into the Missionfield. For instance, track 1 is “Brazil.” In trying to describe the song, I jotted down a whole series of comparisons. There’s John Hiatt’s country ramble. It’s partly Todd Snider and Loudon Wainwright III in its wry outlook on life. Meanwhile, Geer sings with a timbre very reminiscent of Randy Newman. He sings, “If I lived in Brazil, would you spend some time with me?” He’s singing about his “baby” and the “good news” that she won’t desert him. It’s the acoustic guitar/folky parts of James Taylor with much, much more of an edge, especially as the folky beginning gives way to the band coming in with its bluesy punch.

Elsewhere, Drunken Prayer settles back into an AltCountry with a light touch—the pop bright “Always Sad” and the New Orleans-flavored “Maryjane.” The 50’s rock “Take a Walk” sees Geer almost slip into a John Wesley Harding voice over the backbeat for the sock hop.

Borrowing from a common sign near the exits from church parking lots, Geer sings “Smile, you’re entering the missionfield” on “The Missionfield.” Yet, this bluesy rumble that slowly grows until it growls isn’t thinking in terms of the church mission of taking the Gospel out into the community. Instead, it’s the dark tale of a man warped by his surroundings and circumstances.

Now you are entering the missionfield.
Daddy was a dog, and your mama was a storm.
And when the rains came, a killer was born.

Now that’s the stuff of the blues, peering into the mind of a murderer’s darkness as he steps out on his own kind of mission.

Drunken Prayer continues the variety with a horn-laden, soul-like country on “Balloons.” The album closes out with the south of the border tune, “Never Tends to Forget”—gentle at times, riff-rock at others.

As you follow the variety, you’ll continue to see that we’re all weighed down in our own ways by dissipation, drunkenness, and the anxieties of life. Geer sings out those blues and leaves just traces of some kind of good news out there beyond the horizon.

Drunken Prayer
Fluff and Gravy Records

Our first phone conversation got interrupted by lousy cell service as Paul Brill was waiting for a flight at JFK in New York. He had warned me that he might not be quite with it after a couple shots of whiskey, but it was the phone that gave us trouble—not the drinking.

Strangely, the phone cut out right when we were getting to one of the more controversial lines on ¡Breezy!, a line that Brill had just said was “more of throwaway line” but about people who “are full of sh*t.” The line, in the driving pop-almost-punk song “The Royal Oui” says:

Don’t speak, don’t sleep,
Keep your thoughts pure and neat, keep it simple
You know I really wish you could just give your cluttered mind a rest
And try to quiet the noise from fake Christians keep insisting they’re blessed.

Brill was explaining that he didn’t mean to offend anyone and doesn’t have anything against Christianity or other religions per se, but it does bother him when people’s actions don’t match their words or professed beliefs. “It’s not so much about Christians, but my bitter stew about people who are talking sh*t, saying they’re blessed, they’re holier than you rather than living quietly, graciously.” It’s about Christians who “do not really demonstrating what the core beliefs are.”

I was in the process of agreeing with Brill and even saying that this is what Jesus was preaching, telling the Pharisees that they were full of it. Then the line went dead. I thought for a moment we had gotten to a place where Brill didn’t want to go in the conversation and that he had hung up on me. But a quick text explained that his phone wasn’t being able to reconnect. “Could we reschedule for tomorrow?” I texted back an affirmative, hoping we could find a way to pick up where we left off talking about Brill’s breezy, pop rock album that charges out of the gate and leaves Harpooner and its previous experimental, found-sound, collage kind of approach in the dust.

The next day Brill was safely in Los Angeles to attend the International Documentary Association awards ceremony to receive recognition for Best Music for his work on Better This World. Brill was also safely in strong cell range, so we picked up our conversation where we left off. I repeated that Jesus wasn’t interested in fake Christians either and had a way of telling off the fakers, posers, and wannabes.

Brill continued saying, “It’s not so much about Christianity, but my bitter stew about people who are talking sh*t, saying they’re blessed, they’re holier than you, rather than living quietly, graciously. [It’s about people who are] not really demonstrating what the core beliefs are.”

Again, I had to agree with Brill. We had found some common ground.

Meanwhile, ¡Breezy! wrangles and waggles its way into your psyche with mesmerizing pop rock very much akin to Wes Cunningham’s 12 Ways of Winning People to Your Way of Thinking. It’s American Band Rock; it’s swaggering rock; it’s horns and hooks and riffs. I said to Brill, “Holy cow! This is a rock album. What happened to the bedroom singer-songwriter with sampled sounds and brooding introspection?”

Brill said, “I think that a lot of the more experimental stuff and collaging, that itch got scratched by my film stuff. [This album is] more textural, more driving. I wanted to make a record as a reaction to the last record. I wanted to write songs that I could enjoy playing live.”

Indeed, 2007’s Harpooner was Brill’s upbeat rock record that turned into a dark, brooding thing. Instead, with ¡Breezy!, Brill says it’s “a return to song forms, a little bit of a lighter touch, the most honest record I’ve made, real emblem of my personality and who I am.”

On the opener “Sunny Guy,” Brill sings about missing his “troubled life.” Turns out the song is about a suburban guy who has life pretty well in order but he misses the earlier days, the troubled life. Yet, even if the line’s not autobiographical, it does seem to fit with the energy and feeling of the record. Throwing off the shackles, but maintaining what Brill calls “a dark underbelly,” the song bounces along even as it conjures up the angst of leaving a complicated life behind for the routine of suburban life. Layers of horns on the second version, “Sunny Guy (II),” bring out the party element in the song.

There’s a dark introspection on “How High the Fishes” too. Brill says of the song: “A little bit less defined, more stream of consciousness, Latin groove, hammering it out on the piano, these images, fever fantasy, deserty, post-apocalyptic.” Live, the whole band played it a lot faster, but “on a whim, in the studio, slowed it down for a Tom Waits sound, creaky, smoky, grungy.” That Latin thing again fits well with Cunningham’s album as Brill grabs from different musical styles to create crunchy pop rock.

If you live near New York City, go in to see Brill’s band play live, although he says he almost prefers rehearsals because they “just get to hang out.” Brill may not be hitting the long road of touring soon, what with a wife and two boys (7 and 4) at home. The soundtrack work helps him maintain a normal existence with the family. And while his soundtrack work is stunning, I am hoping that one day I can see the whole band playing out with abandon on tunes from ¡Breezy!.

Paul Brill
Scarlet Shame Records

I got my teeth cleaned today. I don’t know what it is, but I get kind of tense while the dentist is scraping away at the plaque. To help with the tension, I brought my headphones today, telling the dentist that I didn’t mean to be rude but that the music would keep me calm. (Plus, it would drown out the sound of Lite FM radio drilling down tunes by Air Supply).

I dialed up Wilco’s The Whole Love, the album that got lots of attention in the year-end lists for 2011. I have been enthralled by Wilco’s continuing work at breaking boundaries. While the album contains snippets and remnants of the Uncle Tupelo, AltCountry roots, Wilco draws in so much soul sway into their rock ‘n’ roll.

So the scraping of my teeth began, and I pressed start on The Whole Love. The album opens with a mashup of electronic noise, giving way to the sprawling “Art of Almost.” It jams and rolls, enveloping me in another world through the warmth, depth of the headphone sound. I came close to tapping my foot too much in the dentist chair as “I Might” marches along with a hint of Motown or the blues in the wings.

I became a little too aware of how force the dentist was using when things grew quiet for the dream-like “Sunloathe.” The song meanders for quite a while, and if I could have reached the forward button, I would’ve jumped to the twang fuzz of “Dawned on Me.”

Fortunately, my day at the dentist soon drew to a close, but listening to part of The Whole Love put me in the mood to finish the record. The sound of “Black Moon” recalls the slowcore, AltCountry of Damien Jurado, bringing to mind driving around the edges of a small town in the dark plains of Nebraska. “Born Alone” catches my attention with its rootsy, Tom Petty-meets-Neil-Young, psychedelic vamping charm. I’m not sure the lyrics come to a coherent meaning, drawing more of a picture than anything, but the first line makes my ears perk up: “I have heard the wall and worry of the gospel.” I’m not sure how the Gospel is a wall or a worry, but I’d love to explore that feeling with Jeff Tweedy.

The twang, slow horse ride returns for the beautiful landscape of “Open Mind.” “Capitol City” works in a vaudevillian softshoe. The Who rear their influence for the opening riffs of “Standing O,” while the driving stanzas and chorus owe much to the Kinks—or at least Kinks-influenced bands of recent years, such as AutoVaughn, the Blue Van, or the 22-20s. The title track is a soft swagger, a Beatlesque walk through the park, buoyed by “The Whole Love.”

Then there’s the 12 minute “One Sunday Morning (Song for Jane Smiley’s Boyfriend),” a gorgeous ballad story of sorts, broken up by this picked line that draws out joy in the middle of heartbreak and sorrow. Apparently inspired by a conversation with Smiley’s boyfriend about religion and an overbearing father, I would again invite conversation with Tweedy to see if there’s common ground to be found between his view of religion and mine. Could it be that the “wall and worry of the gospel” could find hope and salvation in knowing more of the true Christ? I await an invitation for that conversation.

Meanwhile, my teeth checked out. No cavities. And my mind was filled with the sounds of soul-searching, soulful, AltCountry, rather than just hearing that scraping.

Wilco

Early in 2011, I wrote about AgesandAges with their Folk-influenced American Rock coming through a bluegrass milieu (review). Late in 2011, the Loom’s Teeth brings back some of that same invitation, albeit more darkly.

The Loom has been referred to as chamber-folk, probably for its instrumentation—one part banjo, one part French horn—all played with intense guitars and percussion. Teeth begins well within that chamber-folk description as “With Legs” rides over Appalachian hills into small town opera houses, setting up horns and stringed instruments, to tell a tale pulled from the very valleys surrounding the town. The mystery yields to the dark barndance second half of the song.

Yet, just as quickly, track two, “The Middle Distance,” with its front-forward percussion, horn rumblings, and scratchy guitar, leaves behind the idea that this Folk-influenced American Rock can be contained in the chamber.

“Helen,” though, brings you back to the folk chamber. Lighter on its feet, the vocal harmonies, almost jazzy horns, and picked strings buoy the listener on a hilltop surrounded by windblown grass and the fading sunlight. Through the middle of the album, the lyrics often seem to evoke feelings rather than tell stories, even as the music evokes yesteryear amid the rock canvas.

“For The Hooves That Gallop, And The Heels That March” shuffles in like soldiers returning from the Civil War, the march and walk recounted in Cold Mountain. The wordless chorus clangs with guitars and horns, bursting with memories of what they have seen. The question hangs over the whole scene: will they be welcomed home as heroes or not? “So for the hooves that gallop, and the heels that march/There will be lights burning/As there will be lights out.” The track is next to last of the album but comes first in the creations here.

The Loom
Crossbill Records

Photo © Erik Ljung

In musical terms, Josh Caterer says that for his 6-year-old daughter, Elvis is first, her dad’s second. He’s teaching her well.

Caterer was in Milwaukee on December 22 to play Turner Hall Ballroom with his band, the Smoking Popes. Caterer is lead singer/guitarist, joined by his brothers Eli Caterer on guitar and Matt Caterer on bass. Neil Hennessey plays drums.

Warming up the crowd for the main event, Milwaukee’s Braid, the Smoking Popes arrived in punk fashion—late for their soundcheck, quickly plugged in and jammed out a few notes, and then headed backstage to relax. With a cup of tea. Josh Caterer and I found a place in the closed balcony to chat.

The 90’s pop punk band disbanded in 1998 following Caterer’s conversion to Christianity. Shelving the Smoking Popes, forming a Christian band, Duvall, and becoming involved in leading worship at a church, Caterer’s life changed directions.

Then in 2005, the Smoking Popes reunited, started playing and recording, and since then, they’ve been working their way back into the scene. Now, Caterer finds space both for leading worship (now at Village Church of Barrington in Chicagoland) and playing out with the Smoking Popes.

What’s the difference between life before the hiatus and now? Caterer says that he’s able to “enjoy life more, able to have a better perspective on life, and enjoy the band for what it is instead of a pseudo-spiritual transcendent thing.” Now he places the spiritual focus on Jesus, and the band becomes something he gets to do but doesn’t become an idol.

When the band takes the stage, they charge ahead right away with Destination Failure’s “Before I’m Gone”—a big punk sound played to a crowd that was mainly too old to mosh. At times during the set, I heard a Husker Du influence; sometimes I heard Jimmy Eat World parallels (“Wish We Were”). They would take a punk mellow meandering ballad (“Star Struck One”) and go right into a speeding bullet one.

“My Lucky Day” (Born to Quit) had a hint of twang, just a hint, like how the Replacements used to flirt with country. There’s also a glimmer of the Smithereens there. “Let’s Hear It For Love” shows a Ramones influence as they blasted through the hopeful, yearning song that pointed to Caterer’s search even before it began.

Towards the end of the set, Caterer set down his guitar and did a tad bit of Morrissey with the mic as he did a croon-over-the-punk vocal.

One of the touchpoints for me comes from knowing that Morrissey celebrated the Smoking Popes back in the 90’s, so much so that they were invited to tour with Moz. Caterer reflected on this now saying “it was surreal” to be near this “iconic figure” from whom Caterer had listened to while trying to learn how to sing. “I spent way too many hours listening to The Queen is Dead and Louder Than Bombs staring up at the Smiths poster on the ceiling.” I asked Caterer if he stayed in touch with Morrissey. “He’s not the kind of person that stays in touch.”

The Smiths/Morrissey connection’s not lost on the listener either as you sense Caterer passion in his songwriting. 2011’s This is Only a Test, written from a teenager’s perspective, recalls the struggles, joys, and passions of teen years very vividly. I asked Caterer how he captured those emotions so well that they made me relive what has long since passed. He credits “talking to some kids in [our church’s] high school ministry and being reminded of their perspective on life.” Yet, he also said that the album was inspired by the fact that he never really wrote from a teenager’s perspective. “I had never written from an explicitly teenage point of view even when I was a teen. I was listening to older people, trying to appear more sophisticated than I was.” Now 20 years later, Caterer has written an album that’s ripe for being used as a Bible study for a youth group.

Having the hopes and dreams of being in a band (“Punk Band”), wanting to shake off expectations of higher education (“College), and the lonely, lonely feeling of missing out on things when you’re sick and feeling as if the world’s leaving you behind (“I’ve Got Mono”) are captured in the Smoking Popes’ tight pop punk that rails against the pains even while singing along in hopeful ways.

That’s what I sense in Caterer’s approach now to his writing for the Smoking Popes: his faith isn’t forward but it does inform. He doesn’t speak about Jesus, but he does sing about hope—which begs the question: “Why are you hopeful?”

In “Letter to Emily,” Caterer sings: “I believe there’s a heart in everyone/Crying out for the love of someone/If that heart isn’t melt by anyone,/it can start to believe that it’s a no one.” That search and yearning for something bigger, brighter, and beyond comes through loud and clear.

That search and yearning is where pop punk meets faith, which is why I am so thankful that’s Caterer’s not just a worship leader. I’m glad he was on the stage of Turner Hall singing out, raising his fist, charging chords, leading the band, and pushing the envelope of what we expect Christians to be doing.

The Smoking Popes set ended with “I Know You Love Me,” another pre-conversion track from Destination Failure, and yet, a song so ready to be a devotion. Sure, it was probably written as a love song, but the words could certainly apply to God’s constant, consistent love for us. They closed the evening in a sure, hopeful fashion.

This world is freezing cold
I long for you to hold me in your arms
This world is burning and
I’m waiting for your hand to lead me home

I know that you love me
Oh, I know you love me
Oh, I know you love me
.

Smoking Popes
Erik Ljung Photo

Ah, time keeps rolling on, and while I drive around and work on other things, I often have plenty of time to listen to music. While I listen and do other things, I compose reviews in my head. But when it comes to finding time to actually write the reviews and post them, well, time just slips away. Therefore, I offer these parting words for 2011, words about some tremendous releases that have been heard much in the Music Spectrum office but weren’t reviewed. These releases all happen to work within in the Folk-influenced American Rock section of the Spectrum, ranging from the country-jam-blues of the Donkeys, the mysterious art of the Cave Singers, the singer-songwriter with a band of Matt Duke, the folkified rock of the Feelies, and the ensemble piece of the Belle Brigade.

The Donkeys’ Born With Stripes
When Born With Stripes opens with “Don’t Know Who We Are,” the Donkeys channel a Wilco soulful approach to folk-inspired rock. Yet, the Donkeys don’t show a core of twang that Wilco—AltCountry to their roots—shows. Instead, the Donkeys hint at the blues even while playing with a jam-like feel. Never letting themselves go into extended vamps, nonetheless you could line them up next to My Morning Jacket’s more plaintive moments. “I Like the Way You Walk” doesn’t have a true chorus except for an instrumental break that makes my heart skip a beat. The title track is a gang vocal stomp jam. Even as the Beatles got inspired by India, so “West Coast Raga” and “East Coast Raga” play the blues through Eastern charm and instrumentation. “Ceiling Tan” could’ve been culled from Camper Van Beethoven’s psychedelic eclectic strung out visions. For these reasons, the Donkeys have been played quite often this year, especially while on long car trips.

The Donkeys
Dead Oceans

The Cave Singers’ No Witch
No Witch by the Cave Singers begins with the folky, chant-like of “Gifts and the Raft,” completed by a laidback fiddle. “Swim Club” takes things up just a notch for a bluegrass-in-the-background kind of slow romp. But by track three, “Black Leaf,” the Cave Singers bring out the dark electric guitar for a bluesy ride that sounds partly inspired by drumcircles, partly inspired by odd tribal shouts. It spins around like a Jim Morrison dream coming alive in a new form. Later “All Land Crabs and Divinity Ghosts” jumps the train like a country-tune taken through Californian valleys. Like the Donkeys, the Cave Singers don’t necessarily go on extended jams, but you get the feeling that there’s more jam here than meets the eye. Meanwhile, I also hear the earlier, folky sounds of Alberta Cross. Listen especially to the rocking forward “Clever Creatures.” I also ought to mention the great joy of the harmonica-led, soulful jamboree of “Haystacks,” which feels Stonesy as the choir of voices joins in.

The Cave Singers
Jagjaguwar

Matt Duke’s One Day Die
The band Live wrote a paean to suburban life, although with a title like “#%&!town,” I suppose it wasn’t a celebratory psalm lauding the town. Yet, I have always heard it as an ache for the suburban soul lost in the sameness, achievement culture, and plastering over of the deeper problems. That’s probably why then I hear a similarity in Matt Duke’s much toned down paean to his hometown called “M.L.T.” (Mt. Laurel Township).

While musically it comes from a singer-songwriter vein, and while having less vinegar, lyrically Duke is covering similar territory as Live—aching for the people lost in the borders of the town. Both songs cry out for the souls of people.

The rest of Duke’s One Day Die works in the Folk-influenced American Rock, as Duke’s singer-songwriter style gets filled in by the band. The album is strongest on the tracks that are completed in this way, such as the urgency of “Kangaroo Court,” the clanging “Seriously, Indulge Me,” and the upbeat, Ellis Paul-like road song “Needle and Thread.”

Matt Duke
Ryko

The Feelies’ Here Before
In 1988, I got the Feelies’ Only Life. At first listen, it seemed a cassette ready for turning up just a bit too loud while stretched out on the bed in semi-consciousness, the volume and vibe keeping you from actually sleeping, but the hypnotic folk rhythms rocking you into a very relaxed state. Then, though, I discovered that if you turned up the volume a few more degrees, Only Life made great driving music as the volume brings out an urgency in the music that at first blush feels extremely laidback.

Turn now to 2011 when the Feelies returned after a 10 year hiatus. Here Before again lulls you into the sense that it is made for zoning out (“Nobody Knows”). Yet, the fuzz guitar solos and the well-placed drum fills mean that you can also crank the album to rock you forward (“Time is Right”). “Should Be Gone” chimes with a light twang, swaying side to side down the road with its light touch. Folk-punk rules the day on “When You Know,” the vocal line drawn out over the propulsive rhythms. “Later On” channels the Church in one of their acoustic moments, as if taken from a Steve Kilbey side project.

The Feelies
Bar-None Records

The Belle Brigade The Belle Brigade
Probably one of the reasons I didn’t write about the Belle Brigade’s The Belle Brigade earlier was that I was disappointed in its disjointed feeling. After a front porch sing-along start on “Sweet Louise,” the band comes into their own on “Where Not to Look for Freedom,” a driving, Gospel-tinged, bluesy twang rock. Yet, while the rest of The Belle Brigade is fine work—recalling the Decemberists at times for its way of incorporating folk elements, it never really matches the intensity of “Where Not to Look for Freedom.”

Now, exploring “Where Not to Look for Freedom” deeper, it could certainly be a song that points to the freedom of the Gospel—the promise of being saved from our sins through Jesus. There’s talk about finding “a free feeling,” “where I am not afraid of revealing,” which could be interpreted as what it means to be able to freely admit your sins to a God who offers free forgiveness.

Yet, the song then goes on to distant itself from any interpretation I might offer as a pastor:

Well, I’ve been looking real hard for a teacher
But they better not be looking for me
‘Cause I never found one in a preacher, oh Lord
Anyone that says that they see the way I should be
.

In other words, I can’t be trusted if I say that the truth of Jesus is the truth. Yet, how I can not speak about the freedom I have found in Jesus when it seems to answer the very struggle faced in this song?

Where not to look for freedom
When you’re inside your prison
And you’re the only warden
Tell me where to look for freedom

So I guess I’ll conclude by saying that I don’t intend to ever “force feed” the Gospel on others. Instead, I’m speaking about the truth that I have found in Christ, and as far as I can see, it is the only truth that really provides that freedom we’re all longing for.

The Belle Brigade
Warner Brothers Records

Lining up like surfers waiting for the next big wave, the Old 97’s ride into the swell on “Marquita,” the best instrumental of 2011. From their album, The Grand Theatre, Volume 2, it only lasts about a minute and a half, but it charges up the set, leading right into the romping “Bright Spark (See What I Mean).” “Marquita” pairs surf rock overtones with twang of AltCountry punk, raring to go running down the beach, into the waves, and back again. While the Old 97’s are not known for instrumentals, I hope that “Marquita” makes it way into live sets as a way to push into the next section of the set or to introduce the final song for the evening.

Old 97’s
New West Records

Pastor: Jesus Christ is the Light of the world.
People: The Light no darkness can overcome.

Today the Light of the world is born. Jesus, the King of Kings and Lord of Lords. And now that the Christmas Eve and Christmas Day worship services are over, now that we’ve sung “O Come All Ye Faithful,” “Hark! the Herald Angels Sing,” “Silent Night,” and “Joy to the World,” now I’m ready to rock.

This Christmas Day afternoon I’ve gone back to a release from earlier in 2011, Switchfoot’s Vice Verses. As to be expected, Switchfoot delivers crunchy Guitar Rock that wails, wavers, waggles, and weaves its way through to your soul. Singing of the hope that they know in Jesus, the band is able to maintain that critical stance, the questioning glance, the yearning dance that we all find in ourselves as we seek the spiritual. Rather than acting as if knowing Jesus means meaning knowing all the answer, I have always appreciated that Switchfoot invites listeners to go on the journey with them.

I am particularly listening to “Blinding Light” today as we celebrate the coming of Jesus as the Light of the World. A staggering laidback track with a bit of backbeat, the first stanza speaks to my need for confidence in the face of the challenges of life.

Hey boy, don’t believe ‘em
The old lies never could come through
Hey boy, don’t believe ‘em
Everything that they told you to
Hey boy, don’t believe ‘em
We’re the nation that eats our youth
Hey boy, don’t believe ‘em
None of us are bulletproof
.

I could’ve used those words from Jon Foreman back in junior high, and there’s plenty of times that I still need those words. I need to know that there’s a lot of lies out there, and as much as I can, I can turn away from those lies. Yet, in the end, “none of us are bulletproof.” We need something more than what we can find in ourselves. Enter Christmas. Enter God into our world. Enter the divine into human flesh.

Still looking for the blinding light
Still looking for the reason why
Still looking for the sun to shine
Take me higher and higher
All my life I’ve been living in the darkest night
Still looking for the blinding light to take me higher and higher
.

May the Lord blind you with His Light today. May you be lifted up out of the darkness, protected from the lies, encouraged as a beautiful child of God, and graced with the presence of Jesus in your life.

And let that blessing rock your world. Bring it, Switchfoot!

Switchfoot
Atlantic Records
Credential Recordings

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