Saturday, April 23, 2011

The Soil & The Sun

I just sent Michael Kaufmann of Asthmatic Kitty seven tracks from the Ordinary Neighbors recordings to get some feedback. He was one of the FFM judges. I've worked with him to book a few of their bands here at Hope College. Michael reminded me of I just looked up the Grand Rapids band, the Soil & the Sun who we've had here on campus a few times as well. A few years ago we sold out an Anathallo show at the Knickerbocker Theater. Then Anathallo stopped playing shows. My first crass thought was that the Soil & the Sun could fill the void left by Anathallo. I love promoting local bands even more than the national tours. It is great to see locals and the independents succeed. That comparison between the two bands was too easy since it is just a matter of observing that both bands have a stage filled with people (what? 6 to 9? I've seen S & S in various configurations), both bands bust into large, anthemic moments with several players on various drums. While these obvious similarities may be true, I have to move beyond my initial impulse of relating one band to another. I tend to frustrate artists with these knee jerk typological tendencies. Alex and his wife with the bass player came to here us play the pizza joint a few weeks ago. Jacob had called them last second on a whim to invite. Anyway, their music is so good and they are so kind, the least I can do is give them a big, hearty congratulations for doing what they do. I think what is most stunning is their dynamic range moving from very intimate, lyricism to intense, rage-filled lamentation. Oh, and the beats. Two drummers (for them at least) is the deal.

BUY their music here at their bandcamp site.

I just listened to that EP twice.

Here is a pic by the great Chris Cox of the Soil & the Sun playing Jacob Bullard's (who I mentioned in a previous post) CD release show at Dimnent Chapel. Click on the pic to see the full width.

Wednesday, April 20, 2011

Rock n' Roll vs Praise & Worship

I attended a Seder Meal earlier this evening with several families that was delightful. The dinner was inspired and organized by a new friend, Joesph, a local music minister at Zion Lutheran. He studied at the Dominican Center in GR and also serves as a spiritual director. Joseph has been gifting me various kinds of choral music via iTunes downloads. His latest gift was The Hillard Ensemble's Perotin, the best I've heard yet of his picks. Unfortunately, all I have to send him back are various odds and ends. I think he really dug one track from Jonsi & Alex's Riceboy Sleeps though.

The meal consisted of an attempt at the traditional Jewish kosher meal with lamb, eggs, salad and matzah. However, there was also bratwurst, chicken, beef and 'gentile' wines. The experience demonstrated how Jesus' instructions to eat his body and drink his blood fit into the context of the original passover celebration. Several families sitting on the floor around some battery powered candles (safety precaution with so many kids), grape juice/manischewitz and some buckets of water to cleanse our hands with. We danced and sang some. The kids all had various instruments to shake and beat on. Good times.

I didn't know I'd have such a beautiful group of friends and families like this a year ago. Thanks be to God.

Susanna is downstairs with her women's group. Casper is asleep despite his first ear infection. I just finished the second half of the Bourne Identity which I'd started last night. Why do I like these movies? Geesh, I'm such a dude.

Now I'm thinking about the worship team audition process that is almost coming to a close.

We've auditioned just over 50 people in order to recruit nine, the largest group I've ever had to recruit before. We've heard: 27 young ladies, 10 drummers, 4 bass players, 2 acoustic guitar players, 4 keyboard players, 4 on electric zithers, didgeridoos or auto harps though (joke).  We follow up each initial audition with call backs for a smaller set of prospects. Of those people, each is personally interviewed by myself and separately by students from the worship team. By interview I mean we take each potential recruit out for coffee and try to get to know them better and answer any questions they have about what they'd be getting themselves into. Its a rigorous process but I believe in starting things well. Each recruit knows exactly why we've recruited him/her and each has a sense of their strengths and also their weaknesses. I want each to know his/her place and be ready to eagerly participate in the kind of relational give and take that makes up the substance of our worship life. I don't just want warm bodies behind various instruments and microphones. I want a deeply committed family of worshipers who are capable of giving and receiving love as we in turn love God together. When it is all said and done, I don't want to graduate students who can put on a worship event. I want to graduate lovers of God, friend and neighbor.

One of the things I find myself talking about a lot right now is the difference between 'Praise & Worship' and Rock. The bubble burster is that I don't want P&W. We must attempt the full spectrum of Biblical worship (which I've written about HERE). We do more than 'Praise Music.' We are not a 'Praise Band.' Unfortunately, local churches in an attempt to make sounds that attract younger people have ended up making a kind of music that has a strained and confused relation to the pop music it is attempting to resemble. For example, consider the electric drum kit, an piece of technology primarily designed only for churches. It is understandable on one level. I don't want to be mean about this. These churches are trying to make contemporary sounds that don't overwhelm the many ages represented in their congregations. They are looking for tame sounds that would otherwise be sonically bombastic in their worship spaces. However, the trouble is that an electric drum kit can never serve to create anything close to something that might resemble music (in my admittedly snobbish opinion). And there are similar instruments that are marketed to the church electric guitar player or especially the keyboard player. So we end up with a sonic palate that is a caricature of rock music. It's like the difference between Velveeta and a good aged white sharp cheddar, Cool Whip and homemade whip cream, Near Beer and Guinness, a planetarium and a clear, un-polluted night's sky out in the farmland where I grew up.  
Umberto Ecco describes much of American culture as a kind of mausoleum of imitations, what he calls ‘hyper-reality.’ We are content with wax museums and Disneyland, television and Hollywood. The philosophy “is not, ‘we are giving you the reproduction so that you will want the original,’ but rather, ‘We are giving you the reproduction so that you will no longer feel the need for the original.’”[1] Unfortunately, the church is just as busy offering imitations as the rest of American popular culture.

I understand that it is unfair to over describe the efforts of very well intentioned church people. I don't mention these things to breed cynicism or elitism. I love the church with its warts hoping that it will love me with mine. So understand these observations for the sake of a much larger conversation that is necessary in the church--a conversation I'm outlining in my master's thesis.

Instead of asking how we can persuade younger people to stay in churches and approaching contemporary music as a set of whistles and bells to keep them coming back, popular music requires much more care and respect, discernment and effort. I'm interested in finding musicians who enjoy and want to play rock music but who are also willing and able to lay their gifts and instruments--their lives before God. The task is to disciple these worship teams, help them put on the life of Christ, to be lovers of the scriptures and people of prayer, to share this love of Christ off the stage so that when we come to rehearsal, the Life of Christ dwells in us in a way that forms and informs what and how we play our instruments. Discerning culture may requires some classroom learning (I enjoy teaching my class on these things) but in practice, redeeming the musical aesthetics of our day requires an 'internal dialectic' (ala L. Newbigin) where it is the renewed inner self that negotiates the application of the love of Christ to the sound of a played drum kit in real time practice and not in abstract ideals.

Thus my soapbox: I don't sense that the church has yet taken popular music seriously enough. Some are going part of the way with various subversive attempts at modern hymn writing that is fleshed out in folk and folk rock tunes. I appreciate these efforts, but I still believe there is more that can be done musically and textually with the musical "container of worship," as one well know worship leader has phrased it. That particular worship leader (sorry, I don't have permission to make his/her comments public) claims that in pop music, melody is of first concern while in hymnody, text is paramount. I can see his/her point, yet that is a pretty thin view of hymnody--perhaps a bit condescending to boot. I'll wager a guess that the hymn composers over the centuries were very keen to write what seemed to them and their contemporaries compelling tunes. And it seems like an underestimation of popular music too. To narrow it down to pop music/melody versus hymns/text is a false dichotomy, an over simplification. 

What if we had worship song writers who were deeply rooted in rock music who were as equally formed by Christian spiritual disciplines and were even Biblically and theologically literate? What would those songs sound like?

[1] Eco, Umberto. Travels in Hyperreality (London: Harvest/ Harcourt, Inc. 1986) 19.

Saturday, April 16, 2011


I'd like to feel comfortable with public cursing, but I don't. Some have decided to get away with "eff" this and "eff" that. I've always hated any reference to that word. So painful and harsh to my ears and heart, yet on a rare occasion its potent and somewhat helpful in getting a point across. So here goes:

Panda Bear's Tomboy. Eff!

Sonlux's We Are Rising. Eff!

Two weeks left of the semester? Eff!

Sometimes good things sneak up on you in such a surprising way that there isn't much to say. I love how Annie Dillard discourages us from naming these things too quickly in her essay "Total Eclipse." Yes yes, I believe that language is essential to our being in the world. Experience comes with language. Yet if we run too quickly to put verbal or written words in place to describe our thoughts, we are discrediting the language of that initial cheesy as the early spring sunset, the great book you just finished, that meal your wife just served up, the movie that knocked you out, the concert, the song, the poem..... If we put prose to it too quickly, we haven't really been listening. We've just been waiting our turn to speak. [yes, these are ideas I've lifted out of my master's thesis]

So why the heck am I writing right now during my first listen through Tomboy? I guess I'm trying to pretend that one or more of you are here with me taking it in. I don't want to name it, but such things are better shared.

You can listen to Sonlux for awhile longer here at NPR's music page.

With great affection to you, jb


Sunday, April 10, 2011

Post FFM - Bandspotting etc.

I guess I didn't post the news on the blog here. Maybe I did. Can't remember. Ordinary Neighbors placed in the top five for Calvin's Festival of Faith and Music this year. That meant that we got two tracks on the festival's compilation disc and we played an 'Around the Town' concert last evening in East Town Grand Rapids. Check it out HERE.

Despite a somewhat cranky business owner and a small venue, our performance went well considering we don't get out to play often. It was a risk to try and cram in rehearsals with Larry (synths/nord) and Jacob (electric) but having them join us helped me feel like we were leaning the performance toward something that sounds more like the forthcoming record. Such great guys and intuitive musicians. The concert was well attended by Hope College students, church friends, GR friends, festival attendees and one big families' birthday party for their toddler. We got a free pizza. The business owner ended up being quite nice and and gave us some free pizza, which was amazing.

Please take a second and check out Jacob Bullard. He's graduating this Spring and going to try to make a go with his own music.  It is a joy and sadness to get to play with students like Jacob. As Trygve said last weekend, when you work at a college you fall in love often and get your heart broken often.  I love Jacob and his music and you should too...his music at least.

One great surprise and kind gift that the FFM offered me was a chance to finally meet Wen Regan. Wen discovered my earlier recordings way back when and has been one of the good people who has sent me encouraging and generous words about my music over the years. He is now a PhD student at Duke and was presenting an academic paper at the festival. Wen is a talented songwriter, singer and home recordist. You can get his album for free at noise trade.

The FFM overall was again a good time. I'm incredibly thankful for Ken Hefner, his vision and the years of his persistence in not only bringing good music to W. Michigan but hosting thoughtful, discerning conversations about music and culture. He introduced many of us to Pedro the Lion in 2000 at the Festival of Faith and Writing (when the two fests were one). I was thinking this weekend that much of what I've been trying to do with the arts was largely defined by what I experienced at that event. I'm not a huge fan of what's become of David Bazan, but thanks to Ken, in 2000 I witnessed in that festival a faith community giving one of the best songwriters of our time a platform and an 'amen.' I later gave Susanna Pedro's Control as an example of the kind of truth telling art that the church needs as a witness, such a revealing mirror to hold up to itself and our society:

The impact, the aftershave, the european cigarettes
The taxi, the alcohol that lingers on your breath
The lipstick, the street lamp, the woolen overcoat
The front desk, you tell yourself, it isn't over yet

Second best, oh second best
I can learn to live with this
Plus I really need a rest
After all what's wrong with second best
What's wrong with second best

Some of my favorite moments of the festival were simply hearing Ken muse about previous concerts Calvin has hosted, their meaningfulness and their intersection with faith...Ben Harper, Sigur Ros et al.  Oh geesh, I still ache for the frustration he felt over losing the chance to host the New Pornographers last Fall. I also really, really enjoyed Matisyahu even though he didn't perform with a full band. I would have appreciated if he'd come out with an established set list. The cat calls for this and that song wore me out, but nevertheless it was a magical event.


Thanks to all of you who have been praying for Susanna and I and Hope College in regard to my last post. It is awkward trying to figure out how much to share on a blog. While things can get frightfully dark and scary there is a greater strength to draw upon. Grace is always abundant in times of suffering because Christ is by definition gracious.

This past week we received a final print draft of Susanna's manuscript of Entering the House of Awe to be published by New Issues press out of Western Michigan. They make really beautiful books and have proven to be very supportive.

Three more Gathering services for the '10-'11...tonight, the 17th and then May 1st. Tonight will be the last time Team Y plays together. Next week the last for Team X and then the graduating seniors join for final service. Wow.

We are also in the middle of auditioning the new recruits for next year...nine new spots. When it is all said and done, we will have auditioned close to 50 people. Wow again. It is intimidating to think of how much turnover we are going to have, but it is also pretty exciting too. Each new recruit is like a new present we open and see what happens. It is always an experience of goodness.