Sheep & Goats: Kirk Franklin, R.E.M., the Greatest Worship Leader EVER, and More!

Featured, Music, Sheep & Goats — By on April 28, 2011 at 1:00 pm

In the spirit of the world’s greatest salsa label, let’s get right to it!

SHEEP OF THE MONTH:

Various Artists
Fania Records 1964-1980: The Original Sound of Latin New York
(Strut)

What do cities sound like? Horns and clatter, mostly. So when music geeks call Fania Records “the Motown of salsa music”, believe them. As NYC-synonymous as Berry Gordy’s juggernaut was with Detroit, Fania created a unique American sound from the asphalt up. Fania’s early music was a mash-up of various Caribbean styles, so label-head and bandleader Johnny Pacheco came up with “salsa” as a gringo-friendly marketing term. From there, it was full speed ahead: 1,300 albums, numerous smaller labels bought out, and perhaps THE coolest legacy of album covers known to hipster-kind. This double album compilation starts with a simple Pacheco pachanga, then ratchets the noise until, by the early ‘70s, you’ve got vocalists and horn lines battling for space and drowning one another out. There’s room in this music for jazz and soul, Chopin and “Bat-maaaaan!”, deep Afro-Cuban grooves and the deranged grandeur of singer Héctor Lavoe’s “El Cantante”. MVP: the great trombonist and bandleader Willie Colón. He leads five of these 29 songs, and his imaginative arrangements and meaty horn sound helped establish the label’s muscular, try-anything atmosphere. You gotta love a guy who insists on dressing up like a gangster for his album covers.

OTHER SHEEP:

PJ Harvey
Let England Shake
(Vagrant/Island)

Harvey’s take on folk music is just as uncanny and death-obsessed as the old-timey stuff. “What is the glorious fruit of our land?” she asks — in a cadence that’ll stick in your head for days — only to offer up “deformed children” as a punchline. In Harvey’s vision, the pastoral English countryside is complicit in stuff like murder and war; it’s a stoic observer at best and a malevolent killer at worst, though Harvey’s certainly not one to judge. With versatile collaborators John Parish and Mick Harvey, she crafts music that’s deceptively simple, even artless. The rhythms are clunky, the mood loose, the tunes unexpected but ripe for singalong. The band creates sophisticated effects through simple means, like the dropped beats in the title track and the rippling guitar chords that open up whole vistas of emotion. In “Battleship Hill”, guitar-bass-drums-piano reveal all you need to know about the expansive beauty of the hill, the sweeping wind, and the narrator’s wistfulness. The song’s pastoral hook? “Cruel nature has won again.”

The Gun Show
Discontentment
(Static Age)

Song titles like “Discontentment”, “Negligence”, and “Authenticity” suggest they’re grappling with some portentous theological portents, or at least with some theological self-importance, so why do I find these poor, tense metal screamers so charming? Goofy, even? Maybe it’s just their band name, by now a hilarious meme as much as a place to buy weapons. Maybe it’s the old-news irony that a band so invested in Serious Godliness delivers half their lyrics via unintelligible barking and screaming. Most likely it’s the music, which allows for the charming possibility that the Gun Show are in on their own jokes. With their switchback song structures and precisely timed Christian Cookie Monster barking, these guys have as much humor in their music as Zappa, whose lyrics would usually sound better if they were unintelligible. The Gun Show throw themselves into every tempo change and squiggly riff with abandon. Their enthusiasm and guitar tones are infectious. They play with the virtuosity of kids at recess and somehow hit upon moments of sheer beauty. Whatever they’re singing about, it’s working for them.

Bright Eyes
The People’s Key
(Saddle Creek)

Like its framing device, the spoken “shamanic vocals” of hippy rocker Denny Brewer, Conor Oberst’s I-and-I album is equal parts profundity, personal reflection, technical mumbo jumbo, and good old fashioned BS. So it’s a good thing the guy can write catchy tunes, and “Haile Selassie”, “One For You, One For Me”, and “Shell Games” (should be titled “Heavy Love”) are among his catchiest. But the lyrics alone are worth the price of admission. “Jejune Stars” opens with the great truism “Every new day is a gift, it’s a song of redemption”; moves through some Waking Life stuff like “The Wheel of Becoming erases the physical mind”; throws in a charming anecdote about kissing a girl under the bleachers; and centers on  the perfectly-phrased refrain, “If it’s true what we’re made of, why do I hide from the rain?” All this is underlined by a tough little new wave band that excels at text-painting without ever succumbing to new age froof. When Oberst sings “We’re going down now, under the surface”, the music actually GOES somewhere. And all you music theorists can relax — they play “A Machine Spiritual (In the People’s Key)” in the key of C.

Simone Dinnerstein
Bach: A Strange Beauty
(Sony Classical)

J.S Bach is the only musician who’s ever made me consider forswearing all other music, just so I can spend my life getting to the bottom of his catalog. That’ll never happen, but that impulse makes me feel comfortable calling him the deepest composer who’s ever lived. Sadly, the guy’s English Suites for keyboard have always bored me to death. My 20th Century ears can’t tell an Allemande from a Sarabande, and they don’t really care to learn the difference. So I’m grateful to pianist Simone Dinnerstein, not yet 40, for playing the G Minor Suite in a way that’s friendly to ears raised on pop songs and modernism. Partly this is a matter of context. Dinnerstein programs the suite amid three beautiful chorales — PRETTY TUNES! — and two energetic concertos — STRINGS! — for the sake of variety and flow and making music that doesn’t feel like homework. But maybe more importantly, she plays Bach’s abstracted dance movements with an emphasis on all their weird musical possibilities. Her Gavotte leans hard on the dissonant clusters of trilled notes; her meditative Sarabande holds its notes in deliberate relief, like the mind of some weary soul laid bare. Dinnerstein knows these pieces backwards and forwards, so you can hear which parts she especially savors. And her effortless flair also lights up the more accessible pieces, like the playful Presto whose ever-shifting meters leave me wobbly, or the gorgeous Largo that sounds like it invented jazz.

Mary Mary
Something Big
(Columbia)

After a couple months of grappling with their theology of winners and losers, their contradictions, their unwillingness to sound imperfect, their willingness to sing a song that sounds like “Hey, Soul Sister”, I had an abrupt revelation — I simply wanted to enjoy their voices, again and again, to luxuriate in their voluptuous glow and mix my metaphors with abandon. Was not my heart burning within me whenever they sang the words, “I see the haters standing around… Get ready for war”? Not that I can tell their voices apart, but they’re both rich and clear and I’d be happy to hear ‘em deliver lyrics a lot more problematic than anything here. Eventually all Mary Mary’s problematics are resolved in the album’s centerpiece, “Walking”. It’s an ode to the Christian Walk and to resisting the rush of the world, but it’s also a suitable accompaniment to actual walking — midtempo, four beautiful chords that never resolve, and cheerful encouragement that never slips into outlandish over-promising. Few pastimes are more pleasurable than the humble walk, and few singers are more enjoyable than these humble fans of Jesus.

SHEEPISH SINGLES:

Kirk Franklin — “I Smile”

Franklin’s Hello Fear album just keeps going and going, not unlike the Great Recession, but this cheerful little Broadway wannabe wakes me up. (I hear “Hard-Knock Life” in the piano and “Anything Goes” in the vocal melody; guess which one fits the message!) Not that Franklin offers easy answers. In fact, “I Smile” offers NO answers beyond “God is workin’” and “Smile, it increases your face value.” Franklin and his choir seem to understand that the former, at least, is often all we get in the face of hardship. I hear their clear-eyed hope as a sort of flipside to Springsteen’s clear-eyed cynicism in “Reason to Believe” — if waiting out the recovery sometimes feels like poking dead dogs with sticks, seeking God at work is an even more vital task. I am kind of miffed Franklin left Vegas off his list of namechecked cities, though — have you SEEN their foreclosure rates?

Kevon Carter — “Lost Soul”

A Rocawear-clad seeker tries out a church and gets the stinkeye, but instead of disappearing quietly, as the stinkeye-giving congregation would doubtless prefer, he tenders a “letter of resignation”. Besides being a good narrative device for a song, this letter creates a beautiful character — lonely, well-spoken, even a tad self-important and passive aggressive. In other words, just the sort of person God is sending to YOUR CHURCH. The song is slow because our seeker has enough drama in his life. Slow message songs aren’t often my thing, but after a few listens I can’t shake Carter’s haunting voice singing, “Don’t you know that the BIBLE says…” I expect I’ll hear that line next time I need to welcome a lonely stranger.

Amos Lee — “Windows are Rolled Down”

You know that sense of freedom and escape that comes with rolling down the windows and hitting the road? Amos Lee equates it with the freedom of his “new found faith”, but with a catch: said faith demands that he start “fixin’ to die” (to himself?) and it drives a wedge between him and his loved ones. So it’s darker than either your typical roll-down-the-windows-hit-the-road song OR your typical new-found-faith song, but it’s still excellent for banging on the steering wheel and howling along. If you write sermons for a living, “Windows are Rolled Down” might make a handy illustration.

GOAT OF THE MONTH:

R.E.M.
Collapse Into Now
(Warner Brothers)

Michael Stipe has always been quick with a joke or a light of your smoke, at least in his opening lines: “That’s great! It starts with an earthquake…” “Nightswimming deserves a quiet night.” “Oh, life is bigger — it’s bigger than you, and you are not me.” Those are some thinkers, suitable for meditation. But on Collapse Into Now, the jokes have moved inside and the only smokes Stipe lights are his own. “So over me; so pie in my face.” Who says that? “I feel like an alligator climbing up the escalator.” What’s that even mean? “With the restraint of New Order covers, Young Marble Giants, I sat quietly waiting…” OK, that’s just obnoxious, and when a rock critic calls you out on your name-dropping, you know you’ve got problems. (The Young Marble Giants were indeed restrained and lovely. This tune is their best-known, thanks to Courtney Love, who realized there’s no credit like publishing royalties.) Not only are the words precious, they’re also all about Stipe, just couched in “evocative” half-remembered nonsense. The band plays along by evoking half-remembered riffs and harmonies from the good ol’ days. The whole thing is unmistakably R.E.M., but it’s an R.E.M. whose world is collapsing around their ears.

OTHER GOAT:

Matisyahu
Live at Stubb’s Vol. II
(Fallen Sparks)

Since certain orthodoxies still rail against singing in harmony during worship, it shouldn’t surprise us that the Hasidic Mr. Miller is equally skeptical of hooks. Mightn’t they distract from pure contemplation of the divine? Of course, this doesn’t explain why he lets the band KEEP. STOPPING. EVERYTHING. FOR SOME NOT ESPECIALLY IMPRESSIVE. GUITAR SOLOS.

 

Some of the above thoughts, opinions, and exact words appeared previously at PopMatters and The Singles Jukebox.

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    1 Comment

  • JamesW says:

    Shameless name-drop: Kirk Franklin lives in my town (Arlington) and his wife knows my wife from being in the same Bible Study Fellowship small group. His nephew (not technically, but a family friend) is on the 1st-grade baseball team that I coach.

    I say all that to say that I am cool by association. Thanks for the Kirk shout-out.

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