10 Years at TheGathering Fort Mill

By my approximation, I’ve led worship at my church somewhere around 500 times in the last 10 years. It’s not complicated math. There are at least 52 Sundays per year (although in some instances there can be 53), and barring a few cancellations for weather or the random “spend Sunday with your family” thing, we’ve been on Centre Circle for each of those. And for a vast majority of those years, I was the sole worship leader, which meant that barring major sickness–and even through such things in many cases–I was there on Sunday. During my time as a student at Ashland University, there were two Sundays a summer where I was gone, and there were other events, like the morning after my wedding and during my honeymoon, that kept me away, along with some visits from friends who offered me reprieves from time to time, but mostly, I was there. To me, it has been an honor and a privilege to be there each of those weeks, and while I appreciated the weeks away, there was always a tinge of something missing when I was gone. In all honesty, the number probably comes to something less than 500, but it’s close, and I’m proud to have been a part of each of those, through all the highs and lows that have come throughout the last 10 years.

This is beginning to sound like I’m working up to an announcement, so let me stop the train before it hits the station: I’m not going anywhere, and barring any unexpected occurrences, I fully expect to be part of TheGathering for as long as the church continues to exist. But this Sunday we are celebrating our 10th Anniversary (although Facebook tells me that tomorrow is the actual day we launched 10 years ago), and I thought it was a good opportunity to take time to reflect on those years.

In some ways I have no idea how to really do that. I don’t remember much about that first Sunday, and photos of the day and our first years look foreign to me. The space itself looks different, all the people have gotten older or moved on to something else, and it’s crazy to me to think how little of our launch team remains 10+ years later. We’ve gone through lots of musicians over that time–although my good friend and multitalented instrumentalist David has been with me for about 9 out of the 10–and this has impacted our abilities to be flexible or multifaceted in our musical choices at various points in our history, often making it difficult to provide our ever-faithful group of players chances to just attend the gathering without having something to do. I can’t really express how vital their faithfulness has been to making my life a little bit easier, even though I often feel guilty for using them up as much as I can. I’ll miss someone if I start naming names, outside of our current crew of Lisa, Tony, Dale and Aaron, but I am thankful for all of you, no matter how long you were part of our little band.

TheGathering has never been a large church, and I’ll admit that sometimes that’s been hard to look around and see all these churches around us growing at astronomical rates, being financially stable and beyond and really appealing to large swaths of people. Sometimes I wonder why God chose them and not us; sometimes I’ve blamed myself, as if there is something inefficient in me that has somehow reflected negatively on the church as a whole. Then I look back and I see how far we’ve come. Most church plants flame out within the first couple of years, but for some reason God has seen fit to keep providing for us and enabling us to stay around. It’s not because we’re reaching masses or because we have eight locations meeting twenty-five times on Sunday morning, but I choose to believe it’s because we’re still doing good and faithful work for those who we have reached and impacted. People go to large churches, in part, because it’s easier to disappear there, but also because they tend to have resources to do more outside ministries or because those types of churches appeal to them for myriad other reasons–I’m not here to cast any judgement on anyone for that choice. But I can say that God must be enabling us to do something right, otherwise He would have removed us from the landscape long ago.

I have no idea what’s next for TheGathering Fort Mill. The church we planted out of has been gone for several years now, and while we maintain a small but faithful core group, we’ve not seen major growth in many years. That’s not to say it won’t happen, but it is to realize that I don’t know. My prayer is that we’ve done what we’re meant to do, and that if we’re looking back 10 years from now on 20 years as a church we can see what God has done to guide us there; or if we’re looking back on a church that ran its course, we’ll know that we’ve run it well. In the end, I think that’s all we can judge our church on.

Join us for our 10th Anniversary service on Sunday February 3 at 3545 Centre Circle, Suite B in Fort Mill. We’d be happy to have you.

10 Year Recall: Copeland’s You Are My Sunshine

It’s been awhile since I delved into one of these, what with all the other things to write about, but as I was looking at my now-failed attempt at setting up a calendar for my writing for this year, this one jumped out at me. Maybe it was because the band in question–Copeland, of Lakeland, Florida–has recently popped back into the world with what appears to be a new album (teasing its fans with a random assortment of Instagram posts over the last few days). Or maybe it’s because the record stands out as one of the most intriguing albums I’ve ever heard and it feels right to revisit it more than others on my list.

Copeland is a bit of a strange entity. When I first discovered them, they were opening for Mae at The NorVa in Norfolk, VA, and lead singer Aaron Marsh looked like he’d rather be literally anywhere else, the level of his perceived introversion was so great. Still the band’s set was excellent, and I immediately sought out their debut record, Beneath Medicine Tree, which I probably purchased from my local Tower Records, because it was 2003, and this was a thing kids did back then. The album was guitar-driven rock with Marsh firmly displaying his heart on his sleeve on a record focused on his grandmother dying in the hospital and a relationship the singer was in at the time. For all its flaws, the album still has some standout tracks (“Testing the Strong Ones,” “There Cannot Be A Close Second” & “California” are the best), and drew attention to the band in the indie music scene of the time.

The band’s follow-up, 2005’s In Motion, leaned even more heavily into the rock sound, and even featured some tunes that felt like radio rock of the day, while maintaining Marsh’s signature lyricism and well-trained vocals. The band would never be considered a hard rock band, but their sophomore record is certainly their heaviest (although it also features some pretty significantly softer moments on tracks like piano-driven “Sleep” and  the moody “Kite”), even if that isn’t saying too much. Their third release started a 180 degree turn, as Eat, Sleep, Repeat is still very much a guitar album, but starts to see the band delving into new sounds, like xylophones, brass and more atmospheric sounds, along with time signatures that were a little non-traditional for bands in their genre. And by the time You Are My Sunshine came around in 2008, the movement away from traditional guitar rock had pretty much disappeared. This was a new version of the band, and is one of the reasons that the record stands out so much amongst their early catalog.

To be clear, there are guitars on Sunshine, but rather than being the focal point of the album’s sonic space, Marsh’s keyboard takes over as the primary instrument, with other keyboard sounds and more classical instruments like bassoon, oboe and clarinet joining a string section and more horns as staples of Copeland’s sound. There are even suggestions of electronics peppered throughout the record, something Marsh and Co would dive into even more for their next record, 2014’s Ixora. What results is a record almost entirely devoid of anything that sounds like anything from their first two records and only contains cursory connections to ESR which came before it. Sunshine is a tremendously quiet record that pushes Marsh more into his falsetto and other higher voice registers, as if the band needed you to know that this is art and these songs are difficult. Yet the songs are simple in structure, foregoing the more complicated elements of songs on the previous record, and giving into the truth that a simpler structure allowed the band to be more experimental with the instrumentation. This is a daring choice, and one that mostly works, even if there are times where the album can sometimes feel like it becomes part of your surroundings rather than standing out. It’s beautiful and never boring, in spite of how much it maintains its overall feel and mood.

For all its loveliness, Sunshine is not a perfect album. The inclusion of early-Copeland retread “Chin Up” is odd here, mostly because it doesn’t quite sound like the rest of the record, although the band does their best to not make it seem too far out of left field (partially by placing it early enough in the track listing, and deftly in between songs that really commit to the new sonic space). And as I said, there are times where the album doesn’t require much of you as a listener, as it is possible to not be an active listener for this one, which can, likely on purpose, sound dreamy and spacey throughout its run time. It should be noted, however, that really digging into what the album is doing is well worth it, as active, engaged listening is essential for really understanding this record.

It should also be noted that the packing for the CD version of this album is one of the last great CD’s I remember owning. The special edition that I owned back in 2008 came in a simple almost khaki colored box, labeled very elegantly:

Image result for copeland you are my sunshine special edition cd

Inside the CD was sleeved individually, along with a making-of DVD and an additional DVD with “music videos,” mostly made up of abstract visuals mostly befitting the tone of the record. While the quality or necessity of these extras might be in question, the care taken into creating something that people wanted to own in an age where digital ownership was beginning to take over music sales. Such was the beauty of the CD, I almost held onto it when I unloaded all my CDs a few years ago. Now I own it and the rest of the band’s discography on vinyl, and of all the earlier albums, this one sounds the best on that format. Among all things to say about this album, the care that clearly went into it stands out the most, no matter how you hear it.

The Great Catching Up

At the beginning of the year, I set up a calendar to help keep me on track with my writing throughout the entirety of 2018. For the first few months, this worked really well. I was able to effectively balance all my responsibilities–marriage, fatherhood, work, church–while maintaining a weekly balance of blogging, working on my book and songwriting, along with a little bit of other bits and pieces along the way. I didn’t always follow my ideas completely, but up through April, I was doing reasonably well.

Then came May.

As a college educator, the early part of May is tricky. Most of my final papers for my classes are due within the first 4-6 days of May, and grades are usually due within the week or so after that point, thereby making it difficult to keep up with extracurricular activities outside of grading and wrapping up the semester. The week after that is usually about decompression, hence why even now, I’m only just now getting back to focusing on following the calendar. The summer hopefully shouldn’t be too busy, but my plan is to continue working as best I can to stay on top of things here. We shall see.

So today I’m offering condensed versions of my two planned early-May posts, both new additions to my now-regular 10 Year Recall series. The first is Death Cab For Cutie’s Narrow Stairs, which was released on my birthday ten years ago.

Image result for narrow stairs

My twenty-fourth birthday fell on a Tuesday, which meant that the main thing I was looking forward to that year was to hope for the release of an album I’d like. On the whole it was pretty disappointing, with a new album from Jason Mraz (We Sing, We Dance, We Steal Things), along with new albums from 10 Years, Filter, Finger 11 and Whitesnake, among others, but the highlight for me was definitely Death Cab’s sixth full length album. I’d liked Plans, the band’s major label debut and 2005 follow-up to their massive indie hit Transatlanticism, but it hadn’t hit home for me the same way that the latter album had, so I was looking forward to what Narrow Stairs would have to offer. This was only heightened by the appearance of the album’s first single, the 8-minute, meandering slow burner “I Will Possess Your Heart,” which the band released in its entirety to radio two months prior to the album’s drop date. This was certainly very different from what I’d expected, and so I was looking forward to seeing what the rest of the album held.

The album’s opening track, “Bixby Canyon Bridge,” also serves as a bit of a thesis statement for the record, as the song tells the story of Ben Gibbard’s pilgrimage to Big Sur, the supposed site of Jack Kerouac’s release from his alcoholism and other demons. Gibbard, at least in the song, seems to not have found what he was looking for, and the rest of the record hones in on that feeling of loss and loneliness. In fact, Stairs features some of Gibbard’s saddest lyrical content, which is saying a great deal given some of the songs of Death Cab’s past.

There just really isn’t much hope here, but it doesn’t take away from the musicianship and, surprisingly, the enjoyment of the record. Other than the lead single, the songs are fairly jovial sounding, with a lot of Gibbard’s pop sensibilities shining through at various points on the record. It’s a strange and sometimes unsettling contrast, and it’s a testament to the talent of the songwriters that they manage to make it work at all.

It isn’t a perfect record, though, as tunes like “Cath…” and “Talking Bird” always feel like a bit of a drag to me, and don’t fit next to each other, especially so early in the album (strange, too, that the two songs in together are shorter than “I Will Possess Your Heart” and yet the latter feels like it has more urgency than the other two songs). Of two of the album’s best songs, “Grapevine Fires” and “Long Division,” only the former was a single, and the final one at that, even though they arguably encapsulate the lyrical threads and overall sonic feel of the album. And lastly, even though I like “I Will Possess Your Heart” a great deal, it could definitely have been trimmed a little and not lost any of the main feel and message of the song.

Overall, Narrow Stairs is one of the stronger album in Death Cab’s catalog, and is an album that has aged pretty well over the last decade.

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The second album is the sophomore release from indie rockers The Myriad called With Arrows, With Poise, which was also released on May 13, 2008 (what a great year for my birthday!). Sonically this is one of my favorite albums of all time. It possesses a stirring sense of urgency from track one (“You Waste Time Like A Grandfather Clock”) to track 12 (“Stuck in a Glass Elevator”), as it appears to tell the story of some sort of post-apocalyptic society fleeing for its life from a great threat (possibly, as the cover alludes to, some sort of dragon-like creature).

The album itself sounds huge, with layer upon layer of guitars and, most especially, drums, feeding into the vastness both of the sonic space and the driving urgency of the record’s story. The signature of the band’s sound, however, was certainly the unique vocal stylings of frontman Jeremy Edwardson, whose tenor soars above all of the record’s various layers of sound. The band actually gained a good deal of notoriety with their single “A Clean Shot,” with a video featured on MTV2 and the band having won the 2007 “MTV2 Dew Circuit Breakout” award for the song, which was on a 5-track preview EP for With Arrows called “Prelude to Arrows” in late 2007. That song is a thumping example of the rest of the album’s giant sonic choices, making it a great choice for a first single.

The only thing I don’t like about this record is how overlooked it was. In spite of the MTV2 award, the album never really took off, and that, along with the tragic loss of drummer Randy Miller in late 2010, saw that the band never really took off to the heights they might have. Unfortunately it also meant that we never got a third album from The Myriad, and likely means the record will never be pressed to vinyl, a very sad thing indeed, as this album would sound spectacular on the format.

 

Okay, so now we’re all caught up for the early weeks of May. I’ll try to do better next time. Thanks for sticking with me.

10 Year Recall: Thrice’s “The Alchemy Index”

For this particular edition of 10 Year Recall, things get a little tricky. Technically, I’m looking back at half of a release, the other half of which came out a few months earlier, in the waning days of 2007. Thrice’s The Alchemy Index, no matter how you break it up, is a daring piece of work. Coming off the heels of their critically acclaimed record Vhiessu–which also happens to be the first Thrice album I ever cared about–the band decided to try something unorthodox: they recorded four EPs in different styles, each connected to the classical elements of life–fire, water, air and earth. Volumes 1 & 2 were Fire and Water, with the former sounding more like the Vhiessu, with its guttural vocals and chugging guitars, while the latter delved into more electronic sonic choices and softer arrangements, with some pieces of atmospheric samples, making the EP sound like it was being listened to under water. In many ways, these two parts didn’t deviate too much from Thrice’s sound, and it was especially smart to have the 4-part concept album kick-off with the part that most fans would most easily connect with.

But April 2008 brought on volumes 3 & 4 of the set–Air and Earth–which pushed the band in two very new directions. If Water was a slight departure, Air takes the ideas presented on Volume 2 and makes them sound even lighter and more, if you will, airy, although the band chose not to take things too far into that concept. So while a song like “Broken Lungs” might indulge that concept quite a bit, “Daedalus” is something in between the heavier side of Thrice and this new, exploring side. Still, the EP again doesn’t stray too far from what came before it, both in terms of the this record and previous Thrice albums. Part of this must have to do with the major turn that the Earth portion of the record is.

Thrice’s interpretation of earth is a raw, wooden sound, driven by more acoustic instruments and a more rustic vocal delivery from frontman Dustin Kensrue. The songs feel like they meander more than other Thrice tunes, but a cursory glance at the timestamps for the songs suggests that the EP is just as time efficient as the others in The Alchemy Index. It also works as the closer for the entire unit when listened to chronologically. While Fire is loud and often overwhelming, each consequent elemental group moves logically toward the conclusion of the album; furthermore, the way in which the volumes were set up also balance out the set, as well as prepare the listener for what’s to come. The fury of Volume 1 doesn’t completely dissipate for Volume 2, but it does lessen, and the electronic elements don’t go away for Volume 3, but they aren’t as prevalent, giving way to more organic sounds, a foreshadowing of Volume 4’s sonic space. All in all, the collection is a well-considered, lovely example of what a band can do when it allows itself to stretch and try new things.

Part of that is due to the make up of the band itself. Kensrue’s vocals can range from heavy screams to soft falsetto, making him the ideal singer for ever-changing stylistic choices. Lead guitarist Teppei Teranishi is not just a guitar player, but a multi-instrumentalist, capable of playing various keyboard instruments, glockenspiel, as well as saxophone and clarinet. The rhythm section, made up of brothers Eddie (bass) and Riley (drums) Breckenridge is wildly versatile, too, making the constant rhythmic, stylistic and time alterations much more attainable. And the band works well within itself, too, never attempting to stray too far from what it does well, even if that list of skills is longer than most. They may still be a rock band at their essence, but the various talents amongst the four members of the band allow them to be experimental with that sound, and The Alchemy Index, for any flaws it may have, is the beginning of the band giving itself permission to try new things.

And flaws do exist. The formatting works on a lot of levels, but the record ends up being quite long if you’re listening from the beginning of Volume 1 to the end of Volume 4, and the stylistic moves can sometimes feel too jumpy. There wouldn’t have been a better way to include all of the elements, however, as making one, shorter record with all these styles would have felt really disjointed and disconnected. Fire, while being the EP nearest to the band’s “normal” sound, is honestly a little too overdone; it tries too hard to be a fan favorite, but none of it is as good as the best parts of Vhiessu, so it suffers a little because of that. The other volumes are more interesting in that regard, as Thrice doesn’t look to use some of the tricks it learned on earlier records. Otherwise, it’s not hard to see that this is an important work for the band, as it gave them the opportunity to branch out and express themselves outside of what was expected of them.

Last thought on this one: the band re-released the album on vinyl to celebrate the 10th anniversary of the entire collection (the vinyl came out in early 2018, bridging the space between the two release dates), and it sounds really great, especially the Air and Earth volumes, which are perfectly mastered for the format. The 10-inch vinyl format is a little obnoxious (2-3 songs, then flip, 2-3 more songs, change discs), but the packaging is gorgeous and feels like my first real collectors item record purchase. This isn’t my favorite Thrice record, but I appreciate it the more I dig into it, and the growth they allowed themselves to make on it certainly makes the entire project worthwhile.

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10 Year Recall: Starfield’s “I Will Go”

It’s quite appropriate that just before sitting down to re-listen to Starfield’s 2008 album I Will Go, the band’s third after a self titled debut in 2004 and 2006’s Beauty in the Broken, I gave another shot to U2’s latest album, 2017’s Songs of Experience. That particular album continues to be pretty post-All That You Can’t Leave Behind U2, but that’s not why it was an appropriate lead into I Will Go. The Christian music industry is often (and most of the time rightly) accused of latching onto the rest of the world’s musical trends, and for better or worse, the first several years of the 2000’s were the heyday of the particular trend rearing its head.

U2 is an easy target because the band’s signature sounds–delay heavy lead guitar, driving rhythm section and big, soaring choruses–have essentially become the defining musical characteristics of modern worship music (see: Chris Tomlin and Matt Redman’s records during that period and since then as proof, as well as scores of other worship leader/songwriters). Starfield fell nicely into that box, although an argument can (and will, right here) be made that the Canadian rock band fits better into the modern/alternative rock of the early 2000’s than the lazy U2 comparison.

Certainly there are elements of I Will Go that delve into The Edge’s guitar tones, but that isn’t necessarily because they are influenced directly by Bono and Co. Instead, it’s easy to forget that secular rock bands of that era were also borrowing pretty heavily from those sonic choices, so it makes more sense to say that Starfield were working to implement the most modern rock sounds they could rather than steal from a band whose best recent album came out a full four years before Starfield made its debut.

The point here isn’t to argue that Starfield weren’t trying to sound like U2, though, but instead to make a case for the quality of I Will Go ten years later. The album came out on March 25, 2008, a little less than two years after the band’s previous album, Beauty in the Broken, which was the album that first introduced me to the band. That album was essential for me in 2006, because at the time I was finding myself less and less enthusiastic about the Christian music scene, so it was important that I found a band that seemed to share both my musical sensibilities (albeit a little muted) and my faith. While I think both albums have incredible moments of rock songwriting, the band clearly finds itself of two minds when it comes to song selection and writing, as well as when considering how heavy they allow their sound to become. The album features some noticeably huge sonic choices, especially on the opening track “From the Corners of the Earth,” which features cranked-to-eleven guitars and some electronic textures, and the title track, which almost sounds like punk-rock lite.

On the other side of things, however, is a band that recognizes who its audience is. The lyrics of the record are unabashedly Christ-centered, leaving no room for the band to ever find itself on non-CCM radio stations, which causes Starfield’s sound to often feel like it’s been run through a Christian-radio-friendly filter. The guitars can chunk and chug-chug, just not too much; the vocals can soar, but they better stay clean. This leads to sonically diluted songs like “Reign In Us” and “Great In All The Earth,” which toe the line, but never jump into the modern rock musical space as much as they could. And of course there’s a Sunday morning friendly cover of Brooke Fraser of Hillsong’s “Hosanna,” which features a guitar solo, but a not too crazy one, the perfect compromise for a band that can’t seem to figure out what it wants most.

All that said, listening to the album again is definitely an enjoyable experience. The songs aren’t complex, and I find myself wishing the band had taken more musical risks at several point during the record, but to my mind, they band accomplishes what seems to be its ultimate goal: to write songs they felt connected themselves and others closer to God. The problem with that, though, is that the statement suggests that harder guitars or a different vocal delivery would have precluded someone from that goal, something I take issue with. I get that there is a time and place for different styles of music, but the audacity of people who believe that loud, heavy and even scream-y music can’t also connect the faithful to their creator is beyond me. And I think it often leads to stale, less daring artistic choices.

I want to be clear: this isn’t just a Starfield thing (in fact, amongst the ranks of Christian artists, they’ve done well to continue to at least make attempts to take some calculated risks, especially on their 2012 independent release The Kingdom, probably their most interesting album from start to finish). This is an issue that exists across the Christian music scene, and it’s a difficult argument to dive into, but the question comes down to this: if we’re creating to worship a God who is greater than all things and worthy of our best, why wouldn’t we want to challenge ourselves as artists and as those who experience the art created by others? It’s a wildly complicated issue that I’ve touched on before, and one that I don’t have a final answer on other than to say that I believe God deserves our best, even if it doesn’t fit into a prescribed formula or box.

This took an unexpected turn, but it feels appropriate given the topic at hand. To sum everything up, here’s this: I Will Go is a solid Christian rock album that I’d place in third place behind Beauty in the Broken and The Kingdom as far as Starfield’s albums are concerned (in fourth is 2010’s The Saving One; I’ve never listened to their debut). As far as finding the right balance of music that speaks to my faith and what I want my heart to cry and musical choices, Starfield is always going to be one of my top choices. In that regard, I Will Go is definitely an album worth revisiting.

10 Year Recall: Ivoryline’s “There Came A Lion”

Yes, folks, I’m bringing the 10 Year Recall series back in 2018, this time with (hopefully) more consistency and thoughtful planning. The goal is to tackle the records in the month they were released back in 2008, usually as close to the actual release date as possible.

I’ll be honest, compared to 2007 and its relative bevy of quality/impactful releases, 2008 is a bit of a wasteland. Still, I managed to find several records to cover throughout the year, and it’s especially important to note that my opinions on the records/artists in question will likely have changed over time in a way things didn’t for many of the 2007 releases.

This year’s 10 Year Recall kicks off with the debut record from Tyler, TX rock band Ivoryline, who released There Came A Lion on February 5, 2008 via Tooth & Nail Records. At the time, I was a few years removed from college (I graduated in the summer of 2005), and still leaning heavily on T&N for my musical choices. I liked that they released artists who were thoughtful, challenging and, to be fully honest, mostly safe to listen to with anyone around in terms of content, all the while allowing me to expand my listening interests. In the case of Ivoryline, they fell under the category of bands I listened to automatically because of the record label their record was released through, although upon listening, I was immediately drawn to their high energy rock music, featuring soaring vocals from frontman Jeremy Gray, who also penned the lyrics to the songs.

There Came A Lion was a fun, upbeat album pretty much from beginning to end, save for a small drop in energy and tempo to start off album closer “The Last Words,” the song on the album that best expresses Gray’s ability to emote effectively and write about said emotions. The record isn’t clearly Christian, but the subtext of Gray’s lyrics certainly present a central message, with suggestions about God rather than direct references to His existence in the life of the band’s members. This allowed the band to straddle the CCM/secular music line, even though its connection to Tooth & Nail meant they were seen, first and foremost, for better or worse, as a Christian band. Anyone who knows anything about T&N’s roster, both past and present, knows this is a complicated notion, but Ivoryline fit into the band’s mid-2000’s mold quite well. It wasn’t a remarkably challenging or thought-provoking record, but Ivoryline write catchy, upbeat music, and Gray’s lyrics were sincere and delivered deftly, making it impossible not to like them.

Listening back to the record the other day for the first time in a long time, I discovered two things. First, I still remembered a lot of the lyrics, in spite the fact that my go-to Ivoryline album tends to be their sophomore (and final) record, 2010’s Vessels, which came out with little fanfare in the middle of the summer, just before the band disappeared, seemingly forever. Secondly, I was struck by how simple the songwriting was. Most of the songs followed the same formula: kick off with a few lines from the chorus or some instantly catchy repeated line or two, straight into verse one, chorus, verse two, chorus, bridge, chorus(es), sometimes wrapping up with those opening lines again to give the song a “full circle” feel. While this song structure is nice at times–it keeps the album at an even keel, making the listening experience all the easier–it becomes overly repetitive, making the album’s 11 song run feel longer than that. The main reprieve from the formula doesn’t come until the aforementioned final track, and by then the band has lost all chances to impress further.

Gray’s lyrics sometimes suffer from a similar repetition, as there are various times throughout the album where two lines in a row are just the same lyrics repeated back to back; again, as an every-so-often idea, this is fine, but as a lyrical motif, it starts to feel a little less creative than Gray might have had in him. On top of that, Gray didn’t take the time to explore the range of his vocals, leaving most of the song’s verses in one lower timbre and most of the choruses in a higher one (he explores more range on Vessels, but not to an extreme effect). In the end, There Came A Lion feels like one long song with some breaks in the music and lyrical content, but mostly hanging around in the same tempo, keys and patterns.

This isn’t to say that the album is completely worthless. Like I said, it’s a fun, upbeat and energetic record that, due to its repetition, doesn’t require a listener to pay a great deal of attention to follow along. It is music that is great for the right atmosphere, like an upbeat party or while exercising, but doesn’t ebb nor flow enough to capture your full focus. The good news is that not all music needs to do that; we shouldn’t have to think hard about everything we consume, and as far as pop music goes, I’d prefer Ivoryline to most of the garbage playing on the radio these days. There Came A Lion deserves to be recognized for all the things it is, and that’s why I can still revisit it all these years later. It’s a shame the band didn’t make it past their second album, because they could have become a great pop/rock band if pushed properly. It just didn’t work out exactly as it might have.

 

10 Year Recall: Motion City Soundtrack’s Even If It Kills Me

Even If It Kills Me is Motion City Soundtrack’s best album.

That deserves to be said first and foremost here; and frankly, it’s a little controversial. Sure, it’s not high level controversy (read: not gun control or politics or what have you), but amongst fans of the band, there is little consensus about which album is the band’s best. As is often the case, there’s a contingency of people who still believe that the band’s debut, 2003’s I Am the Movie, it of non-stop wit and rapid fire pop culture references, is the highlight of their career. And while the album is certainly in the conversation, I think it’s backward thinking to say that the band released an album in 2003 and never got any better, in spite releasing five more LPs over the course of the following 12 years. The follow-up, 2005’s Commit This to Memory, is likely the album most cited by MCS fans, and it’s probably the band’s most successful and recognized album (ask anyone who was alive and aware of music during in 2005 if they now a Motion City Soundtrack song, and I can almost guarantee that song is “Everything Is Alright” off CTTM). This is probably the second-best answer (although sleeper options are both the band’s last two records, 2012’s Go and 2015’s swan song Panic Stations, or in other words, anything except the too-goofy-even-for-MCS My Dinosaur Life).

Still, in spite all arguments against it, I still hold EIIKM in the highest esteem, and I believe it’s mostly because it is the most complete record in the band’s catalog. It does feature some of its best individual songs (“This Is For Real,” “Last Night” and the title track among others), but the cohesiveness of the album is what makes it the band’s best. Other records struggle from the sort of ADD-like focus you’d expect from noted scatterbrain (and lead singer) Justin Pierre (mostly lyrically, although essentially all their albums have a sonic space they fit in best), but the band’s third album feels the most linear, the most thought through from start to finish. And while I’d hesitate to call it a concept album in the traditional sense, there is a narrative thread that flows through the entire record, a singular focus that weaves in and out of the first 12 tracks, culminating beautiful in the gorgeous and thoughtful title track.

Both I Am the Movie and Commit This to Memory are, by Pierre’s own admittance, albums dripping in self-destruction, mostly because that’s where Pierre was during the writing of both albums. Memory in particular is shrouded in duality, as the band has made it clear that half the record was written while Pierre was still a functioning alcoholic, while the other game during his treatment, giving the second half a more hopeful outlook on life. To be sure, that album possesses some of the band’s best songs (“Everything Is Alright,” “Hangman” and album closer, and maybe best MCS song ever, “Hold Me Down”), but the lack of cohesion holds it back from feeling like the most complete and best MCS record.

Motion City’s third record also feels the most mature sounding record (or at least it was to that point, as I’d argue that Panic Stations feels like the largest departure sonically), as they play with song structures a little more and the flow of the record sounds a little more thought through, possibly because of the narrative ties. Pierre is in a better head space, too, which gives the record a slightly more optimistic tone, although Pierre can’t help but give into his baser instincts from time to time (“Broken Heart,” for example, while sonically connected to the record, sounds more lyrically akin to previous records). Even those moments feel less negative, more “I can pull out of the muck” than “This is my lot,” and this new perspective grants the entirety of the album a greater weight.

There are two interesting things that happened during this period of MCS’ history, which I’m including as the 4 1/2 years between the release of Commit This To Memory and My Dinosaur Life. The first was that the hits of Memory led to increasing popularity for the band and they set new highs for Billboard 200 peaks with each successive record during this time (16 for EIIKM and 15 for MDL). This is interesting because in many ways, Dinosaur is a return to the sound and silliness of the band’s earlier albums, which would have led me to believe that Even If It Kills Me was some sort of financial failure, but this wasn’t the case in the least. The second was that the move from indie label Epitaph to major label Columbia after EIIKM barely moved the needle on the success of Dinosaur, which again is a strange backwards move by a band that had just hit an artistic high for album number three. The band would only get the one album on Columbia, and their last two albums peaked at #46 and #141 respectively.

I say all this because it just truly shows the rather bizarre career of Motion City Soundtrack. They are a polarizing band in a lot of ways, at least in terms of which album is considered their best work, but for my money, the now-10-year-old Even If It Kills Me will always be the band’s artistic masterpiece, as challenging and moving an album the band ever made.

10 Year Recall: Dustin Kensrue’s “Please Come Home”

This morning I received an email from SRC Vinyl, indicating that my order was shipping. In and of itself, the fact that I’d be receiving a record via the mail was not any big deal. My collection, which I’ve mentioned here before, is fluctuating of late, but holding pretty strong around the 450 or so level, and my means of acquiring said records varies between picking up released from my local shop (shout out to Lunchbox Records in Charlotte!), pre-ordering directly from the artist and–more rarely–buying from online retailers that aren’t affiliated with the artists themselves, but generally work for the labels in some way or another. SRC isn’t one of my major go-to companies, but on occasion, they do run some limited edition stuff that I can’t ignore.

Such was the case with my most recent order, a copy of Dustin Kensrue’s 2007 solo debut Please Come Home, which had three things going for it: 1) this was a special edition, pink Breast Cancer Awareness printing, so part of my order went to a good cause, 2) to my knowledge, the album has only been pressed one other time on vinyl, back in 2012 via Enjoy the Ride Records (possibly a 5th anniversary pressing) and 3) it’s a really good album.

To put it lightly, Please Come Home is a departure from the music that Kensrue was putting out with Thrice, his “day job” band that is categorized by its heavier guitars, piercing drums and guttural vocals, whereas the music of Home feels more like a walk down a street in Nashville or New Orleans. Kensrue insures that there will be no confusion between his solo work and Thrice, as he sashays successfully between folk rock, blues and alt-country (think modern Johnny Cash) without much a hitch, as the album’s acoustic guitars, sparse production and brisk running time (it’s only 8 songs and a shade under 30 minutes in length) all make for a stellar listen.

The difference in styles allow for Kensrue’s strengths as a songwriter to take center stage, as he doesn’t have complex structures and layered instrumentation to cover up for lack of vocal skill or lyrical prowess, which isn’t to suggest this was a problem with Thrice, because it really wasn’t. In fact, I’d like to make the argument that it was the Thrice album before this (and the one that followed, to a lesser extent) that helped to shape the songwriter that Kensrue has become. Prior to 2005’s Vheissu, Thrice’s connections to traditional melodic music weren’t always the strongest, as they were a hardcore band by genre, but Kensrue was always adept at holding onto some melodic elements in the band’s sound. But Vheissu is the first Thrice record that I’d say has beautiful elements to it, both in terms of the instrumentation and the melodies; and while Home is gruff and intentionally low-fi (probably the first time Kensrue would center on a specific overall aural aesthetic, a theme of essentially every record he’s made since then), there is a thoughtfulness to the melodies on this record, likely because this is Kensrue playing a role of vulnerability that wasn’t required of him on Thrice songs.

Please Come Home is also the first of his more blatantly faith-based albums, which isn’t to say that the album is a so-called “Christian” record, just that he allowed himself to write songs that more obviously called upon his faith. Thrice albums were becoming more and more impacted by his growing faith, but this is likely the most outwardly Christian album besides his worship album, 2013’s The Water and the Blood, which sounds a lot like what Thrice would have sounded like if the lyrical direction of that band was different.

In other words, Please Come Home gave Kensrue an opportunity to try a few things out. So far as I know, nobody was pining for a solo album from the Thrice frontman, especially not one that likely didn’t appeal to a vast majority of his band’s fan base, and so the album was allowed to be a well-constructed and considerably thought-out test screening for what Kensrue would become. And over the years, he’s become more and more skilled at weaving all elements of his songwriting–the heavier side, the lighter side, the faith-based pieces and the secular elements–into one exceptional songwriter, something that has become more and more clear on subsequent releases (see, especially: Thrice’s Beggars, Major/Minor and To Be Everywhere is to be Nowhere, along with his true follow-up to this album, 2015’s Carry the Fire).

All that followed, it could be argued, would not be possible if he hadn’t had the opportunity to experiment a little bit. And that, above all things, is what Please Come Home does best: it is contemplative and serene, a little snarky and raw, but also a truly great songwriter stretching his muscles. While it is tempting to look at the album as a blip on Kensrue’s storied career–mostly because of how sparse and quiet it is–this could not be further from the best means of looking at it. It was necessary, but it is also an expertly crafted and overlooked work of American music.

10 Year Recall: Emery’s I’m Only A Man

The second installment in my “10 Year Recall” series goes to another one of my all-time favorite bands, Emery. The band hails, at least originally, from South Carolina, although they tend to claim Seattle as their hometown, mostly, I’m guessing because they really got their start there. They were heavy players in the so-called screamo movement in the early-to-mid 2000’s, and were also thrust into the pseudo-Christian music scene, first and foremost because of their albums coming out via Tooth & Nail Records. Most of that is a story for another time, however.

My beginnings with the indie/emo/screamo music movements was recounted in part in the lead up to my previous “10 Year Recall” about Anberlin’s Cities, so I won’t go through the entire ordeal again. In Emery’s case, however, I can tell you the first time I ever heard their music as at the same time I discovered the aforementioned Anberlin. I popped Emery’s debut record, The Weak’s End, into a CD player at a Family Christian Stores location in Virginia Beach, VA while I was home for a summer, and immediately had to rush to turn down the guttural screams and crunching guitars of the record’s first track, the (in my opinion, overrated) Emery classic “Walls.” That record never did much for me, though, but it was the follow-up, 2005’s The Question, that made me pay attention to what Emery was up to (and I still list that record as one of my all-time favorites).

(For the record, I now find a lot to like about The Weak’s End, but generally consider it one of the band’s most generic and weakest–pun intended–records.)

The band’s third studio album came out in October of 2007 in the form of I’m Only A Man, and to call the reception to the record mixed might be kind. The album purposely moved further away from the straight heavy rock of The Weak’s End, choosing to use more keyboards, synths, pads and other instruments new to the band’s sonic palette, to diversify the sound. On the whole, fan reception was just as poor as the critics, and the band’s reaction to all that shines through pretty obviously based on what happened in the subsequent releases, 2008 EP When Broken Hearts Prevail and the connected 2009 LP …In Shallow Seas We Sail, which saw the band returning mostly to something closer to their earlier sound (although if you pay close enough attention, you’ll notice they continued to experiment on those albums, too, and have continued to do so).

I, myself, joined the noise of less-than-enthusiastic reviews (although as you can see from the date, I was several months late to the party):

Emery — I’m Only A Man

Emery’s music has often been polarizing, but their latest effort, I’m Only A Man, will prove to be even more separating than ever. It’s an album of truly great moments (“World Away”), but also one that will leave you unsure of what the band is trying to do (“Rock-N-Rule”). Overall, I can’t seem to totally dismiss the album because of the talent I know this band has. If nothing else, I’m Only A Man is an album that you should experience rather than letting someone else tell you what they think. (Feb 21, 2008)

Okay, so this wasn’t my most insightful journalistic moment, but I do think that dearth of language here is rather telling, even if I couldn’t have explained this to you at the time. The fact of the matter is that I really didn’t know what to do with the record at the time. There were weird buzzing noises in one track (“From Crib to Coffin”), strange vocal parts (the intro to “Don’t Bore Us, Get to the Chorus,” an all-time awful song title, by the way), a song that sounded like they ripped themselves off (try to tell me that opening riff “The Party Song” from Man doesn’t sound almost exactly like the riff from The Question‘s opening song “So Cold I Could See My Breath,” go ahead), and other signs of a band that was clearly trying to do something different. At the time, I wasn’t ready, and it doesn’t seem like hardly anyone else was either.

Hindsight being what it is, I have to say that I’m Only A Man has managed to age rather well. First of all, it proved to be rather prescient, as the synth heavy sounds that Emery hints at throughout this album became–for better or worse–the driving force of hardcore/screamo bands that would follow like Attack Attack! and Sleeping With Sirens, among myriad others that would use the sonic space of I’m Only A Man sets up.

Secondly, the songwriting on this album continues to be, for the most part, rather top-notch, an element of the record that I was quick to overlook ten years ago. Hearing the songs in various formats (especially in more laid back, acoustic versions) helps to highlight the quality of the craftsmanship that Matt Carter, Toby Morrell and Devin Shelton brought to the table in terms of writing musical parts and lyrics. The album seems to borrow thematically from another album, namely Pedro the Lion’s 2002 concept record Control, as the ideas of digging oneself into a hole via sexual misconduct is a prevalent theme on both records. The Emery record, however, looks at the issue from a different perspective, as Morrell and Shelton’s lyrics don’t seem to allow the protagonists of their stories to simply shrug off the consequences of their choices. This is interesting since the album’s title feels like an excuse, but upon further listens, it’s easier to see that the title is simply a statement of fact. The lyrics give credence to that idea, and while there are some repetitive moments (the lyricists get enamored with the album’s title as a lyric, even if there is no “title track,” per se), the storytelling is quite good throughout.

In some cases, however, the criticism is probably warranted. You wonder if the band tried too hard to create something “different” that they lost some focus along the way. Many of the elements of the Emery sound are still there (the screaming and guitar tones, especially), but there is a chance that the change in sound was at least partially due to the departure of the band’s bassist after the release of The Question, leaving Carter to hold down most of the on-stage instrumentation, which would explain the move toward pads and tracks to bolster the live show. That said, many of the experiments do end of working, namely the driving intrigue of the album’s closing track, the aforementioned “From Crib to Coffin.” It is strange, no doubt, but it is also clever and climactic; and although different from Anberlin’s “(*Fin),” it proves a similarly satisfying way to close a record.

In the final evaluation, I’m Only A Man is an important part of Emery’s discography. It showed they were capable of trying new things and pushing themselves not to just recreate what had worked on the album before. It was a daring move, but it produced a solid third record and continues to propel the band forward to this day, as they look to produce their 7th album 10 years later.

10 Year Recall: Anberlin’s Cities

2007 was a pretty outstanding year for music. It was a year where I was starting to launch out on my own musically, having received my own form of musical education throughout college (informal, via a friend who knew more about these things than I did), and also launched (maybe that’s too strong a word) my writing career via a website called Silent Uproar. The site was pretty legitimate, and the guy who ran it had enough connections to get me advanced copies of albums for review, onto guest lists for shows and even an interview with Nick Thomas, lead singer of The Spill Canvas.

It’s 2017 now, and I’ve decided that 2007 was important enough in a musical sense to start a year-long series of posts that I’m affectionately entitling “10 Year Recall.” It also happens that 2007 was the year I packed my bags and headed south, with July marking my 10th year as a resident of the Carolinas, so all in all, it’s safe to say that ten years ago was a turning point in my life.

The goal is to revisit albums that meant something to me back then and review them from my current mindset ten years later. I’ll try, too, to tap into some of what made the album important for me in 2007, bringing the entire exercise as full circle as possible.

One of the cool things about having written for an online publication ten years ago is that it’s easy to find my original thoughts on a lot of these records. So when available, I’ll post my original review, which should give us a good starting point. We’ll begin this series with one of the most important records of 2007 (and one I need a copy of on vinyl, and not just as part of an anthology box set, Tooth & Nail): Anberlin’s Cities.

Anberlin’s third record was released on February 20, 2007 via Tooth & Nail Records, and it was a pretty important release for me. I was still relatively new to the indie music community, and I certainly hadn’t been intrenched in the scene long enough to really anticipate an album release, so Cities was one of the first times I remember knowing an album was coming out and waiting on it to do so with eagerness (save, maybe, for Mae’s The Everglow, which came out in the Spring of 2005, during my final semester of college). I had discovered Anberlin during my initial foray into indie music, back when I was still buying CD’s in stores, a time that was also interesting for me in that I was seeking ways to connect the CCM I’d grown up listening to and my newfound chosen genres. Fortunately for me, anything on labels like Tooth & Nail was still unquestionably stocked at local Christian bookstores, leading me to bands like Anberlin, Emery and The Classic Crime early in my searching.

By the time I discovered them in earnest, Anberlin, a quartet or quintet depending on the year, from Florida, had already released two albums–2003’s Blueprints for the Blackmarket and 2005’s Never Take Friendship Personal–both of which I gobbled up because of their edgier sound and knack for melodic intricacy. Stephen Christian, the band’s lead singer, had a voice unlike any I’d heard before, and the band’s sound, while engaging, stuck to various pop music tropes that didn’t challenge my norm too much.

Then came Cities, an album that I clearly had no issues with lauding from the beginning. This is my Silent Uproar review that was published the week after the album was released:

Anberlin — Cities

They say the third album of a band’s career is often a defining moment. In the case of Tooth & Nail vets Anberlin, this is more than the case. With Cities, the band has released their best and most satisfying work to date. Amazingly, and most impressively, the album manages to be so many things at once. It contains some of the darkest songs the band has ever produced (“Dismantle.Repair.” and lead single “Godspeed”), but at the same time, churns out some of the most beautiful as well (“The Unwinding Cable Car,” “Inevitable,” and awe-inspiring closer “(*Fin)”). That the band has somehow found the line between unrelenting rock and haunting, yet often gorgeous melodies is a true testament to how far they’ve come. They excel at dynamics, too, which gives the record an almost epic feel, most evident in the spectacular “(*Fin).” To put it bluntly, this is a fantastic record, that should find its way to the top of many year’s end lists when the time comes. It is truly the first important album of its kind to come out in 2007. (Feb 26 2007)

The album did end up finding its way onto my end of year list for 2007, although I don’t remember how high (my guess is it was at least #2, but maybe as high as #1), and often enters into the conversation for the top one or two Anberlin records in the band’s discography (for the record, my list would look something like this: Vital, Cities, Dark is the Way, Light Is a Place, Never Take Friendship Personal, Lowborn, Blueprints for the Blackmarket and New Surrender). That list should be pretty telling as to how connected to this album I still am.

The album still holds up rather well, with its dark, haunting sonic choices and lo-fi production, all qualities which would allow the record to still be made today and not sound out-of-place. The record also sets up the band’s propensity for experimentation with song structure and, to a point, genre, moving away slightly from the more pop feel of most of its songs on previous records, although ironically, Cities proved to be their first record to debut in the Billboard top 20, and the catalyst for the band’s signing with a major label for the follow-up, 2008’s largely lackluster New Surrender.

For me, the success of the album is predicated on two things. First is the haunting quality to the songs, built heavily on the sonic space the album lives in, but also on the semi-cryptic nature of Christian’s lyrics throughout the record. The album’s title and some of the lyrics suggest thematic ideas like losing control of one’s situation and the constant movement of life in your late 20’s/early 30’s (Christian had just turned 30 during the time the album was likely recorded). There is an unsettling feeling throughout, and yet the maturity of the songwriting allows for the band to create songs that feel necessary and urgent for those moments.

The second success is how well-connected this is as an album. 2007 was a few years into the age of digital music, and more and more artists were choosing to release singles they could sell for $0.99 rather than focus on albums as pieces of art. The album wasn’t dead, but it was certainly dying, and so it was, and remains, refreshing to find bands or artists who still pay attention to the molding of a record as a whole. Cities does that unassailably well, as the flow from song to song, as well as the intentional connection between the album’s opening instrumental track “(Début)” and the terrifyingly good closer “(*Fin),” are all top-notch efforts from the band.

Overall, this is an album that has stood the test of time. It was excellent upon its release and continues to hold up after ten years. Now all we need is that 10-year vinyl release and I’ll be a happy man.