A batch of Cross Rhythms reviewers consider the merits of 25 mainstream albums
Rickie Lee Jones
The Sermon On Exposition Boulevard
I've been a fan of Jones since her 1979 debut single "Chuck Ee's In Love". As far as I'm aware she's not a Christian so it's always fascinating when songwriters tackle spiritual themes in their songs. This was never intended to be a Rickie Lee Jones album. It evolved when Lee Cantelon wrote a book, The Words, which had taken the words of Jesus, updated them in modern language and then freed them from the constraints of the New Testament. It was meant to be a spoken word album but within a makeshift recording studio set up in a friend's art studio, the album took a completely different direction when Jones showed up to read extracts from the book on a couple of tracks. Instead, in a moment of inspiration, she chose to sing Cantelon's words, improvising the version of "Nobody Knows My Name" on the spot. Suddenly everything changed. As the album progressed, Jones began to write songs inspired by the book, The Bible and her own insights. The resulting album still holds together in an intriguing way. Some of these tracks are starkly stunning. "Where I Like It Best" is a delicate meditation on The Lord's Prayer and what it might mean today. This is not a Christian music album and yet it will appeal to some open minded Cross Rhythms readers. The way in which Jones improvises lyrics on some of these pieces gives the album a rambling quality which I find endearing rather than irritating. Musically, there's a drifting quality reminiscent of some Van Morrison and "Circle In the Sand" brought to mind early '70s Lou Reed. Another highlight for me was "Elvis Cadillac" where Elvis and Janis Joplin cruise round Heaven in a Caddy! Interesting and at times difficult, this is a thought provoking artistic release that rewards investigation.
Whatever People Say I Am, That's What I'm Not
From Mercury, to Q and now Brit, the Arctic Monkeys have been adorned with so much honour by the music industry that they probably wish they'd just gone into those Sheffield night clubs, had a few drinks and accepted their simple lot in life. But instead they went to the trouble of observing all the little details and then trying to make some sense of it all at home, with paper and guitar. There is nothing particularly original about their sound - guitar based pop with a few good punk riffs and a laconic singer. However, their writing hits home because it talks plainly yet with wit and compassion of the things that ordinary young people like to do. If you're 23 and you like a good Saturday night out with the boys and girls, you know all about the "anticipation" in the "View From The Afternoon" and the "totalitarian" bouncer in "From The Ritz . . .". Then there's the outstanding "When The Sun Goes Down" powerfully depicting the sex worker as victim. The Arctics really know how to put a song together - catch the clever, winding intro to "A Certain Romance", and the breathy space in "Riot Van". It's not the all time classic that some of the more hyperbole-prone critics are claiming for it. But 'Whatever People Say I Am, That's What I'm Not' clearly articulates the joys and frustrations of many with all the sharpness of a freshly ground Sheffield blade.
A Grand Don't Come For Free
Seldom has an album depressed me like this one. Or maybe it's just the swooning guff from the critics which has got under my skin. The garage geezer and hip-hop head known as The Streets (and to his mum as Mike Skinner) is, according to Mojo, "one of the most compelling voices in British pop culture" while an absurd piece by a University College London teacher in the Media Guardian reckoned that "one does not need to be a Bible student to realise the album is based on Christ's parable of the lost piece of silver". In fact, ' A Grand Don't Come For Free' is a bleak and stupefying celebration of inner city nihilism. Its trivial tales of everyday life frustration - failing to get your DVD refund, "insufficient funds" flagging at the cash machine, scuzzy flats, one night stands, guzzling Tennants - and being "such a twat, such a twat" may be regarded as marvellously insightful by lefty lecturers or seriously funny (in the spirit of a Ray Davies or an Ian Drury) by those looking for a working class hero, but for me this banal concept album utterly lacks both insight and wit. Add to that the off-key choruses, the expressionless raps and the minimalist backing tracks that sound like they were programmed in half an hour and you have an album of woeful quality. No doubt there will be Christians prepared to insist that this is funny, or different (from anything else in the charts) or an accurate portrayal of the meaningless lives of a large swathe of today's youth. I'll just have to disagree. Regardless of what the critics might tell you, one track of The Tribe is worth more than 10 albums of this tosh.
(Originally published in Cross Rhythms 82, September/October/November 2004.)
A well known artist in the mainstream told me about a recent experience he had when listening to this album on his headphones. He was stretched out in the California sun taking in the pop icon's latest studio set when suddenly Madonna sang the phrase "I'm not religious, but I feel such love, makes me wanna pray." As this memorable line was echoed over and over again and London Community Gospel Choir kicked in to add their gospel righteousness to the proceedings my friend had a deep experience of the Holy Spirit. Whatever Madonna's beliefs, and on the songs here she is keen to tell us that she is "bored with right and wrong" and is sure "there is no resurrection", much of this album, sparsely produced by French electronica king Mirwais, is permeated with a deep spiritual search. The diva's turning away from pointy bras and mucky-mouthed excess may not gain her too many fans (the reviewer in Time Out calculated that the word "I" is featured on 'American Life' every nine seconds and suggests it is a work of the truly self-obsessed) but for me, and my friend, many of these songs have a transcendent beauty. Pop music is seldom as honest as this.
(Originally published in Cross Rhythms 76, September/October 2003.)
A Rush Of Blood To The Head
It wouldn't have taken much of a prophetic gift to predict the huge success this album has achieved. 'Parachutes' was one of the biggest selling debuts for many a year and this follow up is another neatly crafted exercise in rock music melancholia. With its eery echoes of everyone from Echo And The Bunnymen to Radiohead there is now a new confidence in the songwriting of Chris Martin which takes the album beyond the cries of the lovelorn while the guitars and keyboards often blur in a sinuous slide of aural depth. The search for one's place in life dominates many of the lyrics here. On "Clocks" life's grand opportunities are pondered over repetitive piano spirals while the brooding title track alludes darkly to human fragility. At times the music surges to towering climaxes like on "Politik" while on other occasions the accompaniments drop away to a simple acoustic strum. On the closer, "Amsterdam", Chris Martin reflects on a time when jumping off a bridge tied to a noose seemed his best solution then, as the song says, "You came along and cut me loose." One is left to ponder who precisely this someone was. Chris grew up in a Christian home and in a recent interview he said, "I'm as confused as the next man, I used to be a Christian but I can't understand why people are interested in it." Maybe he needs to reflect more on who precisely it was who cut the noose.
(Originally published in Cross Rhythms 71, November/December 2002.)
The Rising' was Bruce Springsteen's first studio album since the introspective, acoustic 'The Ghost Of Tom Joad' in 1995. It was his first number one album in the United States since his 'Greatest Hits' compilation in the same year. It marked a full return to recording with long-time collaborators the E Street Band for the first time since 'Born In The USA' in 1984. Most importantly of all, it was Springsteen's first release after September 11, 2001. Whilst a few of the songs had in fact been written earlier, the catalyst for, and central theme of, 'The Rising' was the series of terrorist attacks that occurred in the USA on that tragic day and their repercussions in the lives of ordinary people. Songs were written both from an intimate, 'first-person' perspective (a grieving partner on "Empty Sky" and "You're Missing," the firefighter selflessly climbing up into the smoke on the title track) and a broader 'bird's-eye view' (the final anthem "My City Of Ruins" which, incredibly, pre-dates 9/11 and was written about Springsteen's New Jersey). What they do not do, however, is resort to any misplaced flag-waving patriotism; his audience needed to grieve and reflect rather than be encouraged to 'kick terrorist ass,' regardless of what would happen on the international stage during the following years. Listeners who, back in the 1980's, mistakenly identified a jingoistic anthem of Americanism in "Born In The USA" would have no such targets this time around. Indeed, Springsteen here recognises the desperate importance of building bridges across cultural divides and between individuals on tracks like "Worlds Apart" and "Let's Be Friends (Skin To Skin)." The reception for the album from fans and critics was overwhelmingly positive. Raised a Catholic, Springsteen's music has often featured an element of the spiritual, keying into a common 'folk religion' understanding of Christianity as a bedrock of what it is to be American. This understanding is woven throughout the individual and communal exhortations on 'The Rising:' "May your strength give us strength/May your faith give us faith/May your hope give us hope/May your love bring us love" ("Into The Fire"); "We've got no fairytale ending/In God's hands our fate is complete" ("Countin' On A Miracle"); "There's spirits above and behind me/Faces gone black, eyes burnin' bright/May their precious blood bind me/Lord, as I stand before your fiery light" ("The Rising"); "With these hands I pray for the strength, Lord/.With these hands I pray for the faith, Lord/.With these hands I pray for your love, Lord/.Come on, rise up!" ("My City Of Ruins"). With such sentiments, these songs can (and did) become touchstones for many the world over, regardless of the extent to which the tragedies of one awful day impacted their lives. This recording is a testament to heroism, goodwill and reconciliation in the face of terrible darkness. Thank God for that.
The Last Broadcast
Alienation and melancholic gloom dominate a lot of rock music and the Doves' platinum selling, Mercury-nominated debut 'Lost Souls' album was dark indeed. But here the Manchester trio discovered optimism. Three of yesteryear's key moments dominate the Doves' sound - The Edge's rippling guitar of 'Joshua Tree' era U2; the LA's wistful use of melancholy; and the Bunnymen's baroque stylings on 'Ocean Rain'. But there's originality too here and 'The Last Broadcast' is visceral, pulsing and uplifting. Only when the lyrics are studied in depth do the first doubts emerge. The problem with music-as-therapy albums like this one is that they hint at finding answers that, humanly speaking, can't be found. It's all very well to boldly declare that "Words they mean nothing, so you can't hurt me" but the gospel truth is that words have a profound ability to tear and savage the human psyche. And the transcendent mood of "There Goes The Fear" finally doesn't compensate for its lyrics' failure to explain how precisely the girl lying down beside the song's writer will in the long term alleviate the gnawing fear that grips the human soul.
(Originally published in Cross Rhythms 69, July/August 2002.)
Dancing Down The Stony Road
If Chris Rea had been born an American, 'Dancing Down The Stony Road' would have seen him hailed as one of the greatest guitarists and singers the world has ever known. It would have won Grammys and seen him quoted by music journalists in the same breadth as Ry Cooder and Bonnie Raitt. Sadly, Chris Rea comes from Middlesbrough and he will forever be known as the bloke who sang "On The Beach". This double CD came out in 2002, after Rea had spent several years in the musical wilderness and at the same time, fighting a life threatening illness. Like most double CDs, it is at least five songs too long, but Chris Rea never sounded better. "Easy Rider", "When The Good Lord Spoke To Jesus", "The Hustler" and "Sun Is Rising" are great songs. This is not just a man who is looking for his next Top 20 hit, this is a man on the edge, who knows he has been given a second chance. His personal demons and struggles are there, for all to hear. His slide guitar work remains as peerless as ever. Make no mistake - he really was that good. If you want to hear the blues played with a deftness of touch or want a secular spiritual song, listen to Rea on "Sun Is Rising". There is a fine line between gospel and blues. Sadly, subsequent releases didn't have quite the same fire and passion and Chris Rea has now retired from solo performances. This is how he should be remembered.
After a long wait since 1994's 'Hit The Highway', the boys returned with this bypassing all music trends with their never changing country and folk flavoured rock, featuring those heavily rolled R's! Having played Greenbelt, expressed an interest in the Christian origins of socialism and with some intriguing songs on the previous album like "I Want To Be A Christian", "The Light" and "The More I Believe", this new release is of interest in more ways than one. Musically they can't be faulted, every song is a sing-along blast, there's plenty of fiddle, accordion, banjo, dobro and pedal steel, it's an experience that puts a smile on your face. But the songs don't show the thoughtful depth of previous offerings and deal mainly with love, infidelity, Scotland and the hardships of life. The humour is still strong on songs like "Sweet Little Girls" - "Sweet little girls, might like ribbons and curls, but they most like to torture their brothers", and "How Many Times" where the line "ooh-aah" is pushed well beyond its normal limits. Only occasionally do you feel that Craig & Charlie ever give away anything personal: in "One Too Many" we feel something of the pain of death, "To my disgrace all I recall is my daddy's face and how I wish I could see him again." The slower, sadder moments are brief and you are jolted back to happier thoughts by the next track. Great fun if you like The Proclaimers but leaves you wanting a little more spiritual depth and hope.
(Originally published in Cross Rhythms 65, November/December 2001.)
Chocolate Starfish And The Hot Dog Flavoured Water
Anyone who may have assumed that Eminem was a one-off aberration of a violence and obscenity-obsessed rock scene had better catch up on this recent UK chart topper which sold a stunning million copies Stateside in its first week of release. On the upside, Bizkit are an endurably classy rock and rapcore team with alt the gutsy punch and adrenaline-pumping fire you'd expect. Plus the song "Take A Look Around" decries hate and even ponders man's existence. But such a message is contradicted by the other fare gloatingly presented here. With its mind-boggling 122 uses of the f word frontman Fred Durst eulogises fast living (drugs, alcohol, women, vandalism, etc) on "Livin' It Up"; berates an authority figure while asserting independence on "My Way"; lets loose with full blown homophobia and "knockin' faggots unconscious" on "Getcha Groove On"; contemplates suicide on "It'll Be OK" and fantasises full scale anarchy on "Full Nelson" ("We've got the torch now/We've got the fire to burn this muthaf*** down"). On one cut Durst describes himself as "an idiot, a loser, a microphone abuser." This particular idiot, helped by cynical corporate America, is laughing all the way to the bank. A particularly inept "review" of a Travail album appeared in a recent Premier which began, "If you're a hard music fan and you love Limp Bizkit. . ." Quite honestly, the chances of Limp Bizkit lovers reading Premier are a billion to one.
(Originally published in Cross Rhythms 62, May/June 2001.)
Tomorrow The Green Grass
There's a bit of a Christian connection in that one of the band members is married to believer Victoria Williams, whose albums are always worth a listen. The track "Miss Williams' Guitar" here is, not too surprisingly, a tribute to the deal lady. Produced by George (Black Crowes) Drakoulias, this album is firmly in a retro vein, this time country/rock (or, if you like, alt country). And I do mean rock. Whilst the album has a fairly laid back vibe to the whole affair, the amps get turned up to 11 fairly frequently, which keeps their sound firmly in the 90s. Neil Young has been used as a reference point elsewhere and I guess that's a good starting point, but their style also relies on some cracking melancholic country harmonising. In the words of the sleeve notes their songs apparently touch on "suicide, ghosts, child abuse, guitar love, faith, despair, flashing reds (?) and hope." That said, you won't be able to tick off a list of the above whilst listening to the album. The most promising title on the album, "Pray For Me", in fact appears to be about a struggle to maintain fidelity. By the way the album title is taken not from a track on the album but a b-side from the excellent first single from the album, "Blue". Go figure!
(Originally published in Cross Rhythms 27, June/July 1995.)
Bring 'Em All In
A while back in Cross Rhythms James Lewis wrote about mainstream artists who weren't Christians yet God was using as instruments of spiritual truth. One of them was Mike Scott of the Waterboys. The ex-Waterboy's invocation to Pan might freak some conservative Christians but two songs here, "Learning To Love Him" and "What Do You Want Me To Do", are amongst the finest non-Christian "spiritual" songs ever penned and testament to the powerful gift of this passionate and eloquent songwriter. The latter song declares "I've tried to do things my own way/And I've tried to do what people say/But I'm going nowhere fast/And I'm turning to you at last/What do you want me to do/What do you want me to do Lord?" Elsewhere there are numerous allusions to faith and spirituality. Mike's husky voice, accompanied sparingly by his acoustic and a variety of unexpected and at times startling instrumental backdrops, has never sounded more intense. Current favourites are the autobiographical "Long Way To The Light", the paean to his newly acquired wife "She Is So Beautiful" and the haunting title track. Keep praying for this consummate musical communicator, that the Lord will indeed show Mike what he wants him to do.
(Originally published, in a slightly different form, in Cross Rhythms 30, December 1995/January 1996.)
Following UK chart success in the 1980's with hit singles such as "Kayleigh" and "Incommunicado" as well as a string of top ten albums, Marillion embarked upon a different phase of the band's career at the end of the decade with the arrival of ex-Europeans/How We Live vocalist Steve Hogarth. Hailed as just about the finest album Marillion made, 'Brave' weaves an abstract tale inspired in part by a radio news item, recollected by Hogarth from some years earlier, involving a young woman who had been found wandering alone on the Severn Bridge between Wales and England. The landmark being a notorious spot for suicides, the police were called and they subsequently appealed via local radio to the public for help in identifying the girl, who was unwilling (or unable) to say a word. Hogarth noted at the time that the scenario would make for an excellent 'first chapter' of a mystery, and revisited the idea early on in the writing of the record. Marillion (and lyrical collaborator John Helmer) surmised that in their story, the girl was a runaway from an abusive family background who had, in the course of her sad young life, become hardened to the cruel world around her, finding little or no comfort from any source. 'Brave' shuns a clear narrative, unlike some concept albums, preferring instead to present snapshots that suggest events and encounters - homelessness and exploitation ("Living With The Big Lie"), therapy or even hospitalisation ("Mad"), experimentation with drugs ("The Opium Den"), loveless sexual relationships ("Hard As Love"), an unwelcome return to the family home ("Alone Again In The Lap Of Luxury") - whilst a recurring piano theme (on opener "Bridge," "Goodbye To All That" and finally "The Great Escape") provides aural continuity. Resisting a simplistic 'beginning, middle and end' approach, the original vinyl release went so far as to offer two alternative endings to the story: the first (which appears on all other formats) is positive, with the central character resisting suicide to achieve personal peace and a newfound clarity, a rebirth, in "Made Again;" the second, on "The Great Escape (Spiral Remake)," implies that the girl jumps from the bridge, embracing the release afforded her by death, however tragic and violent. Unsurprisingly, 'Brave' produced no hit singles but did showcase Marillion at their most eloquent and expressive; they have joked in the past about being 'Pink Floyd on a budget' but the comparison is useful and apt, much more so than the outdated 'Genesis clones' tag they were burdened with early in their career. At times, 'Brave' recalls moments from 'Dark Side Of The Moon,' and guitarist Steve Rothery is the undoubted equal of Floyd main man David Gilmour. Many even hear the album's influence in the likes of Radiohead's 'OK Computer.' Writing in 1998, Steve Hogarth stated that "'Brave' is all about the spiritual aspect of life dominated by the non-spiritual." This is a telling description of why the album is so affecting and memorable. Every human being deserves dignity and respect simply because the gift of life is designed to amount to more than the sum of one's worst experiences. The hand of grace must be offered to all those who cannot conceive of Heaven while they are trapped in a living hell.
For those who aren't in the know about this band, it comprises two ex-members of the late Stevie Ray Vaughn's band plus two of his friends - guitar prodigy Charlie Sexton and Doyle Bramhall - who share lead vocal and guitar duties. As might be expected, Stevie's shadow hangs over the group and the album is a similar funked-up mix of blues and rock. I don't know about the beliefs of the band (Doyle Bramhall attended a detox clinic in 1992) but half of the 12 songs here are co-written by avant-garde gospel rocker, Tonio K, and several of these, plus "Carry Me On" by guitarist Doyle Bramhall, contain spiritual overtones. "Always Believed In You" is an almost swaggering song explicitly about faith in God and see what you make of these lyrics from "Too Many Ways To Fall" - "Mama said there's just one way that you can stand/There's too many ways to fall." Leaving the rather strange album cover aside it does seem quite likely that there might be some believers in Arc Angels and there were even rumours that Stevie Ray Vaughn got off drugs thanks to a Christian conversion. Whether this is Balaam's Ass with a guitar or not, this album is definitely worth hearing.
(Originally published in Cross Rhythms 13, February/March 1993.)
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