Monthly Archives: March 2011

A Different Kind of Album Review?

Okay guys, I’m contemplating something a little rad. At this point I have heard samples, read lyrics, and surveyed promo photography for Doug Anderson’s new project.

This means that I already have a good sense of what the album sounds and looks like even though I don’t have it in my hands yet.

So, how would it be if I wrote a review of it?

Granted, it wouldn’t be as fleshed out as it would be if I had, er, you know actually listened to the whole thing…but you might be surprised at how much I would have to say!

Would my readers rather I waited until I could write something more fleshed out, or would you be interested to read this new kind of “review?”

[By the way, Ernie, if you're reading this, I'm kinda sorta fishing for a free review copy. Just so you know. :-D]

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Doug Anderson’s Solo CD available for pre-order

You can now hear samples and read lyrics from Anderson’s upcoming project here. He also has a bare-bones website (to be fleshed out soon) where you can register for his newsletter.

I’m looking forward to this project. It’s interesting how many tracks have a country twang to them. I still think “Jesus is Holding My Hand” sounds like one of the best on the project, though several others sound very good as well. A few of them, depending on your taste, might feel a little too sugary, but it seems for now that there are enough substantial tracks to make it worth the investment.

Also, check out some great stuff from the album’s photoshoot on his new facebook fan page. Now THIS is promo photography done right!!

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It’s the Chipmunks!

Yesterday while trawling Youtube, I came across a video I had forgotten about, and it made me laugh all over again. It’s from the 1992 team-up of Gold City and the Kingsmen, captured on live video and named King’s Gold. (The videos were OOP for a long time but have recently been re-released on DVD.)

So naturally they had to include a bit of dueling on “Looking For a City.” Neither Brian Free nor Gary Shepherd attempts to go as high as Johnny Cook (thank God!) but things still get pretty ear-piercing towards the end. It’s pretty funny to watch Ivan Parker rubbing each of them down while the other one has his “turn.” Brian puts on some great facial expressions as he watches Gary disdainfully and prepares to “up” him. And I have to admit…I have never been the world’s biggest Free fan, but listening to Gary always reminds me that it could be a lot worse. As somebody in the comments put it, “I think he sounds like he sucked helium, but hey, he made Brian look awesome sooo…”

And when they both come together at the end… well, look out! It’s the Chipmunks! :-D

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A Song You’ve Never Heard: “Calvary”

Oh the myst’ry of that cursed, blessed hill

Where the sinless Son fulfilled the father’s will…

***

Today I’m going to point my readers to a song that, as far as I know, has never been professionally cut. It was written by Ben Storie, who was recently interviewed along with Lee Black by Daniel J. Mount. Ben is a gifted writer, and even though nobody has picked this song up yet, I consider it to be among the best I’ve heard from him. The melody is beautiful, and the lyrics are smoothly crafted. You can hear a demo of it (presumably his own), on his spot at American Songspace. [Edit: Ben Storie has clarified that the demo was actually done by Lee Black. Thanks Ben!] [April 18, 2014 EDIT: This link no longer works.] Just scroll down and find “Calvary” in the player. The demo is naturally a little rough, but it will give you a good idea of the song.

If I had to pick a nit, I would say that the one misstep in the lyric is the use of the word “tragedy” to describe Jesus’ crucifixion. Ordinarily, one would use the word to describe an unfortunate event, something sad that happened without warning. Of course Jesus deliberately chose the cross, and his tormentors deliberately chose to kill him. The other meaning of the word is “A drama or literary work in which the main character is brought to ruin or suffers extreme sorrow, especially as a consequence of a tragic flaw.” Jesus’ story is of a rather different nature, obviously.

But setting that aside, I am baffled that this song hasn’t been recorded by a major gospel artist. It’s far better than a good many other songs I could name that have found success. Well worth a listen!

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Filed under Songs, Songwriting

Inasmuch as ye have done it…

The other day I was blessed to find and watch this video about a non-profit organization called Casey’s Cookies. Ernie Haase & Signature Sound recently paid a visit and put up this clip on their facebook page, which included footage of them hanging out with Casey and singing her favorite song with her at a concert — “He Touched Me”:

I’m not ashamed to say that once I had watched it a couple times, the tear glands were kicking in when she came up on stage to join them. Their singing at the beginning is beautifully exquisite and understated, but when Casey lends her voice, words can’t describe the emotional impact. Truly, this is His favorite song of all.

Something else that struck me: These guys treat her like royalty. When Ernie gently tells her, “We love you,” you believe him. “I got my picture with her,” he says. Not the other way around.

Now I know what some people would say (though I hope not one of them is among my readership): “Well yeah, it’s called ‘public relations,’ you idiot. Of course they come out of it looking generous and saintly—that’s the whole point.”

There are two reasons why I’m not looking at this video that way:

1. I’m not a supercilious jerk.

2. There is no reason whatsoever to impute the actions of these guys to self-serving motives. I realize that’s the default setting for some, but not for me. Why shouldn’t we view this as a simple act of Christian charity? Why shouldn’t we be genuinely moved at the picture of kindness we’re seeing here?

Ernie himself said it best: “We want nothing from you. We just want your organization to thrive.” They’re keeping the focus off of themselves and putting Casey and her family’s ministry in the spotlight. They have sent the clear message that none of this is about them: It’s about her and the work she is doing.

Charity does not put itself forward. It is not wrapped up with itself, but puts others in its place. I want publicly to thank Ernie Haase & Signature Sound for giving their fellow Christians a beautiful picture of what true charity looks like.

Thanks guys, for reminding me why I support your ministry. The music isn’t the half of it.

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Filed under Commentary, Singers

New Theme?

I’m approaching the one-month mark for the blog, and already I’m having second thoughts about the theme I picked (Fleur De Lys). There are many things I like about it, but at the same time there are some things that annoy me. For example, people have already pointed out the tiny print, particularly in comment threads. I’ve also noticed that hyperlinks can be faint, which sort of removes the whole point of a hyperlink, which is to be noticed!

However, what’s most important is what the readers want. So coming into the weekend, I thought I’d solicit opinions from you guys:  What do you think? Would you prefer something more spacious and readable? Do you like it just the way it is? Do you not care one way or the other?

Update: Daniel Mount has suggested that instead of doing a poll, I just pick another theme I like and try it out for a weekend. So I’ve decided to give Pilcrow a test drive—See what y’all think.

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Come on in…it’s Kenny Rogers!

A while back, I acquired the vintage Cathedrals album Prestigious Cathedral Quartet. It’s probably best-known for containing Danny Funderburk’s sugar stick “Somebody Touched Me” and the oft-covered “An Old Convention Song.” Other highlights include a sweet Roger Bennett song (“When the World Looks At Me”), and a subtly haunting closing number called “Next Time We Meet.”

But there was one song on the album that immediately caught my ear, because when I first heard it I had the nagging feeling that I had heard it somewhere before. It was track four, a Prodigal Son re-telling entitled “Come On In.” It didn’t take me long to realize how I knew the melody: It was identical to Kenny Rogers’ “The Gambler!” All you nerdy collectors out there can break out the record for yourself and give the song a spin, and if you compare you’ll see that I’m right. If you don’t have the record, you can hear it on Youtube here (somewhat sped up from the original).

For those of you who are unfamiliar with “The Gambler” (though you don’t exactly have to be a country buff to have heard of it), I present a delightful performance of the classic from that immortal television series, The Muppet Show.

(Warning: Contains drinking, smoking, gambling metaphors, and a singing ghost. Proceed with caution.)

You know, it’s funny…the melody fits an awful lot better with “The Gambler” than it does with that Cathedrals song. ;-)

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Filed under Fun, Songs

Songs that aren’t your cup of tea, but…

Some time ago, I came across a piece by respected Christian songwriter Joel Lindsey about songwriting. He talked about the experience of teaching a seminar where people brought their ideas for honest feedback. But at the end of the day, only one had really stuck with him:

As I lie here in bed thinking back over all the songs I heard today, I can only really remember one song.  It was a trainwreck of a song that needs probably more work than all of the others combined — it needs a complete overhaul, actually.  It was an overly familiar title, didn’t have any semblance of a structure, the writer used the same rhyming words over and over and over, the lyrical hook didn’t match up with the melodic hook and, worst of all, the grammar was awful.

And yet…I’m in bed almost 12 hours later and it’s still on my mind.  Come to find out the song was written about the writer’s son who is serving in the military in Iraq and this song was written for him and his buddies.  Although the lines were non-sequitar [sic] and seemed to come at you like a machine gun there was emotion dripping in every single word.  There was obvious pain, fear, angst, and sadness woven so beautifully into the melody and into the meat of this song that I felt bad for having to say that I doubted it could get cut in its current form.  But I begged the writer — don’t lose the heart of this song…learn how to structure it in such a way that the emotion is in some kind of manageable form, but don’t lose that.

I for one know exactly what Joel means. What about you? Have you ever heard a song that maybe wasn’t quite as bad as what Joel is describing, maybe it was decently good, but there was so much about it that you just didn’t like? And yet…there was something in the pain it was describing that just tugged at you?

There are two songs I want to discuss today along these lines, and they are both CCM songs. I’ll have to ask my SG fan readers to bear with me here, because it’s part of the point I’m trying to make. The first one is by a group called Sanctus Real. Their music is pretty standard light Christian rock. The lead singer, Matt Hammitt, wrote a song called “Lead Me” about his relationship with his wife and kids and what that meant when combined with his career. He and his wife went through a period of struggle in their marriage, and they had to fight to keep it together. Many Christian singers and their wives could identify with this story: Matt’s sheer absence from home was putting a strain on the entire family. So the song “Lead Me” was birthed out of the pain his family has walked through. The verses are written in his voice as a father, trying to have his career and telling himself that his wife and children will be all right on their own. But then in the chorus, he hears them saying:

Lead me with strong hands

Stand up when I can’t

Don’t leave me hungry for love

Chasing dreams…

But what about us?

Now listen to the song with the accompanying music video. Remember, musically this is typical CCM fare. Don’t expect an inspired melody or stellar vocals. This isn’t about music. It’s about pain.

Pain: You feel it in this song, in the video, and in Matt’s voice. That’s what I’m trying to put my finger on here. Also worth watching is the interview with Matt and his wife that pops up immediately as a related video on the embed.

The next song is by a new artist named Chris August. It’s called “7 x 70.” Chris tells the story behind it here. It was a last-minute addition to his debut album. Producer Ed Cash suggested that he write a song about “what hurt you when you were little.” Reluctantly, Chris went home and wrote the first part of the song, then brought it to Ed the next morning. When he played it for him, Ed told him that it needed to be a song about forgiveness. “Forgiveness?” Chris asked. “You told me to write about something that hurt me.” “Right!” said Ed.

The song and video speak for themselves. Continue to keep in mind, as with the last song, that this is not great music. But again, it’s not about the music. Watch and listen here.

“7 x 70 times. If that’s the cost, I’ll pay the price.” Admit it—that sort of hits you in the gut.

I would be the first to say that these songs are not masterpieces. And yet, the pain that they communicate makes them stand out to me in a way that other songs don’t, even though they may be better crafted. They’re raw and honest. They address the fact that life is not always beautiful and easy. And yet in the midst of it, they find hope in crying out to God.

I’m going to be honest and say that I have trouble finding that in southern gospel music. Part of it has to do with the fact that at least half of the SG repertoire (it seems), is composed of purely upbeat, fun material. But that’s not the only factor, because SG has plenty of ballads as well. And yet even there, I see a prevalence of the big ballad—the grand, sweeping statement of faith with exciting orchestration that ends on a long, high note. There are many great songs that would fall into this category. But they’re not painful. How often do you find a southern gospel song that expresses genuine brokenness? I’m not saying that they’re not out there, I’m just saying you have to go looking to find them underneath the catchy songs about heaven and the power anthems. And I have nothing against catchy songs about heaven or power anthems. It’s just that every once in a while, I’m looking for something real. It doesn’t have to be impeccably delivered or flawlessly written, but it has that something about it that you can’t quite put your finger on, but when you hear it, you feel it.

Am I the only one who feels that way? In closing, here is Joel Lindsey’s conclusion:

Then I found myself saying something that surprised myself even:  if I had to choose between a well-crafted song and a song with this kind of emotion, I’m going to pick the emotion anyday.  Because if a song can’t make you feel something, then why bother?  But what makes a song truly great, in my opinion, is when it has both.

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Filed under Commentary, Other Genres, Songwriting

Rob Bell and the Postmodern Wasteland

Rob Bell

Uh-oh. I think I may be about to ruffle some feathers with this one.

Should be fun. Let’s do it.

First of all, I should say that if you’re out there, and you’re reading this, and you think Rob Bell is the greatest thing since sliced bread…I am in no way trying to say that you are an evil person who deserves to rot in hell. (Although come to think of it, we’re all evil people who deserve to rot in hell…but you know what I mean.)

I am, however, saying that you’re probably a confused person who could use a fresh perspective. So, that being established, let’s take an honest look at Rob Bell.

The latest controversy that seems to be swirling around our favorite bespectacled, smooth-talking emergentist is his recent adoption of universalism (the belief that there is no Hell and one day the whole world will be saved). Bell has used a story about somebody who stated definitely that Mahatma Gandhi was in Hell as a jumping-off point for accusing such people of being presumptuous on the matter. (Ironic, since by vigorously calling into question the existence of an eternal Hell, Bell isn’t exactly taking an agnostic standpoint himself.)

Myself, I find the whole thing a little bit amusing, because even though I completely agree that Bell is spouting nonsense on the issue, crackpot Bell-isms aren’t exactly old hat. I’m at least as concerned about Bell’s take on the virgin birth, which oddly didn’t seem to generate nearly as much buzz when he first laid it out in Velvet Elvis (see the relevant quotation here). Just to quickly fill people in, Bell has breezily informed us that all that stodgy, dusty stuff called Doctrine is really not an important part of being a Christian. Hey man, as long as you’re, like, you know, finding God and discovering your inner wuggah-wuggah…it’s cool, man! Kinda like a trampoline, you know?

Yes, I did say trampoline. Hear this: From now on, we won’t call it Christianity. We’ll call it…trampolinianity! No, really, I couldn’t possibly make this up. Bell literally says that doctrine is like springs under a trampoline, and our main goal should be to “keep jumping” rather than “arguing about whose trampoline is better.”

So, how ’bout that virgin birth? Oh those silly Bible-thumping fundamentalists—they want you to think that stuff like that actually matters. I  mean after all, what would it matter if it was discovered tomorrow that Jesus had a father named, oh let’s say, Larry (see above). Of course it would only mean that Jesus wasn’t really the son of God and hence was born with a sin nature just like the rest of us and couldn’t take away the sin of the world…but hey, Jesus is really just like us anyway, right? And you know, if our faith hangs on something insignificant like the virgin birth, then how strong was it to begin with? That’s like building a faith on bricks, where if you take one away everything falls apart. We need a faith…like a trampoline! Where instead of building on bricks, we’re building on springs, and if you take one or two away, no problem dude! Just keep bouncing away, because really all that’s important is that we’re bouncing into a deeper fuzzy-wuzziness as we commune with the Spirit. All that extra stuff like Doctrine and Facts will just tie us down. We want to be free, free…as free as the wind blows, or something like that.

What about Bell’s supposed “discovery” regarding the word “virgin” and Isaiah? To put it succinctly, it means precisely zilch. The truth is that while Bell and his ilk act like they are confiding some deeply dark and significant secret to you when they knowingly inform you that “the word for ‘virgin’ doesn’t really have to mean   ‘virgin,’ ” their “argument” flops on several different counts. First, although the Hebrew word “almah” could more generally mean “young woman,” it could also specifically mean “virgin.” The alternate meaning is just that—an alternate meaning. And in fact, we have five other Old Testament uses of the word besides the one in Isaiah, and all of them clearly use the word to mean a literal virgin. But even putting that aside, Matthew wasn’t quoting from the original Hebrew anyway. He was quoting from the Septuagint, a Greek translation that the Jews had been using and reading from for two hundred years before Christ’s birth. And in the Greek, the word is “parthenos,” which unquestionably means “virgin.” It’s silly to imply that the Christians were just glomming onto the Septuagint for convenience’ sake, because it was the standard, conventional Jewish translation long before Christianity even entered the scene.

But the fact is that this semantic quibble is not even a real “argument” against the historical fact of the virgin birth anyway. Whether or not Isaiah literally meant “virgin” had no causal effect on what Matthew recorded as history in his gospel.  He presumably had other evidence to believe that Christ was born of a virgin—perhaps even from conversations with Mary herself. He brought in Isaiah because he wanted to draw a parallel between what had happened and what he saw as a foreshadowing of the event in the Old Testament. It is therefore utterly pointless to use the debate over the original Hebrew as evidence that Jesus was not in fact born of a virgin.

Brothers and sisters, we need to have discernment. It is vitally important for Christians to understand what is happening here. Bell is not alone. He is just one part of a growing trend within the Church that emphasizes emotion at the expense of everything else, most importantly doctrine but also honest scholarship. I believe emotion has its place in the Christian life, but when we make it the be-all and end-all of our faith, to the point where really nothing else matters as long as we feel good—then Houston, we have a problem.

So here’s to a different kind of Christianity. Here’s to a Christianity with its head screwed on straight, rooted in the Word, rooted in sound scholarship, and rooted in clear thinking. And here’s to a Christianity where flakes who come with false, feel-good teachings are told to get off at the next stop.

By the way, if you’re looking for a thorough, thoughtful, scriptural review of Bell’s latest, I cannot recommend Kevin DeYoung’s 20-page breakdown highly enough. Yes, it’s long, but if you have or were thinking of getting Love Wins, I urge you to listen closely to what DeYoung is saying and use it as a guide. He cares about the truth, and he has done his homework.

Update: Some of you may or may not have seen Bell’s MSNBC interview with Martin Bashir. It has gone viral since being posted on the Internet, and with good reason: Bell is very uncomfortable in this interview. Some people accused Bashir of being repetitive and obnoxious, but the fact is that Bell only seemed to be answering his questions. He offered nothing of substance. For an excellent and honest dissection of the debate, see an interview of Bashir himself on the Paul Edwards program. Bashir is a Moslem convert to Christianity.

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Filed under Faith and Culture, Surprise Sunday

Remembering Roger Bennett

Four years ago today, gospel music lost one of its greatest pianists. But it also lost a great soldier and hero of the faith. Although he was very ill with cancer for a good part of his life, Roger somehow kept his smile, his humor, and his courage about him. He was an inspiration to many, and his life still continues to touch other lives, including mine. It has “become the light that leads us to the road we each must find.”

One of Roger’s most poignant songs is “Don’t Be Afraid.” I found a piece Roger wrote for the Singing News in which he described how Satan reminded him of that song when he was suffering from depression under cancer treatment. This is what he wrote:

He didn’t strike me physically. That had been accomplished for him by the chemo. He struck a more critical part of my being. My joy. My confidence..my hope. Every thought I turned toward heaven bounced back to me as if it were made of brass. Every time I tried to “look on the bright side”, I ended up imagining a very dark future. Then he threw his most effective dart at me. Doubt. “You call yourself a Christian,” he said, “What a hypocrite!” “You wrote, “Don’t Be Afraid” and yet you are more afraid now than you’ve ever been.” “You wrote about Joy and yet now you are filled with despair.” “So much for your faith, Mr. Gospel Singer.”

However, this story does have a “happy, even joyful ending.” But instead of writing it here, I will let my readers read it for themselves in Roger’s own words here.

Like many people, I miss Roger, and I wish he could still be with us today. But I’d like to think that even though we aren’t with him yet, he’s looking down on all of us and cheering us on.

Roger, I never met you, and I never knew you. But one day I will. When the fever of life is over and our work is done, we will all rest with you…upon the mountain.

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Filed under Singers