May 18, 2013
It’s often hard for well-established musicians to find balance later in their careers. Sam Beam has left his minimalist roots far behind with Ghost on Ghost, his fifth full-length album as Iron & Wine, pulling from many often unexpected influences.
Songs like “The Desert Babbler” exhibit a melodic quality reminiscent of many long-gone musical styles, creating a pseudo 70’s funk-inspired sound that’s almost a little difficult to identify. It’s Iron & Wine, there’s no doubt about that, but the variety of the album poses a problem.
Artists at the point Iron & Wine reach are often accused of ‘betraying’ fans by skipping gears and moving on to a sound drastically different from what they are used to. It’s difficult to argue that Beam’s musical direction hasn’t taken a very drastic leap. The junkyard-rock of The Shepherd’s Dog was a wonderful break from his usual style, and Kiss Each Other Clean expanded the sound further.
At this point, the question is whether Iron & Wine should have stopped the expansion there.
Instead of the simple sounds of acoustic guitar from The Creek Drank the Cradle, Iron & Wine fills the space of Ghost on Ghost with a jazzy collision of horns, violin, keyboard, heavy drum use, and an occasional Doors-esque organ sound. One of the only songs on the album that is easily recognizable as Iron & Wine, “Winter Prayers,” still features very little of the original guitar sound at all, relying on Sam’s voice almost entirely.
The album lacks a clear destination, like the radio-weary lite-rock it harkens back to, but there exists a saving grace in the end. “Lover’s Revolution,” the second-to-last track, begins slowly, plodding along, but eventually picks up tempo and flies headlong into a burst of jazz horn and drums. Unfortunately, this fades into “Baby Center Stage,” a slow dance ballad of piano and slide guitar that quickly becomes simple background music to the listener.
Ghost on Ghost is not a bad album, that’s not the point. It’s simply confusing and hard to get a real grasp of. There’s so much happening in and between songs that it’s easy to lose interest. It’s an easy listen, but not one that’s easy to pay attention to. The sound quality is great and the songs are all beautiful, but they unfortunately lack a necessary hook. –Jordan B. Frye, Contributing Editor
November 4, 2012
Possibly one of the most easily identifiable voices in the music world, Bob Dylan has created a legacy that will endure beyond his time on this earth, spanning over fifty years of songwriting. Dylan is to folk and blues what bands like Led Zeppelin and the Rolling Stones are to rock n’ roll: the unavoidable backbone of a broad and far-reaching sound. While he can often be viewed as a relic of a past generation, his music continues to hold a presence to this day.
Dylan can write music—that goes without saying. However, with the release of his most recent album Tempest it becomes apparent just how long Dylan has been doing all this. To put it simply, he sounds old, tired, and a little worn out. Some of the original fire that made him a legend from the start is lost and absent from the sound. His voice sounds more ragged than it ever has, bound by a rasp that makes his words sound more forced than anything.
The opening track “Duquesne Whistle” features a voice that is now reminiscent of Louis Armstrong. It’s tough to approach because while the sound isn’t bad, it also isn’t necessarily great. He abandons his initial vocal sound and returns to the more familiar sound for the remainder of the album, but there is still an edge to his voice that does feel forced.
Some of the content that makes his songs resonate with the hearts of average people is still present. “Pay In Blood” features lines like, “Come here, I’ll break your lousy head. Our nation must be saved and freed. You’ve been accused of murder, how do you plead?” The struggles we face every day, the adversity created by the people who lord themselves over us, those are the topics that often make a Dylan song a Dylan song. While it’s comforting to know that topical torch is still there, some of it lacks the subtlety and expert craftsmanship that he’s known for. Many of the lines feel plain and stripped-down.
Tempest isn’t a bad album. When I picked it up I listened to it the whole way through while driving out of Knoxville one night. It was fitting, and I enjoyed it. However, since then, I haven’t had much of an urge to pull it back out and listen to it more. There are good songs on here, it’s true, but as a whole, the album fails to live up to the standards that many have come to expect of a Bob Dylan album. –Jordan Frye, Contributing Writer
October 11, 2012
Late September 2012, the headphones blew up with bliss for a new ear-candy kiss. Listening to the new release since before dawn, I prayed over the computer keyboard and wrote on Facebook that I was drinking my Mumfords and listening to my morning coffee. The mixed-up metaphor did not require correction. Mumford and Sons make us all feel connection to a power greater than ourselves. The sophomore album Babel stands out in a season of great albums to sustain community, explain self, and maintain spirit.
That first week of Fall, I couldn’t walk anywhere on the college campus where I work without someone asking me about the new Mumford disc. The students were excited to share these epiphanies with me, knowing I was a veteran of five Mumford shows: two Bonnaroos, one Ryman, a Railroad Revival in New Orleans, and most recently, Gentlemen of the Road in Bristol. Stuck at the top of the charts as the best-selling record of the year, Babel brings the wild news that folk is once again the new pop and that these Brits are the best American band.
Recent drops by native sons Avett Brothers, Band of Horses, or Old Crow Medicine Show no- doubt dial-in to the same Americana revival at the intersection where folk meets rock and pop and country, but in some strange turn that’s similarly brought us Beatles, Stones, and U2, the United States of Listening Sensibility hinges on the rustic banjo sting of how an American idiom gets interpreted by inspired imports. When the pseudo-hobo train-hopping meets the prep-schooler’s chart-topping, the popular culture gets soaked in sepia-tinted photographs and earth-toned authenticity. Not dayglo but khaki, not shimmery sheen but olive green, not sky blue like jazz but Carhartt beige like folk. Plain but filled with platitude, not ashamed of gratitude.
A common conversation on Twitter and Facebook confirms the conviviality and convergence of our Mumford moment. Our ears and spirits reconnect as our souls get drenched in rocking banjos and redemptive blood. The Mumford mania soaks folks in biblical imagery, but an audience doesn’t mind spiking the communion grape juice or spicing the faith journey with ferocious f-bombs. Mumfords make postmodern hymns as dusty as Dylan but as dangerously contemporary as anything hip hop or techno could hope for.
The backlash against Babel has been thankfully confined to the crustiest snarks inside the rock critic intelligentsia whose cries of boring conservatism cannot put a dent in our boisterous sing-alongs, infectious memes circulating and myths percolating from campus dorm shaking to car stereo shouting. The record by no means condones or upholds the ubiquity of Babylon; rather, it humbly confronts the greed and the pride of walls that will either crumble of their own weight or be torn down by hands like ours.
The Mumford formula finds strength in weakness, finds voice in “grace and choice.” This isn’t Top 40 gospel; it’s the gospel gathering enough acoustic confidence to occupy the Top 40 with a holy cup of folkster fury. This isn’t the stuff of superficial sin cities but sinners confessing sins and setting out “to serve the Lord.” These whispers in the dark are screaming at dawn: this isn’t your only chance, but by gosh, the Mumfords suggest, don’t blow it. Forgive but don’t forget. Live and love for today. Don’t burn out or fade away.
For a pop culture perched atop imaginary towers of narcissism, Mumford and Sons offer a vigorous valley of profound patience for the people bred towards impatience and instant gratification.
Kneel. Wait. Touch the ground. Forgive. Tweak your head to touch your heart. This is holistic hootenanny for the fragmented and fractured. Sure, it’s not the return of the 70s “freak folk” as the Brit-crits blithely badger the sons of an evangelical revival, but this summer-camp altar-call is freaking phenomenal. The fans of psychedelic folk may look elsewhere; the mind-altering nature of God always makes the strictly secular cultural guardians uncomfortable.
As we surmise, an instant classic takes us by surprise. The 21st century update to “Freebird” is another “Sunday Bloody Sunday,” another arm-waving set from a quartet qualified to sing about Jesus and release cover songs by American 60s greats without them winking or us cringing.
Ghosts and hope, lovers and light, feet and knees, haste and wander: the poetry drips like a waterfall, melts ice after a deep freeze, flips a switch to the turn the lights back on inside a cynical self, rips like a roatrip waiting for a thousand sunrises. Don’t confuse their earnest yearning with clobbering certainty, though, for these are songs for serving and learning, not turning or burning.
Lest people perceive this soaring universalism and spiritual populism as some kind of creepy uptight piety, it seems the band members themselves are hardly as serious as the songs. From a distance, it even looks like they are robust partiers sipping the strong stuff, even though this listener-fan-reviewer loves the fact that even the debut Sigh No More came out after I got sober. Never having heard the Mumfords while drunk serves me forever strong and singing along, a tall glass of cold water or mug of hot coffee for the sunniest of sainted and dry intoxications.
The rock n roll inside this folk revival insists to roll us and persists to save us. No sea of quiet or army of acoustic can hide the arena-worthy aspects, and frankly, the kids fighting to find tickets will find some peace when these gents offer shows in giant venues. Don’t believe any of the negative hype and remain a believer.
This album gives and gives and forgives, nothing shy of the soundtrack to your savory living, a constant reminder of hope’s fire and your heart’s desire. Nothing about Babel can be construed as a step backward, and even for those who claim they’re just treading water, they are treading water in a soul-thrilling river Jordan for the Facebook generation, where our ears get perpetually baptized and our fears have forever capsized. –Andrew William Smith, Editor
September 26, 2012
Two Gallants released their 4th studio album The Bloom and the Blight on September 4th of this year. This is the first we’ve heard from them after a 5-year hiatus during which the drumming half of the pair, Tyson Vogel made his solo debut with his project Devotionals back in 2010. It is a mostly instrumental meditative album and it was released around the same time as his band mate, Adam Stephens’ solo record We Live on Cliffs the same year.
After all this time, it isn’t surprising that their style has evolved in some ways. With The Bloom and the Blight listeners find an unexpected shift in their whole sound. This album, released on ATO, seems to be much more heavily produced than their previous work on Alive and Saddle Creek records. Their folk-punk vibe hasn’t left them completely; however, this is a much more polished album than anything else they have put out before. Stephens’ trade mark finger picking is not present in this record anywhere and is probably one of the things that stood out about them when they first emerged as a band. Their rough and ragged sound was a huge part of their appeal initially; however, this album offers something in a totally different direction, one with smoother edges and corners unbent—with the same amount of passion as always—it is merely in a different form than their audience is used to hearing from them. “Ride away” is the only song on this album that embodies their earlier style, and the throw back is appreciated. Differently, their new tunes present a delicate contrast between fragile, soft melodies and heavy, howling climaxes previously unexplored in their music.
The lyrical style has also taken a surprising turn for catchy and less raw. All said, this album’s sound, though drastically different from the other albums’ is not necessarily a negative change. “My Love Won’t Wait”— about a blatant eerie fixation— and “Broken Eyes”— a relatable ballad about the lingering of one despite all— are haunting, moody songs that impose the same convictions that are present in their other albums, only this time more cautiously assembled.
The Bloom and the Blight still conjures the same feelings and invokes the same demons as their previous three records. They are now finishing their U.S. tour and will be heading to Europe for the rest of 2012. Even after a 5-year break, the two of them still perform with the same spirit and fury that is to be expected of them by fans—the truest of which are not disappointed in their recent efforts. – Sarah Naomi Townsend
July 24, 2012
Since the official release of The Dark Knight Rises (the final installment of Christopher Nolan’s Batman trilogy), viewers and critics alike have been asking about the film’s political agenda—casual speculation now rooted in the very tragic and real culture (I will not say “incident”) of gun violence that killed twelve people and injured dozens more in an Aurora, Colorado, movie theater premiering the film.
As I sat in a crowded theater on Saturday, not more than 48 hours since the film’s opening and the Colorado shooting, I felt a bundle of conflicting emotions: excitement for a long-anticipated movie; a desire to be entertained and thrilled; grief and anxiety, knowing that we were as vulnerable as those sitting in the Aurora theater; hope that this film would do more than entertain but challenge me intellectually, even offering some internal critique of the senseless violence with which it was now forever paired. Questions tumbled around in my head: was there a political message to this film, and would I like it, or would it mar this trilogy I have come to respect and love?
Not all of the questions were mine. I had seen Facebook friends post about the glamorization of violence in today’s films. I had read Catherine Shoard of The Guardian critique our hero as a “capitalist caped crusader” who vilifies and combats the massed poor. I had heard Rush Limbaugh’s rant about the American populace being duped by the homophones “Bane” (the film’s villain) and “Bain” (Mitt Romney’s company Bain Capital).
When I finally watched The Dark Knight Rises, what I discovered was a film that confronted the cracks and fissures of our society through which violence intrudes and breaks down our democracy. It was, without question, a political film—but not the kind people have made it out to be.
In a Rolling Stone interview, director Christopher Nolan denies any political agenda for the film. Of course, Nolan doesn’t want to see any diminishments in his box office profits. But more importantly, he is speaking of a politics narrowly defined in this country as Democrat-Republican partisanship. Politics (deriving from the Greek words politicos, “of, for, or relating to citizens”, and polis, the “city-state”), however, encompasses anything that takes place in the public sphere (from our consumer decisions to the blogs we write to the films we create). So when Nolan says that the film is not about “liberal” or “conservative,” but about exposing “the cracks of society, the conflicts that somebody would try to wedge open,” Nolan is expressing a political intent behind the film.
One of those cracks was exposed Thursday night when a young man opened fire in a crowded theater. The fact that the shooter defies false stereotypes (a white, honors student and Ph.D. candidate) reveals another crack. The gun laws that made it possible for him to acquire 6,000 rounds of ammunition in two month’s time: another crack. And yet another crack when we learn that among the dead is Jessica Ghawi, a survivor of a mass shooting in a Toronto mall only a month ago.
These ruptures fill the Gotham landscape: the murder of Bruce’s parents that creates the Batman; a 16 year old orphan found dead in the sewers because the orphanage could not afford to care for him anymore; Wall Street-types rendering “invisible” the man who shines their shoes or washes their floors; a child born into a prison; the assumption that Bruce Wayne, because of his wealth, is just another suit living off the labor of others.
These cracks are points at which our relational ties (so essential to a functioning democracy) begin to stretch and tear. They could serve, as Parker Palmer says, as sincere moments of grief in which we realize our need for one another and choose to become better people. But these cracks can also quickly divide us into camps of “us” vs. “them,” the poor 99% vs. the rich 1%, the shining heroes vs. the grim villains. To acknowledge these cracks, to point out the inequities and injustices, is not the danger. The danger is that we will forget that the people on the “other side” are also human.
When that happens, we see a Gotham torn apart by fear, organized poverty and excess, draconian law, mass incarceration, crime, torture, violent revolution, and terrorism. It is a world not so different from our own.
But while exposing these wedges, this comic book movie about good and evil simultaneously blurs the dichotomies, complicates our assumptions. Walt Whitman once said, “I contain multitudes,” and no less might be said for the characters of Gotham. The Batman who refuses to execute a criminal, lest he become the very monster he has beheld, is the same Batman who tortures and sets up a system of illegal surveillance. Bruce Wayne holds within himself the billionaire, the orphan, the playboy, the grieving recluse, and the violent Batman who refuses to kill (“no guns”). Miranda Tate is the wealthy businesswoman laboring for a sustainable future, born into a prison, just as she is Talia al Ghul working to bring about the deaths of millions. The hulking mass of evil that is Bane is also the man who saved a little child. Both he and Batman are orphans of the League of Shadows, and tears are seen in the film on both men’s cheeks. The woman who betrays Batman—Selina Kyle—is also the one who saves him. The noble Police Commissioner Gordon, one of the few to resist corruption during the reign of the Falcone crime syndicate, is also the man whose lies set up the Dent Act and rampant incarceration.
The cracks can hide from our vision these complexities (including the social causes that led to the cracks in the first place). They can fill the pits of our stomachs with so much rancor and terror that we lash out because we don’t know what else to do. These cracks are particularly terrifying when they rupture in the banal places we considered safe: a movie theater in Colorado; a football stadium in Gotham; a school in Columbine; the Twin Towers in New York City.
But the vulnerability and fragility we suddenly feel do not have to lead to an identity politics pitting us against some contrived “other.” In The Dark Knight, two shiploads of people are told that they can either all die or they can press a button that will set off an explosion on the other ship: a perfect “us vs. them” scenario. But both ships choose not to press that button, with the ship carrying the incarcerated, the villains, interestingly making that choice first.
In The Dark Knight Rises, the people seem to succumb (with deliberate echoes of the French Revolution and post-9/11 America). But ironically, the film turns out, not to be about the lone savior Batman, but about the people and commonplace heroes. In what The Telegraph calls a “superhero movie without a superhero,” Batman is notably absent from many scenes. When he is most alone (Alfred has left him, Catwoman has betrayed him, and a cage literally separates him from the world), Batman is broken, his vertebrae cracked over the knees of Bane. Batman is able to save the day only with the help of others: they need him, no doubt about that, but he needs them just as much. In the last words he speaks in the film, Batman says that anyone can be a hero, even just by wrapping a coat around a scared and lonely child. Bane may appeal to the “common people,” but it is the common beat-cop and orphan, played by Joseph Gordon-Levitt, who shines as a hero in the movie.
To escape his prison, Bruce Wayne is told that he must recapture that which he spent the last two films working to overcome: fear. He must feel vulnerable again. He must feel like he has something to lose, and something worth living for. To make the jump, he has to climb without a rope and harness; he has to take that leap knowing that he could fall and die.
Sometimes our fear, our vulnerability, our cracks and fissures, lead us to violence and the imposition of otherness. But sometimes that same fear, that same vulnerability, those same cracks and fissures, lead us to link arms and mend the rifts in our social fabric. We get to choose what we make of our broken hearts. We can calcify our wounds with hatred like Bane. Or we can let them breathe and bleed into the wounds of others, shared across sinful, aching hands, and see what might be created—it might just happen to be this thing we call democracy.
–Patrick David Heery
This piece was originally published by Unbound: An Interactive Journal of Christian Social Justice.