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I realized a few days ago, after listening to Lenny Smith’s new record amid the hurricane of a new election season, that the last time Lenny Smith released an album was during an election as well—and a tumultuous one at that. Harsh words were thrown back and forth. Brother turned on brother. And the world was all set to end.

Yet here we are, 4 years later, and the world’s still spinning. The rhetoric feels particularly brutal this time around, but maybe that’s because time really does heal all wounds—even political ones—and we fail to see history repeating itself as time spills out before us. All of this to say that Lenny Smith’s record, “You Are My Hiding Place”, has arrived from Great Comfort Records. It is full of life and love and celebration, and it serves as a nice antidote to the hate and fear that abounds. Once again, Lenny dives deep into scripture, looking to the poetry of the psalmists, of Ruth, of Jesus himself, to gives words to his worship. His family and friends sing and clap and shout along. Really, I think the world could use a little Lenny Smith right now.

You can listen to and purchase the recording at Lenny’s bandcamp page here, or explore more at Great Comfort Records.

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This is an older review of the Lenny Smith’s Who Was and Is and Is To Come, originally posted on this site in July of 2012:

It’s been an odd couple of weeks, what with hurricanes sweeping through cities and towns, politicians battling over the fate of the world, rumors of wars and so forth.  Waters have risen and subsided.  Lights have dimmed and become alive again.  Doomsday prophets and naysayers abound, as they always have, and more will come I’m sure.

Amidst it all, there arrives the new Lenny Smith album, Who Was and Is and Is To Come (released on Great Comfort Records), a mix of 60s style folk and rock tunes inspired by the artist’s lifelong search of an unknown Creator.  In stark contrast to the turmoil of the times, Smith enters quietly.  Gently fingerpicking a sparse folk melody, drawing upon his many hours of scripture reading, Smith sings the first song he ever wrote,

Then I saw a new Heaven— and a new Earth, the New Jerusalem.

As a young seminary student in the 1960s, Smith would hide in the closet at night, writing songs and reading scripture.  The strange poetry of Revelation and its pronouncement of a New Jerusalem struck a deep chord.

God Himself will wipe every tear from their eyes

and death shall be no more.

As the album progresses, we get glimpses of Smith at different stages of his journey, from the theology obsessed student putting melodies to the psalms (“As a Doe Longs for Running Streams”), to the wizened grandfather looking back on all he’s learned (“All the Earth Worships You”).

You are the love I feel inside

And Your love won’t be denied…

Smith’s words are void of brimstone.  His ruminations are simple, sometimes hushed, as he beckons to hear that still, small voice.  But the journey isn’t just about introspection.   It’s about celebration.  Along the way, his many friends, children and grandchildren join in, elatedly plucking strings, playing keys and shouting along in joyous unity.

There is something very fitting about it all.  While so many are calling down fire from heaven, eagerly awaiting a swift vengeance, Smith is gently up turning evidence of his Maker in the quiet spaces; beneath sheets of darkness and layers of corrosion; in the trees and rocks, and inside of his very soul.  “The earth”, he writes in the liner notes, “knows something”.  These are words of reconciliation and healing that we could all use right now.

Who Was and Is and Is To Come is available at http://lennysmith.bandcamp.com/

When I look at what is happening at Great Comfort Records, I am reminded of the gospel record labels of yesteryear—those many companies that sprang up in the early days of vinyl, in the inner city side streets of Cleveland and Chicago and elsewhere, where families and congregations were making vibrant spiritual music with what appeared to be little regard for the mass market process. They didn’t always have the most polished sound, but what they did have in abundance was plain, unfiltered joy. Great Comfort’s newest release, Sing to Your Mountain by Rachel, continues that same tradition of exuberant melody makers wrecking joyful havoc upon unsuspecting listeners. Rachel and friends are making music for the sheer joy of worship. A member of brother Daniel’s Danielson Familie, and daughter of hymnist Lenny Smith, Rachel has found a middle ground between the former’s unusual arrangements and the latter’s love of Biblical poetry. Her songs are full of peace and longing and aggression. Her whispering voice carries each tune, drawing wayward melodies back to earth, lest they escape into the stratosphere. It’s worship music, sure, but not in a genre-type sense. It’s worship music because she sings with conviction and fire and of course, plain, unfiltered joy.

You can find out more about the artist and purchase her newest release at greatcomfortrecords.com

A Brief Respite

April 8, 2013

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Throughout this series of essays, I’ve been rummaging around in the fringes of gospel music, mostly looking at artists who have travelled that Appalachian gospel tradition in different exploratory ways, when the rest of the industry was adapting to the genres of hit radio.  But far outside of Christian radio, and even further than the Appalachian mountain fridge, there are artists that I love and admire who are making deeply spiritual music that cannot be defined by any category.  Call it outsider art, call it independent music; it is a big, bold reaction to the Father’s love. For that reason, I decided to take a brief respite from my essays to shine a small light on those particular artists.  Some of them you may have heard of.  Some you will hopefully check out and support.

Brother Danielson’s Brother is to Son– It’s extremely difficult to single out one album from Daniel Smith’s many Danielson incarnations (Ships is strange, complex, and brilliant), but I think the album that hits me the most on a spiritual level is his Brother Danielson solo record, Brother is to Son. Smith strums, stomps, shouts, and wrestles with his faith across 10 peculiar songs that continually veer directions.  A quiet, erratic plea from a doubting Thomas may lead to the revelation, “I can’t understand the ways of my Lord with my mere mind as a man”.

Brother is to Son can be found through the Sounds Familyre record label, some independent record stores, and most online retailers.

 

Chad Marine’s the Honey Trail– An eerie, droning noise arises, and it sets the tone for the rest of Chad Marine’s the Honey Trail.  A grave voice comes in. “By and by, we are going to see the King,” he sings with all seriousness.  Industrial sounds enter and exit, brooding noises permeate, and ancient texts are spoken, sang, and chanted aloud in what I can only describe as a severe celebration, like the thundering weight of Glory.

The Honey Trail can be downloaded at Chad’s Bandcamp page.

 

Jay Tholen’s the Great Hylian Revival-I have a faint memory of letting the beginning credits of the original Legend of Zelda play over and over again when I was a kid, so struck was I by that opening theme song.  There was something about that strange, electronic melody that enraptured me.  Perhaps Jay Tholen had a similar experience as a child, only the melody never left him; and as his faith was being fashioned in those formative years, the two sort of grew together.  Perhaps not.  But somehow, across a generous number of albums and eps, Tholen has reconciled the mystery of the Creator with the sounds and adventure of classic videogames. Working mostly in the genre of chiptunes, he has amassed quite a catalog over the years, writing many excellent, electronics-heavy worship songs; and, though it’s difficult to highlight just one, my favorite has always been the Great Hylian Revival, a worship ep using the music of the Legend of Zelda: the Orarina of Time.  Tholen proclaims, against a hypnotic, mechanical melody, “Creation stands at attention to behold His work; all up in the heavens and here on the earth; sing in harmony to show Him what He’s worth to them”.  And I’m struck again. 

Here’s a zip of the ep: http://jaytholen.net/jaytholen-thegreathylianrevival.zip

You can also find many of Jay Tholen’s recordings at his Bandcamp page.

 

Josh Garrels’ Love and War and the Sea Between-As the story goes, Josh Garrels lost his voice halfway through the recording of his 6th album, Love and War and the Sea Between, a cliché-devoid study of relationships, seen through the lens of his faith and journey.  The songs were written, the instruments recorded, but following a sickness, he couldn’t sing anymore.  After fasting for days, he was laying in his bathtub praying, when a voice told him to give the album over to God. He had a sense that would mean giving the album away for a year (a Year of Jubilee).  He briefly struggled with the idea of giving away his art (as well as his main source of income), but he ceded, and his voice returned.  The album went on to reach hundreds of thousands of people, many of whom could identify with the brokenness, longing and redemption of the seafaring wanderers in Garrels’ songs.  Love and War is as epic as the ocean itself, and charts both new and ancient paths as the artist struggles to understand the emotional chasms that sometimes separate us from those we love.  But his questions won’t hold him down.  “Farther along we’ll understand why”, he sings, drawing on the old hymn, with a faith that sustains any storm and a conviction that prophetically comforts.

Love and War and the Sea Between can be found at most online retailers and through Garrels’ website.

 

Josh White’s Achor– There’s an all-around feeling of fellowship that surrounds Josh White’s Achor.  I’m not sure how the record was recorded, or who the players are, but each cellist and string player, each guitarist, each vocalist, brings with them a gentle sense of joy to assist White in his candid folk and gospel tunes.  Worship music usually has a stigma to it these days. Much of it has been robbed of its poetry and honesty.  But when White sings of forsaking all else “to burn in You, my love”, there is true depth to his words…and it sounds likes he means it.

Achor can be found at most online retailers.

 

Half-Handed Cloud’s Halos & Lassos– I’m a little more secure in my musical tastes these days, but there was an exploratory time in my life where I had trouble recognizing what was real and beautiful and full of truth in music.  I’m still a little ashamed that I barely gave Bruce Springsteen’s Nebraska a chance the first time I listened to it.  I had heard nothing but good things, bought it at a discount price, rushed through it, and didn’t take it out again for a year or so, at which point it realigned how I thought about music.  That’s been the case for many of my favorite albums, Half-Handed Cloud’s Halos & Lassos included.  Granted, the music of John Ringhofer isn’t as instantly accessible as that of Mr. Springsteen, but I’m extremely thankful that I had the sense to dust off the album and give it a second listen.  Ringhofer can put more ideas into a 50 second song than most composers can fit into a double album.  His songs are musical collages of spiritual reflections, obscure Bible lyrics, toys, instruments (both traditional and found), and a giddy zeal for the Creator and His creation.  The lyrics are oftentimes bleak and bloody, observing the darker side of the faith and it’s black and blue origins. But the child-like enthusiasm that the artist brings to each song fills you with joy at where the Kingdom is heading.

Halos & Lassos can be found through Asthmatic Kitty Records, some independent record stores, and most online retailers.

 

Soul-Junk’s 1961– Glen Galaxy and his rotating roster of noisemakers is another artist with a dense catalog (this is to be expected from someone who has set out to translate the entire Bible into experimental hip-hop and garage rock songs).  1961 is his most recent Soul-Junk project, and Galaxy is up to “the Songs of Ascent” (Psalms 120-134) in his mission.  Joined by two brothers, his son and daughter, Galaxy recklessly launches into each mournful, triumphant, observant psalm with crashing guitars, overextended vocals, and complete unrestraint.  There’s no falsity here.  At the same time as the record was being recorded, Galaxy’s wife was overcoming a battle with cancer.  You can hear the weight of tribulation in his wracked voice, his very soul tapped into each vibrant word.  It’s as loud and as messy as a manifested life of faith.

1961 can be found through the Sounds Familyre record label and Soul-Junk’s Bandcamp page.

 

Sufjan Steven’s Seven Swans– A stripped down departure from Sufjan’s typically ambitious concept albums, Seven Swans begins with a quietly plucked banjo and some playful use of Old Testament poetry; and they set the tone for what is to follow.  There are bursts of aggression, hints of darkness pervade throughout and the title track reaches a soaring apex; but most of the songs are hushed, subdued reflections on the artist’s abstract faith.

Seven Swans can be found through Sounds Familyre, independent record stores, and most online retailers.

 

The Welcome Wagon’s Precious Remedies Against Satan’s Devices– After an epic, Sufjan-orchestrated debut, the Welcome Wagon pared down their sound and built their songs around simple melodies, delicate instrumentation, and quiet vocals for their second album, Precious Remedies Against Satan’s Devices.  The husband and wife duo of Reverend Vito and Monique Auito draw upon classic hymns, religious texts, and the world at large to explore their faith.  The Reverend, in his forthright lyrics, finds God in unlikely places.  And there’s a fragility in Monique’s soft, sometimes timid voice that speaks volumes.

Precious Remedies Against Satan’s Devices can be found through Asthmatic Kitty Records, independent record stores, and most online retailers.