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“Jonah heard a voice, quiet and heavy, speak into his ear. It told him to go to Nineveh and preach against the wicked Empire. Jonah couldn’t sleep that night. Foreboding moonlight spilled into his window. He was afraid, knowing full well the brutality these Ninevites were capable of. He was bitter, lamenting that such a task should be placed before him. He fought with his convictions until the morning hours rolled around, and with the sun just barely breaking over the housetops, Jonah fled. He ran to the shores of Joppa, where magnificent ships bobbed in the waters of the Mediterranean…”

I wrote most of those words, and the ones that will soon follow—my interpretation of Jonah’s story– a year or so before I read David Benjamin Blower’s deep and challenging book, “Sympathy for Jonah”. Perhaps at the same moment that I was contemplating this quite absurd, quite unusual, quite human prophet, Blower was having his own epiphanies far across the sea as he wrestled through this anomaly among the Jewish scriptures.

     “…Jonah had always been a man of God, even as a timid child. As he grew, the world, so full of violence and hardness, slowly fixed him of his timidity. He emerged from his youth a man of justice and fire, holding fast to the old stories that spoke of God’s quenching wrath. At that moment though, there was something even more terrible than the wrath of God—there was the mercy of God. Jonah told himself that he could easily walk into that enemy camp—just as Elijah had taken on the prophets of Baal—if he knew that the great fire of God were close behind. Yes, thought Jonah, that would be easy. But there were no more dreams or prayers or sanctimonious futures. There was no divine justice. There was only this wide, gray sea before him…”

In his book and throughout his new album, the Book of Jonah, Blower contemplates the Empirical world this prophet of Nineveh was born into—the violent Assyrian city the prophet was trying with all his might to avoid, the city’s eventual repentance of its violence and terror tactics, and Jonah’s bitter response to the unexpected chain of events. At the same time, Blower draws parallels to our own world and time, to our own perception of those we would consider “enemies”, and our own desire for vengeance.

     “…Jonah found a ship that was bound for the city of Tarshish. Hardened men were fastening ropes and preparing for the journey. Jonah paid his fare and joined his place among them. A great storm arose in the night, like nothing Jonah or his shipmates had ever seen. Sailors scrambled to and fro, calling out to their respective gods, throwing cargo overboard to lighten their craft. Jonah tried to pray but his half-hearted whispers were carried away by the violent winds. He gave up. As the storm grew worse, he slipped away below deck. Waves and wind struck hard against the ship. Jonah fell upon his cot and into a deep sleep—the first real sleep he had known in a long time. Soon after, he felt a harsh shaking. He opened his eyes and found the captain crouching over him, terror in the man’s eyes, his hands frantically clutching at Jonah’s clothes to wake him. ‘How can you sleep in a time like this? You should be on your knees, praying to your god to rescue us!’ Waves continued to pour onto the decks, gaining in ferocity. The sailors were superstitious men, and over the howling winds, decided to cast stones to see who was responsible for the great tempest. One sailor took out a small pouch full of marked stones as the others watched helplessly. He crouched low and let them fall onto the rain-soaked floor of the boat. They tumbled across the wood, water wrapping round them. The crouching man watched them sway as the boat dipped to and fro. Then he gathered up his stones and stood. ‘They have fallen on Jonah of Israel’…”

The record opens to the sounds of a spaghetti western—Blower’s mournful whistling set to a slow, galloping beat and a cowboy guitar. The guitar builds and a small string section enters, until the hills of Nineveh are stretched out like the wide, merciless Spanish plains.

     “…All of the sailors rushed to Jonah. They interrogated him, asking, ‘Who are you? Where have you come from? Who is responsible for this storm?’ Said Jonah, ‘I am a Hebrew. I worship the God of everything. It is He who loved me, spoke to me, commissioned me. He is the maker of both land and sea. And it is from He that I am running’. The men were terrified. ‘What have you done? Why has He brought this storm against us? How do we appease your angry God?’ Jonah had no more fight in him. ‘Pick me up and throw me into the sea. Let the waters take me. Then, I believe, this storm will cease’…”

Who is the good, the bad and the ugly in this story? Often times in spaghetti westerns, certain heroes and villains operate outside of our typical black and white boundaries. A character whose been hunting, killing in the name of lost treasure for much of the run time, can suddenly demonstrate mercy. Jonah, our protagonist, performs both heroic and cowardly acts. The villainous Assyrians inexplicably renounce their evil ways. Down is up.

     “…The sailors were afraid that throwing Jonah into the sea would anger this God even more. They began rowing furiously, against the rising storm, trying with a collective will to row back to shore. But the current and the waves were too strong. Jonah sat quietly, torrents of rain streaming down his face. He knew his time was up. The sailors cried out to God, ‘Do not condemn us for killing this man!’ They went to Jonah and held him aloft. He closed his eyes, felt the last splash of rain hit his face, took a final whiff of ocean air, and then found himself submerged. Immediately, the sea was calm and the world grew still. The sailors fell to the ship’s floor and made vows to God, new believers in his rage and mercy…”

Throughout the album, Blower strums, shouts, whistles along to the authoritative narration of Professor NT Wright. You, the listener, travel with Jonah. You ache with him. You drown with him. You inhale the rancid smells of the great fish’s insides, and spill out upon the Mediterranean shores with him.

     “…Jonah didn’t fight the wild current. He let it take him where it would. He drifted downward, his heart, his muscles, every organ pounding. He waited patiently for the water to fill his lungs, for his body to convulse, when something in the water moved past him. His hand brushed against the hard, oily surface of something large—a creature of the deep. Jonah’s pale lips uttered the name of his God, his words smothered by an ocean of water. Soon, he was enveloped by the creature and fell into a mysterious darkness. His lungs were free. He could breath. And though the smell of death lingered all around, he was able, in that pit of utter darkness, to finally pray…”  

In the middle of the record, Jonah himself shows up in the form of Professor Alastair McIntosh to pray with feverish, furious prayers and bemoan his situation. Waves continue to ebb and flow; noises and sounds continue to roll along like the restless sea.

   “… ‘In my hour of darkness’, said Jonah, ‘I called upon Your Name and You heard my cry. You threw me into the ocean, into the heart of the sea. All your waves and breakers crashed down upon me. I was banished, miserably floating in an ocean of emptiness, like a stick of wandering driftwood that had lost its buoyancy. I fell into the depths, surrounded by darkness, wrapped in seaweed. I was consumed by the very earth. Waves and waters and mountains fell over me. I was lost. But You reached into that pit of despair like it was nothing, and You grabbed my coat, and though the darkness clung to me and pulled with all its terrible strength, You lifted me out of it. As the life drained from me and the water filled my lungs, I remembered You. I prayed to You with feeble prayers, and they rose from the waters and the mountains. Those who hold onto the idols of this world become separated from the One who created everything. They don’t see it coming. Little by little, they give into their vices, their hearts slowly callusing and hardening. But I will return my heart to You. I will praise You. I will love You. Salvation comes from the Lord’…”

Despite its miraculous elements, “Jonah” is possibly the most human story in the Bible, in that the prophet serves as a mirror reflection of our own bravery, anger, cowardice and stubbornness. Amid such a world of cruelty, how could we react in black and white? How could we not ebb and flow through the stages of grief, or even add our own stages to the mix?

   “…At the command of God, the great fish rose to the surface. It made its way to shore and vomited Jonah onto the sand. As he lay there, the smell of rot clinging to his body, God spoke to him. Again, God told him to go to Nineveh and speak against its wickedness. Jonah relented. He walked to the city, and through the city, and he shouted aloud that in forty days the city would be overthrown. The Ninevites, to Jonah’s wonder, were convinced. They threw on their old clothes. They fasted and prayed and sobered up. Jonah’s warning moved throughout the town, until it reached the king himself. A deep humility grew inside the king. He fell upon the ground. He sent out a proclamation, informing all people and living things to go without food and water; to call upon God; to ask for repentance. ‘He may, in His mercy,’ said the king, ‘hear our feeble cry’. God looked upon their hearts. He saw the repentance that was taking root there. And He forgave them. Jonah, meanwhile, wandered the streets. His cries of warning had died down. He looked around him, at all the strange things that were happening, and he wasn’t happy. ‘I knew this would happen,’ he said, more to himself than to the empty sky his eyes were lifted to. ‘I knew they would sob and mourn and repent, and that You would fall for it. And then he muttered to that same sky, ‘Kill me. Relieve me of this lopsided world’…”

Can we blame Jonah? As Blower asks in his book, would we have the conviction to walk into a terrorist camp and preach a gospel of repentance? In all reality, if it were up to us, would we risk life and limb to speak forgiveness to those who had beaten, tortured and slaughtered mercilessly, or would we prefer to retaliate with falling bombs?

     “…A voice, quiet and heavy, spoke from somewhere. ‘Do you have the right to be angry?’ But Jonah ignored it. He stormed out of the city, his heart raging. On an Eastern hill he set up camp. He found a good spot overlooking the city to sit down. He plucked a thistle from the ground and chewed it aggressively between his teeth. ‘I will sit here and wait for Your fire. I will sit here forever if I have to’. And so he sat and waited for those first plumes of spoke to come rising from within the city walls. The sun began to beat down upon him, but he refused to yield to any force of nature. The city must burn. Around him grew a long, leafy plant. It rose from the ground. It wrapped and crawled until it was in plain view of Jonah’s angry eyes. It rose until it cast a shadow upon his head, and gave him relief from the unforgiving sun. For a moment, Jonah was happy. But at dawn, a worm came from the ground. It chewed and chewed until the plant was devoured, and with it went Jonah’s shade…”

Do we have the right to be angry? Professing our allegiance to a Creator God who knows all and sees all, while we view this world through our glass darkly, do we have the right? Do we have the right to pull the trigger, to tighten the noose? Do we even want that right?

     “…’Do you have the right to be angry?’ the voice asked again. ‘Yes,’ said Jonah. ‘And I wish I were dead’…”

We are petulant. We are children. We are full of love and violence and grace and fury. We are Jonah on the raging sea. We are Jonah in the pit of the monster’s stomach. We are Jonah, waiting on the world to burn down.

     “…The voice said, ‘You love this plant and found comfort in this plant, even though you did nothing to create it or make it grow. And what of my city, full of wandering souls that I have breathed my spirit into; that bear a vestige of my very image. Should I not have concern for them?’…”

Blower heads off into the sunset, whistling over his guitar. The music fades. The record is over. And the world rattles on and on.

 

You can purchase the record & book here.

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Those Lavender Whales’ first album, Tomahawk of Praise, was an album of pure joy. Sure, there were moments of questions; times when singer/songwriter Aaron Graves put a stumbling faith at the forefront of his wild folk melodies. But everything was viewed, sung, strummed through a haze of unfiltered, contagious joy. Five years and several lifetimes later, the band is poised to release its second full length, My Bones are Singing, and yes, there is joy on the record, but it’s a new kind of joy. A bittersweet joy. A joy that comes from being tossed about on the harsh waves, to and fro, until finally being spit upon the shore. The new album finds Graves working through the complexities of life and death, having struggled through a life threatening brain tumor and the long treatment that followed. His praise and outlook isn’t as self-assured as it was the first time around. A deeper darkness has seeped into the songs. The guitars are louder. The weight is heavier. But this is not a somber album. This is music as medicine. This is a power-of-positivity record, full of friendship, seeking, searching, faith, doubt, resurrection…and it most assuredly rocks.

My Bones are Singing releases April 7 on Fork and Spoon Records.  You can listen to and purchase the album here.

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Strip mined hills, full of snow, stand tall in the distance like the Andes. “You are born alone”, Caitlin Pasko sings through my car stereo. The river drifts by, choppy, chunks of snagged driftwood pulled up and under the surface. Plastic trash is caught in the roadside fence. “Then you’ll die alone”. The cold is brutal. The county, the highway, the flocks of skittering birds—they are all carried along on the grief-stricken poetry and piano melodies of her new EP, Glass Period. It’s a hard journey, this highway of life that we travel. We suffer and laugh and love and hate, and some are able to put words to such abstract things. Some are able to allow their grief to be resurrected into something that heals. “But what about the time in between?” sings Pasko, and it’s a question for us all.

You can listen to and purchase the EP here.

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I have a difficult time pinning down the music of Portland’s Jonah Sissoyev. I started listening to his songs back in 2012. It was the first time that I truly lived alone, outside of a college dorm room—a quiet, light-filled apartment all to myself, on the top floor of an old house. I didn’t know what Sissoyev was singing about, whether it was God or girls, but I knew that it hit me—that it spoke to something far down, in that part of you that knows only a profound, Biblical groaning. Sissoyev is now releasing his third EP, Shadow of the Sun, and his sound has expanded somewhat over the years. There are more players. There is a greater scope to the recordings. But the songs are still rooted in those far down places. They still feel like an artist’s abstract search for love or peace or salvation of some kind. At the heart of it, Sissoyev’s songs remain strange, enigmatic and utterly beautiful.

You can stream and purchase his music here. Beginning March 1, you’ll be able to hear and buy the new EP, Shadow of the Sun.

Hello dear readers. I’m taking a few short paragraphs out of my regularly scheduled music reviews and write-ups to point you toward a few of my own music projects. I recently released two very different albums that you can listen to or purchase at the links below.

The first is a 70s-style rock and roll project we call “Killbuck”. The album was mostly recorded live onto a Goodwill-purchased tape recorder, at the end of a gravel back road, in a cabin in Killbuck, Ohio.   Matt Kurtz, John Finley, John King, Joe Farr and I collaborated over a love of dark sunglasses, Tom Petty and 3-chord rock songs. The result is our self-titled debut: 11 “heartland-soaked tunes full of Americana angst and Rust Belt blues”.

The second project is a new volume of hymns my friends and I recorded over the past year. Each of us took a different hymn to reinterpret and explore through our individual styles. All profits from the Harp Family Hymnbook: Vol. II will go to Mennonite Central Committee.

You can find Killbuck here , and the Harp Family Hymnbook Vol. II here.