Saturday, December 19, 2009

2009 - albums of the year.

This has been a strange year of listening for me – not many new albums have really grabbed my attention. Plus, for a couple of reasons, I spent time rediscovering old albums. The Beatles remasters of course were released in September and, while I’m getting the stereo remasters for Christmas, the mono remasters have been in my rotation for a couple of months and they’re spectacular. I can’t wait for the stereo ones. U2 came out with a remastered Unforgettable Fire which was a great thing to listen to. Between old U2 and the Beatles there isn't a whole lot of room for new music to creep in.

On top of that I spent part of the summer deliberately going back and listening to old classic albums that I had somehow missed the first time around, albums like Blue by Joni Mitchell and Electric Ladyland by Jimi Hendrix. They are clearly on my best listening of the year list. I also continue to enjoy Electric Arguments by the Fireman (Paul McCartney) which was on my list last year.

But none of those are new albums – there actually are only a handful of new ones that got me excited, two of the are live albums of bands playing old stuff. One that surprised me is Over the Rhine’s Live from Nowhere, Vol. 4. I had low expectations for this album since it was all songs from my least favorite OtR period, their earliest days. But the playing and singing on LfN4 is just wonderful – it’s a reunion concert of the early band and Ric Hordinski’s playing is great. Eric Clapton and Steve Winwood (who made up half of Blind Faith in the 60's) released Live from Madison Square Garden which is a very good live album with both Clapton and Winwood at the top of their game. I got to see their tour last summer and Clapton was clearly playing very very well. I never dreamed that I'd actually ever see the two of them playing Blind Faith songs together live. It was great (although they were playing even better when I saw them than they did on the album!)

Three new bands caught my ear this year. Owl City’s album Ocean Eyes is a lot of fun. The song “Fireflies” grabbed me right away and the rest of the album followed suit. It might sound too much alike over all but I'm not sick of it yet. I discovered another new band, the Rescues – I think they’re great and their album Crazy Ever After got a lot of play last summer too. The Rescues is a collection of four solo artists who together have catchy tunes, lush harmonies and interesting arrangements. Dhani Harrison’s band thenewno2 (the new number 2) released You Are Here, an album that has glimpses of his father George’s melodic style but cast in a fresh way. This is not just a son cashing in on his father’s name – I think Dhani might have a real future ahead of him. Even though I got it early in the year I keep going back to it.

Finally, my number one album of the year has to be U2’s No Line on the Horizon. This album is adventurous and risky but there are moments of sheer brilliance like “Magnificent” and “White as Snow.” I even like the lead single “Get on Your Boots.” Whenever I don’t hear the album for a few weeks and listen again I get excited because it’s just so good. I remember when I first got it I listened with my ipod in a hotel in Troy, MI and was just blown away. That was when I realized what a very special record this was. I got to see U2 in Chicago this fall and I will again in East Lansing next summer. The clear high point to my musical year!

Monday, December 14, 2009

Thoughts on "River" and Christmas

I haven't blogged for a very long time and it seems trivial to make this my first post in a while but I've been listening to a fair amount of Christmas music lately - no big surprise, seeing it's December 14 - but I've noticed more and more artists including Joni Mitchell's beautiful song "River."

Here's the thing - what does that song have to do with Christmas? The first couplet references Christmas:
It's coming on Christmas
They're cutting down trees
They're putting up reindeer
And singing songs of joy and peace.
That's it - it's a song about a broken relationship that happens to reference the idea that it's getting close to Christmas when Mitchell is writing the song. It's not a Christmas song! Just because a song has the word Christmas in it doesn't mean it should be included on ALL new Christmas CDs. OK, that's an overstatement but it's being treated like a Christmas standard and it should not be - it's not even a Holiday song (like "White Christmas") or a seasonal song (like "Winter Wonderland.")

It's a beautiful song - I like it a lot and enjoy it when it pops up in my playlist. But there is no reason why it should be on Christmas CDs but it appears on recent Christmas CDs by Rosie Thomas, Sarah McLachlan, Sixpence None the Richer and James Taylor. Enough is enough.

Friday, August 28, 2009

The Great Albums Project

This whole thing started with Eric Clapton. I was looking on Wikipedia for information about Jimi Hendrix’s album Electric Ladyland. I had never really listened to Hendrix before and since Clapton and Steve Winwood played a killer version of Hendrix’s “Voodoo Chile” on their live album and tour when I saw them in Chicago this summer I thought it wise to check out the album that it came from. So I went to the library and I had Electric Ladyland reserved for me – actually they shipped it from another local library. While I was looking they had Hendrix’s Axis: Bold As Love actually in the rack so I took that home first. I listened to it and I liked it. While I was doing some reading about the album’s background I stumbled across the Rolling Stone list of greatest 500 albums, which had Electric Ladyland listed at #54. Hey, I thought, this is a cool list. Any list that has three Beatles albums in the top 5 has to be good. Then I noticed that while I had a fair number of these albums or at least I was pretty familiar with some there were others that I frankly hadn’t ever listened to. So I decided to spend part of the summer using the library to get and listen to some of these albums so I could see what I was missing.

Here is a preliminary report.
4. Highway 61 Revisited, Bob Dylan – the jury is still out on this one. I already knew most of the songs so it wasn’t like I was completely unfamiliar with it. It’s classic Dylan and you either love it or you don’t – I am a moderate Dylan fan so I get why it’s cool I just don’t know how often I’d want to listen to it.

6. What's Going On, Marvin Gaye – this is one of the first albums I tried that I did not already know and love. I really like the title track and though I’d like the whole album a lot more but I found that it all sounded too much the same for me. I, frankly, don’t see how it got so high on the list.

7. Exile on Main Street, The Rolling Stones – I’ve heard about this album for years, of course but I have never been as much a fan of the stones as I think I ought to be. While I like listening to them on occasion I usually don’t last for a whole album.

11. The Sun Sessions, Elvis Presley – this one struck me as being only of historical interest. I frankly didn’t even get all the way through it.

15. Are You Experienced?, The Jimi Hendrix Experience – Great stuff. Although I think I like Electric Ladyland better.

19. Astral Weeks, Van Morrison – very nice – I’ve only listened once so far but I’m looking forward to exploring this a bit more.

30. Blue, Joni Mitchell – another nice album that I’ve only heard once – but I like it a lot – this and the Van Morrison feel similar to me. Both delicate, recorded with limited instruments and very personal. I’m going to enjoy hearing this a few more times.

So that’s it so far – what a great summer of exploring old music!

Thursday, July 30, 2009

New Book

The new book, which I wrote with Laura, Celebrating the Milestones of Faith: A Guide for Churches, arrived at our house today - here is a picture of it.

You can get it from Faith Alive Resources

Monday, July 27, 2009

Sustainable Youth Ministry

I’m just finishing Mark DeVries’ book Sustainable Youth Ministry and I like it a lot. I’ve not written as much about books here lately but I’ve been reading lots of books about faith formation in preparation for the book I’m editing this summer and fall on the topic. I hope to write a little about some of the other books I’ve read but I’m writing this today because I’m so enthusiastic about Mark’s book.

This book is an incredibly valuable resource for Youth Leaders but also for churches. It should be read by church staffs and volunteer church leaders too – anyone who connects with a church youth program would benefit from this book because Mark has seen what works and he’s seen what doesn’t work and he lays then out nicely in this book. It is written in his whimsical style (which is even better in person – he’s a great speaker) and there is a lot of practical wisdom in here that I really appreciated.

I hope to read this book with our church ministry staff and discuss it soon. I highly recommend it.

Friday, July 24, 2009

Eric Clapton - better than ever

I’ve watched Eric Clapton in three different videos so far this summer and seen him live once (with Steve Winwood – an absolutely amazing show) and I am convinced that he is playing and singing as well as he ever has. What’s more, his personal life seems to be in such good shape that he has been able to sustain this level of playing now for quite some time. In his recent Live DVD with Steve Winwood, Steve talks about how Eric is now a really fine singer and band leader – two things he did not want to do in Blind Faith. That’s been true now for about 20 years – since he got sober and straight.

It is interesting to watch the arc of Eric’s career before that point. He was always a great player but he seemed to have lots of near misses. For every album like Slowhand there was the lesser No Reason to Cry. His fans, me among them, were waiting for that killer album that would blow us all away like Layla did. We had a long time to wait because, even though Layla was recorded under “enhanced” conditions, the drugs soon took their toll on Clapton and for a while he did absolutely nothing. Then came the string of albums in the late 70’s and 80’s, which were quite uneven. He seemed to not want to do what we really wanted him to – play the guitar in a way that made us realize what all the fuss was about.

I find the live album Just One Night to be a good example of where he was during that period. There are great moments on that album but much of the album is spent playing the songs that were OK but not the ones we really really wanted to hear. He’s got some great solos but the whole album just often leaves me cold. For one thing, he seemed intent on using a really thin sound on his guitar, one that didn’t let him take control of the band the way he did back in the 60’s and early 70’s.

Then, in 1989, I remember getting his Journeyman album – the one that, for me shows him getting back to who he really is – and realizing that this was the Clapton that I had been missing all along. The live album that followed that, 24 Nights, was, according to his autobiography, almost a throw-away because of his grief over the loss of his young son. But you can hear that he’s playing better than he has for quite a while and his song choice harks back to songs from Cream and Derek and the Dominoes as well as the great new songs on Journeyman. And to show that it wasn’t a fluke, his Unplugged album, which was released right after 24 Nights, showed him to be a fine acoustic player and highlighted his singing voice. It also featured the song “Tears in Heaven,” which won him the first of his THREE Grammy Awards for pop VOCAL.

Since then he’s released a number of really fine albums including the amazingly personal Pilgrim and what I think is his definitive live album, One More Car, One More Rider. His latest studio solo album was, frankly, the weakest one he’s released in a while, but even that one has great playing on it. I was also really impressed, both times that I’ve seen him this decade, with his professionalism and his fine playing. He’s come through the rock and roll excesses and emerged a winner. If you get the chance to see him now you’ll be seeing one of rock’s premier players and singers at the top of his game.

Thursday, July 23, 2009

The Concert for George

I watched some of The Concert for George this morning again, the George Harrison tribute concert. Especially with the recent Michael Jackson tributes I was struck with how the tone of this is just about exactly right. First of all it was a year to the day after his death. His friends, primarily Eric Clapton, not just entertainment industry folks who wanted to show that they knew George, put it together. The people who appear in the concert represent many parts of George’s musical life – Paul and Ringo, Jeff Lynne and Tom Petty (from the Traveling Wilburys,) Billy Preston, Gary Booker, Ravi Shankar, Joe Brown (for whom the Beatles opened in the early 60’s) and even Monty Python’s Flying Circus.

The night did not feature any over-the-top tribute speeches proclaiming him the greatest entertainer who ever lived – OK, the Monty Python bit featured one that was SO over the top that it was hilarious but it soon morphed into “The Lumberjack Song.” It was a bunch of musical friends playing George’s music or music that George loved. Even the video was done well featuring two discs, one with the feature film “The Concert for George” with performances from the concert and the rehearsal as well as interview footage from the participants. The other disc has the entire concert.

The bottom line, though, is that the music is great. George was a good composer who was often great and this concert features the best of his work performed by Clapton’s crack band and some of his very talented friends. Highlights for me include the McCartney/Clapton version of “Something” which starts out with Paul’s ukulele version and shifts to be a full band version with Eric singing and playing – just beautiful. The version of “I Want to Tell You” is really cool. The Ravi Shankar composed “Arpan” suite performed by his daughter and an orchestra of Indian instruments is also wonderful – I listened to this a bit three years ago on my trip to India. Overall the DVD is well worth it – I truly enjoy watching it and listening to the CD.

Wednesday, June 10, 2009

summer report #1

I've been lax about posting here because I was asked to post over at ThinkChristian and I figured that many of the things that I had to write about I could put over there. But then I haven't put anything there for quite a while and stopped writing here too - too busy with work I guess.

But I have been doing a lot of listening and watching of DVDs as well as doing some reading and thinking and I have reported on none of it. I've been rewatching some old shows and enjoying them. I've been trying not to ram through a series - one season after another. I've taken a break between seasons. That means I'm simultaneously in the middle of many many things. So right now I'm rewatching
  • The West Wing, Season 1,
  • The Simpsons, Season 3,
  • Alias, Season 1, (NOW I remember why I got so hooked on this show!)
  • Everybody Loves Raymond Season 3
and I'm watching Burn Notice, Season 1 and Boston Legal Season 2 for the first time. Excellent. Clearly, it will take me a while to get through all of these. I don't get through them very quickly.

I'm also listening to thenewnotwo (Dhani Harrison's band), the new Elvis Costello, U2's Medium, Rare and Remastered (the CD you get if you join and many other things. I've gone back and gotten out my old King Crimson and Rick Wakeman albums. That has been fun too.

I'm reading Book, Bath Table and Time by Fred Edie and The First Year Out by Tim Clydesdale and enjoying both of them.

I've also started working on a new book - I'm editing an as-yet-untitled book about Faith Formation. The book that Laura and I wrote on Faith Milestones should be out in about a month. Here is the page from the catalog.

So it's been a busy summer so far!

Tuesday, March 31, 2009

New post over at Think Christian

I've been invited to do some of my posting over at and my first one was put up there today. It's about American Idol. Please go read it and comment!

Friday, March 06, 2009

More thoughts on No LIne on the Horizon - Get on Your Beautiful Feet

I woke up at 5:00 AM this morning, 50 minutes before my alarm and 30 minutes before I allow myself to get up so I reached for my ipod (which I keep by my bed for such a time as this) and figured i would listen for half an hour. I put it on random album knowing that I have a lot of single songs on the ipod right now from Paste samplers and free itunes downloads. I thought about listening to U2 but figured I would experience a little variety - after all I had been listening to the new album a lot lately. After one song (by Tina Dico) No Line on the Horizon started (it's only a 1 GB ipod so it's not THAT unreasonable that it would pop up.) Even though I'd listened to it a LOT lately as it started it sounded good to me and I haven't listened with earbuds in a while so I let it run and enjoyed it a lot - again. I heard lots of sounds I had not heard before - the time spent on making this album really shows when you listen intently.

I got to the halfway point - almost time to get up - and "Get On Your Boots" came on. Now I've been listening to this song for a month now but in the context of the album it seems to play differently. Bono got to the "You don't know how beautiful you are" part and I suddenly had a realization. I thought of Isaiah 52:7,
How beautiful on the mountains
are the feet of those who bring good news,
who proclaim peace,
who bring good tidings,
who proclaim salvation,
who say to Zion,
"Your God reigns!"
As soon as I thought of it I knew that I was on to something. Bono is a scripture nut - he knows it and he quotes it a lot. It oozes out of him. He's singing a song about feet and then riffs on "how beautiful." There has to be a connection.

Thursday, March 05, 2009

Incomplete thoughts regarding No Line on the Horizon

Yesterday I learned that the forthcoming companion album to U2's No Line on the Horizon will be called Songs of Ascent, a reference, no doubt to the set of Psalms (120-134) that the people of Israel sang as they made their way to Jerusalem to celebrate the passover.

With that thought in the back of my mind I finally this morning read the lyrics to "I'll Go Crazy if I Don't Go Crazy Tonight." The chorus (which I have a hard time understanding without the lyric sheet) begins "It’s not a hill, it’s a mountain / As you start out the climb." Now I'm not sure if there is a connection between this mountain and the hills that the people of Israel climbed on their way to the passover but I'm going to keep my ears open to see if there is.

Tuesday, March 03, 2009

More on U2's No Line on the Horizon - reflecting on "Unknown Caller"

I’ve been listening to the new U2 album by trying to think about what each song might be about in the overall context that I pointed to in my previous post. Today I thought a bit about the song “Unknown Caller.”

In “Until the End of the World” Bono takes the point of view of Judas. In “Unknown Caller” I think he may be taking on the point of view of Jesus – just after the resurrection on Easter Sunday. Here are the lyrics.

Here’s why I think this interpretation could work. When Bono sings “Sunshine, sunshine” I can imagine Jesus stepping out of the tomb on that Sunday morning.

The first verse puts Jesus before the resurrection:
I was lost between the midnight and the dawning
In a place of no consequence or company
3:33 when the numbers fell off the clock face
Speed-dialing with no signal at all

Lost between midnight and dawning could refer to being in the garden or to his time between being on the cross and Sunday morning. 3:33 might well refer to Jeremiah 33:3, which Bono hid on the cover of All That You Can’t Leave Behind and calls God’s phone number. Here is what it says: “Call to me and I will answer you and tell you great and unsearchable things you do not know.”

When Jesus calls on God he says "My God, My God, why have you forsaken me." This is the speed dialing with no signal. (As a note, I think that Jesus' words are a clear reference to Psalm 22 in which the Psalmist starts out saying that God has forsaken him and realizes that God has not. I think this is the point Jesus is making by quoting the Psalm and it seems that Bono might have taken this at face value instead - thinking that God the Father had indeed forsaken Jesus on the cross. So I think Bono is referring to this word from the cross but I think he interpreted it incorrectly.)

The song continues
Go, shout it out, rise up
Oh, oh
Escape yourself and gravity
Hear me, cease to speak that I may speak
Shush now

This sounds to me like Jesus telling us to celebrate his resurrection. Especially later when he sings
Restart and re-boot yourself
You’re free to go
Oh, oh
Shout for joy if you get the chance

I could go on for the rest of the song like this but I'll let you do a little digging for yourself. It all seems to fit the overall idea. I'm amazed at the number of songs on this album that have a pretty distinct Christian theme. There are others on the net who are saying similar things about the album (much of what I like) but sometime I think they're stretching a bit to make every song fit a larger theological theme. I've tried really hard not to do that here. I really think this is what Bono had in mind. There is a lot of cool stuff on this album and I don't intend (at least not at this point) to go through it song by song but I'm listening to this album a lot and the more I hear it the more I like it.

Friday, February 27, 2009

No Line on the Horizon – U2’s new album

I am a huge U2 fan. I already knew I would like their new album, No Line on the Horizon, before I heard it. Why? Because 12 albums into a career there is not a single U2 album that has not paid off for me on repeated listens. These guys are thoughtful, creative and better at doing what they do than anyone else. I'm a fan and I'll admit it. So if you expect me to be lukewarm on this album you'll have to go someplace else.

Five years ago U2’s How to Dismantle An Atomic Bomb grabbed me on the first listen. The songs on the album were spectacular and accessible – I understood them early on and continued to find new things to like in them as I played (and replayed and replayed) the album. That album stayed in my player for a very long time. I saw the tour and what little remained of my U2 skepticism went right out the window.

So, now that my confession is out of the way and I’ve given up any pretense of impartiality I can address their new album, No Line on the Horizon. My first taste of it was the single “Get on Your Boots” which, sure, is a little dopey in spots but, frankly, I played the single a lot. iTunes keeps track of the number of plays and I was well over a dozen by the end of day two. I thought it was creative and fun and had a killer riff. But when I finally got the chance to hear the whole album I realized that there was really nothing else quite like that on the whole album. In fact my initial response was that the album was quite subdued overall. This will take repeated listening to really get, I thought. And I was right. After a number of plays I have come to see this as a wonderful U2 album, and sounds to me very much like the natural successor to either Zooropa or The Unforgettable Fire.

Steve Harmon, in his review of the album suggests that this is the horizon line referred to in the song and tha albm title is the line separating heaven and earth and that Bono is looking at the horizon for a day when earth will be more like heaven. I am still hard pressed to get that out of just looking at the lyrics to the song but his argument makes a lot of sense to me. But that’s the thing about U2’s writing – the theological stuff is sometimes only there for those who have ears to hear. And in this case the whole album seems to be about trying to find what Bono had been looking for since the Joshua Tree. Even without the context for of the whole album I thought that “Get On Your Boots” was a call to arms – a call to the church to get out of it’s too complacent ways and do some work – these are work boots Bono is calling sexy. In context, it makes even more sense. This is how we can usher in the world where justice reigns – the world in the future (which needs “a big kiss” according to Bono.) This interpretation works for me.

There are times in this album where the point is pretty clear, as in the amazing “Magnificent.” Those of us who look for Christian subtext in U2’s music found it immediately in “Magnificent” – a song with a stirring sound and soaring melody. I can’t wait to hear how this one goes over live. But in this one Bono sings about how he was “born to sing for you.” The occasional reviewer missed the point here but Bono is pretty clearly talking about God – especially when he says that his first cry was a joyful noise. Bono also calls on some pretty familiar Christian imagery in “White as Snow.” You can't ignore this stuff and you can't just assume that Bono is playing with words - he is clearly evoking something in using these scriptural references. It all seems to point to an how Bono is still looking for peace and justice and love - and, in some cases, listing how we've all fallen short. This may be one of their more coherant album-long statements yet.

Musically I find this album has lots of things to enjoy. Eno and Lanois’ influence in pretty clear and this album really doesn’t sound like any other U2 album – but it still sounds like U2. It may not be as packed with hits as Atomic Bomb was but No Line on the Horizon is every bit as good. Bono still hasn't found what he's looking for but it's good to know that he and the rest of the band haven't stopped looking.

Tuesday, February 17, 2009


Earlier this year (early January, in fact) I had dug up some old CCM albums and was listening to them again for the first time in a few years. Among other things, I wrote this:

Considering Lily, the band, is one of my guilty pleasures from the 90s and also one of my great disappointments. This pair of sisters made a folky album as Serene and Pearl and, when that didn’t work out commercially for them, they rocked it up a bit and formed the band Considering Lily. Their self-titled album is dorky and obvious with mundane images and lightweight tunes. But I liked it and there was something about its quirkiness that caught me back then. The reason that this band was such a disappointment for me is that, for their second album, one of the sisters quit and the newly reformed Considering Lily released an album that was not really at all like their first one. They got more normal and lost their charm. After that they never released another album. While this first one was a lot of fun my patience for the pedestrian writing and playing on this album isn't what it used to be. After two listens it ended up getting deleted from my itunes.

Over this past weekend I received this comment on that post: “Ouch. Serves me right for "Google"ing Considering Lily trying to find some audio clips of "The Pieces Fit" to link in an email.”

The comment came from Jeanette. Clicking on her blogger profile revealed nothing. But I seemed to remember that the woman who was added to the new Considering Lily was named Jeanette. I did some quick googling and I was right – Jeanette Herdman.

I have to admit that my heart fell when I read her note. It was not my intention to hurt her or anyone with my musings about those albums and I felt bad that she had read it and had been hurt by it – even if only a little. I went back and reread what I had written to make sure I hadn’t been especially mean – and I don’t think I was. But it reminded me that music that I review doesn’t just happen – it’s made by people.

I have read some reviews and critiques of my recent book (Helping Our Children Grow in Faith – quick, go order it and read it and then say nice things about it) and, while they’ve been mostly positive there have been a couple of comments that were lukewarm or critical. As I read them I know that it goes with the territory - something that I'm sure Jeanette knows too. In fact – I was quite nervous about that before the book came out. Once you put a book out there you are opening yourself up to people reading it and saying “this guy’s crazy and what’s more he can’t write.” I’m also a musician and I know that reviews can be rough. And, truth be told, when I occasionally write in a particularly snarky manner with humor I get good comments from people who think I’m really smart and witty and clever in the way I put down whatever it was that I was reviewing. That positive reinforcement encourages people to be mean in reviews.

But I also know that I enjoy writing and reading reviews of music and other things and that I will read, watch and listen to things that I just don’t like. Should I not write about them?

I think I will continue to write about them BUT Jeanette’s note reminded me to do it with a spirit of humility and to speak the truth (or at least my opinions) in love. And, Jeanette, thanks for your note and for reminding me of the faces behind the art. I’ll go back and listen to The Pieces Fit again – who knows maybe I’ll now hear things that I didn’t hear all those years ago.

more u2 on the way?

A recent interview with U2 revealed this:
The future is another question for another interview. How long can U2 stay meaningful? Where will rock's greatest adventure end? For now, there is enough material left over from the sessions for an album that, Bono says, will be released before the end of the year. It will be "a more meditative album on the theme of pilgrimage".


Tuesday, February 10, 2009

A very nice Keith Getty quote

"If I've got non-Christian friends coming to church, I'd far rather give them four verses of comparatively heavy theology with some theological words which explains the gospel, than give them twenty repeated words that could be said about your pet horse or your girlfriend."

Read the rest of the interview here.

Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Gearing up for Sympo 09

Thursday begins the three-day marathon that is Calvin Symposium on Worship and I’m quite busy this year. On Thursday I will welcome about 150 high school students, teachers and principals from all over North America to spend much of the day talking about Christian High School chapel – a topic that is not often given this sort of intense attention. I’m pretty excited about it and, fortunately, I have my friends and colleagues helping me out. Ron Rienstra will talk about Worship Basics, Sharon Veltema and Jack Postma from Unity Christian High School in Hudsonville, MI, will talk about their program. Cindy DeJong and Paul Ryan from the Calvin Chapel program will talk about what they’ve learned leading chapel with college students, the Calvin Worship Apprentices (including my daughter Meredith) will lead the high school kids in workshops around some of the nuts and bolts of leading worship – using the arts, music and speaking. Finally, I’ll talk about Faith Nurture and how chapel relates to that and we’ll have some time to hear from some of the other participants.

Before the workshop begins I’ll play guitar for worship in a band lead by Greg Scheer. Then on Friday and Saturday I’ll lead a seminar on why and how we can use Psalms with kids. Whew. But even with all this I hope to attend a bunch of seminars by other folks and I always leave excited to have been present and to have been able to participate.

Saturday, January 17, 2009

Album of the moment

Usually there is one album that speaks to me in a special way - this will last for a week or even longer. I am thinking about tracking this album here on this blog for a while just to see what it's like. I don't expect to write long reviews of them (although I might) but rather I'll just mention them and encourage my regular reader(s) to post their own AoM and to refresh them whenever the album changes. Right now there are two Albums of the Moment:

1) Under the Waterfall by Cindy Morgan - this CCM album from the early 90's is just delightful. Yes, there are a few moments when I'm not exactly enamored of what's going on but overall songs like "Stand" and "I Know You" almost always lift my spirit and make me sing along.

2)This album is possibly being replaced by Apple Tree by Katie Herzig. Herzig's album is a wonderful mix of delicate vocals matched with creative and tuneful songwriting. I like the way she writes and I like the way she sings. I also like the way the image of the Apple Tree pops up in, I think, three of the songs. I find Apple Tree practically irresistible right now.

Friday, January 16, 2009

Who is the best Beatle?

As part of a facebook wall exchange on the best bands in the world Andy Boyer asked me “who was the best Beatle?” This came after I pointed out to him the ridiculous notion of his that placed Nirvana in the top three bands of all time and missed the Beatles completely. [EDIT: Andy reminds me that he did mention the Beatles in his "bands I also like" section so saying that he missed them completely is unfair. I agree.]

His question, though, needs a response that is longer than a facebook wall can easily contain so I thought I’d respond here.

First of all, this is the sort of question that you shouldn’t have to answer. One is capable of enjoying the Beatles music without picking favorites or trying to sort out who brought what to the band. Not only that but there was something special in the collaboration of the four people involved. I know from playing with a variety of people that, if you let it, changing even one player in a band will change everyone. I play differently with a different piano player or drummer. When I played with the Lazy Blue Tunas I was able to play a lot differently because there were two other guitars occupying the same aural space and I needed to back off on some things and I was able to add other things. So, it’s hard to sort out what was going on with the Beatles as well.

All four Beatles brought something special to the band and that changed over the ten years or so that they were together. Paul’s bass playing, for example, is one of the high points of the best Beatles music. Have you listened to the bass on Sgt Pepper or in George’s beautiful song “Something?” Paul doesn’t get enough credit for that. John’s playing, while not virtuosic like Paul and George’s still carried the day on more than one occasion – his piano in “Ob La Di Ob La Da,” for example is what made the track work (even though it’s not one of Paul’s best songs.) George’s guitar is often just the thing that made a track work. His 12-string playing on A Hard Days Night made the album. Ringo’s drums were always on target – listen to the drums on “Come Together” – they’re brilliant. You can’t pull the pieces of the Beatles apart easily.

So let’s take a look at their post-Beatles work. This is also tough because John’s was so much shorter than the others and, for about half the time John was alive after the Beatles he wasn’t actively recording. George, too, took a lot of time off. Ringo had an on-again off-again recording career, even at times losing his recording contract. Paul, on the other hand, kept working. So how do you compare them? John’s songwriting has been recently highlighted on the wonderful “Instant Karma” collection where other artists covered his music and that reinforced the notion that he had a lot of good songs on his own. But, frankly, how many of John’s solo songs can people list? Even Imagine, his most popular album has only one song that people know - the title track. He also had minor hits with “Instant Karma” and “Give Peace a Chance.” In the same period McCartney had a large number of hits – “Maybe I’m Amazed,” “Another Day,” “Uncle Albert / Admiral Halsey,” “My Love,” “Band on the Run,” “Jet,” “Listen to the What the Man Said,” “Silly Love Songs,” “Let ‘Em In,” and“With A Little Luck” (to name the ones that I can off the top of my head.) And that’s just in his first decade after the Beatles. There have been nearly three more decades since then. In that same first decade George had “My Sweet Lord” and “Give Me Love.” So Paul is the clear winner in this category.

But it’s not just about hits. What about quality? Paul made a couple of lousy albums along the way. Wild Life has long been seen as one of his weaker albums and, indeed, it is not very good. And Paul has been tagged with writing a bunch of silly love songs – a charge that sticks to a certain extent. John’s work though is at least as uneven. Some Time in New York City was pretty poor. Side two of Live Peace in Toronto is unlistenable. Even his brilliant work on Double Fantasy really only amounts to half an album with Yoko’s music making up the other half – I’m quite content having on the John songs from that album and it’s posthumous follow up, Milk and Honey. George also had his stinkers – Extra Texture and Dark Horse haven’t even been released on CD yet. Ringo had one great album, Ringo. He did have a number of cool songs but, frankly, if you buy his Photograph anthology you’ve got just about all the Ringo you really need on one CD. So how do you compare Paul’s massive output with the relatively meager output from the others? It’s tough but on balance I think Paul had at least as high a batting average as the others and he came to the plate much more often. This, I think, gives him the edge.

So, Andy, with no disrespect to the other three, I think my answer is Paul McCartney.

Thursday, January 15, 2009

How does iTunes Genius work?

I've been using iTunes Genius lately to make playlists and I've been really happy with the results but this morning something amazing happened - I chose a Postal Service song to start the playlist and iTunes picked the only two covers of Postal Service songs I have on my computer to put in the playlist - "Such Great Heights" by Iron and Wine and "We Will Become Sillouettes" by the Shins.

So, how did it know to pick those? This isn't just genre matching - there is more going on that that. When I start with a solo Beatle it gives me other solo Beatles. When I give it Stevie Wonder it gives me other artists that match quite well. I'd love to know the algorithm it uses to come up with the lists.

Any ideas?

Monday, January 05, 2009

Revisiting old CCM albums

Almost every year we go on a bit of a cleaning binge involving our basement. As we need more room to put new stuff and, as kids come home for Christmas break we need more space. We also realize that we accumulate a lot and a good purge is helpful. This leads to deciding what stuff we can toss and what stuff we need to find a better way to store. This year as I was realigning my CD collection and as I was going through some of my old stuff I came across a number of old CCM albums which I’m not ready to get rid of yet and I grabbed five of them because I remember them as being among my favorites and I thought it would be good to hear them again. They are:

PFR – Great Lengths (1995)
Considering Lily (1996)
Cindy Morgan – Listen (1996) and Under the Waterfall (1995)
Margaret Becker – Falling Forward (1998)

I loaded them in my itunes, put them on my ipod and they (along with some recently rediscovered Stevie Wonder) have been popping up every so often in my listening over the last week or so and it’s been great to revisit these. So, after listening again after a number of years, how are they?

PFR’s album, Great Lengths is full of Beatlesque tunes with solid arrangements, playing and singing. The two lead voices blend nicely and the power trio’s sound is nicely augmented with other instruments. A few of the songs reek of mid-nineties CCM sensibilities – like they were counting the number of Jesus references to make sure they were ok to play on the radio – but enough of them avoid this that the album still holds up well. This one will likely stay in my itunes.

Considering Lily, the band, is one of my guilty pleasures from the 90s and also one of my great disappointments. This pair of sisters made a folky album as Serene and Pearl and, when that didn’t work out commercially for them, they rocked it up a bit and formed the band Considering Lily. Their self-titled album is dorky and obvious with mundane images and lightweight tunes. But I liked it and there was something about its quirkiness that caught me back then. The reason that this band was such a disappointment for me is that, for their second album, one of the sisters quit and the newly reformed Considering Lily released an album that was not really at all like their first one. They got more normal and lost their charm. After that they never released another album.While this first one was a lot of fun my patience for the pedestrian writing and playing on this album isn't what it used to be. After two listens it ended up getting deleted from my itunes.

Cindy Morgan started out doing what was then called “urban” music and I wasn’t such a big fan. But then at the time of her third album she changed her style a bit and released a fine album called Under the Waterfall which, to my ears at least, almost sounds at home sitting next to today’s pop albums by American Idol alum. It’s a good album with some nice grooves on it and a killer track, “Stand,” which is just wonderful. She followed that up with an even better album, Listen, which spent a lot of time in our players back 12 years ago and still sounds good to me today – these two albums are the ones that I’ve played most since digging them up last week.

Finally, I also dug up what I consider to be Margaret Becker’s best album, Falling Forward. This album really shows her acoustic side but yet it has cool Falling Forward wasn’t nearly as good either. This one I haven’t heard too much yet since the great rescue from the basement but what I’ve heard I’ve liked a lot – so this one will also stay in my itunes for a while at least.

Overall, this experiment has worked out well. When push comes to shove I tend to revert back to certain bands – the Beatles, U2, Grateful Dead, Phil Keaggy, Elvis Costello – and it’s good for me to branch out. I’ve tried to do that with contemporary bands like Death Cab for Cutie and Ingrid Michaelson and I’ve enjoyed a lot of recent music but many of them don’t hold much interest for me in the long run. It was good to see that some of these old albums from artists not in my top tier still work for me.