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.