Sunday, December 30, 2007

Albums by Christians that Rock, Vol. 1 - Dig by Adam Again

Part of the reason for this blog-a-thon is that I have seen way too much good music of the last two decades + go unheralded because it was in the Christian ghetto of the music recording industry - CCM. Now that the music industry is dying a slow-death and artists are able to self-produce and release their own CD's with the ease of pushing a few buttons and opening a MySpce account, the sad poetry of this underground and embattled music legacy is lost. What's even sadder is that, with the exception of eBay, most of the recordings are long gone. Here's to hoping for a resurgence, of sorts.

The irony, of course, is that the underground CCM movement may be understood better today than ever before, even the previous DIY time, the late '70s.

Note: This essay is actually a revision of a previous and longer essay on Adam Again.

Dig, by Adam Again

Whereas their previous and more jamming funk-rock band album Homeboys focused on the street level, Dig dug "Deep" into the recesses of the soul to produce a treasure worth treasuring. Although ostensibly about the divorce that frontman, singer, organist, guitarist, co-songwriter, lyricist, engineer, producer, studio owner, co-label owner and all-around profound artist Gene Eugene and bandmate, dancing dervish, vocal harmonizer Riki Michele were heading towards, the music was primarily about the emotional toll taken in the wake of their ongoing separation and the search for meaning in those dark times, not le divorce itself (which isn't atypical in the underground music scene these days). The disc is filled with enough archetypal images - digging, card playing (fate and relationships interplayed in fate and loss), water, dirt and earth - to make Carl Jung blush. It also helps to make the album universal - even though it itself is ironically hidden. It's a work of pure staggering everyman's art, taking specific, personal experiences and expressing them in an accessible language so that many can claim these opuses as their own.

And then there's the music. Gene had had plenty of experience in nearly every field of non-mainstream music as far as CCM was considered - working with hip hop, hardcore, punk, industrial (such as Mortal), post-punk, shoe-gazer, college rock, new wave, etc., etc. Gene also was deeply influenced by the great singer-songwriters: Dylan, Van Zandt, Cohen (who he referenced in their next album), and was influenced by such disparate figures as Stevie Wonder, Social Distortion, X, the Beatles and 70's rock radio.

But, at heart, I think that Gene wanted to rock and roll in a band that played the funkiest Fender Rhodes you've heard since 1976 (adapted from Homeboys). Yet the love for hard rock and punk (and even Americana) was there and pulsing through the backbeat of this band. It was a funk-rock fusion that, as said here, the Red Hot Chili Peppers would die to have - if they weren't so lazy. The main guitar was done by Greg Lawless, a monster, who could spit out tasty and crunchy riffs like Chester Cheeta with an axe and kick crazy asphalt of your chin like a face-melting Jackie Chan. The bass, as I'm told by the daughter of an avid bass-player, was laid down by Paul Valadez and is the shiz-bit, the ground you flippin' walk on. And then there's the welcome funky and foundational addition of John Knox, drummer extraordinaire, who's day job was to pound the skins for mainstream Christian rock act Whiteheart. Thank God he did extracurricular activities. The combo was unlike many others. Too bad for others.

The disc starts with a barn-stormer. "Deep" begins the theme of this album with stream-of-conscience poetry and a funky start/stop second guitar, mediating the Author into the mystery of the story. It's a story about mystery, about things not being as they seem or as we want them to be. It may also be about things not being what we envision them to be. "Girl ghost is in the stairway / She likes it when I rub my eyes... I don't want to / you don't want to / we don't want to know / And dying on the cross / for the sick and the loss / is the Lover that I long to know." Halfway in there, Jon Knox's drumming comes alive unto its own and threatens to devour through sheer force of high-hat cymbal-banging. And certainly those lyrics testify that it is also about revelation, an eye-opener that Jesus is not passive, but actively participating in our suffering through his own sacrifice of his own life. The title given to the one on the cross (you would note that not once do they refer to Jesus by name, part of the reason why they never made it big, or even moderately, in the Christian music ghetto) adds extra dimensions and says that this is not just a God or man who distances himself from us or our humanity, but loves us and yet somehow remains mysterious. Note other burning lyrics:

My days of wishful thinking
Soldiers of sorrow sinking
words dance
beginnings riddle
and in the end and in the middle
deep will i dig
see a shovel in the hand
of a wild-eyed man
with a mission and a goal
I've learned of this religion
but I've lost my peaceful vision

Notice also that Gene stretches out his I's. They become part and parcel of his personal vision, a sad self-reflection of a man trapped within himself, trying hard to shake himself free by self-discovery.

"It Is What It Is (What It Is)" presaged the most common answer by NBA stars, maybe in an attempt to avoid questions a la Dylan (probably about the indie rock and artistry that they would attempt within the realm of the bloated and convellent Contemporary Christian Music scene and the Christian bookstores they sold through.). "Ask a stupid question / you get a sideways quote / The reasonable would demand it." Indeed.

Sense to be made
I am afraid
I need to understand it.
The audience is baited
I got it by the throat
That monumental big decision
It is what it is
what it is

"Dig" begins with a pulsing Fender and slowly burns. Riki adds her sweetly melancholy melody on the second verse, Gene adds another vocal harmony slightly later and towards the end they fill in with guitars, drums, and bass.

Consult the cards to measure time
the earth is hard,
the treasure fine...
Will the eagle fly
if the sky's untrue
do the faithful sigh
because they are so few
At the sea, I'll wait on my knees

Gene Eugene has a nasal voice often though unfairly compared to REM's Michael Stipe. On this album, however, he wraps his vocals around the lyrics like a down blanket on a cold night and the additional harmonics of the Rhodes and background singer and spurned lover Riki Michele put him in a warm atmosphere, certainly in songs like "Dig." On "Hopeless, Etc." Gene stretches his vocals - some would say unconvincingly - to add dimension to the lyrics. "Hopeless, Etc." is ego-focused. Each verse begins with and expands on an elongated "I'm," holding at times for several bars and filling-out with 'hopeless,' 'useless,' and 'worthless' with a coda on the '-less.' It's a twisted worship song for the Me Generation. And it's a rocker, albeit one that also carries those song-building effects, this time starting fresh with every verse.

The oh-so meta (before meta went haywire and mainstream) "Songwork" is about the difficulty of writing that perfect song, or sometimes any song. But it is also about the difficulty of art, of - here's that theme again - the toil and sheer luck of discovering. He asks the difficult questions: which voices do I listen to, and to what end is all of this coming to? It's also one of the heavier songs musically, plodding along as if stuck in the mud. And apparently that is what happened to Gene until he decided to try a stream-of-conscience approach - which in turn greatly influenced my own writing (well, poetry. This prose stuff me no so good at).

Am I learning
Is my spirit restored
Do I listen
to the beggar
Or the woman at the door

"Worldwide" & "Walk Between the Raindrops," apparently, are about the social and global ills that face us as a brother- and sisterhood. The murder of Headman Shabalala (of Ladysmith Black Mozambo) and the plight of the homeless are raised to question our incapacity to compassionately act, suggesting that if we can merely explain the situation without grieving alongside the Holy Spirit on this, we are as likely to walk between raindrops. And the jump-kick on "Worldwide" kicks butt. "Keep your holy hair in place / the wind is gonna blow / the humble and the poor keep breathing." The guitars are psychadelic wha-wha's that Lenny Kravitz wishes he could borrow with any sense of credibility. Adam Again is truly urban rock. 100% urban, 100% rock.

Rumored to be a big influence on Over the Rhine (who's brilliant Drunkard's Prayer is a beautiful counter-point to the themes on this album and who played the screeching and haunting guitar coda from this song that was in itself stolen from Hendrix) "River on Fire" is the only song that seems to speak of the ensuing separation between husband and wife - indirectly or not. The burning of the over-polluted Cuyahoga River in Cleveland serves as the self-referential metaphor. The cello plays its part to leave the song drudging slowly along, methodically pulling us to gaze at the inevitable crash and slow burn of a feral mass of water, moodily created by the Hendrix-ian coda of the guitar at the end - wailing its way to a fiery death.

After the guitar chord drops a chill in the spine, we are treated with a rollicking "That Hill." Lyrically, it's about the failure of success, but musically it's a funky, hard-rocking blast with an engaging melody and riffs galore. Gene sings dispassionately behind the driving funk-load, "I climbed that hill... I wanted to be on the top / I wanted to be on the top / Big deal." Turn that into a motivational poster!

Adam Again would release one more album (Perfecta, which was pretty darned good in its own right) before Gene Eugene passed in 2000. He was busy making other people's music. I wanted more Digs.

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  1. Great post! I am going to link to this from my blog:


Be kind. Rewind.