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.

Further reading:
Music and myspace page:

Friday, December 28, 2007

Bonus News of the Weird - Teachers in the Rubber Room

Because of the sensitivity of this post, I'm just gonna let this one speak for itself:

Several New York papers reported this year on the more than 700 public-school teachers being paid full salary to sit idly in [one of thirteen] facilities known informally as "rubber rooms" and do nothing until an arbitration board can review accusations of misconduct against them. The board of education won't permit the teachers to interact with students while charges are pending (even for offenses as trivial as buying a potted plant for the classroom without the principal's approval), but union contracts prevent them from doing administrative work, and the overloaded arbitrators convene at most once a week, so accused teachers wind up spending months or even years reading, writing, watching TV, knitting, practicing their putting, etc., at an estimated cost of up to $40 million.

Chuck Shepherd, Chicago Reader, November 15, 2007.

I will say that this NYTimes article, by education writer and journalism professor Samuel G. Freedman, is worth reading. Some excerpts:

The room in question was about 1,100 square feet and on blueprints submitted to the Fire Department was designed to hold 26 people. On this day, it contained upward of 75. It had no windows, no land phone, no Internet access, no wall decorations, not even a clock. Any personal belongings left overnight were removed by custodians.

Some of the occupants faced criminal charges like assault, while others had been brought up by city education officials for termination due to incompetence or other causes. Still more, including Mr. Valtchev, had not yet received a formal letter specifying any allegation. Until their cases are resolved, which can take years, all are required to spend the 181 days of the school year in the rubber room.

And although the teachers there receive their full salaries, the stale, spartan conditions and the absence of any physical or intellectual stimulation provide a ceaseless reminder that in some respects they are guilty until proved innocent.

“There is a spirit of the K.G.B. about it,” Mr. Valtchev said in an interview on Monday. “Their main strategy is to destabilize the person, reduce his self-respect...

“Even in the penal system,” said Ms. Cohen, a veteran of more than 240 days in the rubber room, “they permit rehabilitation.”

Thursday, December 27, 2007

It's on like a Blog-a-thon

I've had this wonderful little idea for a series of posts that's been stuck in the back of my head for the last few weeks. It really stems from a complete frustration that it's the end of the year and I've neither seen enough movies or bought enough music to make my typical end of the year lists. It also stems from being disappointed in the lack of coverage of some of my favorite Christian recording artists, even by those who know something about Christian recording artists (of course, the word 'artist' is only tenuously applied here).

For a while I was thinking about doing a series of essays highlighting what I believe to be the best Albums by Christians that Rock (More on that phrasing later). I would soon follow that up by a best Albums by Christians that Folk (and Country) series and a best Albums by Christians that are Heads series. There would also probably be a miscellany thrown in there too (Black/White Gospel, Pop, Soundtrack, Veggie Tales cover, etc.), but you get the point.

But then an epiphany: Why not allow others to join in on the fun? So, if you're reading this, you've probably been invited. If you haven't, consider yourself invited. And if you don't have a blog by now, you might as well open one up just for this momentous occasion.

Now for the best part, the guidelines (not to be strictly enforced. But be aware that I do have ties to the mob):

1) It has to be an album (vinyl, cassette, CD, 8-track, whatever, the medium's not so important in this case - unless you want it to be) not just a song, and one that you do or did own and preferably listened to several times and can probably quote from memory.

2) It's an album put out by a self-professed Christian, or group of self-professed Christians, or from a band headed by a self-professed Christians. You do not have to agree with their particular worldview or brand of Christianity. They may never have been a believing Christian, they may have back-slidden, they may be arch-conservative or ultra-liberal, but they need to be a Christian by their own proclamations and their Christianity should, in some way, influence their music in much the same way that me being a Chicagoan affects my attitude and outlook (I'm so cold). (Note, the qualification is not if the group or performer is a Contemporary Christian Music artist or even remotely aligned with that tag.) So, although U2 and King's X and Danielson qualify, George Harrison and Bruce Springsteen and Evenescence do not.

3) That would mean, of course, that Carman and Stryper qualify. So, that brings us to our third guideline: It has to be of interest to you. You may do one on your favorite. You may do one on fond memories. You may do an expose. You may tell-all. In any case, it should inspire you to write something fairly original, something worth reading and writing.

4) And oh-so-important: It has to flippin' R.O.C.K.! Talkin' Led Zeppelin/Nirvana/Sex Pistols rock. Ok, maybe not necessarily. But save the other types of music (anything from Mark Heard to Sufjan Stevens to Michael W. Smith to Sam Cooke to M.C. Hammer) for another time. We're looking for face-melters / *alls-to-the-walls / Air-guitar-strumming / Butt-Head-tested, Beavis-approved / Let-your-Hendrix-Freak-Flag-Fly-All-Out / AC/DC Salute-worthy / Mosh Pit-ready rock. Roll is optional.

5) It should be an essay. Not a five paragraph essay, mind you. Not necessarily a one-pager, but a fair jaunt. Definitely not a blurb.

I think that's it. Blogger, WordPress, MySpace, your Space, it's all good FaceSpace. Yeah, you would need to post it next on something that goes up over that there internet contraption what's so popular these days.

Posts are going up next week to coincide with this whole end of the year thing (I hear that's the talk of the town). If you want to join in, hit me up and I'll link you in a round-up post.

The gauntlet has been thrown down, ladies. Who will bite the apple?

Wednesday, December 26, 2007

News of the Weird - 4: Squirrels

From the You Know It's the End of the World When Files:

To the list of stories that were once weird but now occur with such frequency that they must be retired from circulation, we add: (87) the animal (often a squirrel) that blunders into equipment at an electrical substation, killing itself and knocking out power for thousands (as in Auburn, California, and Ironwood, Michigan, in November); and (88) the shoplifter who brings a child along on the job, then abandons him to flee from security officers (as 39-year-old Suzzette Gruber allegedly did to her eight-month-old son in Hartsdale, New York, in October).*

Note: I have no plans on taking Joss with me on such errands. So that's not so relevant.

But, whoa, did you hear that? Killer Kamikaze Squirrels? They're coming after us, from all angles. Including attacking our children in the open daylight.

According to a story by a Bay Area NBC affiliate, the cute little rodents are overly aggressive in a park in Mountain View, where six people have reportedly been attacked since May.

The city is trying to make sure people don't bring food into the children's play area at the park."I think it's our fault, because we made them aggressive," Carmen Perez of Palo Alto said. "Now it's dangerous and we have to do something." [Officials said the increasingly brazen behavior stems from years of being fed by park visitors.]

In response to attacks, the city of Mountain View has announced it plans to start trapping and killing the aggressive tree squirrels...

But, wait, it gets weirder.

Ironically, efforts to curb the behavior may have exacerbated the squirrels' aggressive tendencies, Muela said. This summer, the city installed new trash receptacles featuring metal tops with a latch that makes it nearly impossible for an animal to rummage through the can in search of food. Increased park ranger patrols and flier distributions cautioning against feeding the animals might have further cut the squirrels' food supply, prompting them to act more assertively in their quest for food.

But of course, some people are irate at the prospect of killing God's little fuzzy-tailed rats. One citizen, however, seems to fuel the fires of conspiracy theorists with his email:

"The squirrels will be back," South Bay wildlife rehabilitator Norma Campbell said. "For every one you take out, two more will come in. It could be a never-ending project that isn't going to accomplish anything."

Sound familiar anyone?

*Chuck Shepherd's News of the Weird, Chicago Reader December 20, 2007

Sunday, December 23, 2007

It's Christmas. Baby, Please Come Home.

Because of family obligations today, I wasn't able to attend church this morning. Nothing really new there. We (as a couple at least) have missed probably more than half the services since Joss was born. That's neither atypical nor criminal. But today was the last Sunday of Advent, the Sundays leading up to our celebration of the birth of our Savior and Lord, and I love sermons on the incarnation. I would have especially appreciated something from that lineage today, and more so because we are a part of a new church that tries to bridge the gap between the more ancient and modern worlds of the Body of Christ.

In any case though, the Advent Prayer for the week:

Today we relight the first three candles of the Advent Wreath — the candles of HOPE, PEACE and JOY.

Now we light the fourth candle of Advent. This is the candle of LOVE.

Jesus demonstrated self-giving love in his ministry as the Good Shepherd. Advent is a time for kindness, thinking of others, and sharing with others. It is a time to love as God loved us by giving us his most precious gift. As God is love, let us be love also.

In the Book of Deuteronomy we find these words:

“For the Lord your God is God of gods and Lord of lords, the great God, mighty and awesome, who is not partial and takes no bribe, who executes justice for the orphan and the widow, and who loves the strangers, providing them food and clothing. You shall also love the stranger, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt.
— Deuteronomy 10:17-19a

From the Gospel of John we hear:

“I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.”
— John 13:34-35

Let us pray:
Teach us to love, O Lord. May we always remember to put you first as we follow Christ’s footsteps, that we may know your love and show it in our lives. As we prepare for our celebration of Jesus’ birth, also fill our hearts with love for the world, that all may know your love and the one whom you have sent, your son, our Savior. Amen.

h/t to Scot McKnight, who I just completely stole this post from.

Saturday, December 22, 2007

Go Jesus, It's Your Birthday

So, this is what the celebrations looked like in Bethlehem. I always pictured a stairway to heaven with angelic choral voices and whatnot.

Christmas in the Fifth Element of Hip Hop

h/t to Mark O from Youth Specialties (who I'm getting way too much good stuff from that I have not posted up, btw).

Also, since I have a more or less two week vacation starting last night, expect a heavier rotation.
Feliz Navidad

Saturday, December 08, 2007

News of the Weird - 3

File this one under The Blood of the Lamb Alcohol Levels:

In a November article in the Irish Times, priests voiced their concern about likely upcoming reductions in the legal blood-alcohol limit for drivers in Ireland and Northern Ireland. Thanks to a clergy shortage, many priests must perform multiple masses in multiple locations, and since the use of nonalcoholic sacramental wine has been barred y the Vatican, they fear that even drinking a minimal amount of wine at each service would put them over the limit while driving to their next assignment.
- Chuck Shepherd.

From the Irish Times itself:

"Perhaps it [celebrating a number of Masses] could be enough for you to fail a drink driving test, and while I don't like to use the word wine, as it is the precious blood in the Eucharist, it still has all the characteristics of wine when in the blood stream," said Fr D'Arcy.

But here's my question, under these new restrictions, will any Irish adults be able to drive?

Wednesday, December 05, 2007

family portraits (according to Facebook)

By the way, in case you're wondering, that's a calculator in Nerdy Daddy's hand. Not a stiff one, which he admittedly could use every once in a while.