Getting into the whole vinyl thing has re-invigorated my music listening in surprising ways. I've rediscovered the pleasure of the 'hunt'. Setting myself a £5 per record spending limit rules out most record shops as a place to buy LPs. Consequently I'm picking up vinyl from charity shops. I love the feeling of rooting through all the Neil Diamond, Mario Lanza, Val Doonican (just how many records did these guys sell?!), when an interesting record pops into view and my heart skips a beat. With trembling fingers I slip the vinyl from the sleeve to see what condition it's in. With time suspended for a second, either crushing disappointment or absolute elation follows. I've learnt that the sleeve condition rarely reflects what's inside. It's like unwrapping Christmas presents as a kid.
Some of my current favourite albums - picked up for £1 - are all discovered this way: Odetta's 'Mighty World', New Order's 'Low Life', Louden Wainwright III's 'Album III', and Randy Newman's 'Good Old Boys'.
The first listen of 'Good Old Boys' was a strange experience. Naively, I slipped it onto my deck and got it playing with my 11 year old son in the room. Newman's distinctively nasal voice forces it way through the speakers. 'Isn't this the guy who sings the Toy Story song?' asks my son. 'Yeah it is', I reply, whilst simultaneously taking in the lyrics of 'Rednecks' - a song satirizing the racism of America's deep south and the hypocrisy of the northern states. The chorus forces me to lift the player's arm from the record with the disappointment I'd have to wait until he's in bed before I can have a go at this one properly.
Quite how Newman went from 'Good Old Boys' to the Toy Story soundtracks is a mystery to me. But this album is an amazing piece of work - the song-writing is devastating, clever, poignant. I can't think of any current songwriters who might produce art like this. A reflection of a moment in history - 1974 (the year after I was born) - it still resonates today. 'Mr President (Have pity on the Working Man) could be written for the UK 2014. I love this album. In a rather strange way, it feels like it found me.
Some songs just haunt you. It's not the catchy melody or the memorable guitar lick that stay with you. It's not even the lyrics - you know that clever couplet that made you smile or the uplifting chorus echoing around your head. It's certainly not the style of the song or the voice of the singer that causes you to sit up and notice it because more often than not it's just not your kind of music. No what I'm talking about is a song that overshadows you - it feels as though it's lagging a footstep or so behind you ready to strike at any moment. I put Mary Gauthier's 'I Drink' in that category. I guess what haunts me about this song is the story. Much like my reflections on Townes Van Zandt's 'Waiting Around to Die' there's something in this song that rings true. It's personal, it's painful and it just demands a response. Why do I care? Well, I see this song being played out in life and it's frightening.
And it's for this reason that 'I don't drink'. In fact I've been fasting from 'drink' for nigh on 20 years now. Even now I occasionally miss it - a glass of red wine during Sunday lunch, a cool lager on a hot summer's day, a Bailey's at Christmas. But I've seen too much pain caused by drink to feel anything but antipathy towards it. Destruction too often follows in its wake. So it's a fast I'm proud to make. And whenever I'm tempted to break my fast I sense this song one step behind - a dark shadow creeping up from behind and it's then that I make my statement 'I don't drink'.
A while back I did a post on songs with Salvation Army connections. Since then I've had a couple of songs I didn't mention brought to my attention: Jonny Cash's 'Understand Your Man' and 'The Bannerman' by Blue Mink. Today, however, I came across what is described as an 'anti-Salvation Army song'. As you can imagine, I found that interesting!
Joe Hill was an American protest singer back in the early 20th century who was involved in union organising with a group known as 'the Wobblies'. He wrote songs to inspire poor migrant workers to rise up and fight for a better life. His beef with The Salvation Army came about because he often found himself competing with the SA band to make himself heard out on the streets. And whilst the Salvation Army sang about a better life in the next world, Joe concentrated on songs that sang about a better life in this world. And to drive his point home he used to take the tunes The Salvation Army were using and rewrote the lyrics! (This of course was The Salvation Army's own tactic - they took tunes used in the public house and put Christian lyrics to them). And so, the song 'The Preacher and the Slave', which mentions the Salvation Army directly, was a parody of the hymn 'The Sweet By and By'. Apparently, this song also coins the phrase 'Pie in the Sky when you die'!
As someone who has become particularly interested in 'organising' as a form of justice in today's world, as well as a Christian commitment to life in the next, I wanted to make a couple of observations about this song. I feel that Hill's point is well made, but is perhaps misdirected. Whilst Salvationists have always had one eye on the hereafter, it would be true to say, too, that the other eye has always been trained on the here and now. Of all Christian denominations, The Salvation Army has been committed to those who need a helping hand in this world. However, Joe Hill could be forgiven for thinking otherwise if all he heard were our songs. Where are the songs, for example, that deal with fighting for justice in this life? Where are the songs that reflect the radical teaching of Jesus about the peacemaker or the prophetic or the 'upside down' kingdom of God breaking into the world around us. Where are they?! On the whole Hill's right - mainly our songs are 'pie in the sky when you die'. And I for one would love to sing a new song - a protest song, a prophetic song, a song that brought heaven to earth as Jesus taught.
After a year's break - I appear to have come up for air again and climbed back onto my blog (this is my second post in a 2 weeks!). Having a spare 20 minutes I cast my eye over my previous work and on the whole still stand by most of it. Great to read a couple of comments that had sneaked through my radar over the last year. Also, realised that during my silence, I've been listening to more inspirational music than ever, so plenty to share.
Perhaps my personal discovery of the year is Arcade Fire. I enjoyed a corporate worship experience with them back in December at London's O2 venue. The last two gigs I saw at the O2 featured Bob Dylan and Leonard Cohen - two mighty singer-songwriters who will forever be legends. But as good as it was to spend time in their company it was even better to watch a band in their prime and at the top of their game. It was remarkable how they turned such a huge arena into an intimate setting. Simply stunning.
Now I've come late to Arcade Fire. Just don't know how I missed them. However, what's great about discovering a band onto their third album is that instantly you have a decent amount of music to get into. For me, their first album - Funeral - is the best. Their 'anthem' appears to be the song 'Wake Up' from that album. It seems to sum up the general feel of so much of their music. In a recent interview in the Guardian - lead singer Win Butler, brought up in a Mormon household says:
"I had a somewhat religious upbringing," he says. "Not strict, but it was there and I'm kind of thankful for that. If you grow up just watching MTV, that's its own form of religion and it's not even based on happiness or communal responsibility. I mean, try to construct a worldview out of that."
Project that onto the lyrics of 'Wake Up' and the song starts to make sense. Watch what you fill your soul with - fill it with nothing or meaningless rubbish and you're lost. WAKE UP before it's too late! It's a prophetic call to the present Western generation. I defy you to listen to this and not be moved.
I just love it when a song just comes out of nowhere and hits you between the ears! Take, today for example. I'm in the car on a 30 minute journey to an appointment and catching up with a post Christmas sale CD that I hadn't had much of chance to listen to, yet - Upside Down (The Best of the Jesus and Mary Chain). Despite the obviously religious title of the band - I'm essentially listening to an 80s gothic rock band that as far as I know don't have particular religious tendancies. I've the volume pumped up and loving the sound when suddenly the song I'm listening to turns into a prayer. 'God Help Me' is the track. And as I'm listening to it - the images of friends and people I often hang out with through The Salvation Army in Stepney spring to mind. People I know who are praying this prayer - every day, several times a day. And my eyes mist over with tears as I drive along and I thank God that we can pray this prayer and I thank God for The Jesus and Mary Chain. (Also - Pogues fans might be interested that frontman Shane MacGowan sings it.)
God help me through this day God please help me through this day I'm blind, can't see the way God please help me through this day
I can't take it I just can't take it anymore God help me through this day God please help me through this day I'm blind, can't see the way God illuminate this day
I can't take it I just can't take it anymore I've been waiting long time I've been waiting long time I've been waiting too long To see the light
As far as I'm concerned Christmas 2009 has been unparalleled for discovering new Christmas music. I've loved having a renewed soundtrack to Christmas and it's been great to say goodbye to Slade, the entire Christmas Crooner selection and the usual seasonal tat and replace it with music that is both original and yet still evokes that Christmassy feeling. Here's a few of my new favourites.
Firstly, I got hold of a copy of Sufjan Stevens 'Hark! Songs for Christmas' collection. A few tracks can be downloaded for free on his offical website - check it out here. I love the sounds of these records and they have enough quirkiness to make it really fun.
Next, I listened to Bob Dylan's double helping of the Christmas Theme Time Radio Hour. There are some great songs on this show - and some very funny moments, too. You can check out the tracklist here or download it from here. My personal favourites are 'Merry, Merry Christmas' by Alton Ellis and the Lipsticks and 'Santa Claus' by Sonny Boy Wllliamson II.
Now if that wasn't enough (around 70 tracks), there are some other great songs I've discovered. Steve Earle's 'Christmas in Washington' is magnificent and pretty much everything on 'The McGarrigle Christmas Hour' that features plenty of Rufus and Martha Wainwright.
And so all that remains is to wish you a very happy Christmas! And happy listening...
Someone once asked, 'why should the devil have all the best tunes?' Truth is, he doesn't. Songs for the Journey is a record of my favourite tracks that motivate, inspire and challenge faith. It's the kind of stuff you'll never hear in church but you should do, because if you listen hard enough you can hear His harmonies.