Tuesday, April 12, 2016

Music Monday: "As Family We Go" needs more time in the incubator

          As Family We Go was released in August 2015, so this review is a little redundant I admit. However, heavy promotion is still taking place for this album, so in internet terms, this isn't completely without place. Regardless, I am a huge fan of Rend Collective, and I couldn't let this release go unacknowledged.

With that out of the way, I should warn you, I didn't like As Family We Go. Not even a little bit. Again, I want to emphasize how much I like this group and their music. I've travelled across country, through traffic jams, at the crack of dawn, to see Rend Collective in concert. I've indignantly defended them against "haters" (and oh, how I hate myself for using that term unironically, on the internet of all places), and recommded them to anyone who would listen. And yet, I really, really don't like this album.

Without sounding too much like a hipster, there's always been an anti-mainstream charm to Rend Collective's music. There's something warm, intimate, and nostalgic about their indie, folk pop, authentically recorded in living rooms, or around campfires. It's the lack of polish, and the unassuming fun and reverence about Rend Collective's previous albums, that have, up until this point, set them apart from the over-produced and self-aware mainstream.

Barely a year in between their previous release The Art of CelebrationAs Family We Go sounds terribly rushed. The band announced a few months before this release, that their studio had been broken into, and as a result the band lost some valuable equipment and songs they had been working on. It's speculation at this point, whether or not this incident affected the finished product of As Family We Go, but, to me, the album sounds like it needed more time in the recording process. It baffles me, why the band felt the need to release anything so soon at all. Maybe Rend Collective felt an obligation to fans, or were receiving pressure from their new label, Capitol Christian Distribution.

Rend Collective is a band made of people who can't take themselves seriously, giving their music a warmth, and mischief, that you will never hear from say, Chris Tomlin, or even Tenth Avenue North. However, with this album, Rend Collective have turned up the fun, about 60 notches (so much so that tracks like CelebrateYou Will Never Run, and The Artist sound more like Wiggles tracks), and taken away most, if not all of the warmth and intimacy of their folk sound, and opted for a more polished, synthetic product. This makes As Family We Go, sound disjointed, because mainstream worship albums tend to take themselves very seriously, something that Rend Collective is not really capable of. You can't have your cake and eat it too, Rend Collective, you just can't!

Even thematically,  As Family We Go fails miserably. The theme of unity, and family within the body of Christ, is not a new one for the group, as they've explored this with Campfire. In fact, they've formed their whole music philosophy on this theme. So, it is shocking to find As Family We Go, almost completely void of it. Really, the album seems more of a repeat of themes so beautifully explored in The Art of Celebration.

What really lets this release down, is that for all it's studio polish, and grandstanding, As Family We Go, is exceedingly dull. With the exception of Free As A Bird, You Will Never Run (which, for all it's zaniness, grows on you), Every Giant Will Fall, and a bluesy, reimagining of Nothing But The Blood called Royal Blood, the album is a bit underwhelming.

I so very much wanted to love this album, but in my opinion As Family We Go is a misstep. I don't think we've yet heard their best work, and here's hoping Rend Collective's next album will spend a bit more time in the incubator. I'm willing to wait longer for something truly special. Lord knows, Christian music needs it!

Monday, March 7, 2016

Music Monday: Gabrielle Aplin Made a Tribute To David Bowie

Hey everyone! I'm going to take a break from album reviews this Monday. I'll get back to my list next week. This my second week back to work after my holiday during Chinese New Year. I have so many things to tell you about, particularly my trip to Thailand! But that's another post for another day.

Gabrielle Aplin's UK tour came to an end last month, and during she made a lovely tribute to the late David Bowie. Enjoy, and happy Monday!

Monday, January 18, 2016

Music Monday: Light Up The Dark Review

         If you've followed this blog for awhile then you know how much a fan I am of Gabrielle Aplin. I first discovered her when she was a fifteen year-old releasing covers and self-made Eps on youtube. Her voice was untrained, and her skills in desperate need of honing, but ultimately it was her song writing that drew me in. Her lyrics were mature, etherial, and smart. She knew how to write a clever and engaging hook, and how to handle unpretentious metaphors alongside the teenage angst appropriate for her age. She's also, always been a bit of an old soul, with influences like Nick Drake and Joni Mitchell. These influences have never been more apparent, than with her sophomore album, Light Up The Dark.

         I loved Aplin's debut English Rain, but I had a few problems with it. English Rain was used an introduction to the uninitiated, but because the songs were written years apart from each other, the album failed to work as a coherent whole. This is no longer an issue with Light Up The Dark, which presents Aplin as the artist, she's been trying to be all these years.

          The album opens with the title track Light Up The Dark, which pushes Aplin's vocals much further than ever before. The track is energetic, dark and mysterious (it would fit very well in Bond soundtrack), but ultimately Light Up The Dark is one of the less exciting and nuanced tracks on the album.

This is followed by Skeleton, which is in my opinion one of the best songs Aplin's ever written. There are many influences apparent in the instrumentation of this track. The sweet, piano chords are reminiscent of the folk-pop that's been Aplin's comfort zone for so long, while the synth guitar, and vocals present a more modern edge. Aplin's etherial, whispy vocals could have let the song down, but somehow it all works perfectly.

Fools Love, brings to mind 70s pop, soulful and smooth. Aplin's vocals effortlessly glide through the whip-smart lyrics:

Silence in the hallway
There's nothing you can say
All false information
We've lost communication
There's something you've hidden 
You'e quietly taken
I fall every quarter
You hold me under your thumb

Sophisticated as Fools Love is, the song is a bit of a bore, and the album would have been that much stronger for leaving it out.

Slip Away is soulful, slinky and dramatic, and once again shows how much Aplin's voice has developed over the years. Sweet Nothing, is a joyful, dance number that mixes aspects of folk rhythm with old-time swing. As soon as chorus drops, you won't be able to stop your feet from tapping.

Heavy Heart is hands down the best song on the album. Lyrically it is intimate, and sadly honest. Aplin's vocals are appropriately understated for this track, as she uses the sweet, raspiness in her voice to good effect here.

Saw you staring into nothing
In the silence something's screaming
I know you're trying but there's nothing you can say...
We're bittersweet in the sunlight
We can't believe every story we're sold 
There's truth in the darkness we find.

Shallow Love begins with that old acoustic guitar, we all thought was gone forever, joined by bluesy percussion, and a little cheeky piano, and keyboard.

There's hints of  Florence And The Machine, in pop tracks Anybody Out There and Together,  while Hurt and What Did You Do? sound more in line with English Rain than anything else on the album. Hurt especially resonates with it's ernest lyrics and memorable chorus.

The album ends with the understated A While and the haunting bonus track Don't Break Your Heart On Me. The deluxe version offers five bonus tracks, most notable being Coming Home and The House We Never Built.

          All in all, Light Up The Dark is a complete improvement to the problems present in English Rain. This new release takes some interesting directions, and some new risks for Aplin, but it's clear that she's finally finding her sound. While Light Up The Dark is lacking the tenderness and transcendence of tracks like Salvation and Start of Time, I have very few issues with this album. It's kind of almost perfect.

Monday, January 11, 2016

Music Monday: Dear Wormwood Review

          It could be said that modern folk revival began with Mumford and Sons' rise to popularity, paving the way for other groups and singers to come into the limelight; or,  to mimic the sounds of greater, better musicians. Bands like Rend Collective, The Lumineers, The Heart and The Head, suddenly had an audience for their brand of folk pop, and still appear to be doing fairly well (although we'll be getting to Rend Collective and Mumford in a few weeks I'm sorry to say). However, as enjoyable as the genre still is to me, it's beginning to lack in surprises and sincerity. That's where bands like The Oh Hellos come in. They possess a warmth and energy that more popular groups like Mumford and The Lumineers just don't have. It's not that these groups are bad or mediocre, far from it, but The Oh Hellos are just all kinds of special.

            I first discovered the group on Noisetrade, on which they had uploaded their debut, critically acclaimed album, Through the Deep Dark Valley. The group which is headlined by sibling duo, Tyler and Maggie Heath, has a unique artistry when it comes to their sound and their writing. Their superb sophomore album Dear Wormwood, is a concept album, taking inspiration from C.S Lewis' The Screwtape Letters. Supposedly picking up where Through the Deep Dark Valley left off, Dear Wormwood tells the story of a toxic and abusive relationship, told through letters written from the abused. Despite the dark material covered, the album is exuberantly energetic and ultimately uplifting. Lyrically, it's one of the best examples of song writing to come out in 2015.

          The album begins with the atmospheric Prelude, where voices and instruments are heard from a distance, becoming more distinct as the song crescendo's into Bitter Water. Mandolins introduce the song, and a crash of vocals and percussion enter, offering an energetic and complex beginning to the story.

This is followed with There Beneath, an atmospheric and almost ethereal search for beauty and learning in everyday things. The scene beneath the willow tree is perfectly captured by the mood created by the synth instruments. 

In The Blue Hours of Morning, introduces Exeunt, with a series of running scales on the string instruments. Exeunt, is a masterpiece of song writing, with many layers of instruments, and themes perfectly timed and positioned. It's a song of heartbreak, of the victim tearing themselves in their mind from the control of their abuser; "I have set my mind, and my will, I am leaving."

Caesar, is a quiet and reflective song where the character contemplates their next move. Still tormented mentally, the singer tries to looks for signs hope.

Hear on the wind how the pendulum swings
Feel how the winter succumbs to the spring
Over the palisade morning will break
Rise up to meet it, oh sleeper awake
...Look to the sky where the sign will be shown
Heaven and earth and the king on his throne

This Will End, questions the meaning of a life so burdened with suffering. It is a huge song, in very understated packaging, about looking for hope in a world that is dying. 

No, I am not afraid to die
It's every breath that comes before
Heartache, I've heard, is part of life
And I have broken more and more

Pale White Horse is rife with biblical imagery. It has an almost otherworldly feel to it's instrumentation and vocals, which quietly build to a pinnacle culmination. The song is psychologically dark conversation with death. 

This leads directly into Where is Your Rider, where the character once again faces their tormentor, this time seeing him for who he is: powerless against the Lord who has triumphed over death and Hades. This is followed by the exuberant Soldier, Poet, King, a gospel anthem, triumphantly heralding the future victory.

The title track, Dear Wormwood, is the by far the best on the album. This is a powerful meditation on all that has past. It is powerful in it's refrain "I know who you are now, I know who you are." It is a song both eerie and beautiful in it's vocalization and lyrics, and joyful and haunting in it's message.

Instrumental Danse Macabre takes influences from old medieval Europe in it's sound, and leads into the closing song Thus Always to the Tyrants

Dear Wormwood is an accomplished, superb sophomore album from The Oh Hellos. The song writing is exceptional, and powerful, and the group's sound never fails to endear. If you have never listened to this group, I can't recommend them enough. I promise you, they will win you over. 

Tuesday, January 5, 2016

Ten Ponderings of Christmas in China


          Christmas and New Years are over, and the world mourns and diets. I have officially experienced my first holiday season in China, and my first Christmas ever without my family. During the jubilation that is Christmas, I had a few thoughts, and revelations, and I decided to share them with you all.

1. The so called "war on Chistmas," yeah that's not a thing!

 Remarkably, spending Christmas in a country where the holiday isn't nationally recognized, did absolutely nothing to hinder me from personally celebrating Christmas! I know right! In fact, it might even have heightened my awareness of why I celebrate in the first place. An unregenerate person, wishing me a merry Christmas, and handing me a red cup with Santa on it: that's commercialism, not Christmas. And China has plenty of Christmas commercialism to enjoy anyway.

2. Jingle Bells and We Wish You Merry Christmas are the only Christmas songs that China knows, and they play them on repeat...all.day.long.

3. Most of the highs and lows at Christmas are dependent on comparison. It seems to me that our experience of Christmas is dependent on what we think it should be, after comparing our experience to what we see on T.V. or the people around us. As I mentioned, this was my first ever Christmas apart from my family. Surprisingly, it wasn't as difficult as I thought it would be. After thinking about it for awhile, I concluded that the fact I'm China, where they don't celebrate Christmas is the key factor. The day still seemed special, because while the country went to work, and carried on as usual, I got to go have a nice dinner with my friends. If I had been in the States, watching others celebrate with their families, it would have been a different story. Indeed the only time when I had the Christmas blues, was when I logged into Facebook.

4. Traditions are important, even when you're thousands of miles away. Whether it's making sugar cookies or watching The Muppets Christmas Carol, traditions keep us aware of where we come from, and who we're going to be.

5. A Christmas tree makes all the difference. I haven't quite made my apartment my own yet, but adding a Christmas tree, suddenly made my living room a place I wanted to be. 

6. People freaking love Christmas music. My playlists on Spotify, have never had very many followers, but my Christmas playlist kind of soared in popularity this year. Huzzah!

7. Minion Monopoly is much more fun than dummy regular Monopoly. My sister Abby kind of loves minions, and so the majority of her presents this year were minion related. One such gift was Minion Monopoly. This is a thing that exists. Falling asleep, while listening to my family play this game over Skype, was my best Christmas memory this year.

8. I love being a kindergarten teacher at Christmas. It means you get to dress up in a red coat and hat and give sweets and toys to cutie Chinese children. Bring on the happiness!

9. Chinese New Year! My holiday season extends well into February. I guess the decorations get to stay up that long too!

10. The Incarnation is where it's at. Extra points to those who know who coined that phrase. I spent most of December contemplating, just how bizarre, miraculous and pinnacle the truth of the incarnation is. What difference does the divinity of Christ make to the life of the believer? The answer: it makes all the difference. 

No one has ever seen God; the only God, who is at the Father's side, He has made Him known
John 1:18

I hope you all had a wonderful Christmas and a Happy New Year. Bring on 2016; it's going to be epic!

Monday, December 28, 2015

Music Monday: Carry The Ghost Review

         My hiatus from this blog came at a bad time, because a lot of really great albums came out between August and December: some really great ones and then some really big disapointments. So I have a lot of reviews to catch up on, and I apologise if they seem redundant at this point, but whatever!

           I thought I'd start with what I think is the best album to come out in all of 2015: Carry The Ghost by Noah Gundersen. It's times like these that I really thank my lucky stars for having Liz Tramp in my life. If it weren't for Liz, I would never have even heard of Noah Gundersen, and then my life would never have been the same. So, thank you Liz for having great taste in music, and I think you're pretty great too!

          Gundersen is one of those artists who could make the happy birthday song sound like the most passionate and pivotal thing he's ever sung in his whole life. His music just takes over the emotional side of your brain and holds on with a terrier-esc grip. His debut album Ledges, was and is my go to album to trump all others. Carry The Ghost is no different my friends. I could listen to this album all day,  every day for the rest of my life, and never tire of it. It is in a word: flawless.

           Gundersen is a modern folk artist, so it is no surprise that this album, like Ledges, is unequivocally folk. The lyrics present a broken, passionate, wreck of a man in true folk fashion;  however, instrumentally, Carry the Ghost has a little more bite to it. While Ledges infused it's songs with rich fiddle, and acoustic guitar almost exclusively, Ghost includes more electric guitar, percussion, and a much more present piano.

            The album opens with solo piano, playing the opening chords of Slow Dancer. The piano gives way to electric guitar rifts, and soft percussion, and later, a frantic and passionate string section. Slow Dancer feels like the old-school ballads of yesteryear, and is a beautiful way to set the tone for the rest of the album. Halo (Appear/Disappear) is a dark self-examination: beautiful and heartbreaking. Gundersen has a way of making each lyric matter, without making you feel like he's forcing the emotion out of his songs. It just flows so naturally from his song writing and his performance.

             Selfish Art is perhaps one of the most interesting songs on Ghost. It is Gundersen analysing his song writing, it's purpose in the grand scheme of things, and the motivation behind it. It is raw and unashamedly honest.

I'm watching as the stage goes black
How long until we all go back 
To being nothing at all
Nothing but a spark in someones eye
Am I giving all that I can give
Am I earning the right to live
By looking in a mirror
There's nothing more sincere than selfish art

           Gundersen examines past, broken relationships, in Show Me The Light, Silver Bracelet, Jealous Love, and Blossom. Silver Bracelet uses light guitar trills and tender visuals, as Gundersen recalls fond memories of better times.

Silver bracelet in my cup
Holder marks like bread crumbs on your trail line
And the pictures on the fridge
From the booth in Tennessee that one time
When I was in love and you were in love with me also
Holding my hand
Kissing my mouth like you wanted to
Back before the money tool its toll
Back before the rhythm lost its soul
Back before I made up my mind to go

Blossom is especially beautiful in its lyrics and instrumentation. Gundersen sadly sings about a loving a relationship, that still could not work, while sincerely wishing the other well: "May you blossom like a flower, may you go dancing in the air"

Gundersen also examines the topics of human nature, sexuality, and God in The DifferenceEmpty From the Start, and Topless Dancer 

         Carry the Ghost is a beautiful sophomore album for Gundersen. It is an emotional, tender, sensual and passionate folk album and I am entirely in love with it. I struggle to find fault lines or cracks in Ghost for this review. If there are any, it's that it's just not long enough, so I definitely recommend the Deluxe edition.

P.S. blogging in China is great! I can write a Music Monday on a Tuesday, even though it's still Monday for a large portion of my readers! Winning!

P.P.S: Hope you all had a great Christmas! 

Monday, December 21, 2015

Music Monday: Christmas Edition 2015

Hello blog friends! It's hard to believe Christmas is nearly upon us already. The season has seemed even more elusive being in China this year, but I'll do a longer post in that later. In the meantime I've posted this precious live recording if Daniela Andrade's "Christmas Time is Here." Happy Last Monday Before Christmas!!

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