Honestly, I just know don't who record executives think they are sometimes. As I see it, a record label is a commercial entity which exists to provide the service of helping musicians to get their music out to a wider audience. The label handles a lot of the dirty work that the artist either doesn't want to do or doesn't have time to do (such as marketing, promotion, logistical details, etc.), and the trade-off is a cut of the profits. Often times a label will put up the money for time in a decent recording studio, extra musicians as needed, etc., expecting that they'll get at least that much back from the artist upon sale of the record. And that's all well and good. They provide those services, and without them, I may have never heard of my favorite artists. But what I really hate is when they that that performing these services gives them the right to be the one in charge and tell the artist how they should be making their art.
Case in point: Essential Records and the band Jars of Clay. After hitting it big in 1995 and 1996 with solid singles from their self-titled album on Christian and mainstream radio, the Jars became Essential's flagship band, the only one they had signed at the time that is still around making music today. The label would probably be history if not for them. And what has the label given them in return? Well, in my opinion, a lot of jerking around. You want to record a Christmas album? No, we want a worship album from you instead. You want to just do a regular studio album instead? Fine, but we won't release it unless it has a simplistic worship song to put out as a radio single. You want to record a more sparse, folk-based album with themes of sin and repentance and the paradox of grace? Fine, but the only radio singles will be the happy ones and that fun 70's cover you did. On and on it goes, with the label putting their need to make a profit and get ahead in front of the band - the artist that they signed up to serve - and their desire to simply express what's on their hearts in a creative manner. Somehow, Jars of Clay has been able to put out no less than five highly creative studio albums despite this increasing pressure. But the cracks are beginning to show, and nowhere have they shown more clearly than on Jars of Clay's sixth album, Redemption Songs.
Now let's get something straight. In a roundabout way, the Jars are finally giving their label the "worship album" they wanted. They've just chosen to do this in the form of old hymns, many of them with altered melodies, and several of them too obscure for most people to know. But they're solid hymns, for the most part, featuring pensive, convicting, and uplifting words about man's desperate need for God, a theme which fits in with so much of what the band has been trying to express from Day 1. The music, taking its cue from 2003's Who We Are Instead, is strongly rooted in folk and Gospel, filtered through the band's keen pop/rock sensibilities. It ain't the most trendy style out there, but it's what the band has settled on after trying on a few stylistic hats, and they sound great doing it. For obvious reasons, this is the most explicitly Christian Jars record ever, which should come as relief to the label since their lyrics tended toward the enigmatic from Much Afraid up until The Eleventh Hour, which confused a lot of fans (but not this one; I thought it was highly intriguing). And shoot, the band even recorded this one on their own dime, as a sort of side project. It doesn't even count toward the contract stipulating a certain number of albums that the band owes the label. Surely they can be afforded a little leeway on this one.
But apparently that isn't the opinion of one Robert Beeson, who all but threatened to pull the plug on this little project (i.e. refuse to release the album) if he wasn't allowed to get his fingers in the pie. The label wanted a single. Too much of this stuff about sin and repentance and, oh I don't know, actual honesty must have seemed too depressing, and certainly our listeners would be too put off by that, so can't we have something upbeat and happy? Something like, oh I don't know, a poppy take on "It Is Well with My Soul"? The band fought that one and lost. Sure, it's only one song on an album of thirteen, and that doesn't make the album bad, but sheesh, way to show gratitude to the band who essentially (pun intended) kept your company alive before you were able to snag the likes of Caedmon's Call, Third Day, etc. from other labels and manipulate them into dullness as well. It's the principle of the thing that bugs me. Jars of Clay wanted to do something more directly spiritual and worshipful than anything they've done in the past, and they wanted to reach deeper and really give their audience some food for thought and meditation, and I guess the label thinks we're too stupid and immature to care, eh? (Certainly it's what Christian radio thinks, hence the pressure for a brainless radio-single edition of an otherwise solid hymn, but that doesn't mean that it's right to think that way.) I mean, it's fine if you're honestly trying to help a green young performer learn how exactly to hone his or her skills and best communicate whatever God has laid on their heart to communicate. But for a group of Christians who supposedly believe that God equips these artists with good talent and a good message, it's heartbreaking to think that they would so frequently meddle with it in the name of making a buck. I realize that everyone has mouths to feed, but surely this can be achieved without communicating to artists that no one will like them as they are, and communicating to the audience that they're a bunch of morons who solely crave spiritual baby food.
Now I'm trying not to let this one lost battle get me down. I'm still happy to have a copy of Redemption Songs sitting in my hands. It's always a thrill to hear new material from my favorite band. While it's a more subdued album than past recordings (possibly even more than WWAI), and therefore it takes a little more time to really get into, Jars of Clay has, for the most part, translated these songs into their own style quite well. While there are few truly "poppy" songs on this record, the more reflective style seems natural when considering the context of the lyrics. All the same, it's not a bunch of solemn, organ-laden drudgery, either. The slower songs are often some of the most colorful, with rich acoustic guitar tones, the gentle touch of Charlie Lowell's keyboards, and vocals from Dan Haseltine that range from sweet to slightly gritty. (OK, so the guy doesn't sound as good in his lower register than he does in the higher, more fragile tone that won me over on Much Afraid, but he's still got a good range and the backing vocals provided by the other guys are always a welcome touch.) And we even get some smartly placed guest appearances from Sarah Kelly and the Blind Boys of Alabama. Within these Redemption Songs you'll find a fair balance between the earthly and the heavenly. There's a lot of confession going on here, but also a lot of hope as the guys look forward to their heavenly home, the culmination of the long and painful refining process happening in the here and now. To really meditate on these words and get the mood that the band is trying to convey is a sublime experience.
Well, if you skip one track, anyway.
God Be Merciful to Me (Psalm 51)
I am evil, born in sin
Thou desirest truth within
Thou alone my Savior art
Teach Thy wisdom to my heart...
The faint sounds of laughter, and Charlie Lowell's keys, set the tone for a fairly light-hearted song of praise with a relaxed drum beat and slightly playful slide guitars. As with many of the songs on this album, this one is concerned with a plea for forgiveness, and not just that, but for an honest change of heart on the part of the sinner. There's a sense of gladness behind it that works, because even though the singer has "long provoked Thee to Thy face", there's an assurance of how God will respond. Certainly a lot of fair-weather fans are not going to consider a song that states "I am evil, born in sin" to be a prime candidate for a radio-friendly sing-along, but hey, it's the truth. And the song does indeed show some strong melodies when Dan's voice gets more intense during the bridge and the other guys harmonize. The song closes out with a gentle outro of thumping drums, sweet "oooh"s from Dan, and a glorious sprinkling of banjo, likely provided by multi-instrumentalist Steve Mason.
I Need Thee Every Hour
Stay Thou nearby
Temptations lose their power
When Thou art nigh...
Shifting into an interesting variant on a 3/4 rhythm that takes a little while to unravel due to the strongest drum hit is on "3", this song places a beloved hymn in a wide open space, once again filling the background with soft "ooh"s from the other guys. I don't know the original well enough to know if the melody was toyed with, but I'd assume that at least a little bit of this happened because of the sweet ascending chord progression during the intro and the song's climax. Dan's vocals are at their strongest here, staying smooth through most of it but sounding stronger and more passionate as the song builds to its finish. The electric guitar adds a nice bit of texture here without being overwhelming, even getting a very brief solo somewhere in the middle. While the repetitions of "I need Thee, I need Thee, I need Thee" can get to be a little redundant near the end, this probably won't bug anyone who was okay with "I need You, I need You, I need You" three years ago.
God Will Lift Up Your Head
Through waves and clouds and storms, He gently clears the way
Wait because in His time, so shall this night
Soon end in joy...
Okay, now this is a single. Not that one is required to make a good record, but if you're going to be unabashedly poppy, might as well do it in your own quirky way. As the band starts out with very minimal guitar strumming and a basic drum beat, Charlie provides a chimey little keyboard riff that proves to be one of the song's big hooks, adding a joyful and playful tone to the whole thing. Dan starts off in his less impressive, lower scale, but as the song builds, he gets into a nice interplay with the other guys during the chorus, crying out "Lift up your head!" as the guys echo the song's title behind him. (This chorus changes to match the end of each verse, which keeps things from getting too repetitive.) The chorus is one of the lone semi-rocking moments on the album, which isn't surprising, since Jars of Clay has mostly backed away from trying to prove themselves as a full-fledged rock band. The song has been compared to the style of The Eleventh Hour, and I can see that from the prominent electric guitar and drums and the keyboard riffs, but it's honestly a lot less polished, so If I Left the Zoo might be a better comparison. It's a jump-up-and-down-happy song that deserves to be played as such, since it's a lyric of bold encouragement. It's perhaps the strongest track on the record (though some others are more creatively played), but I sincerely hope Christian radio doesn't take that to mean that it's OK to only show us the happy side with the singles that it chooses to play.
I'll Fly Away
When the shadows of this life have grown, I'll fly away
Like a bird from these prison walls, I'll fly away...
Up next comes a rather straightforward, but likeable, take on a classic spiritual that I'm still kicking myself for not sticking around for when I saw the band live in 2003. (I did catch it, as well as my first taste of "God Will Lift Up Your Head", at last year's Billy Graham Crusade.) Once again well-textured by way of Steve Mason's electric guitar and Charlie Lowell's organ, the mid-tempo song slowly works itself into a fervor with Sarah Kelly offering a little bit of spunk and attitude as she capably fills the role that Ashley Cleveland filled on the previous album's "Amazing Grace" (not the hymn) and "Jealous Kind". For a song with such a plaintive melody, they sure do make the weariness of the mortal world and the aching for Heaven sound compelling and real, instead of fluffy and detached like most CCM songs about Heaven do.
Nothing But the Blood
Nothing can for sin atone
Not of good that I have done
This is all my hope and peace
This is all my righteousness...
One might be tempted, upon hearing this song, to think that Jars of Clay is attempting to make their own Rattle and Hum by saying, "See, we hang out with Black folks too!" But I'll resist that temptation. Hey, I can't blame 'em if they simply grabbed the talent (in this case, the Blind Boys of Alabama) necessary to appropriately compliment this next hymn. They've done funky things to the melody and they've kind of mushed together two verses at a time in order to not have to repeat the chorus so much, but forget all that, this is fun! The Blind Boys back them up capably on background vocals while Steve Mason and Matt Odmark have a field day with the twangy guitars and banjos and stuff. It works out as a nice little call-and-response tune, even if Dan does sound a bit out of his league among the other guys wailing away. The ending does get a bit repetitive with all of its "Nothing, nothing"s, but I can't be too hard on 'em for getting carried away with it - after all, they havin' church! (A friend of mine pointed out to me the irony of having a Black Gospel group singing "make me white as snow", which made me laugh, but let's not mix our metaphors here.)
Let Us Love and Sing and Wonder
Let us love the Lord who bought us
Pitied us when enemies
Called us by His grace and taught us
Gave us ears and gave us eyes...
Here the album returns to more of a relaxed pace with the drums beating out a gentle march (funny, the emphasis on drums in so many of these songs when drummer Ben Mize is only a recurring studio player and the band has no permanent drummer) and Charlie's keyboards adding a bell-like ambience. Strains of harmonica and a quick acoustic guitar strum bleed in later, but the drums and keyboards more or less define the song. Curiously, the band chose to do this one as a duet with Martin Smith, lead singer of Delirious? I guess it's not all that surprising to hear Martin on a worship album, but it's one of those cases where the voice seems to be present more due to recognizability than due to it fitting in with Dan's or with the song. The repeated line "He has washed us with His blood" is the main meditation of the song, and its gentle tone invites us to reflect on the concept of mercy vs. justice. It's unfortunate that Martin has to mar an otherwise decent song by forgetting where he is and starting to spontaneously insert lines from one of his old Delirious? songs. The pairing had potential, but I don't see how it really helps the song.
O Come and Mourn with Me Awhile
O break, O break, hard heart of mine
My weak self-love and guilty pride
His Pilate and His Judas were
Jesus our Lord is crucified...
I have to say that this is one moment (other than the blatantly obvious one, which I'll get to later) where the tone of the music doesn't really fit the lyric. That's unfortunate for Jars of Clay, since they usually have a knack for this sort of thing, but I can't quite explain the decision to match a song about mourning the crucifixion of Jesus with a strong, moderately up-tempo drum beat and a decidedly major key melody with rich harmonizing. I guess I'd expect such a song to maintain a lower profile, painting darker colors and leaving the expected victory for either the end of the song, or a song to follow later. In terms of lyrics, we're still on solid ground here, since the crucifixion being pondered is something that we realize is the fault of each and every one of us (so no worries about people accusing Jars of Clay of being anti-Semitic, right?) Maybe I could see this arrangement working as part of an Easter Sunday service, but I'm still not getting the sensation of "mourning" here.
You know the vileness of my heart
So prone to act the rebel's part...
Perhaps the most low-key song on the album is up next - this is one that you almost have to turn up or you'll miss it. There's something crystalline about this song, with its gentle violin and its softly clanking percussion that reminds me of cans tied to the back of a bicycle (except more musical than that). The song is a calm, relaxing refuge, perfect for unwinding and for meditating, but in it there is also the admission that sometimes we know this type of refuge is available in God, and we don't seek it out. It's a thoughtful and realistic approach in comparison to the often detached nature of a lot of modern worship songs.
Jesus, I Lift My Eyes
Here, oh my soul, thy trust repose
If Jesus is forever mine
Not death itself, that last of foes
Can break a union so divine...
A somewhat angular guitar strum comes ambling in sideways, giving this song a bouncy but tense feel that's hard to describe in terms of what it sounds like. Another strong melody drives this one along, a steady balance between desperation and celebration. It's one of those songs that for some reason, sounds like it'd be good for a road trip though the countryside (I think I said that about a few tracks on WWAI, didn't I?) This one is more basic in terms of its lyric, simply stating trust an assurance in Jesus in difficult times and saying "To Thee I breathe my soul's desires". The song plays it subtle, even keeping Steve Mason's electric guitar solo brief before the last chorus, but it's still strong in its subtlety as it zig-zags along to its conclusion.
It Is Well with My Soul
My sin, oh the bliss of that glorious thought
My sin, not in part, but the whole
Is nailed to the cross and I bear it no more
Praise the Lord, Praise the Lord, O my soul...
OK, time to put on my harsh critic hat - and I never thought I'd have to do this for Jars of Clay, but I do it with the realization that this is not entirely their fault. I can accept that Jars of Clay has a good amount of Beatles influence, so it's not surprising to hear them channeling the Fab Four on a few of their own tunes. What's truly disheartening, though, is hearing them play such a solemn hymn as this (it was written by a man passing over the spot in the ocean where his wife and children had drowned) as if they were hamming it up for an audience on The Ed Sullivan Show. I mean, I love that they've got the little vocalizations and slightly bent melodic fragments down, but dudes, this is about as appropriate as hiring a circus clown for a funeral. What they've done to the tune of this one is just plain embarrassing, continually returning it to the same base chord, as if they didn't know more than about three of 'em, which totally convolutes an otherwise attractive melody. Even if I didn't know the original song that they were screwing up, I'd probably hate this one due to its insistence on forcing its way back to that same dang chord. They try to juice it up with some playful piano and organ, but that only makes it even more awkward. Honestly, I wouldn't be surprised as if the band has done this intentionally after having it "suggested" to them that they try an upbeat rendition of this song so that the project could have a single. I mean, when someone's that insistent that their idea will work, might as well prove to them that it won't by doing something intentionally ridiculous and silly like this, eh? Unfortunately, executive producer Robert Beeson apparently had about as much of a sense of humor as Sean Penn, and so he didn't get the joke. I can just see the guys' smirking faces falling dramatically and turning into exasperated expressions of shock and disgust upon playing this for him and having him declare that he really liked it and thought it would be a hit. Man, I might hate this one even more than I hate anything on Kutless's last album. Strong words, but that's how seriously I take it when you muck with my favorite band's creative process.
On Jordan's Stormy Banks I Stand
No chilling wind, nor poisonous breath
Can reach that bountiful shore
Where sickness, sorrow, pain and death
And felt and feared no more...
Here's the other song that I missed from that fateful concert that I mistakenly left early, not realizing it was over. Another mellow and straightforward spiritual, much like "I'll Fly Away", this one brings the Blind Boys back for an encore, though their presence isn't as pronounced here. The mood here is a lot more like that of an old-school country song, just taking its time to enjoy the scenery without being in any rush to get where it's going. This allows ample time for a fiddle to weave in and out of the constant, almost dry guitar strumming, and Steve Mason also pulls off a delicious mandolin solo in the song's middle eight. The workmanlike feel of the song somehow manages to fill me with a strange sense of elation that I often don't get from songs as basic as this - something about the chorus of "I am bound, I am bound, I am bound for the Promised Land" makes me want to be one of those people who stand up and shout "Hallelujah!" in church, and you know, I'm never like that. I figure Heaven is still a long way off for this young soul, but this song reminds me of something that would certainly seem close to it - a concert collaboration between Jars of Clay and Nickel Creek that would probably only ever happen in my mind's eye.
Thou Lovely Source of True Delight
And ah, too soon the pleasing scene
Is clouded over with pain
My gloomy fears rise dark between
And I again complain...
Another gentle acoustic number shows up here, which ends up being an unassuming highlight late in the album. It feels like something that might have worked as one of the new tracks on the Furthermore compilation - Dan's humble vocal is lovely as ever, and Steve Mason's lap steel is a sublime addition, bringing Jars of Clay a little closer to Over the Rhine territory (there's another dream team I wouldn't mind hearing collaborate with each other!) Steve also provides good background vocals on this song, and the verse melody here repeats several times but never seems to get tiresome. The way that the band builds off it and creates a soaring musical sunset out of it reminds me of "Faith Enough" from the last album - not the kind of song that would snag most folks' attention at first, but the kind that doesn't let go once it's got a hold on you. This one would actually be a good closer, even on a regular Jars album, because the poetic language fits with the kind of lyrics that the band would normally write (and I miss those lyrics on an album entirely comprised of covers, but they're theologically rich and respectable lyrics all the same). The admissions of doubt and pleas for God to chase nagging fears away here are like strokes of sunlight breaking through dark clouds - the light is made more beautiful because of the colors it brings out in an otherwise dark landscape.
They'll Know We Are Christians by Our Love
We will work with each other, we will work side by side
And we'll guard each man's dignity and save each man's pride...
One might almost consider this final hymn to be a bit of an afterthought, a bonus track, since "Thou Lovely Source" closed things out so nicely. I'm fine not having it separated from the rest of the album, but its tone is a lot different, with Dan's weary voice droning out the familiar tune of reconciliation and community, implying some sort of ironic reason for this cover. The plunking banjo and stuttering drums definitely create a haunting atmosphere, and it makes me wonder if this is meant to be a commentary on how Christians are so eager to worship in song, but how they fail to worship by backstabbing each other instead of showing love. A lot of people are going to be puzzled by this moody ending, but I think it's a sort of disturbance of the soul that causes one to think, kind of like a convicting sermon that gets delivered on a Sunday morning, causing us to view the words that we've all sung so happily just minutes before in a more profound light.
Wow. I can't help but wonder if ending the album on that note is their subtle way of saying that they're fed up with the quarreling with their record label, and that they just want to move on to a place where they can share what God has given them to share without having to battle someone over it. I guess we'll see - one more "real album" from these guys (since this one didn't count) and their contract with Essential is up. Here's hoping that they take the opportunity to "fly away" to find success at another label, or even as an indie band - Lord knows I'll follow 'em pretty much wherever they go, and I'm starting to find that they have enough core fans who have stuck with them this long and who won't lose track of them just because a silly imprint changes. They'll be OK. There's just too much redeeming value in what they do for crass commercialism and bureaucracy to get them down for long.
God Be Merciful to Me (Psalm 51) $1
I Need Thee Every Hour $2
God Will Lift Up Your Head $2
I'll Fly Away $1.50
Nothing But the Blood $1
Let Us Love and Sing and Wonder $.50
O Come and Mourn with Me Awhile $.50
Hiding Place $1
Jesus, I Lift My Eyes $1.50
It Is Well with My Soul -$1
On Jordan's Stormy Banks I Stand $2
Thou Lovely Source of True Delight $2
They'll Know We Are Christians by Our Love $1.50
Dan Haseltine: Vocals, accordion
Steve Mason: Acoustic & electric guitars, lap steel, banjo, mandolin
Charlie Lowell: Keyboards
Matt Odmark: Acoustic guitars