Don't you just hate it when good bands get jerked around by their record labels? I know it bugs me. Alas, it even happens to my favorite band, Jars of Clay. Less than a year after the release of their excellent fourth album, The Eleventh Hour, Essential Records has decided that it's time to unleash a greatest hits collection. However, if there's anything we should have learned about Jars of Clay by now, it's that they won't settle for mediocrity. Perhaps they saw the mediocre U2 collection that came out last fall, or the even more laughable greatest hits discs that their own label put a few years ago for All Star United and Plumb, and decided they'd better take matters into their own hands. Whatever the case, an anthology entitled Furthermore: From the Studio, From the Stage is now upon us, and in typical Jars fashion, every song featured has been somehow re-worked, re-imagined, re-interpreted.
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Obviously I had a mixed reaction to the news that a hits album was due out already. I mean, the body's not even cold yet! The Eleventh Hour still has plenty of potential singles left that will now see the light of radio. But then, do I really care about radio? Only in so far as it helps determine what Jars songs end up being favored by most of their fair-weather fans. And though I am thankful that the track listing here isn't solely limited to radio hits, I'm rather baffled by a number of songs that were undisputable favorites and were still left out. Forget the songs I developed a personal attachment to. Where's "Fade to Grey"? Where's "Collide"? Where's "Unforgetful You"? Though I guess it should be no surprise that the band's middle two albums got the shaft here, those particular tracks seemed "essential" to me.
The good news is that with this release, the Jar-boys have given us something fans have been wanting to hear for quite some time - an acoustic disc and a live disc. Obviously, both items make for an interesting listen, because your typical Jars album makes enough use of sonic trickery that it's a challenge for the band to pull off a faithful rendition live - or without the aid of amps and electronic effects. The cool thing is that 95% of the time, they make this look like no problem whatsoever. Sure, there are a few songs that never quite sound right in their new form ("Liquid", you are the weakest link! Goodbye!), but for the most part, it's a treat to see what tricks they pull out of the bag to make it all work.
The bad news isn't just the omissions - it's that the shortness of the two discs doesn't really make up for those omissions. The acoustic disc features a meager 10 songs (most of which are short, and only six of which are originally from the group's four albums), and the live disc features 11, which is only about 1/2 to 2/3 of an actual concert. As if it wasn't bothersome enough that the band seems to do a quickie crash course through most of these tracks, without even a brief pause to give you a feel for the band's witty stage personality, it's even less acceptable that all they did was reproduce the audio from their 11ive DVD that came out last fall. Sure, it may be better than letting their record label haphazardly throw together a bunch of the original recordings with "Flood" as track #1, but anyone who actually caught that tour will find the omissions inexplicable.
Anyway, it's still at least an interesting listen despite my disappointment, so without further ado, let's dig in!
DISC ONE: FROM THE STUDIO
Ah, here's an old favorite... the lead track from Much Afraid offers a sort of deja vu as it reappears at the front of this disc, toned down a notch to give it more of a "coffeehouse" feel. Actually, the gently brushed drums and Charlie Lowell's piano playing add a bit of a jazz tinge, which does a lot to keep it from feeling like the same old song. While I still prefer the original with its Beatles-style melodies and cymbal crashes and all that, this is still a good interpretation of a joyful song.
Interestingly, the second track here is also the second track from The Eleventh Hour. The change here is more obvious, focusing more prominently on the acoustic guitar, when the original had more of a balance between the acoustic and electric. Again, a lot of the gaps are filled in by Charlie Lowell, this time using more of an "organ" tone on his keyboard, and of course Matt Odmark's trademark picking and strumming keeps the song recognizable. This interpretation would have fit in especially well on Much Afraid.
The Valley Song (Sing of Your Mercy)
Though the pain is an ocean
Tossing us around, around, around
You have calmed greater waters
Higher mountains have come down...
The first of three new songs appears here, this one being the single used to promote the project. It's a folksy, swaying song in 3/4 with a strong worship element to it - likely another bi-product of Essential pressuring the band to record a worship album. Of course, these things are always more high quality when Jars attempts them - here they prove that they can even do something original with a reading of Psalm 23. Though the song stumbles a bit by using the odd metaphor of death as a gypsy, and re-using the "fatal cut" line from "I Need You", and the song is overall too similar to "Hymn" and "This Road" to stand on its own two legs, it's got an earnest chorus, echoing "hallelujah"s, and a clever little pause in the middle where Dan Haseltine's voice is left hanging out in the middle of nowhere before the rest of the band joins in again. You gotta love it.
Aaargh... When will they stop trying to re-record this song? This is the song that introduced me to the band, and it's just never been the same without its kinetic drumbeat, dramatic harmonies, and eerie Gregorian chants. I'm all for clever reinterpretations and everything, but this one just isn't clever... it drags. It's not even a whole lot of fun to sing along with because of how much Dan has warped its original melody. I'd take any of their mediocre live versions of the song over this.
The Eleventh Hour
Now this is what I call a tasty acoustic rendition! One of my least favorite tracks from the album of the same name gets a makeover here with excellent results, thanks to a hammered dulcimer that gets thrown into the mix (frustratingly, the liner notes fail to mention which band member is playing it, but my guess is Charlie, since it replaces his piano part). Other than that, it's faithful to the structure of the song, which was a decent composition to begin with, but here it really comes to life, allowing the individual instruments to shine through, whereas on the album version felt a bit muddled together.
Will the eagle fly if the sky's untrue?
Do the faithful sigh because they are so few?
The second "new" song on the disc is actually a sparse cover of a 10-year-old song by Adam Again, one of the pioneering bands in Christian alternative music. I'm not familiar with the original, but the band gives it a minimalistic, haunting quality, which works well. The upright bass actually shines through quite a bit in this song - a bit of an unusual instrument for Jars of Clay to bring to the forefront since they don't have a full-time bass player (I suspect it's Steve or Matt in this case). In that sense, the song brings to mind the long lost Five O'Clock People. While I'm glad Jars can give a nod to their history, I still find myself wishing this didn't have to take the place of a few other Jars classics that deserve to be here.
We made it to a strange town, going down the wrong road
Like any story retold, couldn't find a common ending...
The final new song picks up as "Dig" trails off, almost fooling you into thinking it's a continuation of the same song. The mood has shifted, though, to a slightly more twangy guitar style, similar to "The Widowing Field", which was their contribution to the We Were Soldiers soundtrack last year. The lyrics are fittingly cryptic, which also helps the song to be a good follow-up to "Dig", since they seem to be casting a cynical eye at a false savior ("You said you were redemption"). Like some of the more memorable songs in the Jars catalogue, I can tell this one'll take a little unraveling, and the tasty acoustic parts will be enough to keep me listening over and over until I've figured it out.
Love Song for a Savior
This version doesn't fall too far from the recording we all know and love from the band's self-titled album. The programming is of course replaced with lighter, human-played percussion, and the whistles and other touches that garnished the original are replaced by Dan's accordion. Other than that, it's a fairly straightforward interpretation. My only real complaint is that Steve Mason's vocal contributions aren't as strong here as they were on the original, which is true of a lot of these new versions - Dan's voice is left out on its own where you're used to hearing the other guys backing him up.
This is the third recording of this song to be officially released - fans know the original instrumental version from the independent debut, as well as the "Crazy Times" single and The White Elephant Sessions bonus disc. And then there's the "official" version with lyrics from Much Afraid. This version keeps the lyrics and the steady percussion from the re-recording, keeps the focus on that mesmerizing guitar picking pattern that so many of us would love to learn to play, and somehow manages to evoke the same mood without using all the strings and background whispers and stuff that ornamented the Much Afraid version. Dan turns in a great vocal performance here, helping flesh out the instrumental coda with sweet "ooh"s as Charlie adds a lovely piano fill. It cuts off a bit suddenly at the end (as most of these tracks do) and doesn't run to the epic seven-minute length fans are used to, but it's still a breathtaking reading of a classic.
Short and semi-sweet, the worship song that the band contributed to the Exodus compilation is featured here. The stripped-down arrangement doesn't seem to affect the song much at the beginning, though it's apparent that it's missing some of its power by the time it reaches the chorus. It's very frustrating that they left out the bridge and felt the need to trim the song to less than three minutes - this seems more like one of the demos that would've ended up on The White Elephant Sessions.
And there you have it - the acoustic disc is done, spanning 37 minutes, which is half the capacity of your average blank CD. They could have done so much more, and at the very least tossed on a song or two from If I Left the Zoo.
DISC TWO: FROM THE STAGE
As the live disc fades in, you can hear the distinct echo of strings getting louder and louder... apparently somebody took the bridge from "Flood" and made kind of a looped dream sequence out of it. Cool, even though I'm sure that wasn't part of the actual concert. Anyhow, this leads into applause and then the triumphant drum kick-off that we're all used to hearing at the beginning of The Eleventh Hour. (Apparently the band decided this was better than the numbers that actually opened their concerts on this tour, one of which was an odd melding of "Silence" with the Beatles classic "Here Comes the Sun" and one of which was yet another sub-par version of "Liquid".) They're pretty much faithful to the album version here, with the only noticeable difference being the Steve's backup vocals near the end don't sound as cool as they do on the CD.
Like a Child
After years of tinkering around with my very favoritest song in a live setting, the band has finally come full-circle and decided it's best interpreted as it was on the CD, clean acoustic intro and all. Since the band apparently borrowed a string section for this concert (they weren't on the rest of the tour), they were able to get much closer to the original recording while fully using the power of live drums (played by Joe Porter - though I know Dan goes back to a second kit to help him out in the middle of the song!) It's nice to finally have a good live recording of this song, since it wasn't featured on Stringtown. It's even nicer that despite the inclusion of the strings, Steve's usual valiant effort to replace them with an awesome acoustic guitar solo in the middle of the song is at last preserved on CD for fans to cherish. There is one minor annoyance toward the end of the song, when Dan trades off vocal lines with the audience during the second chorus. A lot of people scoff when bands do this on live albums, pointing out, in all fairness, that they're not paying to hear the band sing, not a crowd of bozos - but what's worse here is that you're paying to hear them not sing. Seriously, you can hardly hear the crowd at all. Someone apparently fell asleep at the mixing board here, which is honestly discouraging on an album by four guys who make such a big deal of producing their own music in their own studio.
Here we have the obligatory one track from Much Afraid that must be played at every concert. I've heard some great live versions of this (though it was inexplicably left off of Stringtown), but this isn't one of them. It's like the band doesn't seem quite sure of the arrangement they want to use (Dan starts off with the chorus), and Steve seems to muddle his guitar solo - it lacks the fire that it's usually had when I've seen the band live.
I Need You
It's almost startling how quickly one track flows into another on this album, with none of the usual commentary from Dan or anything. I mean, I really hate it when live albums contain long sections of talking, but this disc gives the false impression that the band never interacts with their audience at all. Anyway, this song hits the ground running, slightly altering the acoustic guitar part at the intro (I guess Steve and/or Matt decided to improvise on that one pain-in-the-butt chord they stuck in there on the album), but otherwise remaining intact. I realize that this is the tour for The Eleventh Hour and so most of that disc's front half belongs here, though if they were going to selectively edit songs out of the concert, I have to wonder how this all-too-normal version made the cut. Probably because it's their new worship song that everyone knows and Essential insisted it had to be on there even though it's one of their weakest, lyrically speaking.
The Eleventh Hour
Okay, do we really need two versions of this song taking up space where other songs would have been so much more exciting? I rather like how the band plays this one live - again, not too different from the album version, but there's something about it that has more punch. Still, I thought the acoustic version was great, and I don't feel like any value is being added by including the song as part of the live disc when other highlights of the show such as "Collide" or their oddball rendition of Cyndi Lauper's "Girls Just Wanna Have Fun" were left out.
Gee... it would have been nice if they had actually played this song on the tour! (Sorry, I'm still bitter over the fact that the band played pretty much the exact same set on last year's spring tour and fall tour.) I'm pretty sure they haven't had this one in their set list since the City on a Hill album first came out. It's a lovely, acoustic guitar and accordion driven number dedicated to encouraging those who are being persecuted for their faith - and as such, it's a little weird to hear it just come sliding in without any sort of an introduction. It doesn't feel right just plopped into the middle of the concert like this. Anyhow, it's still a nice bonus to have a live version of what is essentially a rarity, and I like that they keep the reference to the hymn "For the Beauty of the Earth", which Dan plays on his accordion, at the end.
This one changes slightly from the album version in that Steve tacks on a little electric guitar intro before the drums join in - I think this was how the radio edit sounded, but I only heard it once or twice. Even though this wasn't one of my favorites on The Eleventh Hour, it carries a certain buoyant energy in concert and it ends up being a highlight here. It's still strange to hear it with no introduction, though, considering the tragic story of a man losing his wife to leukemia that inspired the song.
This highly ironic tune is the only one on the entire collection from the generally misunderstood If I Left the Zoo. The band decided to pull out all the stops for this one, with Charlie Lowell giving us a funky keyboard intro, and Dan mentioning to the crowd that they decided to bring some friends along to help them out with this one. Those friends turn out to be the Darwin Hobbs Choir, in what is probably one of the stranger appearances on the well-known Gospel artist's resume. Once the song gets going, it's pretty much the same exercise in self-denial as it is on the album version, but it's such a fun sing-along that hearing it live always kicks it up a few notches. Definitely a highlight, and you have to love the brilliant transition at the end where Dan trades vocal licks with the choir: "Yeah yeah... yeah yeah... revolution..."
BAM! One of the most fun tracks the band has ever recorded kicks off in style, keeping the choir around for a little more interplay as the band jams away and Dan sings his nonsense lyrics about underground taxis and learning to play the rock guitar. All the little quirks that made this such a fun song in concert are here, including the fun little hand-claps during the second verse. My only real complaint is that it sounds a little tinny compared to the album version - again, someone probably fell asleep at the soundboard.
With one blast of a rock hit out of the way, it's time for another one... and of course the crowd goes wild the second they recognize Matt's frenetic strum pattern. This version ain't much of a surprise, or anything remarkably different from the Stringtown version because, of course, they have strings. (Though the strings only seem to show up on this song and "Like a Child".) It's fun and for once the recording makes it sound like there are more than 100 people in the audience (though this gets annoying during the bridge when they're so excited about the strings that you can barely hear the music over all the screaming). It's also a bit awkward to listen to when Dan pulls the whole "make the audience sing the song bit" during the second verse, so what you end up hearing is "Can't (feel my) feet (touching) the (ground)". (The stuff in parenthesis is what you're supposed to hear, but don't.)
Though this was the encore during the actual concert, the cheering continues all the way through, as if to give no warning that this is the final track on the album. Jars of Clay always closes out their concerts in style, and lately they've brought this classic back as their closing number rather than including it earlier in the set. If you've never experienced the song live, it's definitely worth hearing, because they always start off with a very quiet, acoustic setting and then bring the rest of the band in over time. Once the song reaches its "official" end, they tend to launch into a long, worshipful coda of "hallelujah"s that goes on for five minutes or so. Since this is the end of the concert, the band actually leaves the stage as the audience is still singing, which has been done before but makes for a nice effect. I know this from actually being there - it's hard to tell on the CD because the singing trails off into applause so abruptly, as if the crowd wasn't really in a worshipful mood. You'd think they'd have had better recording to pick from! I vastly prefer the Stringtown version, though this ten-minute version is decent enough and more representative of how they currently perform the song.
And then, as the audience fades out, another dreamy, barely-there sequence of strings ends off the second disc, evoking memories of the hidden track on the self-titled album. Nice touch, but if they had space to include a ten minute track (which takes up about a fifth of the 53-minute concert), you'd think they could've afforded to include a few more songs (the recordings exist since I know they're on the DVD) and round this out to a nice 70 or so minutes. Oh well.
Something Beautiful $1
The Valley Song (Sing of Your Mercy) $1.50
The Eleventh Hour $1.50
Love Song for a Savior $1.50
Needful Hands $1
Like a Child $1.50
Crazy Times $1
I Need You $1
The Eleventh Hour $0
This Road $1.50
I'm Alright $1.50
Worlds Apart $1.50
TOTAL (both discs): $24
Even though Furthermore is for the most part a quality recording, and a good representation of the band's innovation and artistry, I'm still feeling a bit under whelmed about it. It's nice to have a keepsake of a good tour and some alternate takes of old favorites, but honestly, how much replay value can this thing have when both discs feel disjointed and flawed? If this were any other band's live album, I'd understand - I don't tend to be as big on live recordings anyway, but groups like dc Talk, Iona and the Dave Matthews Band have certainly displayed superior ability in terms of the song selection. If this were just an extra sent out to Jars of Clay's fan club (which I became a member of just to get Stringtown a few years ago, even though that one was so-so quality-wise as well), I would understand. But being a major label release from one of Christian music's top bands, and knowing that these guys have shown both artistic and technical proficiency (in terms of playing and recording) in the past, I was expecting so much more.
It's OK. They're still my favorite band. And I won't give up on giving them a chance to blow my mind.
Dan Haseltine: Lead vocals, accordion, percussion
Steve Mason: Electric and acoustic guitars, background vocals
Charlie Lowell: Piano, organ, keyboards
Matt Odmark: Acoustic and electric guitars
Aaron Sands: Bass (tour only)
Joe Porter: Drums (tour only)
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