Looking Back: “Rough And Rowdy Ways” by Bob Dylan

Bob Dylan is that rarity among artists: a living myth. Scores of scholars have cashed in on penning a thousand words pouring over each one he has sung or, very occasionally, said. His lyrics are credited with being a moving force in the ‘60s cultural revolution. He has proved immune to all fashions and trends, doing whatever strikes his fancy at the moment and letting his audience decide for itself whether it wishes to follow. Such was the case with Rough And Rowdy Ways, his 2020 album that in its release came both as an utter surprise and as a surprise in and of itself.

Musically, Rough And Rowdy Ways is anything but. There is an occasional bluesy snarl, but the vast majority is carefully assembled quiet layers, all instrumentation well blended and deliberately indistinct. In lesser hands such an approach could easily lead to tedium, but Dylan and company make it compelling.

Dylan’s voice has been reduced over the years to a lower register growl befitting a lion in winter. It isn’t pretty; Dylan’s nasally projection has never been pretty. Yet despite its limitations Dylan’s voice remains approachable without being inviting.

Lyrically, Rough And Rowdy Ways finds Dylan at his multilayered best, surface interpretations available but inevitably inviting deeper dives. Those wishing for references to his straightforward Slow Train Coming era faith proclamations will find an occasional tantalizing hint such as this brief nugget from “False Prophet:”

Oh you poor Devil — look up if you will
The City of God is there on the hill

Elsewhere Dylan slyly leaves the listener wondering. In “I Contain Multitudes,” is he referring to each individual’s multifaceted persona or a manipulator’s ability to chameleon their way into controlling others via channeling elements of their nature? All is not open to multiple interpretations; “I’ve Made Up My Mind To Give Myself To You” is a straightforward love song begging to stand alongside “Make You Feel My Love” in the catalog of Dylan songs eagerly covered by others.

The album’s pinnacle is “Murder Most Foul,” an eighteen minute tone poem finding Dylan musing on John F. Kennedy’s assassination in a stream of consciousness vibe that weaves characters as disparate as Wolfman Jack and Stevie Nicks into the story while offering one final moment for Christians to ponder:

The day that they killed him, someone said to me, “Son,
The age of the anti-Christ has just only begun.”

Rough And Rowdy Ways isn’t background bubblegum music for pop poppers. It commands and demands careful listening. Short attention span sufferers will be left cold. But for the initiated thinker, the individual seeking challenge and meat from art, there have been few albums in recent times offering this much substance. The world has long known Bob Dylan is a visionary genius. With Rough And Rowdy Ways, he’s shown he doesn’t mind proving it once more.

Looking Back: “Only Visiting This Planet” by Larry Norman

It’s impossible to objectively review Only Visiting This Planet by Larry Norman. Without this 1972 release, contemporary Christian music as we know it would not exist.

It’s possible if not probable that CCM in some form would have emerged in the mid to late 1970s. But it would not have been the same. It would not, and could not, have addressed political, cultural, and relationship matters without Norman having led the way, letting people know that Christians are aware of what is going on in the world and have lives themselves.

Norman was a stubborn, solitary visionary, often if not always at odds with the music business both secular and Christian. The former gritted their teeth at his open proclamations of Christ, knowing that doing so would immediately strike him from any general public appeal. The Christians couldn’t handle Norman’s music, a mix of not-so gentle folk and roots rock minus the instrumental showmanship, his hair, his lyrics, or Norman himself. Only the few got it.

The cultural references on the album are necessarily dated, yet continue to ring true. Norman was no flag-waving conservative, nor was he a bleeding-heart liberal. He viewed both sides with a critical eye, letting his answer be Jesus almost regardless of the question.

Norman was the outsider’s outsider, the voice letting you know it was okay to admit hurt and pain and confusion without fear of a guilt trip. He didn’t so much expand the horizon of what a Christian in the arts could accomplish as create a new horizon. With Only Visiting This Planet Norman didn’t necessarily invent Christian rock, but he did make it something of value.

The album is available on the Larry Norman website.

Looking Back: “Art Of The State” by AD Proves No Good Artistic Deed Goes Unpunished

Strange as it may seem in this era of autotune and virtual instruments, there was a time in popular music when adventuresome artists were rewarded, at least occasionally, with something other than puzzled looks. No genre encapsulates this bygone age more than progressive rock, which for a time in the 1970s rode high on the charts with bands such as Yes, Emerson Lake & Palmer, Jethro Tull, and Kansas enjoying commercial if not critical success by seeking to interweave classical and avant-garde themes with rock‘n’roll’s rhythmic power.

Fast forward to 1985. Kerry Livgren, de facto leader of Kansas during its mid to late 1970s heyday and author of its two best known songs “Carry On Wayward Son” along with “Dust In The Wind”, was at something of an artistic/career crossroads. The band for which he was known was firmly in his rear view mirror yet alive once more; the following year saw it release Power which featured the top twenty hit “All I Wanted.” Meanwhile, his own band AD, whose lineup was replete with talent to burn, found itself sort-of on the Sparrow label, thus automatically relegated to the Christian rock ghetto, a place even the most fiercely devoted fans from secular days seldom knew existed. And, given how Livgren’s muse was utterly beyond the comprehension of most CCM fans worshipping at the altar of soft pop, he and his band barely registered in the music machine’s playground. Nevertheless, Livgren and company persevered as long as possible, along the way giving us 1985’s Art Of The State.

Art Of The State reminds me of an interview I watched several years ago with Les Claypool, bassist without peer best known for his band Primus. He was talking about the time when he auditioned, believe it or not, for the then-vacant bassist position with Metallica. He didn’t get the job. The interview then cut over to Metallica leader James Hetfield who didn’t even attempt to contain his roaring laughter as he noted about the entire matter, “He was too good for us!” In similar fashion, AD’s sophisticated melodies, arrangements, and lyrics were so far beyond the scope of 99.44% of mid-‘80s CCM it is little wonder why it made no marketplace impact.

The album lacks the standout, forever a mandatory staple hit à la the aforementioned “Carry On Wayward Son” or “Dust In The Wind.” It is filled with meaty inventiveness, be it the positive lilt of “Lead Us To Reason,” which should have been a hit but wasn’t, the apocalyptic grandeur of “The Fury,” and multiple stops in-between. While the overall sound was familiar to Kansas aficionados, Livgren and company declined to recycle his previous band, adding more group vocal punch and rhythm to the hooks. The instrumental excursions during songs were kept brief, sharp, and sweet. Art Of The State is still unmistakably and undeniably prog, but it’s prog purposefully trimmed down.

Livgren is still with us, working on new music. For those looking to find out what they missed while they were loading up on the latest Amy Grant and Michael W. Smith fan fodder, check out Art Of The State. It was, and is, state of the art.

The album is available on Kerry Livgren’s website.

Looking Back: “Dig Here, Said the Angel” by Daniel Amos A Music Masterpiece

(This review originally ran in July of 2013 on examiner.com.)

There’s good. There’s great. There’s brilliant. And then there’s instant timeless classic. “Dig Here, Said the Angel” by Daniel Amos is the latter, and then some.

The band’s first release since 2001’s “Mr. Buechner’s Dream,” “Dig Here, Said the Angel” finds Terry Scott Taylor and compatriots exploring a musical mix fusing various flavors of late ’60s psychedelia with the shimmering combination of power pop and Bakersfield country/latter-day Laurel Canyon Mafia country/rock fusion exemplified in earlier Daniel Amos releases such as “MotorCycle.” The emphasis is on the psychedelic, sometimes basking in musical sunshine such as ‘Jesus Wept’ and other times menacing such as on the title track. Throughout, Taylor and the band’s melodic sense reigns supreme, with nary a tuneless or throwaway track to be found.

Lyrically, the album pierces mind and soul with purposeful intelligence. Taylor has long been one of Christian rock’s premiere lyricists. This time through he has outdone himself, exploring grace’s enveloping nature, the nature of suffering and meditations on his own mortality among other topics. In ‘We’ll All Know Soon Enough’ he challenges non-believers not with Bible-blasting broadsides, but with a quiet reminder of mankind’s common fate. On the flip side, ‘Now That I’ve Died’ comes from the viewpoint of how entering heaven entails the ultimate self-improvement movement. The pure anthem ‘The Sun Shines on Everyone’ is a gentle yet forceful reminder that God’s love extends to everyone and He alone reserves judgment. These are but a few of the terrific songs from start to finish on this superb album.

It is no exaggeration to say that “Dig Here, Said the Angel” is Daniel Amos’ greatest work. It is also no exaggeration to say that in the annals of Christian rock, only “Only Visiting This Planet” by Larry Norman is a more masterful work. It is that good.

The album is available on the band’s website.

Looking Back: Is Bob Dylan’s “Saved” The Greatest Gospel Album Ever?

First, there was gospel and the blues; twin cousins each at best privately disavowing and usually publicly denouncing each other. Gospel was a group proclamation of salvation and eternal reward, a fervent celebration by its creators whose ofttimes sole hope in a land of freedom was freedom begrudgingly won not by the shedding of blood fighting external oppressors, but rather those within the nation. The blues were a primarily solo expression of earthly joys and woes, of relationships and lives gone wrong underneath blistering southern sun and big city alley lights. Both were new and fresh and steeped in rhythm, a rhythm simultaneously denounced and surreptitiously adopted by the less stuffy elements of the white church.

Long after their birth, while gospel remained almost solely an American musical idiom the blues followed American military personnel across the pond to England where it found a ready audience among British kids who were already enamored with skiffle, the 1920s-based mix of Appalachian folk and Delta blues that would later be known as Americana. While by the 1950s skiffle had all but disappeared in the United States, the first wave of British baby boomers who were eager to divest themselves of their parents big band and crooners musical mix — some things never change — locked on to skiffle, from there discovering the blues and adopting it as their own voice. Thus, in the 1960s you had a small army of skinny longhaired kids with funny accents from across the pond wowing American kids with their amped up (literally) interpretation of Robert Johnson and compatriots, music their red very white and blue youthful audience had never heard even though it came out of their own back yard. Add to this mix rock‘n’roll, its own roots firmly planted in the blues with some of the earthiness washed out in favor of an upbeat danceable sheen, and you have the 1960s music revolution that to this day echoes throughout popular culture.

Which leads to Bob Dylan, the mystic chronicler who started out as the folk musician’s folk musician, abruptly switching to rock‘n’roll, unceasingly following his own visions be they of Johanna or no regardless of commercial considerations, and in 1979 rocking the world with Slow Train Coming, an unbridled and unapologetic expression of newfound faith in Christ. If Slow Train Coming set off a explosion, Dylan’s 1980 followup Saved raised the furor to a full-blown firestorm.

Looking back, Saved shows how Dylan fully knew and understood both Scriptural fundamentals and gospel music itself. Replete with straight out of the black church backing vocals and swelling organ flourishes, the album is all substance and zero subtlety. Dylan wisely made no effort to mimic gospel singing, leaning on his nasally granular voice to deliver a message that would make any backwoods preacher proud. The songs bring power on all fronts, Dylan exploring every nook and cranny of gospel from the full-on drive of the album’s title track to rich melodic servitude in “What Can I Do For You”. The album’s highlight is “In The Garden,” Dylan illustrating several moments of Christ’s earthly ministry with the bullet point lyric “When He rose up from the dead / Did they believe?” A question remaining on the table to this day.

Calling Saved the greatest gospel album of all time is a personal opinion; certainly many recordings over the years deserve consideration for that lofty title. That said, Saved does stand out, albeit some twelve to fifteen years later, as an answer to the British invasion. The latter brought the blues to public attention. Saved did gospel the same favor.

The album is available on CD, download, and streaming from all the usual outlets.

Looking Back: “Bloodshot” by The Choir Deeply Satisfies

(This post originally appeared on Goldfish and Clowns in May of 2018.)

It’s difficult to envision veteran Christian alt rockers The Choir being in the company of country artists back when the genre was barely out of its teens, a time finding artists such as The Carter Family, Bob Willis, and Bill Monroe routinely crisscrossing the country planting seeds of a idiom they created. Also, it’s not that Bloodshot, The Choir’s new album, is in any sense a country album. However, there is a common thread; more on this in a bit.

Throughout its career The Choir has with graceful ease traversed between atmospheric and near avant-garde, musically built around Derri Daugherty’s sometimes dreamy and at other moments razor slice guitar while Steve Hindalong’s lyrics have purposefully plumbed relationships, life fragments, and faith through a poet’s eyes. In this respect Bloodshot is no different than its predecessors. The Choir have for decades made extremely even albums, never failing to deliver something solid wrapped within textural diversity. Bloodshot, however, has some twists revealing Messrs. Daugherty and Hindalong are still more than capable of bringing something new to the turntable.

Bloodshot is in many ways the most straightforward album The Choir has ever recorded. Not that the music is an exercise in formulaic commercial ear candy; rather, the songs are simpler without being simplistic: more direct, more immediately accessible. Daugherty frequently employs strummed chords as a foundation upon which to bounce his effects-rich electric work, using it to create far more guitar interplay than is present in most Choir efforts. Even when there is but one guitar present, Daugherty accomplishes the rare feat of creating multiple sound swirls dancing around each other, always perfectly meshed within the song in lieu of drawing attention to themselves alone.

The album also differs lyrically from the majority of prior albums in that it is far more heavily relationship-focused. Not that faith is being dismissed, but on Bloodshot Hindalong is at his most playful and celebratory of love between two people. This is the album you play for those who deride Christian music as bereft of romance.

Where the album harkens back to country’s emerging years is in its songs at their core. They are solid, uncomplicated, and tuneful; the essence of country long before it went cosmopolitan. It is not difficult to hear the compositions and picture them coming out of a dome-shaped AM radio, performed by a small acoustic ensemble in some station’s studio designed for live music. Whether this is intentional or unplanned is something only The Choir can answer, but regardless it is there.

It’s easy, and sadly all too common, for an established band to trot out the same ol’ same ol’ album after album, knowing this will satisfy the vast majority of their audience. The Choir think and act differently. Bloodshot isn’t a radical departure, but rather a superb exploration of songs and sounds fused together, creating a record that’s memorable for all the right reasons.

The album is available on the band’s website.

Looking Back: Seventy Sevens “20 Years Gone” A Superb Compilation

(This review was originally published in December of 2015 on Examiner.com)

As the traditional music industry’s business model transforms in the face of omnipresent streaming and decreasing physical product sales, one of this paradigm shift’s casualties is the greatest hits package. It had been a music industry staple that every year end would bring a large batch of compilation records perfect for gift-giving to the casual fan interested in only the hits instead of any given artist’s catalog work as well as diehard fans needing to have everything released by a favorite. Today, with artists’ product releases separated by years rather than months and fewer consumers owning anything on which to play a CD let alone an album, the greatest hits album has moved alongside aluminum Christmas trees as a relic from a bygone age. Happily, veteran Christian rockers The 77s have given their fans an early Christmas present in the form of Twenty Years Gone, a compilation of the band’s sublime highlights over the past two decades.

Drawing from the band’s catalog in its present trio format, Twenty Years Gone showcases the 77s dual strengths of dreamy, Beach Boys-infused pop and snarling, muscular blues. Ably abetted by Mark Harmon’s supple bass and Bruce Spencer’s subtle drums, songwriter/guitarist/lead vocalist Mike Roe proves time and again he is not a musical chameleon, but rather a multi-faceted master of multiple styles, his tunes always laced with inventive yet comfortable melodies and total six-string mastery. Whether reeling off original songs so well constructed they come across as almost effortless or digging into roots bluesy gospel tracks from the past, Roe and compatriots have created a body of work demonstrating beyond question they are a quintessential American band come not to party the town down but rather to lay bare its soul, pointing out the pain of failed relationships and the healing that comes solely through Christ.

In an era where popular music has become both far more present and increasingly irrelevant in terms of something designed to savor and save, it is utterly refreshing to have a fresh reminder of music as art; not the stuffy pretentious puffery of musicians believing they are too good for their audience, but rather music touching heart, mind, and soul. Roe sings with more than a touch of sardonic on The 77s cover of Wilco’s “The Late Greats” ‘you won’t hear it on the radio.’ Thankfully, with Twenty Years Gone The 77s enable us to hear it period. Which, if not the best gift to receive this Christmas, surely ranks up there.

The record is available for download at the band’s Bandcamp page.

Looking Back: “Unraveling” by Shelly Moore Is A Treasure Waiting To Be Discovered

Although it may not appear to be the case, I am aware of music recorded after 1994, the year the Christian music industry and I bid a not-so fond farewell to one another. While I couldn’t identify most current popular Christian artists if I tried, I am at least aware of a few. I like MercyMe. And then there’s … there’s … um … okay, I like MercyMe.

And Shelly Moore.

I meet Ms. Moore on Facebook, first as a person with shared interests and a decent quantity of friends in common. I’m slowly but surely using Facebook as a networking tool through which to connect with fellow believers of a musical bent. I was aware she created music, but for whatever reason didn’t pursue giving it a listen until earlier this year when she released “Forever Now A Crown,” her first public offering in some eight years. I gave it a try and was immediately enchanted with its gentle yet soaring ethereal power. This led me to immediately snap up her previous work, the most recent of which, 2002’s Unraveling, is the subject of this review.

Moore’s musical base can be described as modern piano pop, sitting comfortably alongside without mimicking artists such as Ben Folds and John Ondrasik’s Five For Fighting. She has a gift for memorable hooks smoothly blending into each song, the end result being tunes boasting both instrumental and vocal lines that stick with the listener as earworms most welcome, not wearying. Moore’s accompaniments are rich without being overblown, sometimes atmospheric and at other times woven from pure Americana stylings. Her vocals are at once vulnerable and confident, warm and human and assured in faith. While Unraveling provides plenty of pleasantry for mainstream music fans, there is well more than enough color and scope to hold more broadminded music aficionados interest.

Lyrically, Moore has mastered the art of simple but never simplistic expressions of both faith and the wide variety of human experience as seen in the light of her faith. Much as the Psalms reflect multiple moments in the human condition, not all of them shouting praise, Moore is unafraid to both celebrate life in Christ and touch on the darker elements of life that beset all believers. There is spiritual and poetic depth in her muse; words reflecting true belief and a firm grasp on not only the deeper elements of life in Christ but deep understanding and acknowledgment of life and its accompanying shadows.

In short, Unraveling is a superb record belonging in the library of every Christian music fan. It’s that good, period. It is artistry and ministry, each at the highest level, brought together in a truly blessed whole. There is a reason why I’m constantly playing songs off of it, along with “Forever Now A Crown” and tracks from earlier albums, on both editions of Cephas Hour alongside my beloved artists from back in the day. It’s because they belong there, and they need to be heard. Again … Just. That. Good.

The record is available on CD and as a download from the artist’s website.

Looking Back: “The Roar of Love” by The 2nd Chapter of Acts Remains A Sadly Underappreciated Masterpiece

One of the more lamentable traits of contemporary Christian music, as it moved from its 1960s counterculture roots into a more widely acceptable cosmopolitan form, has been record labels doing all they can to push new or existing artists into soundalike or even lookalike copies of recently successful secular artists or artistic genres. Examples abound: Bob Carlisle’s first post-Allies solo album which did everything to make him the born again soccer mom’s Michael Bolton except put him in a long-haired curly wig, the Christian boy band Plus One, and of more recent vintage Lauren Daigle’s “You Say,” a song for which the vocal, melody, and construction so heavily clone Adele’s “Someone Like You” one can only hope she at least received co-writing credit.

And then there was The 2nd Chapter of Acts, an act like no other in sacred or secular music. The intricate three part harmonies of the family Ward (sisters Annie Herring née Ward and Nelly Greisen née Ward alongside brother Matthew) occasionally conjured thoughts of Crosby Stills & Nash or more accurately late 1960s The Beach Boys, yet remained exclusively their own. Certainly Herring’s songwriting was like no other, loosely definable as pop/rock but replete with unique quirky yet unfailingly melodic twists and turns simultaneously accessible to mainstream music fans and lovers of original progressive rock; many a record collection of the day featured 2nd Chapter of Acts vinyl unashamedly nestled alongside the Yes and Gentle Giants platters obligatory to any adventurous music fan’s library. The 2nd Chapter of Acts invented themselves, and despite Herring’s comment to me during an interview back in the day that she preferred avoiding listening to much current music as she would find herself unintentionally mimicking same, they remained themselves until they called it a day in 1988, Herring and Ward subsequently pursuing solo efforts while Greisen, alongside her husband, chose church work.

In 1978, having already forever earned their place in Jesus Music history with two classic studio efforts (1974’s With Footnotes and 1975’s In The Volume Of The Book) plus two live releases (1975’s To The Bride, which featured Barry McGuire over the trio, and 1977’s How The West Was One which featured the trio over Phil Keaggy), 2nd Chapter of Acts decided to fully flex their creative muscle and tackle the equally fraught with peril and reward idiom of the concept album/rock opera. For source material, the trio chose C.S. Lewis’ “The Lion, The Witch, and The Wardrobe,” the first book in his beloved children’s septet The Chronicles of Narnia. As I recall, the music industry powers that be were not enamored with this, greatly preferring something more radio friendly unit shifter-oriented. Thus, The Roar Of Love remained on the shelf until 1980, with 1978’s superb Mansion Builder serving to keep the trio’s momentum uptempo before its release. Hindsight reveals there was no need for this delay.

While The Roar Of Love is not replete with individual highlights, it is a seamless, luxurious whole. Herring’s melodies dip and dance, always perfectly matching the sentiment expressed in whichever part of the story is being illustrated. The accompaniment should sound dated, yet it retains the timeless element skilled songwriting always brings to the table no matter the genre or time in which it is composed. It does help to know the story beforehand, but the album is thoroughly enjoyable regardless.

If The Roar Of Love has any major flaw, it stems from having been recorded ten years too early and/or one album too few. There are times one wishes for the extra time a CD or a double album would have allowed for further exploration of both musical and lyrical themes in lieu of trying to fit everything into a single vinyl disc. Tantalizing moments throughout cry out to be further fleshed out. Nevertheless, the record still deeply satisfies.

It’s not an inappropriate comparison to note that even as Shotgun Angel by Daniel Amos was CCM’s (or Jesus Music, as it was referred to back in the day) Sgt. Pepper’s, so The Roar of Love was its SMiLE minus Brian Wilson flipping out on LSD and, one can safely assume, no moments of Annie Herring needing to explain lyrics to her siblings unlike Wilson struggling to convince Mike Love of the reasoning behind “over and over the crow cries ‘uncover the cornfield.’” That, and it being industry reluctance keeping the record under wraps that prevented its timely release. Plus, unlike SMiLE The Roar Of Love was  completed to the artists’ satisfaction, and Mansion Builder is ten to the power of ten times better than Smiley Smile. These facts duly noted, where the correlation lies is artistry given full rein with the reward being not self-indulgence, but something of immense value. The Roar Of Love is a mighty roar indeed.

The record is available for download from the artists’ website