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

“Horrendous Disc” Rerelease Isn’t, But It Isn’t Great

For those whose memory of Christian rock spans further back than Switchfoot, Horrendous Disc by Daniel Amos holds a special place. Few albums have ever been as controversy-raising without actually being released, as for three years, debate raged on multiple fronts as to why the album, originally planned for a 1978 debut, didn’t see the light of retail day until 1981, finally hitting the shelves a whole six weeks before the band’s fourth album ¡Alarma! announced its complete transformation from country/rock ensemble to new wave edgemeisters. Horrendous Disc was a bridge between the two; while not entirely abandoning the softer melodic side of Daniel Amos’ eponymous debut or followup Shotgun Angel, it also discarded the country flavor of these releases in favor of an ofttimes Beatlesesque rock vibe. Not many fans remained faithful during these artistic twists, but for those who did or came on board when the twang transformed into thunder, Horrendous Disc was sweet meat.

Fast forward four decades or so, and has become the wont of many Christian classic rock albums Horrendous Disc has been given the remastered rerelease treatment. This time through, the project’s popularity was such that its overseers continuously added additional items to the available versions. True to the album’s spirit, the project was a year late in release. It is now here, though, which is a good thing. Unfortunately, it is perilously close to being far too much of a good thing.

Starting with the album itself, the remastered sound pops with power. The late Mike Stone, who produced the original recordings, did a masterful job of capturing the band at full throttle, giving everything a crisp, deep, rich sheen. While parts of the album have not aged well, mainly except for the title track, all of the second side, which suffers from hewing too closely to the aforementioned Beatlesesque influence at the expense of solid tunesmanship, overall Horrendous Disc is still well worth a listen.

Things start noticeably fraying in the bonus material, which in addition to the usual alternate takes and such of known songs includes a bumper crop of songs recorded throughout the period when Horrendous Disc sat in mystery-shrouded limbo. There are also two songs recorded during the album’s original sessions that did not make it to its eventual release. Finally having these long-rumored but never heard tracks available is a joy. The problem is they reveal a band in transition that would not regain its full stride until the change was complete. The songs, individually and collectively, are okay, but Daniel Amos, whenever it was riding high — which was most of the time — wasn’t okay. It was brilliant. The newly released material is interesting historically and not unlistenable, but it’s far from showcasing the band at its best.

It seems strange to think a set of five CDs could be missing several possible configurations and songs. Yet, the compilation has more than a few moments that could have and should have appeared either scattered hither and yon or left on the table altogether. Ranging from elusive to absent altogether are such items as all of the original mix versions Mike Stone assembled for the album, all of the track variations that appeared on the original US, Canadian, and British releases, and everything planned for unreleased projects such as a 1979 EP entitled Pointless Blazing Wrath. As exhaustive as the compilation is, having these items missing is quite frustrating.

In addition to a lengthy CD booklet, a companion book titled (what else?) Horrendous Book is available. The book does an excellent job of covering the basic facts regarding the album and the various struggles that delayed its release. Still, it needs more robust graphic design, and there is a painfully obvious lack of proofreading. A personal note: while I can and do mangle the written language regularly, I am very good at proofreading the work of others. Also, I’m not knocking John J. Thompson, Bruce Brown, or Brian Quincy Newcomb, each of whom penned essays for the CD booklet. They were all vital parts of Christian music journalism’s early days. But I can write a little too, and I also was there. How about asking me to contribute something once in a while, people? Okay, I got that off my chest; back to the review.

The final element is the project packaging. The discs come in individual cardboard sleeves contained inside an oversized box that includes individual band member photos taken when Daniel Amos utilized satirical costumes as part of its assault on religious cults. It’s nice, but for archival reasons, it would have been preferable to have the discs housed in digipacks for better protection and the box replaced by an open-ended version in which all the digipacks would snugly fit.

It’s not that the Horrendous Disc release is terrible. It’s not. It is a mammoth effort and something over which all Christian rock fans, young and old, can and should rejoice. However, its colossal approach misses several opportunities to be genuinely great. It sure beats not having it at all, though.

“Bloodshot” by The Choir Deeply Satisfies

(This post originally appeared on Goldfish and Clowns.)

It’s difficult to envision veteran Christian alt rockers The Choir being in the company of country artists back when it 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 genre 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, plus Tim Chandler on bass and Dan Michaels on assorted reed instruments, 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 for preorder on iTunes.

The Devil and Larry Norman

Sipping whisky from a paper cup
You drown your sorrows ‘til you can’t stand up
Take a look at what you’ve done to yourself
Why don’t you put the bottle back on the shelf
Shooting junk ‘til you’re half insane
A broken needle in a purple vein
Why don’t you look into Jesus
He’s got the answer


from “Why Don’t You Look Into Jesus” by Larry Norman


On “Center Of My Heart,” a song from Tourniquet which was Larry Norman’s final studio album before he passed away ten years ago, he included the line “I’m a walking contradiction.” After reading Gregory Alan Thornbury’s Why Should the Devil Have All the Good Music?: Larry Norman and the Perils of Christian Rock, it’s obvious truer words have seldom appeared.

Thornbury’s biography of Larry Norman, Christian rock’s founding father in the 1960s and most polarizing figure to this day, is a fascinating and sobering look at the life of a man almost perpetually surrounded by controversy. Much of it was Norman’s own doing, intentional or not; his incessant need to be in control and insistence on being a lone wolf utterly convinced of his selected path’s correctness often frayed and sometimes shattered relationships, both professional and personal. Yet, he could also be generous to a fault with his time, money, and talents. He was also a brilliant songwriter and performer, penning and recording work that remains stunningly powerful and genuinely life-changing for those who have ears to hear.

Norman, to quote from a song by Mark Heard, whose early career was directly influenced by Norman, was too sacred for the sinners, and the saints wished he’d leave. The former were often off-put by Norman’s frequent references to Christ being crucified and risen. At the same time, the latter routinely freaked out over his mixing straightforward love and political songs, plus generous use of allegory and parable, into his body of work. Norman didn’t care. It was his vision, done his way, take it or leave it.

The book does an excellent job in painting the backdrop for Norman’s life and times, managing the not inconsiderable feat of detailing such elements as the Jesus People movement of the late 1960s and early 1970s in a manner both informative to the uninitiated and not dreary for those already in the know. Some biographers tell a tale of a life well; others specialize in times. Thornbury does both well.

Thornbury mentions more than once how Norman, in concert, sought not to entertain but rather to challenge his audience, having no hesitation about making it feel uncomfortable through in-between song musings as well as in the songs themselves. He posed questions about faith and how believers should conduct themselves in the world, detailing the need to demolish the Christian ghetto and be in the world but not of it. Norman was simultaneously icon and iconoclast, the one without whom almost every contemporary Christian artist would not be there while at the same time asking what they were doing there, as they were neither witnessing to non-believers nor edifying those who were already Christians.

The book is unflinching in examining Norman and those around him; his first wife, Pamela, and his early protege Randy Stonehill both come off quite poorly. However, the book also tosses bouquets as easily as it does brickbats. It is no hatchet job designed to speak maximum ill of the dead or the living. In lieu thereof, it is, as best as Norman can be capsulated, a multi-level study of a multi-level man who won friends, made enemies, influenced many far more than they are willing to admit, and left it for others to argue about as he decidedly did it his way. If you love Larry Norman or have no idea who he was, Why Should the Devil Have All the Good Music?: Larry Norman and the Perils of Christian Rock is enriching reading that, even as Norman did with his work, forces reflection.

The book is available from Amazon and Barnes & Noble.

Mad At The World Brings Us Some Very Good Hope

Synthpop, it was said during its heyday, was progressive rock for keyboardists who couldn’t play. A tad harsh, but during synthpop’s nascent years, the endless stream of electric blips, beeps, and beats was anything but electric for those wishing to have something more than mindless dance rhythms in their music. You know, things like melody and hooks and all that other icky stuff.

Born during the late ‘70s new wave craze, synthpop eventually outgrew its simplistic beginning when artists like Howard Jones started bringing more traditional pop elements — reference earlier comment regarding melody and hooks — into the mix, this arguably de-evolving into today’s autotuned cookie cutter pop poo. However, for a brief flourish during the ‘80s, synthpop was a pleasant mix of pop and still-fresh instrumentation.

Enter Mad At The World. Mad At The World was the brainchild of one Roger Rose, who when not working his day job as a postman in Southern California was working on his music, and his younger brother Randy. Roger and Randy loved synthpop (and still do). Roger and Randy loved Jesus (and still do). Roger and Randy decided the two would work well together. Hence, Mad At The World was born.

Although synthpop was not an entirely unknown quantity in Christian music, at its inception Mad At The World hewed far closer to the more gritty purveyors of same than, say, Crumbächer who were far more pop vocal inclined. During its career Mad At The World made two major music shifts, first going toward heavy guitar rock and then mining a more mainstream rock/pop vein. In the beginning, though, the band was muscular synthpop.

Fast forward to the present day. While Randy has remained musically active — review of his most recent solo effort here — Roger has been out of the spotlight for many years, leaving Mad At The World naught but a fond memory for its fans. Then last year, Randy had an idea. C’mon big brother, let’s record three new albums, each reflecting one of Mad At The World’s musical phases! Roger was game, so after a Kickstarter campaign to raise the necessary funds, recording commenced. The end result is Hope.

Hope makes no pretense of being anything other than what it is, namely a faithful and affectionate ode to synthpop. The instrumentation is relatively sparse; the melodies simple but thoroughly effective. Roger Rose affects a bit of an accent when singing (hey, so does Billie Joe Armstrong), but it works within the artistic context of this album. Lyrically things are mostly straightforward roots evangelical. It’s not deep theological musings, but it is both comforting and encouraging.

When viewed through quality and not nostalgia’s lens, Hope makes a strong case for being Mad At The World’s best synthpop album and easily one of its best period. The brothers Rose have always made very even albums, but this time through the songwriting is kicked up a notch. Hope might appear to be little more than dusting off a bygone era in contemporary music, but it’s not. Rather, it is a solid, brand new testimony to the truism that if it was good yesterday, it’s good today as well. Very, very good.

The record is available here.