A Year in Review, Part 2: My ‘Thing of the Year.’

If, as many science fiction authors and some scientists have posited, there are indeed an infinite number of alternate universes, each a slight variation on the one we are currently experiencing, then we should consider ourselves blessed, because surely we are in possibly the one and only universe in which “A Broadway musical, 4 parts hip-hop/R&B and one part Les Mis, about the life and times of the first U.S. Treasure Secretary” is not a joke or a disaster, but instead a work of genius and the best piece of musical theater in at least a generation.

I’d heard mention of “Hamilton: The Musical” over the summer, not really taking in that this was a thing that existed and that people were raving about, but one day in the autumn, NPR’s All Songs Considered released a special weekend short podcast in which two hosts discussed why this show was connecting with so many people.  They played a couple of song samples as examples, starting with the track “Ten Duel Commandments”. (Check it out over on youtube.)

It’s immediately catchy and I was intrigued, so I clicked over to the live stream they had of the full cast recording.  About 30 seconds in, I was hooked.

The show, conceived by “In the Heights” composer Lin-Manuel Miranda, does indeed tell the life story of Founding Father Alexander Hamilton.  The first act takes us from Hamilton’s difficult upbringing through his rise to influence during and through the Revolutionary War, and the second traces his political career, his moral failings and their consequences, and the duel that ends his life.

So that’s the story.  Which may sound boring or may sound interesting, depending on who you are.  You may have cringed at the thought of a hip-hop musical.  But give it a listen.  Stephen Colbert, whilst interviewing Lin-Manuel, described what it was like to see or hear it for the first time.  At first you think, “Okay, this is really clever.”  Soon, you’re thinking, “Oh my goodness, this is a work of genius.”  And finally, you’re thinking, “Why am I crying right now?”

So here’s your homework.  Listen to the show.  I’ll give you framework for eighteen listens.  (Fair warning: there is a moderate amount of swearing in this show; not a ton, but two well-placed f-words and a few implied ones.  Enough to earn the CD a warning label.)  (Fair warning #2: the below is really a huge fanboy rant.)  Each time through, take in something different…

Listen #1: Don’t worry too much about comprehension or anything this first time.  Just listen and have fun!  Some songs will grab you immediately, others will sort of just sit in the background while you do other stuff.  “Ten Duel Commandments,” “Guns and Ships” and “My Shot” all grabbed me first time through.  I also wondered if I was hearing more words per minute than any other Broadway show in history.  First time through, it feels relentless.  (Actually, after writing this, I looked it up.  It is!  20000 words in 2 1/2 hours!)

Listen #2: Try to follow the story.   Maybe pay special attention to the advice Burr gives Hamilton in the very first scene (after the prologue).  Listen for that to come up again.  Brace yourself for Act 2.

Listen #3: Take time to appreciate the performance of Leslie Odom, Jr as Aaron Burr, who I think deserves next year’s Feature Actor Tony.  A case could easily be made for him as lead as well.  Notice how this is really the story of Hamilton and Burr and their two competing approaches to life.  Burr is both a character in the story and the de facto narrator 80% of the time.  I don’t know if having the narrator also play a key role has been done before on stage, but it’s interesting to listen to the story through him, as he narrates events subjectively, inserting his own opinion.  At times, he explains what’s happening with pure joy (“Guns and Ships”), annoyed jealousy (“A Winter’s Ball”), malicious joy (“What’d I Miss”), pity (“Say No To This”) and increasing darkness (“The Adams Administration”).  He is both the villain and tragic figure of the piece.  Take special time to enjoy his two biggest solo moments, “Wait For It” and the showstopping “Room Where It Happens”, an incredibly catchy old-school Broadway hit that is possibly my favourite song in the show.

Listen #4:  Soak in that one person is mostly responsible for every melody here.  Wonder what you’ve done with your own creative life.

Listen #5: Appreciate the women, especially Phillipa Soo as Elizabeth Schuyler Hamilton and Renee Elise Goldsberry as her sister Angelica.  Goldsberry’s big Act 1 number is “Satisfied”, which is a fantastic moment in the show.  After seeing the events leading up to Hamilton’s wedding from one point of view, the show literally rewinds during the wedding toast, and we hear the same events from Angelica’s point of view.  The section that begins “And I realize three fundamental things at the exact same time…” is powerful and fantastic writing.

Listen #6: You’ve probably picked up by this time through that Hamilton’s three friends in the first act, Lafayette, Laurens, and Mulligan, are played by the same three actors who in Act 2 become Thomas Jefferson, Phillip Hamilton and James Madison.  All three give impressive performances, but what’s remarkable to me is how both Daveed Diggs as Lafayette/Jefferson and Okieriete Onaodowan as Mulligan/Madison change their voices to change roles.  Sure, Lafayette has a French accents but his lines are largely performed at a range that’s a bit higher than Jefferson’s, and there are only a few places where it’s clear that it’s the same guy.  And Mulligan is played as almost a thuggish ruffian, with a rough and aggressive quality to his voice, whereas Monroe speaks with an intelligence and nobility that again impresses, as it’s the same actor.

Listen #7: King George.  You will probably have already noticed how great his three songs (or rather his one song sung with three different sets of lyrics) are, but as a palette cleanser, spend this listen looking forward to them.

Listen #8: Let some of the songs and moments that didn’t immediately grab you really start to soak in.  Listen to the great way that “The Reynolds Pamphlet” transitions into “Burn”, and how intense a song that is.  Appreciate how well “Non-Stop” does everything it’s required to do, from summing up each character’s main needs to transitioning us out of the war days into the political days to closing out the first act.

Listen #9: Enjoy Act 2’s Congressional-debates-as-rap-battles.  It’s amazing how Miranda uses the vernacular of hip-hop to clearly explain political differences in both the establishing of America’s financial system and the reasons why America did not jump into the French Revolution.  By this point in your 20 step listen through, you will have learned a lot of history you didn’t know.

Listen #10: Let’s take time to give Christopher Jackson as George Washington some credit.  If most of the characters are “just like my country…young, scrappy and hungry”, Washington is the one stable and mature person in the piece, the moral center, as it were.  His introduction in “Right Hand Man” is great, but he really shines in the haunting “History Has Its Eyes on You” and in his goodbye, “One Last Time”, which uses actual text from George Washington’s goodbye speech.

Listen #11: You’ve probably favored Act One, which is more “fun”, to Act Two at this point, but at this point I love them both and am giving more time to Act Two.  So today, give your focus to Act 2.  Hear the dread in the company as they scream “No!  No to this!” as Hamilton gives into the trap of adultery; soak in again his wife’s broken and angry torch song “Burn”, sung when Hamilton’s affair has been publicly announced.  Tear up over their firstborn son’s senseless death in a duel.  And then weep openly throughout “It’s Quiet Uptown”, especially the beautiful and holy moment that arrives as the company sings the word “Forgiveness”, the word hanging there, the whole musical on pause as you soak in the implications of that concept on this story.  There’s so much more and it’s not easy listening, but man…powerful stuff.

Listen #12: Time for another palette cleanser!  Let’s look at the humor of this musical.  There’s obviously the King George songs, but a few other moments stand out.  “Don’t modulate the key and then not debate with me!”  The joyful teasing of “The Story of Tonight (Reprise)”.  And much of what Thomas Jefferson does in Act 2.  I especially like his two uses of the drawn out, “Whaaaaaaat?”  Especially the one in The Election of 1800.  Also from that track: “Can we get back to politics?”  “Please?”  “Yo.”

Listen #13 :Take some time to appreciate the recycling of melodies for different purposes.  I feel like a lot of this, though it sounds very different, was inspired by the musical Les Miserables, which often does the same thing.  But notice the way that the melody Phillip Hamilton, as a young child, sings in French later makes up the background of the upbeat parts of “Blow Us All Away.”  Or there’s the fun version and then the dread version of “Ten Duel Commandments.”  Or the quietly chanted “I am not throwin’ away my shot” when Hamilton is deciding to work for Washington.  The way “Wait For It” creeps in to Burr’s turning point in “Room Where It Happens”.  The carefree and then sad versions of “Helpless”.  And so on.

Listen #14: Actually, take a break from listening today.  Instead, it’s youtube time!  First, watch Lin-Manuel Miranda’s performance of the first track for President Obama six years ago, when he was thinking of the project as merely a concept album.  Then, watch some of the Ham4Ham performances.  The show has become such a phenomenon that upwards of 1000 people show up daily to win one of the ten “lottery tickets” in the front row that the show sells for $10.  (Broadway theaters in New York have a tradition whereby about two hours before the show, they have a drawing for cheap tickets for that day’s performance.  It’s meant to serve New York’s theater student community.  My happiest live theater experience of all time was sitting front row center for “The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee”, a ticket I won by lotto.)  So twice a week, Miranda puts together a little show in the alley by the theater for those hoping to win.  He’s brought in friends, cast mates, people from other shows, other New York figures, and so on out for a performance that’s usually less than four minutes long.  And he seems to have as much fun doing it as he does anything else.  The performance might be funny–some of the men of the cast lipsync the women’s main number–or moving–a gospel choir sings Christmas carols–or just cool.  But it’s a great idea, and it will give you affection for the cast.

Listen #15: Think about themes!  Burr’s life philosophy is to protect himself and his reputation by not fully committing to things, to wait for life to bring him to the right place.  Hamilton’s is to go out and grab what he wants, to take a stand even when it’s brash or risky or is potentially misunderstood, and for most of the show he believes that you will only get what you take.  Where do these two philosophies lead each of them?  Who is right?  Another theme: legacy.  What is a legacy? Is it important, if you’re remembered after your death or not?  The show also has a lot to say about politics, how America should function, and even thoughts about race and the fruit of insecurity.

Listen #16: Carrying on from yesterday’s deep thoughts, listen especially to the last song.  Reflect on time; none of us know how much time we will have on earth, and the show is ultimately a challenge to make the most of the time we’re given.  What do you stand for?

Listen #17: Words, words, words!  We’ve been big picture for a few days; now let’s just simply rejoice in the beauty of the flow of words in this show.  In the use of…

…rhymes.  So many creative rhymes here, also economical in the way they convey information.  (“Washington hires Hamilton right on sight; but Hamilton just wants to fight, not write.”)

…assonance as an extension of rhyme.   (“We want our leaders to save the day, but we don’t get a say in what they trade away.”)  (“There would’ve been nothing left to do for someone less astute/ he would’ve been dead or destitute without a cent of restitution/started working, clerking for his late mother’s landlord…”)

…alliteration!  (“He’s constantly confusing, confounding the British henchmen…”) (“The venerated Virginian veteran”)

And so on.  So many words, so many beautiful, beautiful words.

Listen #18: Sing at the top of your lungs!  Act out your favorite parts!  Pretend you can rap pretty good.  (I’ve got some of them pretty well down myself…)  Congratulations, you’ve now begun to absorb the beauty and genius of Hamilton: The Musical, my “Thing of the Year.”  Now if I only had a chance to actually see the thing…

A Year in Review, Part 1

Well, it’s well past the time when everyone is putting out their “Best of” lists for the year, and I’ve been thinking a lot about the music, books, films and general entertainment that inspired or moved me this year.  These aren’t “Top 10” lists so much as just a list of what stuck out.  I’m going to give you two entries, with part two covering my overall “Thing of the Year”.  (Catchy, right?)  And so let’s jump right in to the other categories here…

Albums of the Year: This was the year I turned forty-two.  That’s significant musically, because a study was recently done using Spotify user data that showed that right at around age 42, the average person stops listening to new music and settles in to mostly listening to whatever was popular (or whatever they really liked) around the time they graduated high school.  So, if I was to follow that pattern, that means that I’d spend the rest of my days absorbed in the discographies of Petra, the Indigo Girls, and Pink Floyd. Maybe add in some Guns and/or Roses.

One could do worse, I suppose, but still, no thank you.  If you know me, you know that I actually cared about bucking this trend.  But then I spent the first quarter of the year listening through my entire music catalog, getting rid of what I no longer (or never) liked and rediscovering much that I did.  So I approached my 42nd birthday with almost no new albums for the year, save a couple by acts I’ve long loved, such as The Decemberists or Sufjan Stevens.  It wasn’t until around May that I was grabbed my first new music discovery of the year, and it’s one that’s stuck with me even until now.  So the album that stuck with me the most this year is…

Leon Bridges – Coming Home.   Leon Bridges is a 25-year old native of Ft. Worth who only started making music a couple of years ago.  In his debut album, he has resurrected a specific kind of old-school soul; the album has often been compared to Otis Redding or especially Sam Cooke.  And while it does sound like the music of that era, it is also somehow modern in its production.

What I love about this record, though, are the songs and lyrics themselves.  The standout track for me is “Lisa Sawyer”, the story of Leon’s mother, including her upbringing and her salvation.  It’s a beautiful song with Leon’s voice backed by saxophone and some great BGVs.  The phrasing of it is really unusual, but after you hear it a few times it just sticks with you.

This song isn’t the only one with allusions to faith.  “River” could be a worship song; “Shine” and “Flowers” also hint at a real and vibrant faith at the heart of this singer.  But every song on the album stands out–there’s no filler here, and whether he’s singing a love song or telling the story of how his grandparents met, the whole album is refreshing in its purity and vibe.  Give it a listen.

Another record that dominated my year was Gungor’s “One Wild Life: Soul” album, the first in a three-record project, set to be completed by summer 2016.  To be honest, Gungor lost me a little bit with “I Am Mountain”, their previous album.  It’s not that I need all of their stuff to be “worship”; it’s just that I had a hard time connecting with much of the music.  But boy have they rebounded with this one.

It seems to hit everything that Gungor does well at full steam.  Worshipful, God-focused tracks?  Check.  (“Vapor”)  Thought-provoking political or social challenges to the church? Check.  (“Us for Them”, “We Are Stronger”)  Cover song, improving on the original? Check. (“Land of the Living”).  There’s a lot of emotion here, including a gorgeous song written about the birth of the Gungor’s daughter, who has Down’s syndrome (“Light”) and a vulnerable track that seems to be Michael Gungor’s testimony (“You”).  Here’s hoping “One Wild Life: Spirit” releases, oh, tomorrow.

Other notable records this year include Mutemath’s “Vitals”, which is their best album since their first, Sufjan Stevens’ gorgeous and somber “Carrie & Lowell”, and Hillsong United’s underrated “Empires”.

Songs: Much of the year was dominated by the music they played at Antioch’s ICON this year, including mainstays like “No Longer Slaves”, “The Great I Am”, and “Great Are You Lord”, but a couple of other individual songs you probably haven’t heard need to be mentioned: go listen, right now, to “River” by Ibeya, who are French-Cuban twins, and “Na Na Na” by My Brothers and I.  Great tunes.

Live Music of the Year: I went to three concerts and a music festival this year.  A quick rundown:

  1. The Decemberists – O2 Academy, Leeds.  The Decemberists were in great form; I just didn’t love the set list compared with my first experience with them, at the same venue one tour earlier.  Their latest album is good but nothing from it particularly thrilled live.  The one highlight, and it’s a bit of cliche to say so, was the crowd-pleasing encore “Mariner’s Revenge Song”, essentially a sea shanty about being eaten by a whale along side your sworn enemy.  You know, one of those.  The only thing I hadn’t loved about my first time seeing them years ago was that they did not play that song–and in fact, the Leeds show was the only one on that tour that missed it–so seeing it live this time made up for it.
  2. The Avett Brothers – Red Rocks Amphitheater, Colorado.  Mixed feelings about this one, too.  My love for the Avett Brothers is well-documented on this website, and so I was thrilled to see them in this gorgeous and famous venue.  And the venue did not disappoint; Red Rocks is beautiful and the sound far better than you’d expect from such a huge, outdoor place.

The problem is that I was a bit spoiled by my first Avett Brothers       experience–in Manchester with a few hundred people.  The intimacy of that experience is impossible in America where they are far more popular, and an outdoor show with tens of thousands of people made it sometimes hard to engage.

The other problem was again with the set list.  The Avett Brothers perform three nights at Red Rocks every July; I’m not sure if this a yearly tradition, but on this particular night they did not repeat a track in three nights.  That means close to 70 different songs stretched over three nights.  That’s a remarkable feat, even for a band with as deep a catalog as these guys.  But of the three nights, I think we attended the weakest.  They’d already played all of Emotionalism the night before, and many of their best tracks were long gone.

That said, there were some highlights.  Opening with “Talk on Indolence” was exciting; I’d never heard “Salvation Song” live before, and that’s one of my favorites — I performed it at my 40th birthday party.  They brought out their father Jim for a couple of songs, including a gorgeous version of the old hymn “In the Garden.”  It was nice hearing some new songs.  So it wasn’t a bad night; it just didn’t compare to being ten feet away.

3. Sufjan Stevens – O2 Apollo in Manchester.  On the other hand, I had somewhat low expectations for this gig and was pleasantly blown away!  Don’t get me wrong, I love Sufjan; it’s just that the album he was touring, “Carrie and Lowell,” about the death of his mother, is very low key and melancholy, and I wasn’t entirely sure it would make for a fun evening out.  I had a neighbor who wanted to go and felt it was right to go with him to get to know him better; without that factor, I’m not sure the motivation would have been there.

But Sufjan was amazing.  But first, kudos to his opening act, Madisen Ward and the Mama Bear, a son-mother team (he’s probably in his early 30s, she in her 60s) who play acoustic folk.  It was interesting and it worked.

The first part of the show sees Sufjan playing 10 of the 11 tracks on the new album.  I won’t try to describe the set, though it was amazing, because you can just go look it up on Youtube.  But the songs came across powerfully in the live setting.  Some he performed exactly as on the album.  Others were redone or remixed–“All of Me Wants All of You” a standout here–to great effect.  After that, he played a few classics, and then closed the pre-encore section with a fifteen minute version of the 3 minute closing track to “Carrie and Lowell”.  The walls of sound and light created were mesmerizing and unforgettable.

In May, the whole family went to the Big Church Day Out festival in south England.  When I saw the lineup, I knew I had to go, and we ended up bringing the whole family plus a Singaporean friend who had just gotten baptized the week before.  It’s a great festival, but they’ll be hard-pressed to top 2015’s line-up.  (And seeing 2016’s, it is good, but nowhere near as good.)  So who did we see?  I won’t share it all, but some highlights…

Day 1: Gungor: This was my first time to see the whole band play live, and it was epic.  They opened with the instrumental second half of “We Will Run”, a slow build that erupts into a wall of beauty.  They did fantastic versions of most of their biggest songs–“I Am Mountain”, “Beautiful Things”, “Dry Bones” and so on.  I was disappointed that they didn’t do much from Ghosts on the Earth, and I was intrigued by the new songs they premiered.  Sets at this festival run in the 40-50 minute range, which seems really short, and when they introduced their last song, I was disappointed to recognize the chords to what has to be one of the most covered songs ever — Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah.”  Surely, I thought, there was room for something else from Ghosts or Beautiful Things.  But then Lisa Gungor started to sing, and by the last verse, I was tearing up.  Redeeming an overused song, this may be my definitive version.

needtobreathe: I wasn’t sure what to expect from these southern rockers, but their set delivered.  I like them, but they are fantastic live, and “Difference Maker”, “Wasteland” and “Multiplied” were all standouts.

Bethel Music: My experiences with big worship bands who try to hit both a worship and a concert experience are mixed, but the presence of God was there, and as we sang “Forever” and a few other similar familiar Bethel tunes, I did not want to leave that place.  Ever.

Day 2: First we took the kids to the children’s tent for a morning service, where they were introduced to Audacious Kids worship, officially the first CD that my daughter truly engaged with.  I highly recommend it.  But that’s not what we were there for…

Christafari: Some people think it’s odd that Ira and I both so love this “gospel reggae” band, who are one of the top 10 touring reggae acts in the world.  But we do.  Their set was a mix of original material and reggae covers of popular worship tunes.  It leaned more heavily in the latter direction, and we prefer the former, but they are a tight and energetic band and they preach the gospel.  Good stuff.

Lecrae: My son Joshua is four.  For some reason, his tiny brain really locked into the song “Nuthin'” from Lecrae’s #1 album “Anomaly.”  He doesn’t have much interest in many songs, but occasionally one will just grab him for reasons unknown.  This was one.  So when Lecrae opened with this, he was mesmerized.  That guy on  the stage was singing Joshie’s song!  The girls had gone off to watch Christafari’s second set, but Joshua and I ran around the fields while Lecrae did his thing; Joshua even rode his first grown-up carnival ride (those swings that go around in a circle) while Lecrae rapped nearby.  A cool way to experience a great set.

I know this is long, so just a couple more thoughts:

Films of the Year: I used to see a lot of movies.  In England, that’s really expensive.  (I took my family of four to a film in Texas; the cost was just $2 more than a single adult ticket in Sheffield.)  Plus, with kids and a full life, I rarely have the time.  The result of this has been that I only really go to films in the cinema that are truly worth the effort and money–big movies with big sound and big effects.  Now, I hate blockbusters that just exist to explode pixels.  Looking at you, wretched Transformers movies.  Still, it is possible to make quality big movies.  I only saw what everyone else saw this year (at least in the cinema), but the ones that stood out…

  1. Inside Out – a sigh of relief as Pixar really nails it for the first time in a few films.
  2. Star Wars: The Force Awakens – a sigh of relief as JJ Abrams nails the right tone and creates new characters I actually want to see more of.  Saw this opening morning and it was euphoric.  (Keep in mind, I am a lifelong Star Wars fan who timed my vacation out of Uzbekistan to Europe in 1999 so I could see Phantom Menace in the theater.  I walked out of that one confused.)
  3. Jurassic World – the most fun dumb movie I saw all year.  Loved the end sequences with the Raptors.
  4. Avengers: Age of Ultron – okay, okay, so considering they deal with the crisis in a few days, it’s not exactly an “age” for Ultron, but despite the naysayers I enjoyed this more than the original.  Also just fun.
  5. The Martian – someone recently did the math and decided that $900 billion has been spent rescuing Matt Damon from various scenarios, which is just funny.  But of all the movies he’s been rescued in, this one’s the most entertaining.  It’s definitely funnier than Saving Private Ryan.

Book of the Year: Sheffield Libraries have a good system, are really convenient, and they try hard.  But they cannot hold a candle to the Waco Library system.  Waco-ans, I hope you guys know what you have there.  I have a pretty broad taste – biographies, fiction, books by comedians, Christian Living – I like a lot of it.  And Sheffield libraries has none of it.  Sure, if you want vampire romance novels or, to be fair, a broad range of travel guides, then these are great.  But Waco…Waco has everything.

So when we were in Waco for three weeks this summer, I dusted off the library card and we probably checked out 30-40 books during those three weeks.  The kids section is amazing – a range of fiction covering all ages and tastes, a huge number of books about other cultures or famous historical figures.  Nadia learned about Harriet Tubman and Rosa Parks.  And I went through a stack of books I’d kept on a running list during our three years absence.  For many I got only a couple of chapters in before abandoning, but there was one that dominated my summer that still is with me today: Bonhoeffer: Pastor, Martyr, Prophet, Spy by the amazing Eric Metaxas.  This biography of the famed German theologian is gripping and thought-provoking.  Not only does it paint a picture of how one Christian stood for Christ in the face of evil and tyranny, and how he wrestled through the implications of his faith and the desire to destroy Hitler, but it also gives insight into how the average German citizen was slowly suckered into backing an evil regime, and what life was like for the many Germans who opposed what was happening but weren’t sure what to do.  Fantastic, and a must read.

Of course, I’ve already talked about the Wingfeather Saga in a previous entry.  And all of this was just a ramble of thoughts about the year, all leading up to part 2, to be posted in a few days.  My Thing of the Year–the work that dominated 2015 for me.  Get ready.  It’s an unexpected one…

 

The Wingfeather Saga

Fantasy fiction must be hard to write.  Tolkien and Lewis were such dominant figures in the genre, shaping its landscape in such a powerful way that it is hard for everything that follows to not feel derivative, especially in books taking place in whole new worlds.  I’ve tried different series throughout my life, finding some that I liked (Tad Williams’ Memory, Sorrow and Thorn) and some that should be avoided at all costs (The Wheel of Time series).  But seeing the influence of Tolkein, even in books that espouse radically different worldviews, like the sadly popular Game of Thrones series, is hard to avoid.  Originality is tough.

Then there’s the fact that there exists a genre called “Christian fiction.”  It’s sad to me that there is such a genre.  Lewis never would been labeled this way, but now there is a whole market for books of fiction matching the popular genres of the day but with Christian messages.  I theologically disagree with the distinction…Christian should not be an adjective but a noun.  Fiction should be judged based on how well it is written and what kind of truth or falsehood it espouses, not based on how conveniently it shoehorns a religious message into it.

I’m all for storytelling that speaks eternal truths.  And while  starting with a message and building a story around it seems like a good idea and an easy way to communicate, it ultimately has proven to produce bad art.  Bad writing.  Lazy production.  (It didn’t used to be this way, by the way.  The church used to be able to be cutting edge in the arts, but that’s a whole different topic.) And so I almost never read anything that could remotely be labeled “Christian fiction.”  I’ve tried.  Most of the time, I get frustrated with the thin characterizations, the obvious preaching/morality, and the blatant stealing of styles and ideas from the giants of Lewis and Tolkien.

I say all that to introduce to you The Wingfeather Saga by Andrew Peterson.  Yes, Peterson is also a musician primarily labeled as a CCM artist, though I think much of his stuff transcends that.  And yes, you might see it labeled and characterized as Christian or “religious” fiction.  And this would be an egregious error.  This four book series is excellent, original and I wish there was a way to fight this labeling because it conjures none of the cringes that probably come to mind whenever you hear the term “religious fiction.”  I think any fantasy fan, whatever their beliefs, could love these books.

Taking place in a fantastical world known as Aerwiar, the story begins with On the Edge of the Dark Sea of Darkness, a title which introduces us to the quirky and sometimes humorous style Peterson employs.  The main characters are the three Igiby children–Leeli, Janner and Kalmar, who live in a land occupied by the evil Fangs of Dang, the minions of the mysterious Gnag the Nameless.  (His name is Gnag, though he has no name.) 

The discovery of a map that may have connection to the father they never knew and its connection to some jewels the Fangs are looking for sets them off on their adventure.  The series is filled with memorable characters like their retired pirate grandfather Podo or the earnest troll poet Oood, and is filled with original creatures (not usually the standard elves, goblins, etc.) such as the fierce Toothy Cows, which are exactly what they sound like, or the untrustworthy ridgerunners, a race of little people obsessed with fruit.

Okay, that was all pretty vague I realize, but spoiling anything more than the basic set-up would ruin some of the many surprises the series offers. But let me tell you why I loved this series.  As I said, it is not derivative–very original.  Secondly, the author’s voice is unique.  He manages to fluctuate from quirky humor to genuinely scary scenes and intense situations really quickly.  The back cover of Book Two, North! Or Be Eaten, gives warning of several obstacles the Igibys will face, including “the dreaded Fork Factory.”  Which intentionally sounds absurd, but turns out to be truly scary.

Third, and I mean this as a high compliment, the author’s Christian worldview is not obvious or shoehorned in to the story.  It is only until about midway through the third book, The Monster in the Hollows, that I began to pick up on what he was trying to say at all, and even when it becomes really clear in the rousing finale, The Warden and the Wolf King, it still does not seemed forced.  It feels earned, a natural overflow of the author’s beliefs about life and love, instead of a story built around a message.  But when those truths arrive, and when that message comes through, it is one about loyalty, selflessness, sacrifice and the bonds of family, forgiveness, and unconditional love, and it is profoundly moving.  It is True.  Peterson talks about how we can easily lose ourselves and our true identities, how we can easily embrace lies, and how ultimately the way out is to remember who we really are, that we are deeply loved, and that we find joy when we give ourselves away.  Beautiful stuff.

Some things to note: in some ways, these books are written for maybe pre-teen aged kids–the main characters are all kids and the language is easy enough for that age.  Some parts, however, were intensely scary and I know my own kids aren’t ready to hear these stories yet.  I can definitely see myself reading them to them someday.  They are easily enjoyable by adults.

Secondly, the first book is good, but a bit slow.  Upon completing the series, I see how much of the groundwork, both plot-wise and thematically, were established in that first book, but it is still the slowest of the series.  I liked it enough to eventually (but not quickly) seek out Book 2, and I am so glad I did.  From almost the very beginning, Book 2 and 3 grabbed me and never let up.  Book 4 has the series most powerful sequences, and also a couple that might have been trimmed or rearranged.  It also has a finale that genuinely surprised me.  I did not see it coming. 

Lastly, if you decide to go for it, do yourself a favor and avoid reading the plot blurbs on amazon or anywhere else for any of the latter books; if you can get through Book 1 without any spoilers, it will be a more rewarding read. Andrew Peterson has given us something rare: an original fantasy series full of intense situations, memorable characters, and imaginative scenarios that are set in a far away world yet which remind us of who we are and where we’ve journeyed and which speak truths into that journey.  These are modern classics, and if you like Narnia and Middle Earth and want something original yet equally stirring, seek them out immediately.    

The Worst Christmas Song Ever

Well, it’s been about a year since I’ve been on here.  I’ve had another blog where I tell travel stories.  You should check it out.  But I haven’t been much in a writing mood lately, so while I do have thoughts about the year, I don’t know if they will ever make it up.

What I do know is that last Christmas, I came to deeply loathe a prevalent Christmas “classic”.  The lyrics make no sense to me, and I have spent too much time mulling them over in my mind and coming up with a logical explanation for their meaning.

I’m not talking about “Baby It’s Cold Outisde” or “Christmas Shoes” or any other admittedly worthy possibilities for the title of “Worst Christmas Song Ever”.  I am, of course, thinking about Wham’s hit “Last Christmas.”

Last Christmas, I gave you my heart/ But the very next day you gave it away/ This year to save me from tears I’ll give it to someone special

This is the chorus to this awful song.  Let’s see what we can tell about the story from this chorus, shall we?

The first two words, “Last Christmas,” could be taken two ways–the season or the day.  It seems to imply the last Christmas season.  If you said, “Last Christmas we had a really good office party,” you don’t necessarily mean Christmas day.  But the very next line says “The very next day…” which implies that we’re talking about Christmas Day itself.

So on Christmas Day itself, this guy gave this girl his heart.  On Christmas Day?

What does this tell us about the narrator?  Normal people spend Christmas Day with their families, so how is it that he is with some girl with whom he does not yet have a committed relationship (he’s just now giving his heart) on the actual Day of Christmas?  I see only three possibilities:

1) He’s an orphan.  Yes, this is the sad tale of an orphan, living in an orphanage with no family whatsoever to spend the holidays with.  There’s a girl he has a crush on in the orphanage, and they’re both there on Christmas day, lonely souls in need of companionship.  He gives her his heart then.  Who knew that George Michael could weave such a melancholy and bittersweet tale about orphans?

2) He’s fallen in love with his cousin.  Okay, maybe he’s not an orphan.  Let’s give him the benefit of the doubt and say that he is with his family on Christmas day, and it’s one of those large family gatherings with many distant relatives he only sees once or twice a year.  Against all social conventions, he’s majorly crushed on a cousin.  Let’s make her a distant cousin, several times removed, to lessen the icky factor.  Or perhaps this story takes place in Arkansas.  Either way, he proclaims his love to her cousin, and for a brief moment, she accepts it.

3) He’s a cold-hearted jerk.  He’s not an orphan, and he’s not fallen in love with a cousin.  He does have a family, a sweet mother who did her best to raise him well and who is probably cooking his favourite meal in hopes he does come home for Christmas, but instead he’s skipping the holidays with family in order to pursue a girl he’s only just met, a girl he hasn’t even had a “DTR” with yet.  I feel bad for his poor mother.

So which option is it?  The rest of the chorus gives us clues:  “But the very next day, you gave it away” reads the next line.  This could back up the Cousin Theory; he’s declared his feelings, she has accepted, but wakes up on Boxing Day with some sense and quickly breaks it off with him.

But wait a minute.  “The very next day you gave it away?”  That makes no sense.  See if this follows: Guy gives Girl A his heart.  She now has his heart.  It’s hers.  Picture it like a red heart cut out of paper; she holds it in her hands.

And the very next way, she gives his heart to someone else.  Girl B.  So now, Girl B has his heart.  So Guy now loves Girl B.  He had declared it to Girl A, and now the very next day he’s all “Nope, now I love Girl B” and somehow this is Girl A’s fault? 

This clearly backs up the Jerk Theory.  In fact, listen to the next lines: “This year to save me from tears I’ll give it to somebody special.”  Um…ouch.  So he gave his heart to Girl A last year, but she wasn’t even special?  That’s a low blow, even for this guy.  What a loser.

Now, does the rest of the song confirm the Jerk Theory or even any of the other ideas?  No idea; I haven’t really read the rest of the lyrics, or even heard the whole song.  Figure it out yourselves!  Do you expect me to do everything?  Geez.

Merry Christmas!

Best of 2013 Concluded: Worship Music

Happy New Year!   Now,  for my final thoughts on 2013 in music we turn our attention to worship.  I don’t make this a separate category because I in any way believe that worship is a style of music.  It’s not.  I believe any style of music can be used to worship the Creator, and music that is designed for worship has as much responsibility to be creative, original and skilfully played as any other music.

Rather, I put it as a separate category because this music serves a different function.  Worship music, I believe, is designed to help me connect to God.  It is meant to set my gaze off of myself and help me to engage with the presence of the Spirit, to direct my thoughts and emotions and experiences into Christ.  To me, theologically complex hymns and ridiculously simple worship choruses can both achieve or hinder this, and in reality almost as much depends on the singer/listener as the songwriters and performers themselves.  That is, you can take a badly written worship song and still glorify God with it if your heart is right.

That being said, I find it easier to worship when the music is original, skilled and creative.  And since worship music is about bringing me to God instead of just providing relaxation or whatever, it’s hard to judge music as the best or worst of the year.  This, then, is merely my year of worship music experiences!

Favourite Song: Oceans, from Hillsong United’s Zion album.  The imagery and melody in this song are both beautiful, and the central idea–that of being led by God into deep oceans, like Peter, where we cannot stand or see on our own–hit me where I live this year.  Listened to it over and over this summer.

And the best version?  The acoustic one, hands down.

An honourable mention should be given to Worship Central’s Dry Bones.  I don’t really connect with much of Worship Central’s style, but this song has got that killer hook, and the cry of that bridge (“These dry bones will live again/We’re nothing without You, nothing without You”) is one that resonates deep for me.

Another honourable mention would have to go to Ghost Ship’s Where Were You, a worship song inspired by Job’s questioning and God’s response at the end of the book of Job.  I listened to this when in desperate places this past summer.

Favourite Worship Album: Campfire by Rend Collective.  You’d think this wouldn’t work.  Coming out merely a year after their previous release, Campfire is a live album combining songs from both of their first two albums.  Why put out a live album of stuff that was still pretty new?  If I hadn’t seen and met these guys, I probably would have suspected a money grab.  But Campfire is not that.  Capturing the communal live experience that is so central to the band’s values, this collection of songs, recorded on a beach around a Campfire, hews much more closely to the intentions and heart of the band than the still-excellent studio versions of the same songs.  With the exception of the opening :30 version of Kumbaya, the whole thing is amazing beginning to end, with a lot of the songs getting reworked or finding new energy in the group vocals.  Add to that the best version of 10000 Reasons I’ve heard, and this is a must-buy.  Musically unique and spiritually alive, this is early January 2013 release was my favourite worship album of the year.

Favourite New Thing: So, Mars Hill church has a record label now, and they have several bands, who I believe all lead worship in some way or another at their church, on their roster.  This year saw four releases: an EP from the Dustin Kensrue (of Thrice)-led Modern Post, full albums from Citizens and Ghost Ship, and a solo album by the aforementioned Kensrue.  This is worship music, but it’s more bass heavy, edgier, more masculine or aggressive in its approach.  It sounds nothing like any of the more popular worship bands of the day.  The Modern Post record largely covers hymns.  The Citizens album has some excellent fist-pumping-to-heaven numbers.  But the best of all is Ghost Ship.  I’ve already mentioned their song Where Were You?, but the whole album is excellent.  One could complain that it’s hard to nail down who Ghost Ship are, as their style changes song to song–one song sounding Mumford-ish, the next a straight up rocker, and the next a hymn seemingly played by Fleet Foxes.  But somehow, it all works.  Great album.  Great label.  Go Mars Hill!

Favourite Hymns–So, it seems to be a trend that most worship bands have to put at least one cover of an old hymn per record.  If the cover is good, I love this trend, but it isn’t always good, and there are some bad hymn covers out there.  But Page CXVI put an entire series of hymn-based EPs.  And they are excellent.  I even came to love this odd version of I’ve Got the Joy.  The first time I heard it, I busted out laughing.  But when hard times came this summer, this version made a lot of sense to me:

Favourite Comeback–Martin Smith, God’s Great Dance Floor 02.  I know Martin Smith never really left, but I was unimpressed with most of God’s Great Dance Floor 01.  There are some pretty good songs, and the video for “Back to the Start” is pretty cool once all the dancers come in, but nothing resonated with me in any deep way.  So it was a pleasant surprise at how strong part 2 is, released just half a year later.  You get the full version of God’s Great Dance Floor, plus powerful songs like Great Is Your Faithfulness, Song of Solomon and Emmanuel.

Random: Some other random things.  The great Bobby McFerrin put out an album of spirituals this year, and the tracks 25:15 (a verse from the Psalms he’s been doing improvs on since at least 1997) and Rest/Yes Indeed are both nice if you’re wanting something different to worship to.  Chasing You from Bethel Music’s Tides record is a fantastic song.  And Kim Walker-Smith’s record with her husband Skyler, called Home, was largely overlooked and is really, really good.  The song Relentless Pursuit is a great place to start, especially if you already like what Kim usually does.  But the whole album is great.

And that’s that.  Thanks for taking the time to skim.  I’d love to hear your thoughts from the year as well, and let’s hope 2014 is an even better one.

Best of 2013: Live Music

Hello again, everyone!  Hope you all had a very Merry Christmas!  Two more entries for the year and then we’re taking a break.

As many of you know, live music is one of my absolute favourite things in the world, possibly my favourite leisure activity despite the fact that I generally can’t stand the crowd around me.  Sadly, my taste in music doesn’t match up very well with my location, so the bands I’d want to see live very rarely come to Sheffield or the UK.  That being said, I did have the chance to see several performances of live music this year, and instead of ranking them, I’m going to give you a chronological breakdown, as best as I remember it.  Here goes:

1) Sigur Ros (London, March)–Saw them at a venue in London a couple of months before their album Kveikur was released, but they were already playing songs from it to build excitement for the album.  It had been less than a year since their previous album, Valtari, was released, but that one was so mellow that it didn’t really loan itself to a tour.  They’d also recently lost their long-time keyboard player and were officially calling themselves a trio.

I wasn’t in a great personal place on the day of this gig, and that taints my memories of it.  The opening act was a guy who stood behind a computer keyboard for 30 minutes doing something that produced what amounted to one long electronic ambient song.  No one paid attention.

Sigur Ros’ set was fantastic, though I had a hard time engaging.  But they played a great mix of songs covering pretty much all of their albums, and the use of lights, video animation, lasers and sound made for an immersive experience.  Highlights included “Hoppipolla” (the one song by them you’re likely to have heard even if you don’t listen to this band), the closer “Popplagio” and one particular song where lead singer Jonsi held a single, beautiful note for probably a good 45 seconds; when the room realised what he was doing, the audience seemed to collectively hold its breath, waiting for the release from the note.  Sigur Ros was first described to me as a band that inspired worship, and that they did.

2. The Avett Brothers (Manchester, March)-One week later, in a very different emotional place, I saw the Avett Brothers, with Vermont’s own Grace Potter & The Nocturnals opening. I’ve already written at length about the Avett Brothers and how amazing this particular night was.  What can I say?  I connected with God and remembered what it meant to be a human here on earth for this limited time.  A good night.

3. Rend Collective (Manchester, May)–I fell in love with Rend back in 2011; they felt so different, so energetic, creative and communal in their approach to worship, all values and ideas that connect with me deeply.  Live, they are passionate, sincere and tight.  They are responsible for one of my favourite songs of all time (Build Your Kingdom Here) and released the fantastic Campfire album earlier this year.  So ultimately, this gig was a disappointment.  I had not realised that one of their singers had moved on to something else, and I didn’t really like the venue.  Worship concerts are huge challenges, and I’m not sure I understand them.  If things are too planned out, or too focused on engaging the audience in a performance-focused way, you lose out on the spontaneity or flow that real worship seems to require.  However, many who attend aren’t ready for that.  On this night, though they were great musically, it just felt too much like a concert to me.  By the numbers, going through a setlist that they’d gone through night after night.  They seemed a bit more tired than the other four times I’d seen them live.  Still love these guys, but not a memorable night.

4. Once: The Musical (June, London)–I doubt I will ever forget this night.  Just a week before, we sat watching this movie with some friends while, unbeknownst to us, some other close friends were being killed in a car accident.  We found out the next morning.  That week was intense.  I remember feeling nauseous much of the week.  We’d had the tickets to go see the West End version of Once for months, and it fell exactly a week after the accident.  We headed down to London with our two closest friends, hoping for a breather and a chance for some emotional release through the sad and beautiful music from the film-turned-stage-production.

It was a beautiful day, and we decided to get off the tube at a park and stroll gradually towards the theatre.  As we got closer to Trafalgar Square, we became aware of something–it was Pride Day in London, and without going too much into it, the chaos and noise of that environment was in every way the opposite of what we wanted or needed.  After forcing our way through it as quickly as possible, we found a place to eat away from the crowds and finally went to see the show.

It was a great experience.  If you get there early enough, you are allowed to walk about on the stage, which acts as a functioning pub.  You can order a drink from the stage.  Eventually, musicians (the cast) come out and begin singing songs, and you’re up on stage with them.  It’s a great beginning to the show.

The stage production has taken many liberties with the original story, adding and embellishing mostly.  Some of it actually makes more sense now.  I didn’t love the actress playing Her that night, but she was the understudy.  The actor playing Him was excellent, not doing a Glen Hansard imitation and playing things a bit edgier.  And the music…oh, the music.

Our friends had seen the original New York production and said this version was missing some of the raw passion and joy of the original, and I can see that.  But still worth the trip.

5. Iona (Lindisfarne Island, August)–We had the chance to see Iona perform on The Holy Island of Lindisfarne, site of St. Aidan’s monastery.  Gorgeous setting, inside an old stone church.  A very odd crowd–a mix of young and old, (one grumpy lady asked us, “Are you here to see the rock band?”, which we were, though Iona most certainly don’t fit that descriptor), fans and new initiatives.  Iona was billing it as a worship evening, only the second they’d ever done, playing their songs that were fit for worship and some other songs as well.  And this had some of the same issues as the Rend gig, in that everyone there has a different understand of how worship works and flows.  Some people are there to just sing along and enjoy the music.  Others are seeking the presence of God.  Musically, the band was as brilliant as ever, but they seemed unsure how to lead from a worship perspective.  Still, very worth it.

6. Jesus Culture (Manchester, October)–I had no idea what to expect from this night.  It’s Jesus Culture, the 2nd biggest worship act in the world, and arguably the more influential.  Jesus Culture, hailing from Bethel Church, the church of miracles and the power of the Spirit.  Well, first of all it was much more crowded than I expected–I imagine there were a couple thousand people in that room, and we were sat way in the back because of a stressful and traffic-filled drive over from Sheffield.  And I think for me the size of the venue made it a difficult worship experience.  It was hard to connect and engage; to a degree it felt like there were some people way up front playing some music, and as much as we tried to focus and worship and set our hearts on the presence of God, we walked away not entirely sure why we had gone.  It was encouraging to be together with so many people seeking God; I’m just had hoped for and been hungry for something deeper.

7. Foy Vance (Sheffield, November)–I can’t tell you how much of a thrill it was to go to a gig in my own city, to see an artist I love and take the tram to get there.  Hadn’t happened since U2 in 2009.  Foy played the Leadmill, an historic but small venue near the train station.  His opening act, Rams Pocket Radio, won me over (I’m not usually a fan of openers) with his strong voice and enigmatically spiritual lyrics.  Foy played as part of four-piece, and the night was filled with great songs, a cameo appearance by his young daughter on drums, and a somewhat annoying crowd.  People!  I did not come here to hear you sing, ESPECIALLY when you don’t actually know the lyrics.  Zip it!

8. Christmas Pageant (Malin Bridge Primary School, December)–The Year One and Year 2 classes at Malin Bridge Primary School put out their annual Christmas pageant and concert, and Ira and I attended.  The story involved a bunch of young kids not related to me standing up on stage and saying lines too quickly and quietly for me to understand.  There was something about toys and a puzzle, then some songs and a kid played the piano and BLAH BLAH BLAH.  The show was stolen by Choir Member #62, played by Nadia Book, whose performance involved singing along to the songs she was supposed to and occasionally spacing out and forgetting to sing.  It will not be forgotten by a single person writing this.

And that is my year in live music!  One more entry to go!

Best of 2013: Best Songs (Non-Worship Category)

Hello again!  My last post was all about albums (and I didn’t even mention how strong Foy Vance’s entire Joy of Nothing album was), but sometimes you just gotta love a song.  Here now is my list of the best songs of 2013–some catchy, some powerful, some emotional, some just fun.  I won’t offer much explanation, and if you want to know why the “non-worship” clarification, see my last entry.  In no particular order:

1. The Perfect Life–Moby; such a happy song, great to jog to.  With the help of Wayne Coyne of the Flaming Lips.

2. Give Yourself to Dance–Daft Punk.  They had a song that got a lot more radio play, and if you liked that but couldn’t admit it because of the questionable theme, this is the song you want to listen to–same singer, same vibe, more agreeable lyrics.  (The message: you should dance.  Give yourself to it.)

3. Open-Ended Life–The Avett Brothers.  Again, the harmonica.  Yes.

4. From This Valley–The Civil Wars.  The happiest song this unhappy duo ever wrote.  Sweet Jesus, carry me.

5. Ingenue–Atoms for Peace; all about mood; I love the percussion that sounds like someone’s off banging pipes in the basement.

6. Tie: Step & Diane Young–Vampire Weekend.  Tracks 3 & 4 from one of my albums of the year.

7. Sun–Sleeping At Last.  Do yourself a favour; go out in the sun, somewhere beautiful in nature.  Put on some good headphones.  Listen to this loud.  “We are the apple of God’s eye.”  Feel happy to be alive and loved.

8. Brenninstein–Sigur Ros.  The Icelandic boys show some muscle.

9. Can’t Complain–Relient K; This is from their 2013 release Collapsible Lung, a collection of pop songs you initially don’t want to like, until you find they won’t leave your brain.  A song about being content; I needed it this year.

10. You Put the Flame On It–Charles Bradley.  The Screaming Eagle of Soul relaxes for a song that gives off an old-school Smokey Robinson, 60s era Motown vibe.

11. Tie: I Shall Not Want/Good to Me–Audrey Assad.  Two deeply moving, almost essential songs, both featuring portions of Psalm 23.  The lyrics to the first are deeply honest and ultimately both are very hopeful.  Here, listen:

12. Tie: Janey/Guiding Light–Foy Vance.  I’ve written about him before, and could include a couple other songs from his latest album, but these two are both excellent.

13. Low Light Buddy of Mine–Iron & Wine–There’s new fruit hangin’ from the old fruit tree.  2013’s most overlooked album.

14. Retrograde–James Blake–this year’s Mercury Prize winner at his best, with ethereal music and handclaps, a nearly perfect 3:44.

15. Gonna Let My Soul Catch My Body–Over the Rhine.  Smooth.

16. Bleeding Out–The Lone Bellow.  Featuring my favourite lyrics of the year: All the buildings they lean and they smile down on us and they shout from their rooftops words we can’t trust, like “You’re dead, you are tired–you’re ruined, you’re dust.  You won’t ‘mount to nothin’, like tanks full of rust.”  But we scream back at them from below on the street.  All in unity we say “Our time’s been redeemed!”

17. Electric Lady–Janelle Monae.  Funky pop perfection, showing off nearly everything Ms. Monae does best.

18. Loneliness & Alcohol–Jars of Clay.  Jars show they’re still vital with this song about the way many people in the West bury their true selves under things that don’t matter, all just to protect themselves.  We’ve all been here, even if alcohol wasn’t the thing that we used.

19. Spotlight–Leagues.  Um, maybe the catchiest song on this list.  Great debut album.  “Romantic live is the least of these/It comes and goes, come and goes so easily.”  Go on, listen:

And there you go.  Hope you can discover some new songs here to brighten up your life and point your compass the right way.  What were your top songs of 2013?