Monthly Archives: January 2010

Dear Matt Thiessen (of Relient K)

Dear Matt Thiessen,

I am not your core audience.  I’m probably not the guy you’re targeting when you make an album.  I’m 36, I’ve a wife and a kid, and I live in England.  Most people think of Relient K as a band for teenagers, semi-angsty Christian kids–people like that.

And perhaps you started out that way.  You were, after all, only in high school when your band first started performing.  And your first sort of breakthrough album featured songs about cell phones and mood rings.  Teenager stuff.

But I hadn’t heard you at that point, aside from one track on a 5 Minute Walk sampler.

Then I went back to being a high school teacher, and dang if my kids didn’t love them some Relient K.  I’m a music junkie, and I like using music to connect and relate, so one year, just before going on a trip with some students to New York City, I bought your newest album.  It was on sale, I figured I’d like it some and be able to make some connections with some kids through that.

That album was the Five Score and Seven Years Ago album.  It was pretty good.  I digested small bits of it on the plane ride  and on the subways.

Then, while exploring the Natural History museum by myself–all the kids had scattered throughout the building–I decided to finish off the album.  And in this one hall where the fake Easter Island statue is (like the one in Night at the Museum), “Deathbed” came on.  Clocking in at 11 minutes, the song is a 1st person account of a man’s life story as he lies on his deathbed and encounters Jesus.  And it is amazing, musically, lyrically, emotionally.  Your vocal performance on that song is powerful, and the instrumentation complements each section beautifully.  I was hooked.

Next came the Christmas album, which fights Sufjan Stevens every Christmas for prominence in my CD player.  It’s so good, and “I Celebrate the Day” gets me every time I hear it.  It’s the one Christmas song I continue to listen to throughout the year.

So, wow, I thought, I kind of like these Relient K guys.  So I went back, got the aforementioned record with “Mood Rings” on it.  And, well….it’s okay.  Clearly you’ve grown in many ways.  Then I bought, again on sale, the cleverly named collection The Birds and The B-Sides, including The Nashville Tennis EP. Listened to it a few times, put it on the shelf.

A year goes by.  Christmas 2009 hits.  The Christmas album is on constant rotation.  New Years comes along, and I feel bad for keeping it in, but I’m still in this Relient K mood, so I decide to play the Birds album until I know it well enough to make a better call on it.

And then I can’t stop listening to it.  It is, particularly the first half, brilliant.  It is a new style for the band.  Much of the pop punk is gone, replaced by acoustic and alternative songs with all mixture of influences and melodies.

Well, Matt, you ask, what of our new album?  What of Forget and Not Slow Down, the album of tracks you wrote while isolated in some cabin somewhere during the period of time after a broken engagement?

Well, did I mention I live in England?  New music of the Christian-related variety isn’t always easy to come by, and when it is, it’s expensive.  So I asked for the CD for Christmas.  Could’ve downloaded, but with some bands I like the hard copy.  And our Christmas presents didn’t come till mid-January, by which point the Birds album had been in constant rotation.

So it came.  I listened to it.  And I heard your suffering, your process of working through the pain of this broken engagement, the desire to understand and honour the other person in that equation while still being honest with all the feelings and confusion.

It’s nearly a masterpiece.  I hope you continue to top yourself, Matt, but if you retire with this as your best album, you’ve done more than many bands.  Out of your suffering came some art.  Rob Bell would be proud.

I know it’s new for you and a lot of your old fans may have a hard time adjusting.  But you’re not a teenager anymore, and this album shows a maturity and depth.  It’s got the best lyrics you’ve ever written.  And I read about the production, how you, for the first time, weren’t using electronic tricks like loops–everything is recorded in a very organic way, and it shows on the album’s sound.

Granted, it takes a little while to get going.  As you know, since you recorded the album, there are really only 10 songs here, even though there are 15 tracks.  The extra five belong mostly to outros, usually slowing down the previous song or expanding on its theme.  And none of these are stinkers–no fillers.  This is a lean album.

That being said, most of the strongest tunes are in the latter half.  The first two songs are very good, but not great–the title track, and “I Don’t Need a Soul”, both fitting nicely into your pop-punk repertoire.   I’m not sure if you meant the double entendre in that latter title, but it had never occurred to me that there are two possible meanings to that phrase until I heard this song.

Then comes “Candlelight.”  Doesn’t sound much like anything you’ve done before.  It’s very bouncy–the guitars feel….the only word I can think of is jangly, which isn’t even a word.  It’s not a dance track per se, but never before has a Relient K song made me want to dance.  There is a slight undercurrent of bitterness to the song, though the lyrics seem to be positive.  Well done.  Great tune.

After that we get “Part of It”, with the guitar and bass taking turns backing up the verses.  Another strong but not great song, but I like the line “if the nightmare ever does unfold, perspective is a lovely hand to hold.”  Helpful thoughts for the heartbroken.

Then comes “Therapy.”  Stylistically, there isn’t a ton new in this song, but man, what a song.  Not too surprised it made the concert rounds during the winter tour.  It, in many ways, sums up what this whole album is about–it’s therapy for you.  There is a raw and painful honesty in your vocal performance here, Matt–I think this song is coming from your gut, especially the line, “This is just therapy, cause you won’t take my calls and that means God’s the only one that’s left here listening.”

“Over It” sounds like something from the Nashville EP or even the Christmas album.  It’s vaguely like a ballad, or a piano based pop song, maybe like you’re channeling Ben Folds for a bit.  Not my favourite on the album, but not a bad song–as I said, there aren’t any bad songs here.

And from here until the end it’s all gold, starting with “Sahara”, a haunting, heavy-hitting rocker.  And I love the “Oasis” outro that ends it.  That’s followed by “Savannah”.  I’m not sure what that intro is played on–it could be just an acoustic guitar, but I wouldn’t be shocked to find out it was a cello or some other stringed instrument.  Similar in style to “Candlelight,” this is a “roll down the window and cruise the interstate” song.   Everything here works–the lyrics, the melody, the arrangement.  Strong drumming exploring a range of sounds.  Love, love, love this song.

The “Baby” outro is bittersweet.  Makes me tear up a little…

Then comes “If You Believe Me,” which blends so well with the last song, the double track “This is the End (If You Want It)”.  The intro feels like you’re coming to some sort of conclusion to this whole chapter of your life…you’re beginning to sum up what you want to say to your ex-fiance.  You are exposing your heart at the same time as giving her credit and freedom to be herself.  “If you believe me, we could stand the test of time like no one else/ If you believe me, it means you have to disbelieve yourself.”  I have been in that exact place, Matt.  Really.  I have.  February 1997.  Through…most of the rest of 1997.  Ultimately, she believed herself instead of me.  This is an amazing track.

And it’s followed by that double-tracked closer, which is probably the best song you’ve ever written, and the best singing you’ve ever done.  The thrashing, relentless guitar over the first half, the haunting piano undergirding the same melody on the 2nd half.  The lyrics.  When I listen to this song, I feel like I’m holding my breath all the way through, until the last lines are song and you–whether in experience or by faith–have overcome and come home.

Matt, I’m not entirely sure who this album is for besides yourself.  Maybe for other jilted lovers trying to come to terms.  Almost nothing in it applies to my life as it is right now.  But still, you’ve gotten under my skin with a work of heart and a work of art exploring the suffering you’ve experienced over this past year.  It ends with a note of hard-earned hope.

Thank you.  My thoughts are with you. Thanks for sharing your pain and your journey with us.

I don’t know that you’ll ever read this, but in the aforementioned 1997 incident, weeks after the relationship came crashing down I ran into my pastor.  My pastor is a very driven, very spiritual man–very in touch with God and a man responsible for ministries all over the world.  So I expected something really profound from him when he asked me about the end of this relationship.  He put his hand on my shoulder, looked at me, and said, “Time heals all wounds, if you let it.”  And that was it.  And he was right.

God bless.  Can’t wait for the next album.

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My 12 Favourite Singles of 2009

Well, it’s been awhile since I’ve written anything here, but I’m back with some new resolve.  Sort of.  I am resolving that writing is going to be more of a part of my life in 2010, because it’s supposed to be.  I am CALLED to write in some way.  I want my main focus to be songwriting–I’m looking to take a class, and have several ideas in the works–but as music is my deepest passion these days, at least in regards to the arts, I feel like writing about music is also a valid outlet.  So I am.

The music business has changed a lot over the last decade.  At first, I didn’t like the changes–the rise of the MP3 player and online downloading seemed like a bad thing to me.  Because at heart, I love the album–the concept of a band putting out a complete unified collection of songs–and feared that these innovations would be the death of the album.

And they have wounded the album–some artists are loathe to release them now–but in other ways they have strengthened the album.  For an album to make it, there has to be less filler.  Or a stronger concept creating the necessity for a whole album.

I recently went through a massive project of cleaning out my iPod of filler.  I’d say about 65 or 70% of my music collection was on my iPod, and it was getting full.  Well, after several months, some 850 songs are gone, and there are very few complete albums.  Some albums did get a pass.  Dark Side of the Moon, for example.  You can’t break that up.  My favourite of last year, The End is Not the End by House of Heroes also is left in my iPod in full.

But with so much music to listen to, so little time to do it, what with work and being a father and husband and, well, life, I don’t have that much time for listening to stuff I don’t like, or listening to stuff because it’s “important” or “acclaimed.”  I like what I like.  Get over it.

With that in mind, instead of doing a best album of the year list, I thought I’d pay some honour to the song.  (Although, in case you’re interested, I think my winner for the year would be the mewithoutYou album I mentioned in an earlier post) The 3 to…9 minute complete unit of music, with a beginning, middle, and end, a verse and chorus and bridge.  You can like part of an album and still want to listen to it, but it’s hard to only like part of a song and give it any attention.  So here we go–the 12 Best Songs of 2009–1 per month.

Now.  A word about the process here.  I scrolled through my iPod looking at recent additions.  Some 32 bands made the nominee list, some with multiple tracks.  I’m going to list them all below.  Know that some were disqualified since they turned out to be released in late 2008.  I had to be somewhat ruthless in not adding older songs I only discovered this year (sorry, Misty Edwards).  We have to be disciplined here.  Here is the list, followed by the actual top twelve, in ascending order.

Anathallo–The River* Avett Brothers–I and Love and You

Bon Iver–Blood Bank Brooke Fraser–Albertine*

Christafari–Boomshots Dan le Sac vs. Scroobius Pip–Letter from God*

David Crowder Band–How He Loves Us, and We are Loved

The Decemberists–The Rake’s Song Derek Webb–What Matters More

Family Force 5–Carol of the Bells, ‘Twas the Night Before Christmas

Fanfarlo–The Walls are Coming Down Flynn Adam–Dishes

Foy Vance–Indiscriminate Act of Kindness*

Grouch & Eligh–All In Ian McIntosh–You Are Holy, Faithful

Jars of Clay–Boys (Lesson One), Headphones, Scenic Routs

John Waller–Our God Reigns Here Justin Rizzo–Tree*

K’Naan–Waving Flag Knine–You Better, But…He Said

mewithoutYou–The Fox, the Crow and The Cookie; Bullet to Binary (Part 2)

Mutemath–Backfire; Pins and Needles

needtobreathe–Stones Under Rushing Water; Girl from Tennessee

Owl City–Fireflies Thom Yorke–All for the Best

Regina Spektor–Laughing With Rootbeer–Pink Limousine, So Good

She & Him–Lotta Love Sufjan Stevens–You are the Blood, The Sleeping Red Wolves

Tye Tribbett–Bless the Lord * U2–Moment of Surrender

The Welcome Wagon–Sold! To the Nice Rich Man*

Those with an asterisk were disqualified due to their release date.

This was hard.  It was relatively easy to get it down to 16.  But 12?  Four gems had to go.  So with that in mind, here are my Top 12 Songs of 2009.  (The 4 cut songs, by the way, are tracks by Christafari, Ian McIntosh, Rootbeer, Regina Spektor, and John Waller.  But you really really really really really need to go hear that John Waller song, because it is the most aggressive worship track I’ve ever heard, and if this were my “Top 10 Intercession Songs Ever” it would be in the top 5.)

12) The Rake’s Song–from the Decemberists’ opus, “Hazards of Love.”  The most instantly catchy song on this list, though it’s mainly just two chords.  Not heard it?  Here’s an idea: get it, and play it once or twice in the background while you do something else.  See if it doesn’t instantly get stuck in your head.  Now, go back and listen to or read the words.  Feel appalled at yourself for finding it so catchy.  Console your guilty conscience with the knowledge that it is one of the villains of the story talking, and that he later gets his just desserts.

11) Waving Flag–K’naan is a Somali-born hip-hop artist, though he has spent many of his years in less-threatening Canada.  The first time I heard this song was on the podcast of a live performance from South by Southwest music festival.  And it struck me instantly, mainly because–and this is the best word I can use to describe it–it is so anthemic.  The album had just come out before that performance, so who knows how many had heard that song before, but that chorus, that killer hook, is so simple and so singable that you’d think he was leading the crowd in a chorus of Stand By Me.

10) I and Love and You–Okay, Steve Tarter, you win.  A couple of years ago Steve Tarter pointed me towards the Avett Brothers, a bluegrass…ish…group that includes some actual brothers.  On the earlier works, the band liked to try and mesh other musical styles into the bluegrass template, whether it be hip-hop (Talk on Indolence) or hard rock breakdowns on “Emotionalism”‘s tracks.  For this, their major label debut, they brought on board Rick Rubin, who stripped back some of their wilder tendencies and focused on song craft.  I haven’t heard the whole album, but this song is just beautiful.  It does everything a song should do–it sticks to your bones, gets in your head, and you feel the emotions of the song and how they relate to your life even though the lyrics might not.  It makes me want to own a car again so I can drive down the…er, motorway with the windows rolled down pretending I’m heading to Brooklyn.  Gorgeous, gorgeous, gorgeous.

9) How He Loves Us–David Crowder Band’s “Church Music” is an experiment that doesn’t quite reach the heights it aspires to.  I want to love it as a whole, but I don’t.  I get lost in the last third.  I’ve listened to it tons of times and can’t seem to remember how the last few songs go.  That said, there are some standout moments.  “We Are Loved” is a strong entry, but this cover of the modern worship standard is a cut above.  It is sparse–the instrumentation, especially at the beginning, is pared back, with at first nothing more than an effects-laden piano and David’s voice.  At least, that’s what you think at first.  But listen to it again, with some nice speakers or on headphones.  Throughout the entire track, in the background, is the sound of a crowd of people all talking.  It only runs through this song.  And somehow that murmur adds a whole dimension to the track.  It gives one the subtle sense of the singer, isolated and alone, but secure and full in the love of God.  It adds a dimension of sadness–just a hint–to the song, a vulnerability, that improves the song.

Incidentally, there is no “sloppy wet kiss” in this version.  We are instead treated to an “unforeseen kiss.”  Some would far prefer that lyric.

8. Tie: But…He Said, You Better: Knine, a rapper you’ve never heard of, put out a free mixtape this year called “Knine Presents Robots Have Feelings Too”.  I downloaded it based upon a strong review in a highly cynical publication–one that doesn’t give strong reviews, especially to music related to Christianity, easily.  And I was blown away.

So you might think I’m cheating to put both of his nominees on this list.  But it’s my list, so get over it.  And I have a reason: there seem to be two things running through this album–a deeply reverent, faith-filled declaration about life, and the craft of a clever, witty, and playful wordsmith.  The former track illustrates the first, in which Knine raps about different messages we’ve probably heard about ourselves or life, and then tells what the Word says in its place.  The whole thing is brilliant.  The latter track is both silly and tough, in which Knine lists a bunch of people and things you could add to your army trying to defeat Knine and still be totally fruitless in your attack.  “You better have a way to get in touch with Darth Vader/Better have some ‘gators, better yet some Gladiators.”  “You better have a sniper and he better have a plan/ You better have every Taliban in Afghanistan.”  Indeed.

7) All For the Best–Thom Yorke.  This track is a cover, from an album of covers by indie artist Mark Mulcahy to raise money for him after his wife passed, leaving him to raise two children on his own.  No idea who Mark is, and have never heard any of his songs before.  But I love the mix of this song–the way it sounds like another Yorke electronic experiment at the beginning, but then those organic clacking drumsticks and electric guitar interrupt the proceedings, complimented by Yorke harmonizing with himself.

6) Moment of Surrender–U2.  Bono’s live performance of this song was the vocal performance of the night, maybe of the year for me.  Definitely the best performance of any of the new songs.  This track, which seemingly tells a story about a man encountering God at an ATM machine, isn’t quite like any other U2 song.  Clocking in at 7:00, bluesy, passionate, this is a slow-cook number that deserves quite a bit more attention that it got.

5) What Matters More–Derek Webb’s controversial Stockholm Syndrome record is a masterpiece, one that grows on me more and more.  I keep coming back to it and discovering new things whenever I do.  The only complaint I have is the presence of two tracks with nearly identical writing structures–both are good, but both are dependent on the trick of ironic metaphors (i.e. “It’s like a crime scene without the blood…” etc.), and it’s a trick that wares thin for me after one song.  But anyway, this song, the one that caused much of the big disagreement with his label, is the centrepiece thematically for the record.

Forget the noise over the swear word and all that.  Listen to the song.  This record is Derek’s experimentation with electronica, and this is one of the more successful albums in that regard on the album.  But listen to the words, too: “You say you always treat people like you like to be/ I guess you love being hated for your sexuality”.  This is an important message, a strong indictment, but one I feel is delivered with love.  The key words to notice are “brother” and “sister”.  It not only deals with the attitude of the Christian to the homosexual, but also with the mixing of church and politics.  It is an important song on an important record.

4) Boys (Lesson One)–Jars of Clay is one of the most underrated bands of our day.  Everyone knows their first album, but very few have been patient with their newer stuff, which is unfortunate because their last two have been their best two, hands down.  This song comes from “The Long Fall Back to Earth”, an album concerned with relationships, particularly marriage and parenting.  It is also a collection of strong and emotional singles addressing day to day life in a powerful way.

And this is maybe my favourite song from it, partially because I am a parent, and in it, the singer addresses his songs with life advice.  The opening line sucks me right in and the song has me: “Lesson One: do not hide/Lesson Two: there are right ways to fight.”  I mean, right there in those lines is a myriad of deep and hard won wisdom every father needs to pass on to his sons.  What do weak men do?  They hide, or they fight battles they don’t need to in ways they shouldn’t.  Sentimental, maybe slightly sappy?  Yes.  Guess what.  I don’t care.  “There will be liars and thieves who take from you/Not to undermine the consequence, but you are not what you do.”  Man, this song…

3) Flynn–Dishes. This is just a great single, deserving hit status.  Okay, it’s a relatively straightforward hip-hop track about the simple ways a man can love his girl.  Nothing too original from Flynn of the LA Symphony.  But I defy you to listen to it and not want to hear it again, to listen to it and not be tempted to learn it to sing to your wife or girlfriend.   Go ahead.  Try.

2) The Fox, the Crow, and the Cookie–I don’t know why I love this song so much.  It tells a Sufi parable about a crow whose pride causes him to lost the cookie he stole to a clever fox.  And then it goes off at the end into these weird metaphors about heaven that the crow appears to be speaking, and I can’t figure out what it all means.  And really, the whole song is only four chords, although it feels like it has about 4000 words.  Believe me, I’ve tried learning it.  I like that I had to use the dictionary.  (Cordivae?  Canzanet?)  But combine it with maybe my favourite music video ever (and incidentally, I like the mix on the video better than on the CD), and you have some truly original music.  I want to perform this song live.

1) You Are the Blood–Sufjan Stevens.  Hmmm…..kind of surprised this ended up at number one, given that I can only ever make it through about the first six minutes…but what six minutes of bliss!  Sufjan, Sufjan.

Sufjan Stevens is the artist of the decade.  If, for some sick reason, I had to give up all CDs acquired in the first decade of the 2000s minus one, the first one that jumps into my head to keep is the Illinois album.  But we hadn’t heard from him in a couple of years, and there was danger that, despite his innovation, he’d get stuck in an oboe-and-banjo laden rut.

2009 saw Sufjan’s return, however, with two different solutions to this dilemma.  On the one hand was The BQE–a CD of basically modern classical composed in honour of the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway.  Sufjan takes what he does, takes some lessons from Philip Glass, and turns into something new, though decidedly Sufjan.  If you had played me the album without telling me the artist, I still would have known instantly, though there are no sung words on the album.

On the other hand, this track from the compilation “Dark Was the Night”, itself a cover of a song by another Asthamtic Kitty band, the Castanets, finds Sufjan trying a whole new thing.  Or maybe it could be said he’s trying a little bit of everything.  Haunting, beautiful, electric, acoustic, and the kitchen sink, all in about nine minutes of peace matched up with controlled chaos.  It is my choice for the best song of 2009.

Your turn!