Monthly Archives: September 2012

September Music Showdown: The Avett Brothers vs. Mumford & Sons

Comparison.  It plagues us all at different times, and is rarely helpful.  In music and the arts, at best it’s an interesting diversion, at worst a complete waste of time.  But sometimes it sure is fun.

The following article is only really, truly helpful if you are saying to yourself, “I can only buy one album this month, and both of these sound amazing, so which one should I buy?”  Well, I’m about to tell you.

Here we have two bands.  Both are “indie folk” darlings with heavy bluegrass leanings, both feature lots of banjo, both have rabid fan bases, both have new albums in September, and both have vocalists/songwriters who come from families in the ministry, who use their music (one more than the other) to explore their own faith journeys.

In this corner, we have the veterans: The Avett Brothers.  The Carpenter is their seventh album, and their second under super-producer Rick Rubin.  Their last effort, I and Love and You wasn’t necessarily their best, though it was excellent, but it was the album that garnered them a lot more popular attention.  It earned them a slot at the Grammys, playing their own song and then backing up Bob Dylan, alongside their competitors in today’s match…

Mumford & Sons: hailing in the opposite corner, we have the British bluegrass boys with their second album Babel.   Their first album, Sigh No More, was a smash success that built them a huge following in the States, and rightly so.  I’ve long thought that their follow-up was an impossible task–if they did too much of the same thing, they’d be criticised, but if they strayed too far from what worked on the first album, they’d lose people.

So how did these two albums shape up?

Well, to explain my answer, I need to briefly explain how I expected them to shape up.  Let’s start with…

1. The Albums Are Announced: I first heard the announcement for these albums in early summer.  At that time, I was still listening to Mumford’s album with a lot of frequency considering I’d had it for two years, and especially connecting with’s it’s breathtaking first half.  Though nervous about their follow-up, I was also super-excited.

My relationship to the Avett Brothers’ music was a bit more indifferent.  I knew people that loved them, and I enjoyed them in a light way from time to time, but really only loved one song: the title track from I and Love and You, which made my cut of the top songs of 2009.  But I knew I’d give their new album a try, as I’d really respected their performance on the Grammys and felt slightly bad that the spotlight had been grabbed away from them by the Mumford newcomers.

2. The First Singles are Released–The Avett Brothers’ single “Live and Die” was released first, followed by, several weeks later, “I Will Wait” by Mumford.  “I Will Wait” struck me as neither bad nor amazing on my first couple of listens.  It sounds very much like a track from their first album, and has that energy and passion that makes the first album so great.

“Live and Die” was a different story.  It grabbed me instantly–I think it took one listen for it to be stuck in my head.  I can’t recall a more catchy, peppy tune from these guys–it just has a melody that gets under my skin, and I found myself getting more and more excited for the whole album.  That was definitely helped by reading an essay by I believe Scott Avett on the artist and the way he reflects the Creator.

So with the singles, Round One goes to: The Avett Brothers.

3. The Albums Themselves Both came out in September, and I’ve had a chance to get to know both.  Let’s start again with Mumford & Sons’ Babel.

The reviews for this thing have been all over the place–I saw a harsh 2 star review and I’ve seen several four star reviews.  My take on it is this: hmmm.  That’s my take.  Just: hmmm.

Okay, I’ll expand.  I like the album.  I do.  They definitely hew closer to the formula of the first album than I expected, but I think that largely works in their favor.  In the context of the album, the single is better than I gave it credit for.  They do add some new flourishes–Marcus Mumford’s vocals are more snarly and aggressive than before (take the title track), there’s a bit of electric guitar here and there.  And there are some amazing songs: Holland Road, Hopeless Wanderer (which I can’t wait to play loudly while driving down the M1), a few others.

But there are cracks, as well.  I find it annoying that they felt the need to again include one song peppered with the F-word, as if the “1 F-word song and everything else pristine” is going to be a gimmick from now on.  Some of the songs are, forgive me, boring.  Some of the lyrics seem quite cliched or uninspired.  And that last word sort of sums up for me some of how I feel about this album.  Go back and find on youtube their Grammy performance–it feels inspired, hopeful, joyful.  And to me, watching clips of recent performances, the lead singer specifically seems a bit more angry, and a lot more tired.  The joy seems to be missing.  I get enough of tired and angry in the real world to devote my energy to it musically.

You know, at some level, it’s not even that it’s uninspired.  Some it feels maybe even inauthentic.  As if they thought, “Well, songs about spiritual struggle worked, so here’s some more of those.  Having one song with the F-word worked, so…”  That may not be true at all.  But that’s what I feel.

What’s missing to me is a strong sense of melody–it’s hard to remember some of the songs, and there are few of those singalong moments the first record had, nothing like those “It will set you free…be more like the man you were made to be…”-style moments.

Don’t get me wrong.  I’m sounding like I hate this record, and I don’t.  There are some, once-again, breathtaking moments on here.  Beautiful ones.  It’s just that their fewer than I wanted, and they are surrounded by some things that worry me about the future of this band.  They have slipped from the top of my “must see in concert” list.

Overall Grade for Babel: a mid-range B.

Now on to The Carpenter.  For the first time since I was told about the Avett’s about six years ago, I get it.  If this is about comparison, then know this: the song-writing on this record is just better.  These guys have more experience, and they’re willing to work on songs until they are tight.  They cover a broad range of topics, from the sentimental (A Father’s First Spring, about a newborn daughter) to the…well, to whatever the rocker Paul Newman vs. The Demons is about.  There’s nothing groundbreaking here, just twelve tight well-written songs.  Not a single one is a “skipper”.

Highlights for me include the single mentioned above, I Never Knew You (there’s a moment towards the end that gives me goosebumps, when the harmony of the chorus changes to being the melody of the chorus–just great singing), and Down With the Shine.  I have to be in the right mood for the numerous slow songs, of which there may be one too many for my tastes, but all in all, a beautiful record.

Overall grade for The Carpenter: A minus.

One interesting effect of this: every time I put on the Mumford record, I do like it a lot.  But when I think about them in general, I have a sudden sour taste.  The effect of the Avett Brothers record has been the opposite–I had a couple of other albums of theirs that I never really got into–free downloads and whatnot–but now I’m going back and appreciating older stuff at a deeper level.  That is a rare thing for me.  Suddenly, they’ve gotten into my skin, into my soul; I’m even considering singing one of their songs at an event tomorrow.

They’ve also made it to the top of my “see live” list, and it is not uncommon for them to play 28 songs in a concert.  They are supposedly amazing live, and some of the footage I’m finding on youtube testifies to that.  So I’ll leave you with that: a blurry performance of their simple (but catchy) Down With the Shine from Jimmy Fallon, which they perform with an urgency I find unusual but enthralling for a live performance, as if the singer (is it Scott or Seth?) is desperate that we understand what he is communicating.  Enjoy:

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John Book’s Very Own Podcast: Episode 2

Hi all–in this 2nd episode, I talk with Dustin Fancher about the Olympics and his experiences there, ramble on about my kids and say silly things about simplicity, and review the new House of Heroes album.  There’s even a question of the week at the end; send your answers to veryownpodcast@yahoo.com

To My Christian Friends: Why You Should Stop Posting About Politics on Facebook. Please.

“For where you find envy and selfish ambition, there you find disorder and every evil practice.  But the wisdom that comes from God is first of all pure; then peace-loving, considerate, submissive, full of mercy and good fruit, impartial and sincere.  Peacemakers who sow in peace raise a harvest of righteousness.”  –James 3:16-18

I’d like to stray for a minute from the stated purpose of this blog and share some thoughts.  These thoughts are not directed at any one person, or any one side of the political divide.  I say that to be fair, but in truth, I’ve seen more of the behaviour I’m about to describe on the side of the Right than the Left, and on some days it’s been so frustrating that it’s made me want to, for the first time in my life, vote Democrat for President just to spite people.  Not a mature response, but this is a moment for honesty.

Like many people, one of the things I do most mornings at some point is check email and facebook.  It is helpful for me, as many people in the States respond to questions or emails in the evening there, while I am asleep.  But lately, I’ve noticed that this habit is accompanied by a sense of nausea and dread, and I’ve figured out that this is entirely due to the large amount of inflammatory political statements people are posting in their status updates.

Not all of these are from Christians, but I am writing to you, my dear Christian brothers and sisters, followers of Jesus, and calling you to immediately stop posting about politics on facebook.  Not because it is annoying (which it is), but for the sake of the God we serve, for His honour.

Let me explain.

First of all, a two sentence status update is a terrible place for intelligent political discourse.  You can throw out some strong statement, but there’s no space to provide a well thought-out argument as to why you are right, to back up what you are saying (other than saying “Fox News said so.”)  There’s no place to indicate respect for people who see things differently.  No place for love and honour.

It’s a great place to throw out a provocative statement and try to get a reaction out of people, but a lousy place for understanding, listening, and unity.  What comes across in most of these posts is anger.  Unexplained and unjustified anger.  Judgement.  Pride–people talking as if they know, they truly understand everything about politics and the world, and if you see it differently, you’re an idiot.  This is the tone that comes across.

Read the verse above.  In it, James lists qualities of wisdom.  Do you think you have wisdom about how the world works, about political truth and why this or that is really going on?  Well, if that wisdom is from God, then it is considerate towards others.  It is submissive.  It is full of mercy and bears good fruit.  It is impartial.  These qualities seem to me to be totally lacking in your political posting, and therefore, by Biblical definition, are not wisdom at all.

But do we really want to demonstrate this kind of wisdom?  Do we really want to look like Jesus, even on facebook?  Are we inviting intelligent discussion of important issues?

No, and I think secretly, if we would search out hearts, we’d see that there is ego involved here.  We want the gratification of seeing that people have clicked ‘Like’, that they have agreed with us.  I know this because I’ve done it at times.  But it is pure egotism, and it needs to stop.

Why is this important?  It is important because humility important, and you have to remember the truth that no one, not even you, is right about everything, and no one, not even the guy on the other side, is wrong about everything.  No one is that consistent.  And the world is too complex.

It is important because my guess is that some of your facebook friends aren’t on the same side of the fence as you, and when you brazenly post (which is all a two sentence status update can really muster), you potentially alienate them.

And what’s worse, is that some of your facebook friends likely aren’t Christians either.  To me, this is the biggest point I want to make.  Those friends who aren’t Christians–they are watching.  They are.  They just are.  A huge number of my fb friends are not believers, and I know that they watch.  So if you are marked by judgement and anger, they are seeing that, and it is pushing them further from Jesus.  Jesus said something about causing others to stumble having unpleasant results…

In addition, some of the opinion-spewing shows that we have a tendency to believe the news media more than we do the voice of God.  People, hear me clearly: no news source is unbiased.  Bias rears its head even in the choosing of what to report.  Every story, no matter how neutral, has some sort of angle, and that’s true if you’re Fox, CNN, or the BBC.  And none of those networks have the full truth, and none of them have the Kingdom in mind.  None of them are reporting things the way God sees them.

Instead, we need to ask God for His perspective and go to the Scripture to find it as well.  Take this week’s events in the Middle East.  I’ve seen some of the most ignorant and heinous commenting on this.  An uprising is occurring in many places, with horrific violence, much of it triggered by this film.  This is not Obama’s fault any more than 9/11 was Bush’s.  And what much of the commenting does is forgets that these are real people, loved by God, involved here.  I saw Donald Trump tweet something like “I said these Libyan people we were helping were going to be trouble, and again I was right.”  But I have friends who have worked in Libya and have been treated with nothing but respect and hospitality.

So did you respond to the fear mongered by the press?  Or did you look deeper?  Did you see the pictures of the Libyan protest the next day, in favour of America, with signs apologising and saying “This violence is not what we are like or what we stand for?”

Here is what Pete Grieg, leader of the 24-7 Prayer Movement, said: This is a clash of worldviews. Freedom of speech (US) v honour (M.East). Grace (apology will suffice) v Law (film-maker must be punished)                   And I agree.

And did you prayerfully look deeper?  For in everything there is a “story behind the story.”  And the story behind the story here is that since the Arab Spring, there has been an unprecedented–seriously, historically unprecedented–move of God in the Middle East.  Literally thousands and thousands of Muslims are suddenly coming to Christ all throughout the region, many of them in some of the world’s most “closed” nations.  Things are happening that have never happened there before.  God is also bringing healing and help to the traumatised people of Libya.  Gee, can you think of anyone who might not be too happy about those things, who might want to quash it?

The enemy.  What is forgotten in much of our political whining and whining and whining is that our struggle is NOT AGAINST FLESH AND BLOOD.  Not our economic struggle, not our political struggle, not our religious struggle.  There is a spiritual darkness named Satan who hates us and hates what God is doing in the earth, and just maybe, instead of blaming and pointing fingers, we should get down on our knees this weekend  and pray for God’s mercy and spiritual strength in the midst of what is very obviously an attack.

So, the next time you feel like posting something short and yet inflammatory that is politically-themed on facebook or twitter, here’s what you should do instead:

1. Ask yourself, have I prayed for the leaders I am about to complain about?  Should I do that instead?  And then you should pray for your leaders and submit in your attitude to them.

2. Ask yourself: Are there people who might read this who might be hurt by my tone?  Am I coming across as arrogant, like I know everything?  Am I doing this for some sort of gratification on the internet?  Is this pure?  Peace-loving?  Considerate?  Full of good fruit and mercy?  Or is it melodramatic, as if I’m saying God can handle anything but if this next election doesn’t go my way (and therefore, His way) then the whole world is going to fall apart?

3. Am I acting as if America is the centre of the universe and its preservation or reputation in the earth is more important than the Kingdom of God?  Have I really sought God’s perspective, an eternal perspective, in this issue?  Do I remember that the Church thrives under hardship?

Okay, that’s my rant.  It was really bugging me and I needed to get it off my chest. Tone it down people, tone it down.  And if you can’t tone it down on social media, then, in all love and all due respect, please shut up.  Thank you.

John Book’s Very Own Podcast: Episode 1

In this episode, I introduce myself and my podcast, talk about this year’s ICON, preview our impending dinner with the Royal Family, review a CD, and talk to Todd Robert’s about cycling and drugs!