They Should Be Bigger

I have a couple of serious entries in the works for the thirteen of you, but I’m in the mood for something more trivial.  I’ve been thinking recently about artists who should be bigger than they actually are.  People who consistently put out good work that should appeal to masses, but somehow have stayed hidden in shadows or drawing a fanatic but small cult audience.  Maybe you’ve heard of most of them, maybe none, but I hope in sharing these with you that you discover new music or books that you can connect with and love!

Now, I’m going to go ahead and just fly through the first couple of artists because they’ve already had things written about them on this blog.  But just to reiterate:

The Avett Brothers–when I tell people about them, I tell them that they are Mumford & Sons older, more experienced brothers, and I believe they should be bigger than Mumford ever was.  Their new album, Magpie & the Dandelion, isn’t what I expected but I really like it. I saw them in concert in March and the best way I can describe it is “transcendent.”  I emotionally stayed at that concert for weeks afterwards.  A big surprise.

House of Heroes–straight up rock & roll isn’t in style these days, but I think they’re one of the best rock bands on the planet.  I named their album The End is Not the End my favourite of 2008.  They have followed that up with numerous EPs and two stellar albums, Suburba (not quite as good as The End… but a masterclass in group backing vocals) and last year’s Cold Hard Want, an album I come back to over and over again.  Listen. To. Them.

Most of the rest of this list is made up of other musicians, but there is one author I wanted to present to you guys, so as a break, I’ll start with him:

Stephen Lawhead: Stephen Lawhead writes historical fiction (especially Celtic history) and fantasy.  I don’t remember entirely how I first got introduced to his writing, but in 1997 I did have the chance to meet him at Cornerstone Music Festival.  He is an American who has lived most of his life in the UK, mostly Oxford.  It’s likely that you haven’t heard of him, but you should have.

His first big success, and probably the books that enabled him to make a career of this, came from his series on King Arthur, a cycle of novels which began with Taliesin and concluded five books later with Grail.  

To me, Lawhead’s biggest strength is that he doesn’t write Christian fiction, but instead writes compelling, excellent fiction that stays true to his Christian worldview.  There’s a big difference.  I’ve long given up on most Christian fiction, finding that much it either crosses the line from “inspired by” to just plain “ripping-off” C.S. Lewis, or beats me over the head so hard with its faith, a faith usually crammed awkwardly into a mediocre story.

Lawhead avoids these traps and has his own voice.  You’re more likely to find him in a Waterstones or Barnes & Noble than you are a Christian bookshop, but he writes in a way that his worldview comes through nonetheless.  Now, to be clear, these aren’t heavy literary reads (although the first book I talk about below comes closer than anything else he’s done).  These are just enjoyable fiction, something to read a few chapters of before bed or to take on holiday with you.

It would help to mention my two favourite works by him.  The first is a standalone novel, a rarity as he mostly works in series.  It tells the story of Aidan, a monk who is kidnapped by Vikings and brought to Rome, only to find much of it corrupt and immoral.  The opening sentence is a good one: “I saw Byzantium in a dream, and knew that I would die there.”  It’s been years since I’ve read it, so I don’t remember a lot about it, but I do remember that the style is a bit denser and descriptive than his series work, and the story a strong one.  Aidan wrestles with his God, even turning his back on Him at points, even while trying to live a Christian life before his Viking captors-turned-friends.  The ending, the last few pages, are affecting and powerful, leaving a mark on me even years after reading.

The other work by Lawhead that I love is his “King Raven Trilogy”, a series of books that retell the Robin Hood legend, setting it in Wales instead of the Midlands, for reasons clearly explained and defended by the author.  All the characters are there in various incarnations–Robin Hood, Friar Tuck, Marian, the Sheriff–and the sections in which Hood, a prince whose family has been murdered and his land taken from him, and his band play various complicated tricks on the local authorities are gripping.  Each book in the series (Hood, Scarlet and Tuck) are narrated by their namesakes.  And the third book takes on some really unexpected twists, making the series a statement on the power of pacifism and forgiveness.  I actually maintain that had Ridley Scott and Russell Crowe chosen these books as the blueprint for their Robin Hood movie of a few years ago they would have had a much stronger film on their hands, and the beginning of a good series.

These days, Lawhead is finishing up a five book series called Bright Empires.  It’s written with a style that sometimes reminds one of 19th century English authors–Austen, Dickens–with a formality that contrasts with the story, one of a treasure hunt where the characters race through dimensions and different times, travelling by use of “ley lines”.  I’ve read the first three books in the series, and it grows on you…I left the first one completely baffled, but the second and third get progressively better.  Not my ultimate favourite by him, but maybe the easiest to find and a good start if you’re interested.

Janelle Monae: Janelle Monae is amazing.  You need to listen to this woman.  Her albums (2 LPs and an EP todate) ostensibly tell the futuristic story of Cindy Mayweather, a messianic android who falls in love with a human.  Of course, if you didn’t see the album art or read anything about this, you’d likely never pick up on it from just listening to her music.  And what kind of music does this woman make?  It’s hard to say, really…it’s soul.  Funk.  Hip-hop.  Pop.  70s Jackson Five-style Motown.  R&B.  Indie.  Gospel.  Jazz.   She does it all, with a seemingly endless supply of energy and creativity and a versatile voice that can rap, sound low and smooth or belt it with the best of the divas.  She’s quirky, but her music makes me want to dance and just be alive.

She’s the hipster Beyonce.  Maybe?

Where to start, if that above paragraph has convinced you at all: Well, I think Electric Lady, her 2013 album, is her strongest album overall (and I cannot figure out for the life of me how this was not nominated for any Grammys.  Seriously.) but I do know people who much prefer her previous album, The ArchAndroid.  I love that record as well, but I really only love about half of it–there are 5 or 6 amazing tracks and then a bunch that I skip.  The Electric Lady is a more complete package to me, though if you’re looking for every track to be like “Tightrope” or “Cold War” from her previous album, you’ll be disappointed.  It hits all the styles I mentioned above and is divided into two halves she has described as “fire” and “water”.

If you just haven’t the time to suss that all out, let me give you a handful of tracks to sample: “Dance or Die” (which is the one that originally got me), “Cold War”, “Electric Lady” (holy cow do I love the rap on this song) “Primetime” and “Can’t Live Without Your Love.”  Go.

Iona: On a completely different continent of my musical world comes Iona, a Celtic progressive rock band from the UK who have been together for nearly 25 years.  These guys can play.  Possibly one of the best live bands on the planet, they manage to replicate really complicated songs in concert, making it sound easy.  I have no idea why they aren’t more famous; they exude more pure talent and skill than 95% of the bands out there.

Let me give an example: there’s one song, “Bi-Se I Mo Shuil Part 2” (a Gaelic language take on “Be Thou My Vision” on Journey into the Morn, arguably their best album) that has an instrumental section that is in something like 11/8 time.  (It’s either 11/8 or it alternates measures of 5/8 and 6/8.)  I believe the first time I saw them play live, they had electric guitar, keys, flute and uilleann pipes trading off on this section, or playing all together.  It was literally breathtaking–I felt myself holding my breath as they moved through it.  Not an easy song to play.  Listen here, though the video quality isn’t the best.  The section in question comes at about the 2:30 mark:

Describing music with words has been compared to dancing about architecture, but I’ll give it a shot.  It’s Celtic music–think about Riverdance–mixed in with a lot of electric guitar and keys, with progressive rock tendencies–epic long songs that build into walls of sound–all fronted by the beautiful and powerful voice of Joanne Hogg.  Thematically, they sing about the “thin places” of the UK, the places where heaven seems just a bit closer to earth, and how they have met with God in those places.  The Book of Kells might have their most well-known music, but I prefer Journey into the Morn or their live album Heaven’s Bright Sun.  In fact, start there for the amazing mix of Irish jigs, beautiful renditions of old hymns, gorgeous instrumentals and catchy self-penned tunes.  They recently came out with a new album, the two disc set Another Realm, which is their best in ten years.  Great music for driving around through beautiful scenery and connecting with God; think a sort of Celtic Sigur Ros effect.

Over the Rhine: Another band with a long and storied career (nearly 25 years), Over the Rhine is a husband-wife duo (she’s the singer) that make emotional, moody indie-pop/folk/anything they feel like.  She’s got an amazing voice, and they write powerful songs.  They’ve won numerous awards, been named on lists of greatest living songwriters, and toured with the likes of Bob Dylan and My Morning Jacket.  Critics that write about them frequently write about their bafflement that these guys aren’t bigger.

I don’t have much to say about them other than I think they should be bigger.  You’ve heard of the Civil Wars, right?  They’ve been doing that kind of thing, and from a more honest place (as they are often actually singing about each other), for much longer.  (For example, most of their album Drunkard’s Prayer is about their marriage, the struggles they’ve faced in it, and the way they’ve clung to it).

So where to start?  Well, depends on what you like.  Some of their older stuff is a bit more alternative sounding, a bit more ethereal–my favorite song from that era is  “The World Can Wait” from 2001’s Films For Radio.

Lately, they’ve been a bit more indie folk with hints of jazz and country thrown in, but they’re still putting out great stuff.  Their latest album, Meet Me at the Edge of the World is a double-set, and it’s good.   As is The Trumpet Child.  And their Christmas record Snow Angels is gorgeous, a melancholy and mellow counterpart to all the upbeat Christmas music out there, including a brilliant tribute to Vince Guaraldi, composer of the Charlie Brown’s Christmas score.

Foy Vance: Foy is a fantastic live performer.  The Irish singer-songwriter has an incredible voice; it’s got a great range and can be aggressively soulful or smooth and quiet, often within the same song.  He’s got one of those voices that everyone should instantly recognize.  His songs have been featured on numerous TV shows, and he’s now on the same label as Mumford & Sons and Phoenix.  He has toured and dueted with Bonnie Raitt, opened for Ed Sheerhan.  He should be this generations Van Morrison but cooler.  Why is this man not a huge star?

Though he’s put out numerous EPs, live albums and other bonus projects, he really only has two albums proper, 2007’s Hope and 2013’s Joy of Nothing.  Though the latter is an overall stronger effort, the highs of Hope are incredible, with a handful of songs that will stick with you forever.  “Gabriel in the Vagabond” a story of a homeless man’s encounter with an angel,  builds to a breathtaking conclusion, and has a cool enough video that I’m putting it here.  WATCH TO THE END, or at least the climax:

SEE?  Also “Indiscriminate Act of Kindness” and “Shed a Little Love” from that same album hit hard.

A word needs to be said about the two times I’ve seen him live.  The first time, at a small venue in Leeds, was just Foy and his guitar.  He was using a loop pedal, as many solo artists do these days, to build songs by recording a sound or a line or a lick and looping it, playing a new one on top of that, another on that, and so on.  It was mesmerising.  And the content itself was…interesting.  The best way I can describe it is this: it was like watching a man fight his faith.  He wrestled his faith, he got angry with God, he abandoned it, he re-embraced it, he rebelled against it, fell apart, and all with no clear ending.  I ultimately think the show ended with an embracing of eternal love.  His father, a minister, had recently died, and Foy drank a lot during the show.  It was an emotionally wrenching experience.

The second time was just a few weeks ago, here in Sheffield.  This time, Foy had a four-piece band with him.  His voice was as powerful as ever.  Though he wasn’t as all-over-the-place emotionally as before, his feelings about God and church had become clearer.  The man has been hurt, and he is bitter.  One song included the words “God killed Judas and the church killed God” and later “The church killed me.”  And yet.  And yet it is still clear from his lyrics and his music, including the chorus that closes every concert “When I need to get home you’re my guiding light, my guiding light”, that he still believes in spiritual love, in God in some way.  His music is genuinely spiritual, and there is still a clear longing in him to know God.  The words of Bono from “Acrobat” come to mind, and I hope that Foy finds that church he can break bread and wine in.

So there you go, kind of long, kind of rambly, but those are my artists who should be bigger!  Your turn: who are some people whose art you love do you think should be more well-known?  And come back over the next couple of weeks as I post my “Year in Review” entries.  They’ll be shorter.  I promise.

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One response to “They Should Be Bigger

  1. great post! I really like Stephen Lawhead’s writing. I tend to gravitate towards science fiction over fantasy in general, so I actually prefer his Empyrion books over his other stuff, though that’s good, too.

    I have one of Iona’s earliest albums, that my wife’s uncle gave me for Christmas many moons ago. I played it many times and loved it. I should check out some of their newer stuff.

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