Category Archives: Book Review

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.    

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.

Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell: A Review

Confession time: I love magic.

I love books about magic, films about magic, and even some actual magicians.

There are those in my line of work who would say I shouldn’t.  And some of their concerns are right on.  I fully believe that there is a world higher than the natural one–a supernatural world.  I believe it, in part, because I have experienced it in action, undeniably.  And there can be an unhealthy fascination with aspects of it.  It does have a dark side.

But nonetheless, I have always loved stuff about magic.  That could be fictional magicians or wizards doing spells that couldn’t possibly exist, or it could be actual magicians, performing sleight-of-hand or mental manipulation tricks.  Think of both Harry Potter and The Illusionist.

As a kid, I used to practice magic tricks, checking this one book out from the library over and over.  Had my own magic set.  My parents took me to see magicians from time to time.  I’ve always loved it.

Not a big fan of the modern illusionist.  I find them a bit creepy and flashy in ways magicians shouldn’t be.  David Blaine does nothing for me and I give him zero attention.  I much prefer the classic showman style, who is both classy and witty in his presentation.  Think Ricky Jay.  Steve Cohen in NYC.  Those are my kind of magicians.

I don’t know what draws me.  Maybe it’s the fact that magicians in stories are usually in command of their worlds in ways others around them aren’t.  Maybe it’s the fact that, unlike most modern fantasy, which seems both stuck in a rut and ridiculously unreal, stories about magic bring the supernatural and the natural world we experience daily together.  Kind of like I would like my life to do.

Anyway.  Been on a bit of a magic kick lately in my reading.  Rereading the Harry Potter novels.  Read The Magicians, a novel on some top ten lists from 2009.  (Despicable main character, intense novel, needlessly trashy, don’t recommend it.)  Am wanting to reread Carter Beats the Devil.

And I just finished tackling Susanna Clarke’s 2004 debut novel Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell. The 780 page epic is so well-constructed, so diverse, and just so good that I can’t recommend any striving novelist read it, as it will make you just want to give up.

Imagine, if you will, The Prestige as co-written by Jane Austen & Charles Dickens being fed ideas by Neil Gaiman.  That’s this book.

I will try to summarize: the book is written in that 19th century British tone, a pastiche of Austen, Dickens, and probably some others.  The story takes place in the early 1800s in an England in which the art of magic was once widely practiced but has faded into mere history and theory since the disappearance of John Uskglass, the greatest magician in English history.  Groups of stodgy old men gather in halls to discuss magic, and call themselves theoretical magicians, focusing on its history and theory.

This all changes dramatically by the appearance of a practical magician, Mr. Gilbert Norrell, who promises to demonstrate that magic is real if the theoretical magicians all promise to give up their hobby.  They do, skeptical of Norrell, and then Norrell causes all the statues in York Cathedral to come to life and speak.

Norrell soon moves to London with the goal of restoring the place of English magic as a gentleman’s pursuit.  The problem is that Norrell is a very secretive and, well, boring person, and his intentions towards magic are both dull and controlling.  He wants to restore English magic on his terms alone, and those terms include the seemingly contradictory idea that he be the only magician.  No one else is good enough.

The demands of London society soon dictate that he prove himself by performing an actual task of magic.  When a local politician’s new wife suddenly dies, Norrell is suddenly called upon to provide this proof by raising her from the dead.  Norrell does so by calling on the help of a faerie, historically known as the deceptive and reluctant assistants to magicians.  Norrell himself speaks out against the use of faeries and tells no one of this incident in which he talks the faerie into raising the Lady Pole.  The deal they strike states that Lady Pole will live till 75 but that the faerie will own her for half her life.  Norrell is tricked; the faerie means he will own Lady Pole at night, and every night the Lady is forced into faerie land where she must dance the night away.

Soon we meet Jonathan Strange, who in character is the opposite of Norrell.  Whereas Norrell is controlling and reluctant, Strange is impulsive but charismatic.  During the course of the novel, Strange becomes the main protagonist, at first becoming Norrell’s tutor and later adversary.  Strange cannot help but do magic, giving in more and more into temptations to try stronger and stronger magic.  He is hired by the government to help Wellington fight Napoleon.  He attempts to bring sanity to the mad King of England.

Their main disagreement comes down to their feelings about John Uskglass, the Raven King and greatest magician ever.  Norrell hopes to wipe his influence out of modern magic; Strange feels that if you do that, you will wipe magic out altogether.  The third section of the novel concerns this mysterious figure.

And so on.  If I were to spoil any more here, it would give away many of the delights of the plot’s many twists and turns.  So instead of doing that, I’ll give you a handful of reasons I loved this book, and one or two critiques:

1. The Story–Even 30 pages or so from the end, I had no idea how this novel would end.  Clarke weaves together many strands and characters into a great finale, and I love a book that is unpredictable.

2. The prose–Clarke is a genius at shifting moods.  Some sections feel fascinatingly expository, including the many footnotes referring to magical tomes that exist only in the universe of the book.  Others are dark and scary.  Others have tremendous wit.  One chapter might feel tremendously tense or ominous, the next like something out of a comedy of manners.  Her use of description is spare in needed places and rich in others.  The shifting of moods is extremely effective throughout the book, adding to the difficulty in predicting exactly where the piece will land.

3. The Characters–I love both of the main characters in this book.  Norrell continually made me laugh by his stubbornness, and I saw myself in Strange’s impulsiveness.  But the side characters also fascinate: Stephen Black, the servant the faerie becomes enamored with; Vinculus, the mysterious prophet-magician; Drawlight and Childermass, assistants to Norrell who meet wildly different ends, and many others.

My only complaint, I’d say–and this is one echoed by others–is that the first 300 pages are a bit slow.  “300 pages” and “slow” sounds like a worse combination than it really was, and I understand why she made some of the choices she makes in those opening 300 pages.  It does seem to me, however, that this could have been trimmed a bit.  I had heard about the opening before I read the book, and decided to persevere through it, and I’m glad I did.  Somewhere around the 300 mark, I was really getting sucked in, and I read the last 500 pages at least twice as fast as I did the first 300.

To close: it’s a good book.  If magic and the supernatural don’t bother you, you should give it a shot.  Let me know what you think.

Who’s Watching “The Watchmen”? Hopefully Not You.

So…been awhile since I’ve posted anything.  That whole “moving across the ocean and trying to find a home for your family” thing has me preoccupied from really absorbing anything new to write about.  I still owe you posts on Tony Hillerman and The Office at some point, and I suppose I could whip up something about “No Line on the Horizon,” the new U2 album.  (And, as I’ve mentioned everywhere else, I now live in a city on U2’s tour.  And I have four tickets.  Hee hee.)

But today I’m going to write about “The Watchmen.”  I debated even posting this.  In a way, it might not be worth it, and it puts out some information about me personally that I’m not proud of or that might put me in a bad light.

So let me start by saying: Don’t go see this movie.  Seriously.  Don’t.  I mean, I did.  And I probably shouldn’t have.  But I did.  And I’m telling you not to.  It earns its ‘R’ (or in the UK ’18’) rating on every level–language, sex, and violence, in ascending order of badness.  Not to mention that the worldview underlying the film, practically promoted in it, is nihilism, the belief that there is no meaning and every value is ultimately baseless.  So: encouraging and joyful?  Not so much.

So why did I go?  Well, I couldn’t bring myself to resist.  I had kind of been waiting for this movie for 18 years.  

The Watchmen film is based on a graphic novel, which is basically like a deeper, grown-up, more solidly put-together comic book, by Alan Moore, the bizarre dark pagan genius of the comic book world.  He’s also responsible for the anarchistic “V for Vendetta”, among other things, but “Watchmen” is considered his masterpiece.  When Time Magazine put out its “Best 100 books of the Past 75 Years” list, Watchmen” was the only comic book on the list.  

I encountered it in the late 80s at Comics Outpost, Barre, Vermont’s finest (and only) comic book store.  I went through a two year or so comic book obsession.  And I wanted to buy the Watchmen book, which reprinted all 12 issues of the mini-series.  And the dude wouldn’t let me.  He knew my mom and knew we had standards, and though I was 16 and old enough to buy it technically, he wanted her permission.  He showed her the dark stuff–the attempted rape, some of the extreme violence–and she, much to my chagrin, but wisely, said no.

So I borrowed it from my friend and never told her.

And I didn’t get it.  I mean, I thought I basically followed the story, but I didn’t really.

Sometime between then and now, I bought it.  I don’t remember when.  I have probably read it through about four times, and each time, I understand it more and more.  Though I in every way disagree with its philosophy, I have come to love aspects of it, appreciate its complexity and the genius behind the writing.

So, Hollywood scooped this up and has tried to make a movie about it for fifteen or so years.  Various directors–many of them the cream of the current crop–took passes at it and gave up.  It was largely thought to be unfilmable.  Not helpful is the fact that Alan Moore angrily disavows any of the attempts to make movies of his work.  (Sometimes he is right.  Sometimes he’s just a jerk.)  It’s structure is so dense and tightly woven that to do it justice would require either a complete rewrite or a really long movie.  Studios for a long time tried the rewrite idea.  And all their attempts ruined the story.  It’s also against Hollywood wisdom to make a “superhero” movie that’s not PG-13, and The Watchmen could not possibly be told well and still make that PG-13 cut.  So, the movie floundered and floundered.

Then Zach Snyder came along.  He directed two movies I haven’t seen, but the one that put him on the map was 300, another comic book adaptation.  That got him Watchmen, and he was brazen enough to try and make the whole comic book almost just as it was.  Many of the shots in the movie are just frames from the comic book, which was illustrated in a more cinematic fashion than comic books usually are.

So when the trailers came out, and they looked amazing, I knew I wouldn’t really be able to keep myself from seeing it.  I mean, I knew it would be R rated, but I also knew the whole story and would know when to walk out or turn my eyes.

If you don’t know the story, here’s a synapsis: The bulk of the plot takes place in an alternate 1980s America, in which Richard Nixon has somehow earned a fourth term as US President, and full-out nuclear war between the USA and USSR seems imminent.  America is in extreme moral collapse.  The streets are dark and violent.

A man is murdered, and that man is revealed to have formerly been called “The Comedian”, part of a troupe of normal human beings who decided to dress in costumes and stop crime.  Instead of superheroes (because they don’t have powers), they have been called vigilantes, and throughout the book we see bits of their history.  There have been actually two phases of vigilante groups, one in the 4os, and one in the 60s.  The Comedian was the only one to be part of both, though he also did work for the government (even secretly killing two reporters named Woodward and Bernstien.)  

The group from the 40s, “The Minutemen”, fell apart when some of them were murdered, and one went insane.  

The 60s group came into existence after an accident at a science facility caused one man to actually gain intense and incredible abilities.  This group, “The Watchmen,” was made up of the film’s main characters, but vigilantism was soon outlawed and they have all since gone in different directions in life.  The Watchmen consist of the aforementioned Comedian, Nite Owl II–now a pudgy, lonely guy remembering his glory days while living in New York, Dr. Manhattan (the scientist from the accident), Ozymandias (the world’s smartest man–and note the reference to the poem), Silk Spectre II, who lives with Dr. Manhattan, and Rorschach, who never takes off his inkblot mask and represents the worldview of moral absolutism.  

Throughout the movie we learn the past of most of these characters and how it ties to the Comedian’s murder.  We follow Rorschach as he investigates that murder with other odd things happening in the lives of the other Watchmen.  He, along with primarily Nite Owl, soon uncover a conspiracy with millions of lives in the balance.

So there is the plot.  Loosely.  It took me several paragraphs to describe in almost no detail; that should give you a hint of how complex it is.  And one of the challenging things about this story, philosophically, is the last section: a character does something quite horrible, destroying millions of lives, that results in something very positive and fruitful for the planet.  I don’t want to give anything away, but one of the messages seems to be that the ends justify the means.  

But I wonder if that’s really that hard to disprove.  I wonder if Alan Moore would even see it that way after 9/11.  You remember that right after 9/11, everyone was promising peace and harmony.  I remember the lead singer of a popular rock band at that time pledging to never be angry or hateful again.  And SNL said they would lay off the President.  And magazines declared dead the age of irony.  Something horrible happened–9/11–and people thought peace and change would come out of it.

But the human heart is wicked, and we return to our old ways without a change in that heart.  The Watchmen ends shortly after this huge crime has produced such great fruit.  But I think if Moore were honest with what he saw in the world, he would have to say that that fruit would be short-lived.

Anyway, how does the movie compare with the comic?  Well, much has been made about the change in the ending.  Basically, Snyder has completely changed the horrible thing that the one character does to bear good fruit on the earth.  Completely.  I think he probably did because he considered that thing difficult to film; if it wasn’t done right, it would look horribly silly.    And a lot of people complained about this change.  I even read one critic who compared to changing the ending of Hamlet, which is bit silly but makes its point, and after all, this is sort of the Hamlet of comic books.

As for me, I thought the new version of the ending actually worked really well…in theory.  More on that below.

Structurally, the script is nearly perfect.  The film runs 2 hours and 40 minutes, and another 30 or so is going to be added to the DVD release.  I hope they return the characters of the newspaper vendor and the people around him to the movie; I have a feeling that’s a lot of what got cut.  But what’s on screen works really well.  The story unfolds just as it should, and everything looks amazing visually.

The performances are mostly great.  Especially good are Jackie Earle Haley as Rorschach and Jeffrey Dean Morgan as the Comedian.  Haley nails both the masked and unmasked phases of his character, and Morgan just embodies the moral blankness of the Comedian.  The actor playing Nite Owl II was a lot better than I expected, and Billy Crudup’s Dr. Manhattan is also very strong.  The actress playing Silk Spectre II was…meh.  Not that great.  And I still don’t know what to think of the guy playing Ozymandias.  It’s a key part, and I liked him in the beginning but felt something big was missing in the 3rd act.

But I had some major problems with this movie.

First of all, The Watchmen comic book is already really violent and disturbing, but it seems Zach Snyder was just determined to make it doubly so.  Everything was exaggerated.  For example, there is a scene where Ozymandias is attacked by a shooter at his workplace.  In the comic, his assistant graphically takes a bullet and then Ozymandias wacks the assailant over the head, knocking him over.  In the movie, Ozymandias is in a meeting with several oil industry giants, and in slow motion we see bullets piercing their brains and other body parts, and then Ozy beats the guy to a pulp.  So much more graphic.  Another example: when we learn Rorschach’s history, we see some pretty disturbing stuff, including the story of a murdered girl and two dogs wrestling over a leg bone.  Gross.  But for some reason, Snyder added some things in the film to make Rorschach’s revenge 10 times more graphic.  It really bugged me.

Likewise with the sexual content.  It’s in the book, but Snyder felt the need to make it ten times longer and more explicit for reasons I can’t fathom.  I’ve even seen non-Christians bothered by this.

Ironically, the one place where the violence could have been more drawn out was the ending.  Part of what makes the ending work in the comic book is that you really see, and really feel, the destruction.  And you know the character responsible also makes himself feel it.  It’s vivid.  In the movie, it happens very fast without a lot of visuals, and the impact of what he has done is lost.  It needs to be there.  (Also missing: his reaction to what he has done.  Instead we get another bloody fight.)

So anyway, there it is: I processed my thoughts.  I should not have seen this movie.  I did not realize how explicit Snyder decided to go.  He did a masterful job, for the most part, at pulling off a resonant and complex story about human nature, the ways in which we hold on to or forgive our pasts, and the darkness in modern living.  He lightened up the nihilism of the book while exaggerating the violence and sexuality. 

All in all, a very well done film with some flaws, the biggest being that there was nothing good, pure, beautiful or holy to set my mind on.

So let that be a warning.  Or something.

Book Review: Body Piercing Saved My Life

body-piercing-saved-my-lifeBody Piercing Saved My Life, by Andrew Beaujon, a reporter for music magazine Spin, is a fascinating read for any music fan.

For the Christian who also likes “Christian music,” it provides history, context, and criticism to various aspects of the scene as it exists today, and raises questions that are worth wrestling through.

For the Christian who generally doesn’t like “Christian music,” it may cause some rethinking of opinion on some subjects as well as affirming others.

For the music fan who isn’t a Christian, it will probably be quite eye-opening, providing several glimpses into a different world, some of them quite surprising.

For all three, it may introduce you to some bands you just might like.

For the record, Beaujon is not a Christian–at best, he is a lazy agnostic.  He holds to the opinion that he doesn’t really know if there’s a God, but he probably wouldn’t live his life any differently if there was one.

He set out to examine what he considers a truly American phenomena, this music scene called “Christian music” that exists almost within its own bubble.  There is no comparable separate scene in Europe or elsewhere.  He spends time learning the history of modern Christian popular music, explores some of the contradictions inherent in the industry and issues artists wrestle with, and listens to a lot of music.  He goes to Cornerstone Festival, both the original in Illinois and its Florida offshoot, the Festival of Faith and Music at Calvin College, and GMA Week and the Dove Awards in Nashville.  He interviews several Christian music “lifers”, and all through provides opinion and analysis on what he finds.

It may feel, to the believer, a bit intimidating to have someone who doesn’t believe in God at all analyze this scene.  But I was impressed.  Beaujon is extremely fair.  When something is bad or confusing, he says so, but never meanly.  He treats everything with a lot of respect, and says some surprising things.

These lines, from a section where the author shares what he believes and talks about what he feels about people sharing the Gospel with him, may put you at ease.  After confirming that he believes there is no afterlife, he says this:

This is the kind of talk that makes my Christian friends unbearably sad, and that’s what I love about them–they really, really, really don’t want anyone to die, and that’s why they can sometimes be such a raging pain…So next time a Christian tries to save you from the fate that awaits you, don’t get irritated–remember that it’s because they care about you.  Seriously.  If you take nothing else away from this book, remember that.

One of the main themes of the book, probably developed because so many artists talk about, is the wrestling of spirituality and commerce, expressing Truth without conforming to the Bubble.  Christian music’s propensity to award mediocrity is also at long length discussed.  On the other hand, is he also quick to agree that there can be a certain amount of prejudice on the other end–most music magazines won’t pay any attention to an artist associated with Christian music in anyway, and Beaujon feels that this is also unfair, as some of the artists he finds are, well, awesome.

Beaujon certainly likes some bands and artists more than others.  He interviews controversial figure David Bazan (formerly of Pedro the Lion) multiple times.  He falls in love with Mute Math’s live show (and rightly so.)  He gets into mewithoutYou pretty heavily as well, and shows Steve Taylor some admiration–again, on both counts, rightfully so.  Even the too-weird-for-me Danielson Familie gets some attention.

He grows tired of hearing derivative bands, but admits that even Stryper had some pretty good tunes.  

He conducts longer interviews with Doug Van Pelt, Steve Taylor, Jay Swartzendruber (editor of CCM Magazine), Bill Hearn, and Stavesacre’s Mark Salomon.  

One of the most interesting sections, to me, is a two chapter look at the phenomenon of Worship Music.  He struggles to understand it, and although he finds “Blessed Be the Name” by Matt Redman incredibly catchy, singing it for weeks, he finds the worship experience to be insular, unwelcoming to the outsider. Later, HM editor Doug Van Pelt challenges him on this point, saying that worship times weren’t meant to be for outsiders–just as you wouldn’t go to a club for expensive car enthusiasts and find them simplifying things so you understand.  So, Beaujon gives it another chance, going to several David Crowder Band concerts, including one of the shows DCB plays in the week after Kyle Lake’s tragic death.

It is there that worship music finally clicks for him.  He tells how, during DCB’s closing number, Crowder disappears to the floor, as he uses his various pedals and instruments to make all these noises.  The audience stays enraptured, even though the frontman isn’t in view–nothing visual is happening.  “And that, my friends, marked my conversion to, or at least my enmity to, worship music.  Here’s a guy surrounded by rabid fans who’d have done anything to get close to their worship leader, consciously removing himself from the spotlight.  There was only one star at that evening’s show, and he hadn’t been onstage at all.”

Not everyone comes out looking great.  He is finds Switchfoot’s attempts to pretend they’re not associated with Christian music to be a bit off-putting.  And his time at GMA Week and the Dove Awards make the idea of a Christian Music Industry look a bit silly (which it is, imho).  He sees a lot of mediocrity and hypocrisy there, and even a bit of racism.  (Some of the worst examples include the horrid rewording of the Dove eligibility requirements that occurred when the Association didn’t want to give the song “Kiss Me” by Sixpence None the Richer any recognition, and the fact that the majority of the “Best Rap” awards at the Dove’s have been won by white guys.)  

Another somewhat telling thing from that week is that one of the rappers he meets decides to give him a tract and share the gospel, and he realizes that in all the time he was working with Christians on this book, that was the first (and I think only) time that happened.

Only one chapter seems a waste of time to me, and that is a late chapter where he goes around Washington with several abortion protestors.  It seems a bit random and out of place, and not as well written or as gripping as other sections.

Jesus calls us to be in the world, but not of it.  It seems with the somewhat accidental creation of a “Christian music industry”, we have gotten that backwards. Getting out of that trap will take boldness from artists with originality.  Body Piercing Saved My Life gives an outsiders perspective on this curious aspect of American culture , looking at it from all angles, asking important questions and highlighting artists who have been unfairly shunned because of their worldview.  It’s a great read, and I recommend it.