Wednesday, December 29, 2010

If We Make It Through December

Not all of the songs of December and the Advent season are happy.  The sound of sleigh bells, children singing, Christmas gifts, the Christmas tree in the city square, the celebrations, the worship services, and the like all heap festivity upon festivity.  But the realities of economics, loneliness, and failures are still a part of life.

It is not just Ebenezer Scrooge who reacts with a "Bah Humbug" to the season. After a few trips to the mall, to Target, the Wal-Mart, I felt the same reaction.  Now in the post-Christmas collapse, with a whole day being tied up with returns and exchanges, I remember the darker songs of the season.

The most well-known dark Christmas song has been Elvis' "Blue Christmas."  The tone of the song has a hope of promise in it.  The shadows are of what might be, not what unchangeable will be. It's up to her. Of course, if you are Elvis, prospects are pretty good that she'll come back.  Most folks whose talents, wealth, and looks are below those of Elvis have to deal with less certain odds.

Ernest Tubb, who influenced Elvis and lots of other singers, had a great song many decades ago.  Titled "Christmas is Just Another Day for Me," it bemoans having a broken heart beneath a Christmas tree. "Old friends call me up and say, 'Have a happy holiday,' but I can't bear to say you're gone, and I'm so alone..." It is as good as any country heart-break song.  Like country's music's southern and black cousin, the blues, this song will tear your heart out.

Bluegrass singer Jimmy Martin hit all the right notes in a song called "Lord, We Sure Could Use Some Rainbows in December."  As he sings, "We got gifts to buy and all the same old bills are overdue."  I have, myself, sung that line many times in recent weeks.

And the older, classical, and Baroque tradition has its own melancholy song.  "The Coventry Carol," an incredibly beautiful combination of words and music, is a lullaby sung to keep a baby asleep.  The reason was to keep the baby quiet during Herod's slaughter of the innocents.

On of my many favorite songs, although we don't usually classify it as part of the Advent music collection, is Merle Haggard's hit of a few decades back, called "If We Make It Through December." I did hear it played on a local radio station that played all Christmas music.  Haggard's appeal in that song, and in many other of his fine works, was to those who had endured the hard-scrabble life, whether it was that of Depression era farmers, or Okies in either Muskogee or California, or working class people whose lives are on the outside boundary of the American dream.

Yet, these songs, like those of coal miners, small farmers, factory hands,  and other hard-working people holds out a bit of hope.  In this case, the hope is for warmer weather (it is cold and rainy outside as I write this), a better location, and some new chances to start again. The pain of the song, the singer having lost his job and having a sad little girl, testifies to an underlying, never stated, love. Love for family with a willingness to persevere.

Jesus came into a world of people wondering if they could make it through December.  California can only properly been seen as a metaphor of the Kingdom of Heaven (although not a good metaphor).  The hardships the song relays reminds me that the bloated credit card bill that will arrive next week is only a minor hill to climb.

"If We Make It Through December" by Merle Haggard

If we make it through December
Everythings gonna be all right I know.
It's the coldest time of winter
And I shivver when I see the fallin snow.

If we make it through December
I got plans of bein in a warmer town come summer time
Maybe even California
If we make it through December we'll be fine

I got laid off down at the factory
And their timings not the greatest in the world.
Heaven knows I been workin' hard
I wanted Christmas to be right for daddy's girl

Now I don't mean to hate December;
It's meant to be the happy time of year,
And why my little girl don't understand
Why daddy can't afford no Christmas here.

If we make it through December
Everythings gonna be alright I know.
It's the coldest time of winter
And I shivver when I see the fallin' snow

If we make it through December
I got plans of bein' in a warmer town come summer time.
Maybe even California
If we make it through December we'll be fine

Friday, December 24, 2010

A Christmas Bowl

By Nick
At this festive season of the year, the radios and loudspeakers in stores bombard us with a barrage of Christmas tunes. There is nothing wrong with this; Christmas is probably the only time in which the Gospel is (unwittingly) promoted in major retailer and on mainstream radio stations, and I would certainly rather do Christmas shopping to Bing Crosby than Bon Jovi. However, the same songs and same versions of songs being played over and over again starts to wear on you, and after one has heard "I Want a Hippopotamus for Christmas" for the tenth time, one is tempted to swear off Christmas completely. One local radio station, 101.7 Bob FM, has done a good job in combating this musical staleness with an amazing variety of music ranging from the popular to the incredibly obscure. However, variety does not always mean quality, and along with some great new songs I have also heard some holiday clunkers (More on those later). This means that the dedicated listeners will resort to CDs.
     The proprietors of this blog managed to purchase some excellent CDs at that great storehouse of musical excellence, Big Lots, for the bargain price of $2 per CD. The first CD that we purchased was generically titled Peace with a stock photo of snowy woods on the cover. Also on the cover was a blurb with the artists featured on the CD, which included Jars of Clay, Keb' Mo', Kate Bush, Alicia Keys, and Johnny Cash. Naturally I had to buy this.
The CD starts off with Vertical Horizon's alternative rock interpretation of "I Believe in Father Christmas", followed up by Jars of Clay's "God Rest Ye Merry, Gentlemen." The album then takes a jazzy, minimalistic turn with "Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas" by Aimee Mann, the Gordon Lightfoot-penned"Song for a Winter's Night" by Sarah McLachlan, and the traditional "Love Came Down at Christmas" by Shawn Colvin. These songs all have a lazy, midafternoon relaxing feel. Next comes not just Johnny Cash, but Johnny Cash backed up by the Statler Brothers. The song sounds like a younger Johnny Cash, and the sound quality is not great, but it's Johnny Cash, so I'm not complaining. Johnny is nearly upstaged by bluesman Keb' Mo' and his improvisational "Jingle Bell Jamboree". Keb' Mo's plays and sings in such a relaxed manner that you could easily imagine him playing all day without stopping. This song is the highlight of the album, combining raspy vocals with fluid guitars and adding an extra-large dose of Christmas cheer.Kate Bush comes next with her weird and experimental rendition of "Home For Christmas." This is appropriate because Kate Bush is weird and experimental. Chris Botti, the trumpet guy, serves up the romantic "Perfect Day", about how his woman makes every day like Christmas, and Rachel Yamagata gives us the romantically weepy "River" ("I wish I had a river I could skate away on.) The only clinker on this album is Alicia Keys' vaugely-gospel tinged "Little Drummer Girl." The heavy beats and overdone delivery on this song clash with the minimalism of the rest of this album. Five For Fighting finishes out the album with "Silent Night", making use of his falsetto vocals and understated guitar.
 The second bargain CD purchased was "Stockings by the Fire", put out by Starbucks Entertainment. Starbucks has managed to select a good mix of of classic Jazz/Swing and modern indie/soft rock on this collection. It starts out with Ray Charles and Betty Carter performing "Baby, It's Cold Outside". Voices like those only come around once in a millenium. Sarah McLachlan follows it up with a minimalistic spin on "I Heard The Bells on Christmas Day", written by that Yankee Imperialist, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow. The everpresent Frank Sinatra and his I'm-singing-through-a-carboard-tube vocals show up next with "I'll Be Home for Christmas (If Only in My Dreams.) Love him or hate him, there's no denying the man's talent. The folk-rock band Hem (not to be confused with the Gothic Rock band HIM) gives another minimalistic (see a pattern here) take on "Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas." Ella Fitzgerald does an amazing job on "Sleigh Ride.", although I'm convinced that if Ella Fitzgerald sang "I Want a Hippopotamus for Christmas" it would have been good. Rufus Wainwright gives a nasally rendition of "What Are You Doing New Years Eve?" While it's almost impossible to ruin such a good song, Wainwright's alternative rock stylings clash with the Tin Pan Alley feel of the song. Herbie Hancock joins forces with Corinne Bailey Rae doing their version of "River", which, like many jazz songs, is slow and sort of tuneless. It's by no means a bad song, but it sounds very little like the original, and Rae, like most vocalist, flubs the "fly-y-y" in the middle of the song. Jack Johnson, steps in to save the day with possibly the best rendition of "Rudolph The Red Nosed Reindeer." Jack adds a new verse after the traditional verses where Rudolph tells the other reindeer  "I see through your silly games. How could you look me in the face when only yesterday you called me names?" the bird and the bee give us their weird and futuristic version of "Carol of The Bells", which changes keys multiple times. A Fine Frenzy gives us a weak version of "Let It Snow." While it holds up musically, the breathy femals vocals make the song flabby and indecisive. Nat King Cole, who deserved the "King" in his name, gives us his Christmas classic "The Christmas Song (Merry Christmas to You)." Anyone who doesn't own a copy of Nat's rendition of this song should consider themselves deprived. The tipsy Dean Martin swaggers his way through "I've Got My Love to Keep Me Warm." The amazing Diana Krall sings "Winter Wonderland", complete with all those amazing jazz solos that are in every Diana Krall song. Gospel legend Mahalia Jackson sings "Do You Hear What I Hear" and Gospel-influenced John Legend and family sing "It Don't Have to Change", a song filled with Christmas memories of playing football and basketball and singing all day. This contrasts with my Christmas memories, which are mainly of playing video games and eating all day. Aimee Mann (Remember her from the first CD?) closes out the album with a soft "White Christmas."
     These two albums are great for listening to at any time of day, but especially midafternoon. For those looking for a break from Bruce Springsteen screaming "Santa Claus is Coming to Town", and flop artists ruining classic Christmas songs, check out these two CDs.

Currently Listening: Andre Rieu and Friends, Superstar Christmas, The CDs mentioned above.

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Bluegrass Christmas Music

Bluegrass music has a natural affinity for Christmas themes.  After all, Christmas is a time to praise God, gather with the family, go back to the homeplace, enjoy mountains, music, and snow, and a time to sing and celebrate.  Bluegrass music is a music of the folks, a bowing to tradition, the rhythms and cadences of ordinary life with pauses to celebrate.  And bluegrass music has a strong Christian component.  The naturalness of the acoustic instruments, the gifts of the musicians, and the heart-felt themes are all testimonies of a Christian worldview.  And bluegrass music combines the shameful indulgence of a Saturday night bootleg whiskey drinking and brawling binge with the Sunday morning reconciliation found around the cross, or the manger, of Jesus.

In 1950, when the music was both reaching greater and greater defining points and yet was already a definite genre of its own, Tex Logan, a scientific engineer with Bell Labs in Texas, penned the first bluegrass Christmas song.  Titled "Christmas Times a'Comin," it was a made to order sure fit for bluegrass master and originator Bill Monroe and his Blue Grass Boys.  Just read the lyrics:

Snow flake's a-fallin'
My old heart's a-callin'
Tall pine's a-hummin'
Christmas Time's A-Comin'.

Can't you hear them bells ringin', ringin'
Joy, don'tcha hear them singin'
When it's snowin', I'll be goin'
Back to my country home.

Refrain: Christmas Time's A-Comin'
Christmas Time's A-Comin'
Christmas Time's A-Comin'
And I know I'm goin' home.

White candle's burnin'
My old heart's a-yearnin'
For the folks at home when
Christmas Time's A-Comin'.

Can't you hear them bells ringin', ringin'
Joy, don'tcha hear them singin'
When it's snowin', I'll be goin'
Back to my country home.

The dropping of the 'g's at the end of each line reflects the English (as in, from England) pure roots of Southern language. (See Cleanth Brooks' The Language of the South.)  The use of words like "home," "folks," and "yearnin" all reflect very powerful themes within bluegrass music's closeness to what William Faulkner called "that fierce pull of blood."  In other words, people working up in Detroit, or off in Houston, or elsewhere could identify with that strong urge to get off work, maybe as late as December 24, hop in the car with the family and get back to the country to see the whole family.

Strangely enough, Monroe's song remained one of the few bluegrass Christmas songs for years.  Country artists added some additional Christmas songs.  Gene Autry was, after all, a singing cowboy, and his great hit was "Rudolf the Red Nosed Reindeer."  And Elvis was, along with every other niche he fit into, a country singer, and his big hit was "Blue Christmas," which was covered by quite a few country artists. In time, country artists produced a few more Christmas songs and albums.

The Bluegrass musicians still did not produce much.  Perhaps it was because bluegrass music thrived from the 1960s on through the festivals.  Following a revival of folk music, starving bluegrass artists suddenly found ready audiences in such places as Newport, Rhode Island and Bean Blossom, Indiana.  But the festivals did not take place usually in the Christmas season.  And bluegrass albums cut a small piece of the music sales pie.  With the popularity of Celtic instrumentals at Christmas, it is surprising that bluegrass didn't have a greater impact.

Little by little, bluegrass artists have recorded more and more Christmas songs.  Both Ralph Stanley and Ricky Skaggs have Christmas albums.  Still, some of the best bluegrass Christmas music can be found on collections featuring various artists.

One I recently acquired and one that is a real bargain is Christmas Times a Comin': The Essential Bluegrass Christmas Collection.  Produced by Time/Life, this truly is a wonderful assembly of artists and songs.  Monroe does the title song, along with another called "That's Christmas Time to Me."  The Stanley Brothers perform "Christmas is Near" and Ralph and his band do "That's Christmas Time to Me."  Del McCoury and some of his gang, including Mac Wiseman, perform a fun song, "A Bluegrass Christmas," and then later one of those heart-rending songs about Momma, called "Call Collect on Christmas."  Add to all this, Emmylou Harris, the great Jimmy Martin performing "Old Fashioned Christmas," Larry Sparks and others.  That ain't an intruder in the group.  Banjoes, fiddles, mandolins, bass fiddles, acoustic guitars, and the high lonesome tones of bluegrass singing dominate the whole recording.

After a day of enduring malls, traffic, human clogs of shoppers, over-stimulation of the senses from the bombardment of the stores, this album is a trip along a dirt road, up ahead, I can see the homeplace, a tree can be seen in the window....

Thursday, December 16, 2010

Bing and Burl

By Nick
In this blog's "Advent Meditation" series, we have been highlighting some lesser known Christmas CDs. In this post, however, we intend to dig back into the (metaphorical) record bin and pull out some great classic Christmas albums.
     The fifties were known as an era for great smooth voices. There was the smug Frank Sinatra, the tipsy-sounding Dean Martin, Perry Como, and dozens of other "crooners." Perhaps the best smooth male singer of the fifties, though, was the velvet-voiced Bing Crosby. Bing's voice is amazing, even (or especially) after sixty years. Hearing Bing's smooth baritone is a pleasant surprise in a musical world which is so highly influenced by Elvis, The Beatles, and Bob Dylan. And yes, I am a fan of Elvis, The Beatles, and Bob Dylan, but vocally, none of them (except perhaps Elvis) could hold a candle to Bing.
     Bing's signature Christmas album is White Christmas. On it, he performs a wide variety of Christmas songs, ranging from Hawaiian ("Mele Kalikimaka"), to Irish ("Christmas in Killarney"). Unlike many crooner albums, which seem to drown in a sea of syrup, Bing masters the art of mixing the sweet with the hot, as the old school jazz cats would say. His recording of "Jingle Bells" with the Andrew's Sisters is a swing masterpiece, with great musicianship from the players and singer's alike. And no one could sing ballads like Bing. Besides the title cut, there is his reverent treatment of the hymn "Faith of Our Fathers", his sweeping "Silent Night", and "Adeste Fideles", which the Latin-illiterate know as "O' Come All Ye Faithful." Bing, being a purist, sings the song in both Latin and English. The album is an essential part of anyone's collection. 
     There is also an excellent budget CD floating around called Bing and Friends Christmas. Half of the songs are by Bing, the other half are by artists contemporary with him.  This CD is excellent because it contains Bing recordings that are rather hard to find. Bing sings three duets with the amazing Ella Fitzgerald on this CD. Interestingly, their version of "Rudolph The Red Nose Reindeer" has extra verses detailing what happened to Rudolph after he became famous, and tell of his riding in fancy cars and smoking big cigars. Imagine trying to play that on contemporary radio. Also on the collection are the silky voiced Nat King Cole, Louis Armstrong, whose "I-eat-gravel-for-breakfast" voice is almost a polar opposite of Bing and Nat's, the everpresent Frank Sinatra doing a greasy rendition of "The Christmas Song", and Vera Lynn, who gives us "The Little Boy That Santa Forgot." She obviously didn't get the memo about "tis the season to be jolly."
     Bing Crosby also performed and recorded some country songs along with his more pop efforts, saying that he was the "biggest hillbilly of them all."
     On the flip side of the coin, you have the Santa-esque Burl Ives. In his time Burl Ives was a pre-Dylan folksinger. However, he is probably best known now for his Christmas hit "Have a Holly Jolly Christmas", and the album of the same name. Burl's voice is very warm and joyful, and he sounds like he could be your uncle. On this album, he combines his folk singing with a more pop style. However, he keeps a folk sound on songs like "Christmas is a Birthday" and "The Christmas Child." Whenever I listen to Burl Ives, it is like he is in the room, telling me a story personally. Burl's and Bing's standout Christmas albums should be in everyone's collection.
Currently Listening: "Christmastime is Here", Vince Guaraldi Trio. "Silent Night", The Temptations. "Sing Me to Sleep", Fran Healy featuring Neko Case.

Friday, December 10, 2010

Comment and Maybe Win a Christmas CD

In conjunction with the Nathan Clark George Web-site, we are promoting a GIVE-AWAY of George's newest Christmas CD, Still.  This collection consists of more traditional Christian celebrations of Christ's incarnation and birth, performed with acoustic guitar and mandolin.  George is joined by Mark Stoffel and Ross Sermons on the collection. 

If you want a small sample of the music on this CD, go to the web-site at

To register to WIN a copy of this CD, simply COMMENT on this blog OR e-mail me at

The drawing from our collection of commenters and e-mailers will be held next Wednesday, December 15.  The CD will be mailed to the winner from the Nathan Clark George web-site and store.

Thursday, December 9, 2010

Christmas Baroque, Traditional Latin, and Christian

More Pleasant Music for the Advent Season

The Musical Heritage Society produces loads of classical and concert music collections.  You may find yourself getting their offers in the mail for so many free CDs if you agree to buy several more over the next year or so.  The offers are good deals.  My only problem is that I forget to mail in the cards rejecting each month's special.  That aside, the musical collection shown above, Julianne Baird & The Aulos Ensemble: A Baroque Christmas, was given to us some years ago.  The music is powerful and Julianne Baird's voice is incredible.  I especially like the Coventry Carol.  This is more good, calming morning Advent music, best accompanied by a good book and strong coffee.

Veni Emmanuel was produced by Classical Academic Press, a publisher of curriculum for Classical Christian schools.  These traditional Latin hymns and carols are rich reminders of the wealth and heritage of Christian and Advent music reaching back through the centuries, blending the classical learning of Antiquity with the glorious relevation of Christ.

From the product description:

Veni Emmanuel, the debut music CD from Classical Academic Press, is a collection of hauntingly beautiful carols, written centuries ago by great scholars, musicians and poets for the celebration of Christmas. Some tunes will be familiar, and some new to our 21st century ears. All in Latin, laced with theology and beautiful poetry, rediscover the rich heritage of sacred Christmas music through the ages. The collection includes carols with lyrics or music from the fifth century through 1900. Recorded with harp, piano, recorder, violin and voice.

Tuesday, December 7, 2010

Still the Greatest Story Ever Told

Posted by Ben

Some years back, Stephanie and I went to a Gaither Family Concert in Shreveport, Louisiana.  The tickets were a Christmas gift from a family member.  Not only was the concert quite good and encouraging, but I first heard the song "Mary Was the First One To Carry The Gospel" at that concert.  Some time later, I bought the CD Still The Greatest Story Ever Told becasue it that contained that song.  (I should mention that Reformed people are not supposed to like the Gaither Quartet, Southern Gospel, and popular Christian music.  I have gotten odd looks and comments when I mentioned the Gaither Family Concert in TR circles.)  Critics and Scrooges aside, this CD is a marvelous collection of music.

The lead song is a powerful John Donne-like celebration of Mary's wonderous role in redemption's plan.  The harmonies of the group are great, and I love it when the line is sung "what the prophet told has come to pass: a virgin has conceived" and there is a scream of delight in the background.  (Some John Donne poetry calls for screams of excitement.) 

The other songs on this collection are mostly Gaither Quartet arrangements and creations.  The only traditional Christmas song is "The Christmas Song" ("Chestnuts roasting on an open fire....").  One of the greatest songs on the collection is Mark Lowery's "Mary, Did You Know?"  That song sends chills up my spine every time I hear it.  Modern song writers do not always pen the greatest lyrics, and we usually only sing a slim selection of the great song writers of the past, but they all have their high points.  "Mary, Did You Know?" is certainly a high point in Lowery's song writing career and a great praise song.

The Gaither Quartet at the time of this recording had a remarkably smooth blend of singers.  You have harmony, with volume, with strong masculine voices, with excitement, and with musical slides that are amazing.  With Guy Penrod, who can wear long hair and look manly, Mark Lowery, equally talented as a singer and comedian, David Phelps, an incredible tenor, and Bill Gaither, the guiding inspiritation of the group and the greater Gaither productions, this was a gathering and blending of extraordingary talent. 

The songs on this CD are much more lively and upbeat than the songs on the CDs previously highlighted.  This is not coffee drinking/theology reading music; rather, it is great for getting revved up for the day.  This is dominion theology with lyrics and melodies designed to focus the heart and mind on the season.  This music reminds us of the joy of the Advent season.

1. Mary Was the First One to Carry the Gospel

2. New Star Shining

3. Reaching

4. Little One

5. It's Still the Greatest Story Ever Told

6. Christmas Song, The

7. Mary, Did You Know?

8. Go Tell Everyone

9. Hand of Sweet Release

10. He Started the Whole World Singing

Saturday, December 4, 2010

Advent Meditations

Posted by Ben

Cultivating the right moods and attitudes about the upcoming Christmas season and the Advent season is difficult. This past week, I was busy preaching a sermon on Sunday, completing a writing assignment (that consumed the Thanksgiving holidays) on Monday, preparing progress reports and teaching classes, taking 2 kids to Upward basketball practices, and attending three Christmas music programs (with a piano recital this afternoon).

There is hardly a time to sit back and relax and enjoy the season. Life in a fallen world is busy; life with 4 children and a wife is busy; God has called us to labor. So meditation, thought, relaxed time with family, books, and music are all difficult to cultivate.

I love the music of the season. I love the traditional songs, the classic renditions done by Bing Crosby, Louie Armstrong, and others, the hymns, the wintery songs, the silly songs, the sentimental songs, the instrumentals, the choral productions, the name artists performing traditional songs, etc. And yet, I find myself frequently bored with the Sappy Claus songs. Some of that is fine for the radio while negotiating Texarkana's traffic clogs, but at home, with coffee and a book, I want a sound that is comforting, largely acoustic, with an older feel, and a seasonal warmth (not a confrontation).

That is why I am enjoying the two albums featured below so much.

A Midwinter's Eve by Nathan Clark George & Mark Stoffel

First featured last week on this blog, this CD has the relaxing feel pictured on the album cover.  The music consists of George playing guitar and vocals and Stoffel playing mandolin with occasional vocals.  Several of the 14 songs are instrumentals. Some of the songs are traditional advent hymns, such as "While Shepherds Watched Their Flocks By Night," "Silent Night," and "What Child Is This?"  Then there some of the songs that are truly the greatest for the beginning of Advent, such as "O Come, O Come, Emmanuel" and the hallowing "Let All Mortal Flesh Keep Silence."  A song I really love is Christina Rossetti's "In the Bleak Mid-Winter."  (Rossetti is one of our greatest Christian poets.) There are other songs brought in from the greater traditions of Christendom, such as "Es Wird Scho Glei Dumpa."  This instrumental,  the title translated as "It will soon be dark,"  is a traditional Christmas folk song from the Southern Tyrolian Alps.  Also, in the "not familiar category," is "O Little Sweet One," which is an old German melody whose lyrics and harmony are by Johann S. Bach.  Perhaps my favorite on the CD is "Remember, O Thou Man," which is by Thomas Ravenscroft, from "Melismata" (1611).  Consider the verse from this song given below:
Remember, O thou man, O thou man, O thou man,
Remember, O thou man, that God above,
Long before time began knew of the sin of man,
And laid Redemption's plan, for He is love. 
Watch this blog (or Houseblog) for a great upcoming offer to WIN a copy of Nathan Clark George's newest Christmas CD, Still.  Or, if you cannot wait, rush over to Nathan Clark George's website (linked above and on the side bar) and cyber shop, picking up several of George's CDs.

I am also enjoying listening to If On a Winter's Night by Sting.  Last year, my friend and our school librarian, Becky Ramsey, loaned me and Nick her copy of this CD.  We all--the whole House family--fell in love with this music and had to buy our own copy.  This album also consists of soft, largely acoustic songs with a strongly Medieval feel.

From the back of the CD case: 
"Inspired by Sting's favorite season, If On a Winter's Night... takes traditional music from the British Isles as its starting point and evolves into a compelling and personal journey with music spanning over five centuries (including 2 of Sting's own songs). An evocative collection of lullabies, carols and songs, Sting's new album celebrates the many facets of winter--before the snow melts and the cycle of the seasons begin once more."

Time would fail me at the moment to comment on all the songs.  "Soul Cake" and "Gabriel's Message" are just two of the powerful and moving renditions on this collection.  Nick will probably be adding a more thorough review of this great collection soon.

Coming Soon:  More Advent favorites,  Christmas Bluegrass selections,  Christmas Bluegrass and Country selections to find in your stocking on Christmas morning, and more.

Readers:  Let us know of some of your favorite Advent music and especially of music that is similar to the titles listed above.

Saturday, November 27, 2010

The Beginning of Advent: Musical Preferences

Posted by Ben

This morning while working on a sermon from Luke 1:5-25, I listened for the first time this season to a favorite CD. A Midwinter Eve by Nathan Clark George and Mark Stoffel is a wonderfully relaxing and meditative selection of familiar and not-so-familiar Advent songs.  George plays an acoustic guitar, and occasionally Stoffel joins him on the mandolin.  It was cold outside, but not snowy as in the picture.  The music was a calming delight.  I can smell the coffee right now and so I may listen again at this late hour as I return to my labors for tomorrow's message.

Nathan Clark George is a talented musician and a dedicated Christian, husband, and father.  He is also the grandson of one of the 20th century's great Christian thinkers:  Gordon Clark.  A teacher of philosophy, Gordon Clark paved the foundations for Christian scholarship for many Christians.  He wrote books on philosophy, historiography, science, and theology.  He had as students, such men as Carl F. H. Henry and Ronald Nash.  He has influenced such folks as Ruth Bell Graham, John Frame, R. J. Rushdoony, R. C. Sproul, Henry Wood, and me.  God's covenantal faithfulness to the Clark family is a testimony to what God can and does do with all faithful believers.

Below is George's most recent CD.  I am chomping at the bit to get the chance to order it.

Monday, November 15, 2010

Peace on Earth, Goodwill toward Men.

By Nick.
While at Goodwill the other day, I picked up a few CDs. Goodwill is sort of a musical grab bag. There are good finds there, but you have to wait for them to come in. It's sort of like hunting, only you don't have to sit in a deerstand for hours in the cold.

How Strange, Innocence by Explosions in the Sky. The first album by the instrumental rock group. I keep wanting to call them Explosions in the Sky with Diamonds.

Alison Krauss, bluegrass diva. Robert Plant, Led Zeppelin's lead singer. T.Bone Burnett, the guy who produced about a million country albums, including the O' Brother, Where Art Thou soundtrack. And they're all together on one record. The only downside? No bluegrass rendition of "Stairway to Heaven."

Currently Listening: Raising Sand, Alison Krauss and Robert Plant.

Sunday, October 31, 2010

House of Heroes-Suburba

House of Heroes was a band that didn’t immediately strike me as something. When I first heard them I dismissed them as just another nasally, pretentious rock group. It was only after multiple listening to Say No More over a long period of time that I grew to appreciate the group’s lyrical style and musical chops. Seeing them live was another turning point in my House of Heroes’ experience, as was purchasing their World War II-themed CD The End is Not The End. It was this record that convinced me of their merit as good songwriters, and showed off their melodic talents, putting them in my roster of my favorite modern bands. Their House of Heroes Meets the Beatles EP was another solid step in the right direction, proving that they could cover Beatles songs without totally desecrating them. Then came Suburba, the group’s Springsteen-esque tribute to growing up in the American suburbs. I was afraid when I saw the early buzz about Suburba that it would be a pop album. Well, it is. And it’s one of the greatest pop albums ever made.

Many reviewers have compared this record to Queen, on the merit of its five-part, auto-tune free background vocals. While there are echoes of Queen on the record, this is only part of the story. Suburba sounds like every classic rock band, and a few modern ones, thrown into a blender. There are echoes of Styx, Roy Orbison, Springsteen, Mellencamp, Led Zeppelin, Aerosmith, Rush, and others. Only a truly great band could write a song that has touches of both mewithoutYou and Motley Crüe.

From the beginning of the record, it is clear that House of Heroes has updated their style, without doing a complete 180-degree turn. The slightly proggy, heavier rock of Say No More and the pop of The End… have been perfectly fused and further perfected to a sound that can be described as pop/rock with brains. The guitar tone and drum tone is perfect throughout the record, and the band has managed to get rid of the annoying parts of songs which hampered their first two efforts. The “Whoa-ohs” and shouts of “Hey!” are still here, but instead of sounding like amateur songwriting, they are expertly incorporated into their songs. The biggest change from the previous records, and what makes this record gold, are the five-part background vocals, recorded without any Auto-tune or Pro-tools.

The record kicks off with “Relentlessly”, a song that defies explanation. Listen to it, and see how House of Heroes took a song that could have been a clumsy intro, and made it into a great tune. The second track, “Elevator”, sounds like nothing ever heard before in the world of rock. “Love is For the Middle Class” has the wittiest House of Heroes lyrics to date, alternately biting and loving. Of course, only a Christian band could write a song about a girl wearing a one-piece swimsuit. “So Far Away” has a fifties vibe, and sounds like it could have been sung by Roy Orbison, had he lived long enough. The band comes up with an updated classic rock sound on “God Save The Foolish Kings”, which harkens back to the House of Heroes tradition of taking a pop song and throwing in as many curveballs possible. Football rivalries, girlfriends, talking to God, and this isn’t even country music. Side 1 ends with “Salt in the Sea”, which solidifies House of Heroes as one of the best new melodic bands. The only complaint I have with this song is that the lyrics are a little vague: I can’t tell whether the song is about God, or a girl, or both.

A major problem with The End Is Not The End was the way that the second half of the record felt like it was packed with relatively uninspired filler-songs. This is not an issue on this record. The second half starts out with a gospel-music snippet at the end of “Salt in The Sea”, and segues into “Independence Day For A Petty Thief”, the album’s guitar anthem. This song rivals “Lose Control” from The End… Halfway through the song fades out to the sound of fireworks and the gospel-music snippet plays again, this time given a new significance due to the lyrics of the song. The solo in “Independence Day” sounds like Tim Skipper is trying to re-write The Edge’s solo from “Bullet The Blue Sky”, but instead of being a cheap derivation, it fits into the updated classic rock milieu that the band is working in. “Somebody Knows” sounds like John Cougar Mellencamp stole Queen’s background vocals, and Tim even works in a little gospel call-and-response. “Disappear”, the only song on the record that sounds anywhere close to lackluster, brings back some of the old House of Heroes, with their untraditional song structure and long instrumental sections. “She Mighty Mighty” is the ultimate song to crank up loud and sing along wildly. Then comes “Constant”, the song House of Heroes recorded because their label wanted them to have a radio single. This brings to mind the bands that have great album material, but lame singles (OneRepublic). House of Heroes exceeds expectations again, and “Constant” is one of the best songs on the album, along with all the other ones. The final track, “Burn Me Down”, is surprisingly upbeat for an ending track, unlike most of those songs about girls dying that become ending tracks on records. It achieves everything that “Field of Daggers” (From their last record), was reaching for, without the annoying repetition of “Field.” After the song proper fades out, the band pulls out a reference to one of the earlier songs, (I won’t spoil it for you). This is another House of Heroes tradition, as the coda to Say No More incorporated a lyric line from the first song, and the first track on The End… was the string quartet part from “Baby’s a Red”.

Lyrically, many of the songs on the album tell stories, especially straight-out story songs like “Independence Day for a Petty Thief.” The album feels like it was originally planned as a concept or story album (it was), and so, like Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, it has a continuity without actually telling an actual story. Unlike many bands who play up the Christian content of their earlier releases, and then move to more “subtle” lyrics, House of Heroes actually explicitly references the Triune God on this record, on “God Save The Foolish Kings”, “She Mighty Mighty” and “Constant”, and makes other Christian references on the record, such as quoting the apostle Paul on “Burn Me Down”, or the gospel interlude on “Independence Day for a Petty Thief.” Anyone who is worried that House of Heroes has started performing sappy worship songs can rest assured that their songwriting is still challenging. “Constant”, far from being a syrupy “Jesus-is-my-boyfriend” song, is about Christians going through problems in life, and having faith in the face of struggle. Some listeners may complain about the change from the dark poetry of Say No More, but this is a different album with a different focus.

House of Heroes is the rare band that takes classic rock music and progresses, as opposed to simply imitating it. House of Heroes is also the rare band who can record three albums that sound fresh and different, without being eclectic for the sake of being eclectic. And House of Heroes is a band that can perform songs in different styles without coming off as dilettantes. Suburba is the best non-Johnny Cash record of this year, and is the perfect record for driving in your car with the windows down and the sound system cranked up. Suburba proves that pop isn’t for Lady Gaga-esque hucksters, and in a sane world these songs would be all over the radio. House of Heroes has many influences, but sounds like no one else. Go buy this record. Now. You will not regret it.

House of Heroes has gone a long way from being a band that mainly appealed to emo kids, (I think that I was the only non-emo fan in my town when I saw them live), to a sophisticated pop outfit. From here, the possibilities are endless. The band is so talented, that they could play any genre that they pleased, from hard rock to punk to pop to country (I’m still waiting for the bluegrass album). If they continue to progress and get better, they will go from one of the greatest modern rock bands to one of the greatest bands of all time.

Currently Listening: "Gloria", Laura Branigan, "Beautifully Broken", This Beautiful Republic, "What If I Stumble", DC Talk, "Loser", Beck.

Saturday, October 23, 2010

Nick Visits Chicago

Nick is currently in Illinois visiting Wheaton College, the C.S. Lewis museum located there, and the City of Chicago.  I envy him for the first two, with reservations about the third. I once changed planes in Chicago in one of the rare flights I took across the nation, but have never actually visited the city.  My main connections to the city are as follows:  The 1968 Democratic Convention (a disaster for the nation), famous Chicagoans from Al Capone to Mayor Richard Daley to some others, and Carl Sandburg's poem.  I grew up in the 60s, but know next to nothing of the singing group Chicago.  As you might have figured out, I was Country before Barbara Mandrell was cool. 

Carl Sandburg was a socialist.  His poetry was a rambling, freee verse, Whitmanesque style.  He was a poser.  Robert Frost accused him of standing in front of a mirror messing up his hair before an appearance. He had an obsession with Abraham Lincoln (one of the few sets of books I ever got rid of was Sandburg's Lincoln volumes).  He was mediocre as a poet.  Not only is Frost much better, but even some of the lesser poets of that era, such as John Crowe Ransom and Donald Davidson, were better.  Still, Sandburg could whip out a good poem here and there ("Grass" and "Fog" are favorites of mine), and "Chicago" certainly has a rugged bolsterous sound to it.

And for those who are wondering:  A music blog should include poetry.  Poetry is musical and music is poetic.

HOG Butcher for the World,
Tool Maker, Stacker of Wheat,
Player with Railroads and the Nation's Freight Handler;
Stormy, husky, brawling,
City of the Big Shoulders:

They tell me you are wicked and I believe them, for I
have seen your painted women under the gas lamps
luring the farm boys.
And they tell me you are crooked and I answer: Yes, it
is true I have seen the gunman kill and go free to
kill again.

And they tell me you are brutal and my reply is: On the
faces of women and children I have seen the marks
of wanton hunger.
And having answered so I turn once more to those who
sneer at this my city, and I give them back the sneer
and say to them:
Come and show me another city with lifted head singing
so proud to be alive and coarse and strong and cunning.
Flinging magnetic curses amid the toil of piling job on
job, here is a tall bold slugger set vivid against the
little soft cities;

Fierce as a dog with tongue lapping for action, cunning
as a savage pitted against the wilderness,
Building, breaking, rebuilding,
Under the smoke, dust all over his mouth, laughing with
white teeth,
Under the terrible burden of destiny laughing as a young
man laughs,
Laughing even as an ignorant fighter laughs who has
never lost a battle,
Bragging and laughing that under his wrist is the pulse.
and under his ribs the heart of the people,
Laughing the stormy, husky, brawling laughter of
Youth, half-naked, sweating, proud to be Hog
Butcher, Tool Maker, Stacker of Wheat, Player with
Railroads and Freight Handler to the Nation.

Sunday, October 17, 2010

Country Music and Books

Nick and Ben both love music.  We are both eclectic in our taste. Yet we have our preferences, and there are those times when the mood calls for certain kinds of music, and nothing else will do.  I, Ben, have learned a lot from Nicholas, who is a walking encyclopedia on certain kinds of music, and he knows he will get a thrashing (even at age 17) for criticizing traditional country music and bluegrass music, but he is on safe ground, since he likes it too.

And we both like books.  And sometimes, I like books on music, particularly country music.  Most of the country music books are biographies, and most are fairly light reading.  That is part of their appeal.  I read serious history, literary classics, and theology for a living. I groan about my work when propped up reading, but I actually love it.  The books on country music are read purely for relaxation.

And yet, even the biographies and autobiographies of country singers reveal a lot about American culture, Southern folkways, writing poetry (songs), economic conditions of the country, and that most complex of all God's creation--man fallen and redeemed.  I hope to post a list of good books on country artists soon, but for now, I want to highlight two books I picked up used and cheap.

Many a time years ago, I listened to Ralph Emery on WSM radio.  He was one of the biggest names in Nashville, and he was a key disk jockey and radio host on the station (again WSM, 650 AM) that hosts the Grand Ole Opry, the Ernest Tubb Midnight Jubilee, and many, many country shows. I really confused this book, The View from Nashville, with his autobiographical book Memories.  Hopefully, I will find it later, and find a copy just as good (like new) and just as cheap ($1).  This book, by the way, includes stories about "country singers" ranging from Loretta Lynn, Conway Twitty, and Johnny Horton to Roy Orbison and Ray Charles.

Stars of Country Music: Uncle Dave Macon to Johnny Rodriguez is written by Bill C. Malone and Judith McCulloh. It is published by the University of Illinois Press.  Ain't it sumpin' that not only do university presses publish books about country music, but that many of those books are published up there in Illinois?
On the back cover, this book lists the titles of a number of books from the U of I Press series called Music in American Life.  There are at least a half a dozen I would love to have.  This book was found in good shape, with some tears to the dusk jacket, and it sold for a whopping big $2. 

It contains biographical sketches of quite a few singers, many of whom are pictured on the cover, including the founders of country music, like the Carter Family and Jimmy Rogers; the early great stars, like Roy Acuff, Ernest Tubb, and an Alabama boy named Hank Williams; stars of the 50s and 60s, like Flatt and Scruggs, Loretta Lynn, and an Arkansas boy named Cash. 

I am $3.00 poorer.  Somehow, I don't feel poorer.  I just wish I could find some music equally as cheap.

Saturday, October 9, 2010

Happy Birthday, John Lennon.

By Nick
Today is John Lennon's Birthday. He would be 70 years old if he were alive.

John Lennon is an enigmatic figure. He was the archetypal rock-and-roll egotist. He used people all through his life, including his wife and fellow bandmembers.  His life was characterized by doing all sorts of crazy and selfish things, not the least of which was ditching his wife Cynthia for that ugly Japanese chick. His personal beliefs swung wildly from Indian Mysticism to Christianity (briefly), to hardcore atheism. Many of his famous solo songs- "Give Peace a Chance", "Power To The People", "Instant Karma"- are repetitive, gospel music knock-offs, hitting you with Lennon's philosophies like a sledgehammer.  "Happy Xmas (War is Over)" is on my list of the top all-time worst Christmas songs, mostly due to Yoko Ono's piercing, off-key vocals. And then there's the ridiculously overrated "Imagine", John's atheist Sunday-school anthem. The song sounds like the made-in-Red China version of "Let It Be." John, of course, didn't seem to be too serious about the whole "imagine no possessions" bag, as he was a multi-millionaire when he died.
     And yet the fact remains that he wrote some of the best Beatles songs ever. "Strawberry Fields Forever" (In my opinion the greatest Beatles song ever written.), "Across The Universe", "Lucy In The Sky With Diamonds", "I Am The Walrus", "Come Together", "Revolution", "A Day In The Life." "Strawberry Fields Forever" is probably the best example of the late Beatles' style, combining their classical and rock-and-roll elements in a perfect symmetry. "Lucy In The Sky" and "I Am The Walrus" are classics of surrealism. I dare anyone to produce a song that has a better melody than "Across The Universe." The sad thing is that even when he was writing these great Beatles song, his massive egotism came into his lyrics. "Across The Universe", "I Am The Walrus", and "Strawberry Fields Forever" are all self-centered, navel-gazing anthems. John even wrote a song about himself, "The Ballad of John and Yoko." His songwriting style contrasts with that of fellow Beatle Paul McCartney, whose songs seem to exude a warm sense of community, inviting everyone listening to sing along.

     Cynics may be tempted to sing "Imagine no John Lennon/It's easy if you try", but he has had a definite influence, for better or worse, on the world of rock music, and music in general. If only his talent wasn't ruined by his wacky political views, his bloated pride, and his intense desire to be a jerk.
John Lennon on "Strawberry Fields."
"I was different all my life. The second verse goes, 'No one I think is in my tree.' Well, I was too shy and self-doubting. Nobody seems to be as hip as me is what I was saying. Therefore, I must be crazy or a genius—'I mean it must be high or low'"

Yours Truly as a Beatle. Not John, though. Some kids told me I looked like George Harrison.

Currently listening to: "Just Like Starting Over (2010 Remix)", John Lennon, "The Ballad Of You And I",
Melee, "All You Need Is Love", The Beatles.

Friday, October 8, 2010

The Battle Of The Bands

By Nick.
The eponymous Ben of this blog dislikes it if I steal his thunder and write a post right after he writes a post. I reply that this is not right (or write), because musical events need to be covered as soon as they happen.
     Last Saturday I played at a talent show at the Texarkana Quadrangle festival. While I was there, I heard about their battle of the bands competition later that day, featuring three bands, Outcry For An Echo, Bridging the Gap, and Jerrod Lee. Not much of a competition, but in Texarkana, you take what you can get.
     When I arrived later, (After a dreaded trip to Wal-Mart.), Outcry For an Echo was into their second song. This was odd, as the show was scheduled to start at 6:00 and I arrived at 6:05, and there was no obligatory day.
     Outcry For An Echo, despite its indie-sounding name, is a three man blues outfit. Their second song that I heard was meat-and-potatoes blues, with some cool soloing (a wah pedal makes everything cooler). They closed out with a Beatles-esque rocker, which boasted a rocking guitar on the chorus, but was hampered by lame lyrics thanking the audience for coming to their show.
     Bridging the Gap, a Pentecostal rock band, was up next. They began their set with a seventies-esque blues song about being "baptized in a horse-trough in Arkansas", which was pretty classic, and followed it up with the slower "Jesus Name Blues", giving the lead guitarist a chance to show off his considerable skills. They closed their set with a cover of "How Far Is Heaven?" by Los Lonely Boys (What happened to those guys?), hampered only by a weak ending, where the lead guitarist and singer reminded us several times that the song fades out on the album.
This is actually a picture of The Shins, but since I couldn't find any pictures of Bridging the Gap, I decided to post a picture of The Shins, because they're so cool.
     During the first two bands, my friends and I noticed that there were several hardcore kids wandering around, odd for a blues show, and this led to the speculation that the Tyrants had come to crash the party. This was confirmed after Bridging the Gap left the stage and the announcer, who talked way too much through the entire thing, introduced hardcore/screamo band Like Tyrants. He also congratulated them on their ability to adapt, telling us how, since there was a wasp nest behind the stage, they all went over to the other side of the backstage. Wow!
     Like Tyrants underwent some changes since I had seen them last. They replaced their lead singer/screamer with a full-time screamer, and their bassist changed his hair color from black to brown. The lead guitarist invited everyone, meaning parents and girlfriends, to come close to the stage and cheer them on.
This picture makes them look a lot cooler than they are.

     The Tyrants' setlist was essentially the same as their last show. Their new screamer was absolutely wretched. He had no range, his scream sounded like someone throwing up, and he barely had a chance to scream during any of the songs, which seemed to have very little vocalising in them. Halfway through the first song, they went into a breakdown, which makes no sense without a mosh pit. The pitiful Jake Williams, bless his heart, couldn't even keep up with the rest of the band through the breakdowns, or the rest of the songs, for that matter.
     The Tyrants began their second song by inviting the audience (read: parents and girlfriends) to clap along, with lead guitarist Nick Wagner remarking that this would be what won them the competition. This song, like all the rest of their songs, lasted about six minutes, and consisted of an endless series of verses and choruses, spiced up with the occasional breakdown. And why do all the bandmembers do this weird running-in-place thing onstage. It does not look cool at all. To give credit where credit is due, Nick Wagner is a talented guitarist, a good singer, and even a good screamer, but he's being held down by unskilled bandmates.
     After the eternity of breakdowns that was Like Tyrants' set, Jerrod Lee and his friend got onstage to set up and play us some much needed folk music. Lee had a unique set-up, sitting on a suitcase with two pedals set up, one of which was a drum kick pedal set up to kick the suitcase and the other which activated a tambourine. The soundmen had a mess of trouble setting up the mics for this, and the announcer seemed baffled that anyone would do something that cool.
     Once the suitcase percussion had been set up, Jerrod Lee began to croon out some folk-rock. His voice sounds like Gordon Lightfoot, and unsuited to his sparse acoustic music. Electric folk or Bluegrass would suit his voice better. His songs were very much in the American folk genre, mostly about lost love and traveling. One song incorporated the nursery rhyme "Hush little baby, don't say a word/Mama's gonna buy you a mockingbird", and then added something about "Mama's gonna buy you a bottle of wine." Weird. Despite his unusual lyrics, and a voice that seemed too powerful for his style, he put on a good show. Who cares if he went fifteen seconds over his allotted time.
     The bands had played, and the decision as to who would win was made. The judgment was supposed to made by a "panel of professional musicians", but I noticed one of the judges sported a bleach-blond mullet. My guitar teacher, who is a truly good musician and has no mullet, was on the panel, which was a plus. So I waited for the results. And the winner was.....

Like Tyrants.
     Are you kidding me? The three other bands that played weren't exactly the Rolling Stones, but giving the award to a band who can't even stay together during a song, whose screamer sounds like he's gagging, and who were sort of like the Bob Dylan of hardcore-songs that last forever with no variations. Not wanting to have to sit through a seven-song set, or, more likely, two songs stretched out to ten minutes each, I left and went to McDonald's.
     Conclusion: The battle of the bands was lackluster. Blues music is like pizza-it's good even when it's not good-but it is a very easy genre to learn, and writing blues songs does not require the same kind of effort as writing indie or alternative songs. The Quadrangle used to be a festival with lots of local bands and interesting stuff, but now it seems past it's prime and ready to die. And why can we not find local bands to play in Texarkana. A few years ago it seemed like there were tons of bands in Texarkana-Olive and Iron, Goesl's Parade, Mute The Misfire. Back when I Love Evelyn was up and running there were local acts like Day In Day Out and Nova who were playing shows. And I'm sure there are tons of teenage kids who would jump at the chance to be the next Ramones. So why are we stuck having to listen to the rhythm-challenged Tyrants?

Currently Listening to: To Plant A Seed, We Came As Romans.

Monday, October 4, 2010

I Still Miss Someone

One of the powers of country music is its ability to pull the deepest emotions from us. That is the traditional function of lyric poetry, and while many of us love to read poetry, we also love hearing poetry with musical accompaniment. There are songs and singers that, to quote from George Jones,"tear our hearts out when they sing."

Without a doubt, part of the force of Johnny Cash's singing was that sense in which he not only touched emotions, but he created emotional responses.  When Cash sang a sad song, you felt sad.  When he sang a song about an arrogant, defiant criminal named Sam Hall, in a song by that name on American IV: The Man Comes Around, you experienced the attitude of Sam Hall.  My family never gathered around and sang hymns, but when I listened to "Daddy Sang Bass," I could hear my (non-singing) father singing bass, my (rarely singing) mother singing tenor while me and little brother (actually two sisters) would join right in there.

One of Cash's sad lyrical songs is "I Still Miss Someone."  It is a traditional country (and poetic) theme:  the loss of love.  The song is set in the autumn season with the melancholy feeling that the season evokes.  There is a pained emptiness and a nagging wonder whether things could have been different. 

Because of the emotional power of the title, several web-sites devoted to Johnny Cash's memory use the title, even though the complete song would not exactly fit.  But the feeling fits: the pain of a loss, the power of memory, the questioning of the past, and the emptiness of not having someone here that we love.  Read the words to the song below:

At my door the leaves are falling,
A cold wild wind has come,
Sweethearts walk by together,
And I still miss someone.

I go out on a party,
And look for a little fun,
But I find a darkened corner
because I still miss someone.

Oh, no I never got over those blues eyes.
I see them every where.
I miss those arms that held me
When all the love was there

I wonder if she's sorry
For leavin' what we'd begun.
There's someone for me somewhere,
And I still miss someone.

I thought of that song this morning as we were riding to school.  As is often the case, we were running close to late.  The radio was on, and Nicholas said, "Well, at least we are getting to hear Marty Robbins."
This set me to thinking, with a bit of sadness, of a few of the singers that I miss.

1.  I miss Marty Robbins.  He died way too early.  I still remember seeing him perform on the Grand Ole Opry, circa 1975, when it was still in the old Ryman Auditorium.  Robbins always played the 11:30 to midnight portion.  Most performers heading up an Opry segment do a song or two. Robbins would open up with a song, introduce his guest, then he would sit at the piano and crank out one after another of those powerful hits that only he could sing, such as "Don't Worry About Me" and "Carmen."  No one could do a southwestern ballad better than Robbins.  His singing of "El Paso" is a marvel, and you find yourself hoping that this time he doesn't have to die in the arms of the senorita he loves.  Along with the western songs and gunfighter ballads, Robbins could turn to do a love song with equal power.  "My Woman, My Woman, My Wife" is as beautiful a testimony to marital love as has ever been sung.  "Devil Woman" is a powerful song of forgiveness, metaphorically picturing what happens when we are forgiveness, and "even the sea gulls are happy, glad I'm coming home again." (Nature is restored in redemption!)
On the night I saw Robbins sing, I got his autograph after the show.  He came out front to meet his fans.  I climbed up the concrete banister beside the steps.  He signed the Opry program I had, looked me in the eye, and nodded.  He was a tanned and rugged looking man, with a strong hint of Hispanic heritage.  He performed the late night show because he was usually racing cars earlier in the evening.
I still miss Marty Robbins.

2.  And I miss Bill Monroe.  It was probably around 1969 when I saw him perform on the Friday Night Opry.  I know this sounds strange, but one of the most fascinating features of the Opry was that singers were always standing around on the sides of the stage waiting before their performances.  They looked so normal, so mortal, so human.  I always found it odd that Monroe performed at that stage in his life, wearing glasses and not wearing his characteristic cowboy hat.  I have repeatedly watched the video "High Lonesome," which covers the history of Bluegrass music.  Monroe was intimidating and shy, powerful and weak, incredibly musically talented and hardly communicative.  God worked slow grace into Monroe's life.  All through his singing career, Monroe sang Christian songs. In fact, he introduced gospel quartets on the Opry.  Many of his Gospel numbers were his own creations or arrangements.  He sang the song that asks, "What would you give in exchange for your soul?"  He knew the answer, but it took years for that answer to change his heart.  Late in life, being baptized in the Jordan River, Monroe came up out of the water, saying, "I believe God put me here on earth to perform music."
I still miss Bill Monroe.

3.  And I still miss Patsy Cline.  She was already dead when I first discovered her music.  I had a collection of music that included a Patsy Cline song.  My mother loved the song, so when I discovered a Patsy Cline record in the sale bin at Montgomery Ward's, I bought it.  I was in junior high; it was around the year 1968 or 1969.  None of my friends liked country music.  Most people I knew who did like country music tended to listen to whoever was then popular.  Patsy Cline's last recording sessions were out of the realm of normal singing.  As she was tearing hearts out with such songs as "Crazy," "If You Got Leaving on Your Mind," "Faded Love," and "Walking After Midnight," her record producer asked her husband, "Did y'all have a big fight last night?"  Patsy Cline and her husband, Charlie Dick, had more than enough arguments, but the passion and power was coming from her soul, not from a recent brawl. 
I often wonder how she would have fared through the years if she had not taken that fatal air flight.  The picture of her at the last concert in a white dress is simply beautiful.  I think she would have made a grand older lady of country music.
I still miss Patsy Cline.

4.  And, of course, I miss both Johnny and June.  This past spring, we bought Cash's American VI:  Ain't No Grave.  The title song is an old spiritual.  The ruggedness and scratchiness of Cash's voice in his last years was haunting. I don't mean that it was spooky or scary, but that it was transforming. You knew when you heard him in his last years that this was a man who was looking at the chasm, the gulf dividing life in this world from that in the next.  In the song "Ain't No Grave," the main instrument is chains.  There is a hint of old Ebenezer Scrooge's partner, Marley, coming back from the grave wearing the chains he forged in life.  It heightens the message of the song.  Cash went to his grave with the chains from his life, but the grave couldn't hold him.  His song testifies to salvation, one of his favorite themes.
On the album cover of American VI, the front is a boyhood picture of Cash, toothy and innocent and smiling, little knowing what life had in store for him.  On the back is a hazy looking window. In the bottom corner, an elderly Cash is looking in.  It gives that sense that Cash is still telling us what really matters:  God, faith, marriage, love, music.
I still miss Johnny and June, and Mother Maybelle, and Sarah and A.P. Carter, and Carl Perkins.

My reworking of the song:

At my door the leaves are falling,
A cold wild wind has come,
On the radio hits are playing,
And I still miss someone.

I listen to hear them singing,
And remember the days before,
Their songs are still my favorites
because I still miss someone.

Oh, no I never got over meeting
Marty Robbins on those steps.
I can still hear Bill Monroe playing
With Bluegrass Boys that night.

I wonder how she'd be singing
If Patsy had lived til now,
And Johnny and June still thrill me,
And I still miss someone.

Saturday, September 11, 2010

Concert Review: The Ember Days, Cedars Return, and some Thoughts about Modern Worship Music

Back in the summer, when I went to go see Abel, there was another band lined up to play after Abel's set: The Ember Days. This group was said by many witnesses to be amazing, but they didn't show up. The story was that "they had van trouble", although there was a rumor going around that they were really Russian spies on the run from the CIA. Actually, there wasn't a rumor to that effect, but it would have been really cool if there had been. To get to the point, when I found that The Ember Days were playing at Trinity-and for free, no less-I had to come and see what the buzz was about.
It was a dark and stormy night when I went up to Trinity Baptist Church. After sloshing across their front lawn to find an entrance, I finally came to the door with a piece of paper marked "Concert" taped on it. The door opened up into a creepy stairwell, which made it feel like I was attending some secret gathering, and made the concert twenty-percent cooler.
Once I reached the top, I found that there was no one wearing a "To Write Love On Her Arms" T-shirt, the obligatory garment for a Christian indie rock concert. (There's usually at least one person wearing one at a concert, just like how in college propaganda there's always a guy wearing a Dropkick Murphys T-shirt.)
This startling omission made the gathering ten-percent less cool, and it was probably due to how few people there were. In all I think there were only thirty or forty people (maybe less), and that's counting the bands.
The room of the concert had a big backdrop at the back of the room with Christian slogans written on it with glow-in-the dark markers. (My favorite was the Latin inscription "Sanctus Est".) Eight or nine rows of chairs were set up, with few people filling them. And for some odd reason, no one sat on the front row. Maybe it's a Baptist thing.
After a few minutes of listening to the weird indie music that always plays over the loudspeakers at I Love Evelyn concerts, (This time it sounded like a Christian version of Coheed and Cambria) Cedars Return took the stage. This band has a personal interest to me, as its lead singer is my Latin teacher's son-in-law. After they took the stage, lead singer and acoustic guitarist David Farren of the amazing goatee (Prime cause of the sin of envy among other youth pastors.) invited us to come up here and "just worship." A small crowd gathered in front of the stage, and the band began an obligatory feature of the "ambient worship" band concert-the prayer accompanied by some ethereal guitar part that seems lifted from one of those New Age-y 80s Celtic albums. After the prayer, the band segued straight into their first song. David Farren has a pleasant vibrato voice, like a higher pitched Eddie Vedder, and the female lead singer, Kaitlin Rogers, has a nice Christian pop feel to her voice. On the downside, the song lacked any good structure, sort of falling apart instead of ending, the drumming was uninspired, and the chord progressions sounded like every other worship song. The next song had an interesting concept, (“Before this note rings out…have I forgotten you?) but any chance of milking it into an intelligent song was ruined by it launching into one of those epic, neverending, eternal worship choruses. It ended with a fairly cool guitar solo by Ryan Danger Rainer, but why do guitarists in these worship bands stomp on the floor to keep time? And what is it with Christian bands and chubby guys. I know that you can’t change the body build you were born with, but Rainer looks like he could use a few trips to the gym. Andrew Beaujon, in his insightful book Body Piercing Saved My Life: Inside The Phenomena of Christian Rock, amusingly suggests that because Christian men are married to the same woman for life (hopefully), they think it’s OK to chow down the extra hot dog.
All weight related comments aside, Cedars Return left the stage, and they were followed by The Long Delay. This band had a long set, consisting of dead silence drowned out by the Sanctified Coheed and Cambria sound-alike playing on the loudspeakers. After The Long Delay, The Even Longer Soundcheck took the stage and played their set.
After The Even Longer Soundcheck left the stage, to no applause, New Zealand rock band The Ember Days took the stage. Unlike the pitifully normal Cedars Return, The Ember Days were in full musician garb. The drummer, who’s arm was about as skinny as his drumstick, was decked out in huge glasses and suspenders. (10% Cooler) Their lead guitarist looked a bit like Drew Shirley from Switchfoot, and their bass player had an unseemly resemblance to David Bowie‘s turn as the Goblin King in Labyrinth. (20% less cool) The best look-alike of all, was their rhythm guitarist and singer Jason Belcher, who with his mustache and unmusicianly barrel-chested figure, looked like he could become a Mario imitator if the band ceased to be an option, which made this event 50% cooler.

All the extraneous lights were turned out, and the stage lights bathed the band in an eerie purple glow. The Ember Days asked everyone to stand if they wanted to, told us that they would be playing a lot of instrumentals, and invited everyone to sing their own song during the instrumentals. (No one did.) The band then proceeded to play “The Never-Ending Song”, as made famous by the Glorious Unseen. This song featured lots of choruses with simple, repetitive guitar parts, an unchanging, unsyncopated beat, and copy-and-paste vocals, interspersed with slow, ethereal, guitar instrumentals. Lead singer and pianist Janell Belcher’s voice sounded reminiscent of Leigh Nash, and, strangely enough, Katy Perry, but she was afflicted with the common curse of women singers-having to sing over the rhythm section. As a result, her voice lacked the soft, airy quality it has in studio. Jason Belcher (Isn’t it great when both the vocalists in a band are named Belcher.) had a voice which sounded like central casting Christian Pop/Rock-not amazing or strikingly unusual, but fortunately not breathy or effeminate.

The Ember Days introduced one of their songs by talking about how they loved to feel the presence of God, and asked us to feel the presence of God, but I just wasn’t feeling it. In fact, I feel this way at about every Christian worship concert I go to. I begin to worry if I am afflicted with a lack of piety, but I like old Southern Gospel music. Modern Worship music, especially “ambient” worship like The Glorious Unseen or The Ember Days, seems to have several serious problems.
1.) Repetitive, Uninspired Music. Most of the songs by the Glorious Unseen or The Ember Days have long choruses or sections consisting of an unvarying drumbeat and two or three chords on the guitar repeated in a loop. While this may create a nice crashing effect, it is, to put it bluntly, boring, and is not good musicianship. Every Ambient worship band also has the same sort ethereal guitar effects. I assume it is supposed to sound like U2, but most Christian bands that try to sound like U2 end up sounding like lame U2 rip-offs. And why do Christian bands try to copy U2 all the time. Why not The Cure or Counting Crows or Led Zeppelin or Pink Floyd or a myriad of other bands?
2.) Repetitive, Uninspired Lyrics. Hymns have intelligent, theological, lyrics. Southern gospel songs can have insipid lyrics, but they can also have lyrics that are intelligent, theological, and even witty. Worship songs take a lyric line-”Jesus, I love you.”, for instance-and spread it like butter over an epic chorus. Bob Dylan can take a three or four minute song and squeeze some poetry into it. Why are Christians afraid to do the same? Which is God most glorified by, a song with intelligent lyrics in a poetic structure, such as “Be Thou My Vision”, or a seemingly endless repetition of an phrase which, however true it is, is said over and over again until it has lost all its force.
3.) Lack of song structure. There’s a reason why the verse-chorus-verse-chorus-bridge-chorus structure is used so much in music: It works. A love of structure is built in to the human psyche. Songs must have good structure in order to be good songs, just like a building must have a good plan to be a good building. A song or building without good structuring is pitiful, no matter how many embellishments it has. Listening to “Ambient Worship” is like watching a fish out of water-the songs tend to flop around and go nowhere in particular. The songs have no sense of movement or progression, just an excited sense of not going anywhere, which is what worship music is doing right now. Take a cue from Mozart.
4.) Overwhelming Expectation. Many Christian Ambient bands compare themselves to Sigur Ros. This is unfair. Sigur Ros has beautiful, angelic vocals, and a subtle ear for music. Christian “Ambient” bands usually take their vocal cues from Coldplay or Switchfoot, and feature bombast instead of finesse. In other words, they don’t know how to write a song without a heavy, power-chord driven chorus. And why are these bands categorized as “ambient” when there is almost nothing ambient about them? Sigur Ros’ futuristic, layered soundscapes ambient. I do not see why a loop of repeated power chords on the guitar is any more ambient than a song by Switchfoot or Coldplay or Matchbox 20 for that matter. The guitarists in these ambient bands play around with all sorts of cool sounding guitar effects. In the hands of great musicians such as The Edge from U2 or mewithoutYou, cool guitar effects can be musical poetry. Your guitar effects are only as good as your songwriting, and here it seems like the cool pedal effects are wasted on mediocre songs.
5.) The Unsuitability of Rock Music for Worship. Nothing against rock music. I love it, from The Beatles to Sufjan Stevens to Air Supply. (Yes, I like Air Supply.) But I feel, as a Christian, a musician, and a rock music fan, that rock music as we know it is unsuitable for worship. What I expect from worship music is something that is meditative, and conducive to a worshipful state of mind. Rock music makes me want to dance or headbang, especially when the guitarist breaks out into an awesome solo. (Kudos to Ryan Danger Rainer for the awesome solo.) Headbanging, though, is still frowned upon in worship circles, so I guess I would have to close my eyes and lift my hands up in the air or something. I don’t intend this to be a slam upon all worship songs or hymns written after 1500. There are plenty of new songs that are good and God-honoring and plenty of older hymns, which, musically speaking, I can’t stand. (Does “The Church ’s One Foundation” ring a bell.) I am not necessarily advocating a return to only old music, I am just saying that I don’t believe rock music is appropriate for church. That doesn’t mean there’s anything wrong with it-I believe that other genres, such as jazz or some types of classical music are inappropriate for worship, but not for simply listening to. This problem could be resolved if the bands weren’t promoted as “worship”, but instead as “Christian entertainment”, like many Southern Gospel groups.
The Ember Days finished their set and their guitarist began to give his testimonial. My inner Presbyterian began to cringe in fear, hoping that it was not going to be corny or sappy. However, his testimonial was actually quite good and theologically right on. Plus he had an awesome New Zealand accent.
After the show I bought two albums for the generous price of five dollars-that’s right, two for five dollars-and picked up some free download cards to give to my friends. While I may not be a fan of the Ember Day’s music, I appreciate their passion for God and their generous approach to music. I realize that God can use imperfect music to accomplish his will, and while much of the Ember Day’s music may be sub-par (In my opinion), it is heartfelt. Just don’t call them Aussies.

The Ember Days Official Site
You can download their music for free here

Monday, September 6, 2010

Classic Reviews-Led Zeppelin IV

Transcript of Music in Review Volume 1: 9-6-2010

Me: Hello and welcome to another exciting episode of "Music In Review". Today we'll be reviewing the exciting Led Zeppelin IV by Led Zeppelin, which is-.
Enthusiastic Led Zeppelin Fan: The Best Album Ever, by the Best Band Ever. No mortals ever walked the earth who could compare to the gods of Rock. Not even Steven Seagal!
Me: Thanks, that's nice.
Enthusastic Led Zeppelin Fan: They were the greatest band ever. Just listening to their music makes you awesome. Just looking at their records, even, makes you awesome.
Me: Yes. Anyway, Led Zeppelin's fourth effort starts out with a bang with "Black Dog"-
Enthusiastic Led Zeppelin Fan: Which is the greatest beginning to an album ever! Just look at the amazing Lyrics.
"Oh yeah, oh yeah, ah, ah, ahh.
Oh yeah, oh yeah, ah, ah, ahh."
That is genius. Shakespeare, Wordsworth, Bob Dylan-they were all just Robert Plant rip-offs.
Oversensitive Beatles Fan: Dude, what are you talking about. Robert Plant sounds like some girl when he's sings this. The song sounds like it's staggering out of bed to get some hangover pills after last night's binge.
Enthusiastic Led Zeppelin Fan: Exactly. It's one of the greatest rock-and-roll moments ever.
Oversensitive Beatles Fan: Ever Heard of "Helter Skelter". It's like this song, only it has rhythm, and the singer doesn't sound like some namby-pamby girlyman.
Enthusiastic Led Zeppelin Fan: The Beatles are horrible-worst band ever. Led Zeppelin is the greatest band ever. Never doubt that truth.
Uninformed Music Critic: What the heck? What is this music? It doesn't sound like Linkin Park.
Enthusiastic Led Zeppelin Fan: Nothing Sounds like Led Zeppelin. The Bandmembers weren't born: They just suddenly appeared from the cosmic vibrations.
Me: Thank you for that opinion. The second track.
Anorak: You know, there's this band called Vanilla Fudge, and they were like Led Zeppelin, only they were around before Led Zeppelin, and they were better.
Me: Anyway, the second track, "Rock and Roll"-
Enthusiastic Led Zeppelin Fan: is the definition of Rock and Roll. It is the ultimate Rock and Roll song! Led Zeppelin invented rock and roll.
Oversensitive Beatles Fan: No, you fool, Elvis invented Rock and Roll.
Anorak: Actually, Xavier D. Elmsley invented Rock-and-Roll twenty-two years, three months, and two days before Elvis began his musical career.
Uninformed Music Critic: Dude, I thought, like, Guns and Roses invented Rock and Roll. And Nirvana, and stuff.
Me: The question of who invented Rock and Roll is still up for debate. Anyway, the song is propelled by Jimmy Page-
Enthusiastic Led Zeppelin Fan: The Greatest Guitarist Ever! Robert Johnson, B.B. King, Buddy Guy, Hendrix, Jeff Beck, Clapton, Van Halen-they were all talentless losers. Jimmy Page invented the guitar.
Oversensitive Beatles Fan: Are you crazy? All Jimmy Page did was steal music from black people and play it through his static-y sounding amplifier really loud, and people thought it was cool. Hendrix is a great guitarist. Jimmy Page is a lousy, rhythmless white guy.
Uninformed Music Critic: Have you guys ever listened to Atreyu? That guy is a good guitar player. Or Slash from G'n'R. Or the guy from Breaking Benjamin.
Me: The third track, The Battle of Evermore-
Enthusiastic Led Zeppelin Fan: The soundtrack to my Life. I listened to that whenever I was getting ready to have an argument with my girlfriend.
Me: Your girlfriend?
Enthusiastic Led Zeppelin Fan: Yeah. She broke up with me, because she didn't like how I would kiss the first four Led Zeppelin albums every night before I went to bed.
Me: That is a bit disconcerting.
Enthusiastic Led Zeppelin Fan: If I was gay, I would write Love Letters to Jimmy Page. But I'm not gay, I swear.
Me: OK, then. Back to the song-
Oversensitive Beatles Fan: Robert Plant switches from a high-pitched feminine whine to a stomach virus growl on this track, which is the most boring, slow, acoustic track ever written. Other than that White T's song that all the chicks like a couple of years ago.
Anorak: "Hey There Delilah."
Oversensitive Beatles Fan: Yeah.
Anorak: It was written for:
Me: That concludes the discussion of that song. By the way, guys, can we use abbreviations? The guy who's typing all this out is getting kind of tired.
ELZF: Sure thing.
Me: Thanks. Side one ends with Led Zeppelin's master piece, Stairway to Heaven-
ELZF: THE BEST SONG EVER WRITTEN! Listening to that song is heaven! It's just proof that The Led Zeppelin bandmembers are the most powerful beings in the universe, even more powerful than Apocalypse from X-men.
OBF: You are certifiable. That song is one of the worst, most annoying songs ever written.
Me: That's a little harsh.
OBF: After you've heard it for the 14,876,765th time, you'll feel the same way.
Me: Well, it's not my fault you listened to the classic rock station too much.
Anorak: You know, if you play Stairway to Heaven backwards, you hear Highway to Hell by AC/DC.
UMC: Dude, I didn't even get to interject my opinion on the last song: I thought it was too slow. Staind has better acoustic songs. And this Stairway to Heaven stuff is stupid. It's not the Best Song Ever Written- There are better songs by Good Charlotte, or FallOutBoy, or Linkin Park. And It's so long! I mean, even that one song by Avenged Sevenfold isn't that long.
ME: And with that...interesting thought, let's move on to side two
The Doorbell Rings
Me: It's the Pizza Delivery Boy.
Pizza Delivery Boy: Hey! This will be $20.43
Me: David Grohl?
David Grohl: Yeah.
Me: But...Why?
David Grohl: The recession, man.
Me: I'm feeling you. What's your opinion on Led Zeppelin.
David Grohl: I can't say anything against them-I'm in a band with their bassist.
Me: Oh Yeah. What's that on your belt.
David Grohl: That? That's a lock of Kurt's hair. I take it out ever night and venerate it, and ask the Spirit of Kurt that he might lend me some of his amazing songwriting talent. Amen.
Me: Umm....Interesting.
David Grohl: This is strictly off-the-record.
Me: Of course.
Me: Thanks for the Pizza. I think I'm going to have to go finish this. Anyway, the next side of the album features "Misty Mountain Hop" and "Four Sticks".
ELZF: AMAZING SONGS! THEY ARE THE-wait, I don't have to use all caps. Forgive me, John Bonham. I was saying, those songs are amazing.
OBF: No they aren't. No intelligent person wants to listen to Misty Mountain Limp, and that awful Four sticks garbage.
Anorak: Vanilla Fudge-
UMC: Have you heard that new song by Kings of Leon. Awesome!
ELZF: How could you say that? Those songs are classic. They are essential. Every kid should listen to them from the time that he's three through the rest of his life.
OBF: Are you advocating Child abuse?
Me: Actually, I haven't really listened to those songs, so I'll skip to the next song, Going to California-
ELZF: It's so Beautiful. Robert Plant is even cooler than a Corvette. That song inspired me to move to California.
OBF: I would go to California if it meant I would never have to hear that song again.
UMC: That song was lame. That Katy Perry California Gurls song was better. That's my jam.
Me: That leads us to the final song, When the Levee Breaks, a cover of..of...
Anorak: Memphis Minnie.
Me: Yes, Memphis Minnie. The song features a wailing harmonica, driving guitars, and Robert Plant's screaming vocals. What drives this song the most, though, it John Bonham's drumming-
ELZF: JOOOOOOOOOOOOHN BOOOOOOOOOOOONHAAAAAAAAAAMMM!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!I'm shaking with delight!
OBF: You sick man.
ELZF: I'm crying Tears of Joy!
OBF: You are a disgusting loser.
Me: Anyway, that wraps up the album and-what happened to the Led Zeppelin Fan?
Anorak: He collapsed. I think he's crying.
ELZF: John beautiful....I love you.
OBF: He's Hopeless.
UMC: Kanye's got some pretty sweet jams.
Me: Led Zeppelin, comprised of Robert Plant, Jimmie Page, John Paul Jones, and John Bonham-
Me: Produced several successful albums, wrote Stairway to Heaven, and are credited with inventing Heavy Metal-
ELZF: Jumping off the Floor You are right. Led Zep invented heavy metal. Black Sabbath, Jimi Hendrix, Alice Cooper, Iron Butterfly-They were all posers. Led Zeppelin was the BOMB!
OBF: You loser! The Beatles invented Heavy Metal.
Anorak: Actually, Vanilla Fudge invented Heavy Metal before Led Zeppelin.
UMC: Dude, Guns 'n' Roses invented Heavy Metal. And Like, Motley Crue and Nirvana, and Disturbed.
Me: Thank you. This concludes this episode of Music in Review. Tune in next time to see me square off against a legion of 50 year old weed smokers-in other words, Grateful Dead Fans. Good night and good luck.
UMC: Dude, Breaking Benjamin is better than any of this band's stuff. Led Zeppelin isn't metal, Linkin Park, and Devil Wears Prada, and Disturbed- Now That's Metal. What about Korn? Does anybody here listen to Korn. Hello? Hello? Where is everybody? Oh well, at least they left the pizza.