IVP - Strangely Dim - March 2011 Archives

March 31, 2011

March Music Madness: Out Like a Lamb

Seems like only days ago it was the first of March. And it was only days ago--thirty-one, to be exact.

This month we gave ourselves over to "music madness"--a month of turning each other on to the new and novel, the old and overlooked, and everything musical in between. I confess this is about as self-indulgent a theme for a blog as I can imagine for myself; I've been labeled a music snob in a variety of settings (even though true music nerds would scoff at my limited palette), and writing about particular songs and artists makes me feel somehow joined to them, as though their artistry and mine intersect and somehow validate one another. I realize that I'm the one who gains from that interaction: Van Morrison and Sufjan Stevens and Cat Stevens (no relation) and the Spares and Florence and the Machine and the Beatles and REM and Sam Phillips--not to mention the many musicians that won us over gradually rather than immediately--don't need validation from us. But neither do we do them harm by riffing on their lyrics and wowing over their music. So I remain happily defiant, throwing in my lot with these artists and daring you to disregard them.

So much of our identity is caught up in the arts and entertainment we simmer ourselves in. Charlie Sheen is banking on that axiom as he tries to create a culture out of his exploits and excesses. Did you like Two and a Half Men? Then you'll love Charlie Sheen's "My Violent Torpedo of Truth" tour! "Don't be a troll; be a winner!" (Christa, incidentally, thinks the tour should be renamed "vapid narcissistic swirling cesspool of gratuitous depravity." Might sell more tickets, actually.) But such identification works better with musicians, because they provide anthems to rally us and soundtracks to punctuate our own imagined epics. We can emulate musicians by our own creative writing and music-making; the music that moves us isn't merely a passive entertainment medium but a path that we enter on.

When I was in high school, I was hopping from path to path with schizophrenic regularity. The band I was in was eclectic, equally comfortable playing songs by Muddy Waters and David Bowie; the school jazz band pushed me toward foundational artists like Charlie Parker and Duke Ellington but indulged my interest in pop jazz acts like the Yellowjackets and Weather Report; I tried to build underground pop cred by tracking down early offerings from REM and the Violent Femmes; and Iowa radio being what it was, I got a fair bit of exposure to mainstream hair metal like Whitesnake and Bon Jovi but also classic rock such as Pink Floyd and Queen. But when I was feeling especially weird, or when I wanted to let my geek flag fly, I listened to Genesis.

Not Phil Collins-era Genesis, although I indulged pretty freely in that stuff too. But the really good stuff came when Phil Collins was stuck behind the drums and Peter Gabriel was out in front, dressed like a flower and singing "The Lamb Lies Down on Broadway."

peter gabriel.jpg

This was the age of the LP, and so listening to the full concept album led off by that title track, The Lamb Lies Down on Broadway, was a major commitment: more than ninety minutes of music, spread over two vinyl records, two sides each. You'd listen to side one of album a; then flip it over to listen to side two; then replace album a with album b, side one; then flip that over for side two. The liner notes for the album were extensive and told the story of Rael, "imperial aerosol kid"--a graffiti artist in New York trying to come of age. You were committed, mind and body, to following Rael throughout his adventures.

I wasn't always committed, to be honest. My favorite tracks were on album a, side one: the folksy "Cuckoo Cocoon," the introspective "Fly on a Windshield," the driving "In the Cage," and the aforementioned title track. By the time I got to "The Grand Parade of Lifeless Packaging," I was generally overdue for homework or chores or band practice, and the other three sides of the epic went untraversed.

I don't feel too terribly bad about that. Especially in an era of cheap, instant downloads of individual songs, any commitment of any length of mind and body to conceptual music might be counted as an act of extreme discipline. Compared to the ephemeral engagement of music today, I was like Francis of Assisi up there in my bedroom, flipping records over and listening intently before exiting into daylight--just like Rael, my musical avatar.

lamb lies down.jpg"The Lamb Lies Down on Broadway" was the first song I ever noticed "sampling" in; Peter Gabriel ends the song and announces the theme of the whole album by borrowing a line from a song made famous by jazz guitarist George Benson: "They say the lights are always bright on Broadway; they say there's always magic in the air." Peter Gabriel made me believe it, and I daresay I paid better attention to the rest of my life when I left my room with those words in my head.

Believing there's magic in the air makes you notice things like a bush that burns without being consumed, a ladder to heaven with angels ascending and descending it, a sacred curtain tearing from top to bottom rather than from bottom to top. "There are more things in heaven and earth," Hamlet reminds us, "than are dreamt of in your philosophy." The things that matter most can't always be discerned or dissected; sometimes you have to simmer in them. Sometimes they have to be sung.

Posted by Dave Zimmerman at 6:38 AM

March 29, 2011

March Music Madness: I Can See a Lot of Life in You

I've been waiting for this day since December 18. Today the homage to/reimagining of Sufjan Stevens's Seven Swans became available for purchase. (You can get the album here.)

seven swans.jpgSufjan's widespread popularity has been based largely on his breakout concept album Come On Feel the Illinoise, which featured the hit single "Chicago." I heard that song and went a little nuts, buying the album for anyone I could come up with an excuse for (prospective authors coming to visit the Illinois-based InterVarsity Press; out-of-state relatives, and so on) and trying to track down the artist himself and cajole him into writing a book (offer's still open, by the way). But eventually the hysteria over a particular album has to give way to one of two things: (a) new hysteria for a different album by a different artist; or (b) a deeper dive into the artist's recording history.

I chose option (b) and picked up Seven Swans, a less eclectic but no less quirky contribution. The tone of Seven Swans stays pretty consistently sober and introspective from beginning to end; it explores the divine-human relationship from angles not typically explored by musicians. Case in point: "The Transfiguration," which I listened to exclusively for an entire day. (You can read about that experience here; in the post I declare myself to be a "Sufjangelical," in contrast to other subgroups such as "Cockburn Christians," which I discuss in more detail here.)

Anyway, in mid-December 2010 I got wind that a tribute album was in the works, featuring such reliable artists as Bonnie "Prince" Billy, Derek Webb and Jason Harrod. The album is now streaming at bandcamp.com, and it's awesome. Proceeds go toward breast cancer research, so it's ten bucks well spent. Conspicuously absent is the ethereal "Abraham," a track that unfortunately wasn't finished in time for the album's promised Breast Cancer Awareness Month release. But based on what I've heard of the rest of the album, it will undoubtedly be worth the wait.

Posted by Dave Zimmerman at 12:43 PM | Comments (1) are closed

March 24, 2011

March Music Madness: If I Set You on Fire

When I was a kid the leaders of my youth group, a former priest and his wife, a former nun, led us in a discussion of the evils of sexually suggestive pop music. They made what I'd consider a rookie error by inviting us to bring examples of such salacious songs for us to discuss as a group. I don't remember the discussion (except for a general tone of mockery among the students and despair among the adults), but two songs linger in my memory: Madonna's "Dress You Up," off her Like a Virgin album, and "My Dingaling" by Chuck Berry. Hilarity ensued.

Right around the same time, acclaimed Christian singer Leslie Phillips left Myrrh Records, signed with Virgin Records, changed her name to Sam and released her first secular album, The Indescribable Wow. It contained one of the most sensual songs I've ever heard: "What Do I Do?"

indescribable wow.jpgI didn't learn of Sam Phillips till years later, when I bought her Cruel Inventions on a lark. Since then I've made a point of collecting whatever I find with her on it; that's tougher than it sounds, since she's never had widespread popular success. (Her closest brushes with national notoriety are her two Grammy nominations, her role in Die Hard: With a Vengeance and her scoring credits in The Gilmore Girls.) Her Myrrh album The Turning is one of my top five Christian albums of all time (by "Christian" I mean "released under an explicitly Christian label"). I'm pretty sure I could listen to no music but hers for the rest of my life. Quite honestly, when I imagine heaven as a place where no one ever stops singing, I find myself hoping that they're singing "What Do I Do?"

"What Do I Do?" is about intimacy. Well, it's about sex, actually, but not in the way we've become accustomed to popular music being about sex. Filled with lush strings and echo effects, you feel immediately the swirl of emotions that attend to any intimate moment. She sings about anxiety and trust and hope and possibility and vulnerability and protectiveness and everything else you might imagine entering a young woman's mind. The song doesn't progress through its theme so much as it orbits it, simmers in it; put it on repeat and you really could imagine it going on into eternity.

You don't necessarily know that a song is about sex the first time you hear it. I had the same misapprehension of the Starland Vocal Band's "Afternoon Delight" as the kids from Glee's Celibacy Club; it was, to my naive mind, a happy song about a tasty midday treat. I remember on road trips gleefully singing along in the back seat of the car, while my parents cringed and stifled laughter in the front seat. But that's the Starland Vocal Band being coy and playful. Sam Phillips, by contrast, doesn't obscure the fact that her song is about sex; rather she dives into the mystery of it - which is why, I think, it's so easy to mistake it for a song about heaven.

The church has a long history of mixing metaphors between the sexual relationship and the divine-human relationship. Even the Bible flirts with such ambiguity, with God calling regularly on sexual dynamics as a helpful way of describing his promises to his people, or his sense of betrayal at their acts of apostasy. People still argue, heatedly, whether the Song of Songs is about a man and woman in love or about God and us. Maybe it's both; either way, there are moments where it makes me a little uncomfortable.

One Medieval community refused to shy away from the parallels between our relationship to God and what they called "courtly love." The Beguines, a network of lay orders for women throughout Western Europe during the twelfth and thirteenth centuries, freely associated their discipleship with a sort of marriage to God. The poetry and prayers of the women borrowed heavily from the poetry and courtship rituals of the noble class of their day. Scholar Francis Newman described the dynamic of courtly love as "at once illicit and morally elevating, passionate and disciplined, humiliating and exalting, human and transcendent" - in other words, a swirl of seemingly contradictory things that, under the auspices of love, make perfect sense.

seeking spiritual intimacy.jpgThat's what romantic love aspires to be, but that's what divine love is at its essence: a love that burns away the sin that besets us and refines and elevates the purity intended for us. If the kind of euphoria that Song of Songs celebrates and Sam Phillips emulates in her blissful "What Do I Do?" is what awaits us at the restoration of all things, then honestly, how can we keep from singing?


To learn more about the Beguines, pick up Seeking Spiritual Intimacy by Glenn Myers, due back from the printer any day now.

Between the writing of this post and the time of publishing it, I've become briefly obsessed with Def Leppard. See my other blog Loud Time for some equal time for that very different band. If you're looking for a way of connecting the two, here's one option: In "What Do I Do?" Sam Phillips writes "If I set you on fire will you keep me warm?" In "Rock of Ages" Def Leppard writes "Burn it up; let's go for broke!" Sounds like they were made for each other.

Posted by Dave Zimmerman at 7:01 AM

March 23, 2011

March Music Madness: All Apologies

I figured out a long time ago that there's some music you're simply not ready to appreciate the first time you hear it. You may be too young; you may be too naive or inexperienced; you may be too emotionally damaged by something associated with the lyrics to appreciate its unique insight; you may even simply have bad taste in music. But for whatever reason, you weren't ready at first hearing to "get" the song. Mark Twain once observed that the music of German composer Richard Wagner is "better than it sounds"-a particularly Twainy way of acknowledging that music appreciation, like the appreciation of any art form, is a different animal for the hoi polloi than it is for the artistic class.

I studied music in college, earning a minor degree rather than a major because I refused to practice my instrument and follow the direction of my various conductors. But I did leave there with a sense of how music works, my grass roots notwithstanding. I left most of my music bona fides behind, however, when I graduated, concentrating all my attention going forward instead on popular music-so called because it emerges from the popular class rather than the musical elite. The Beatles, for example, made popular music, but not because their music was poor; it was populist at heart, which meant among other things that "popular" was a more convenient way of categorizing them than, oh, I don't know, all the "elitist" alternatives.

(Pardon my sarcasm; I'm a populist by nature, at least partly as a preemptive strike to excuse my unwillingness to practice my instrument or follow the direction of my various conductors.)

That being said, I usually didn't have a problem respecting the music of the elites: Wagner or Debussy or Bach or whoever. What I struggled to connect with were actually some of the songs I heard on the radio or saw on MTV, songs which generated a thought along the lines of, What is this nonsense?

I've since come around on a number of songs and artists, to whom I hereby extend my apologies, in relatively chronological order:

Bob Dylan. I get it now. The voice is part of the whole package, a fragile delivery system for overwhelming lyrics and powerful musical experiences. Bob Dylan songs sound weird, like muzak, when sung by beautiful voices; each song demands a weathered, plaintive voice, because Dylan was living and singing through weathered, plaintive times. It's hard to pick one song to repent of hating, but when I now think of Dylan I think first of "Tangled Up in Blue," and his performance on the Grammys, with Mumford & Sons and the Avett Brothers, of "Maggie's Farm" finally made the song make sense to me.

Neil Young. Same thing. I first heard "Old Man" when I was a young boy and thought, Who gave this guy a microphone? Then I heard it as a young man and nearly cried. Then I heard "Heart of Gold" and it changed my religion a little bit. Then I heard Neil Young song after Neil Young song and realized that this was a troubador for the times; this was what conviction sounds like.

Willie Nelson. Voice was, apparently, very important to me when I was a kid. Willie Nelson has this nasally tone that I just couldn't get behind. Particularly onerous to me was his hit "You Are Always on My Mind"; I hate-hate-hated it. Twenty years later it was my ring-tone of choice for incoming calls from my wife. It's beautiful, simple, touching, sung by a legend who knows the heart of American music better than maybe anyone.

Chrissie Hynde. The first Pretenders song I remember hearing was "Back on the Chain Gang"; the second was "Brass in Pocket." I was probably ten, and I was convinced that this lady was weird. She probably is weird, but those songs are brilliant-"Back on the Chain Gang" is wistful and sad and poignant, and "Brass in Pocket" ought to be played for every insecure young woman about to take a risk. Women in rock (and women not in rock) owe a debt to Chrissie Hynde, and I owe her an apology.

Annie Lennox. A next-wave Chrissie Hynde for me, Annie Lennox (of the Eurythmics) lost me with the debut single "Sweet Dreams (Are Made of This)." I still haven't quite come around on that song; it didn't help her case when Marilyn Manson, whom I still don't appreciate, adopted it as an anthem. I've landed on the admission that it's better than it sounds. But when I set aside "Sweet Dreams" and revisit her other early entries (such as "Here Comes the Rain Again") it's like wiping the slate clean; it's easy for me to embrace such diverse singles as "Would I Lie to You?" and "Missionary Man," as well as Lennox's eclectic solo work. Sorry, Annie; keep doin' what you're doin'.

Counting Crows. I actually liked Counting Crows when I heard their first single, "Mr. Jones," and later their entire debut album, August and Everything After. It was catchy and different, reminiscent of Van Morrison moreso than their contemporaries Kenny G, Ace of Bass and Michael Bolton. (I would be remiss if I didn't mention that August was produced by the great T-Bone Burnett, who will be on hand for this summer's Wild Goose Festival, an event Likewise Books is cosponsoring and something you should be sure to attend.) But I was sure the Crows would be a flash in the pan. Somehow they've been able to pull off a pretty decent career, selling twenty million records and earning critical acclaim (including an Oscar nomination for their song "Accidentally in Love"), and sticking together for more than two decades now.

Nirvana. It wasn't that I didn't like Nirvana; it's just that I liked Pearl Jam more, and I felt an obligation to awfulize the one in support of the other. Nirvana got all the critical acclaim and media buzz and album sales; Pearl Jam, meanwhile, fought the power at Ticketmaster and made enemies of all the hitmakers. But I can appreciate Nirvana now without feeling as though I'm betraying my grunge-band-of choice. It helped that I've heard really intimate reinterpretations of two overplayed Nirvana songs: "Smells Like Teen Spirit" by Tori Amos and "All Apologies" by Sinead O'Connor. Sorry I was late to the party, boys.

Justin Timberlake. I guess you'd call him a guilty pleasure. I still don't go for his boy-band-era music with N-Sync, but when he first hosted Saturday Night Live and sat down at the keyboard to perform "Senorita," I decided he had grown up. I still struggle to admit being a fan, and I even briefly reconsidered my fondness for his "Senorita" performance the last time I saw it (mostly because by then I'd seen it in reruns about a bazillion times), and I don't really like his attitude generally. But I've begrudgingly acknowledged his talent (as a singer; I'm not there yet for Justin the actor).

Beyonce. The first time I heard "Single Ladies" I realized that I invariably sang along with every Beyonce song I came into contact with, regardless of how bad (or confused) I sounded. Once I made this realization, I felt compelled to apologize to two friends of mine, both named Chris (no relation), one of whom was uncharacteristically obsessed with Sade, the other of whom would not shut up about Rhianna. I still haven't apologized, but I suppose this post may count. I get it now, guys. Put your hands up.

American Idol. I started watching this show about six seasons in-I believe during the Season of Sanjaya. You may recall that Sanjaya Malakar made it all the way to the top seven despite not being particularly good. Some attribute his success to a public conspiracy led by Howard Stern to subvert the show by voting for someone who couldn't sing. All this to say, my first introduction to American Idol was as a joke, a freak show. But I've kept watching, and I find myself with a favorite every year (none of whom ultimately win, unfortunately). I've bought individual performances by Andrew Garcia ("Sugar We're Goin' Down") and Lilly Scott ("Fixing a Hole"), and I can see myself buying maybe even whole albums by this year's Casey Abrams and Paul McDonald (sorry guys; I probably just killed your chances). It's a silly show, but it does what it sets out to do.

I'm sure there are other artists I owe all apologies to, and I could probably come up with an alternate lists of songs (and singers) I no longer respect. Such is the conceit of the armchair music snob. Popular music is (ostensibly) music of, by and for the people. As such it's as fun to talk about as it is to listen to. But any art ought to experience a similar tension-the striving to excel and expand the boundaries of form, set against the challenge to court and woo and know intimately an audience-and any artist will experience that tension as a risk. Art that is truly art has a reach that exceeds its grasp; but it also stretches its audience while never abandoning it.

When you think of it that way, I suppose grace is an art form in and of itself. Thank God it's populist at heart.


This post was expanded from an entry originally posted at the Ooze.

Posted by Dave Zimmerman at 5:58 AM

March 17, 2011

March Music Madness: To Life

March comes in like a lion and goes out like a lamb. That's what they always tell us. Along the way March carries us through Lent and welcomes us into spring and makes us wish we were Irish. So, yeah, there's a lot going on in March--especially this week.

This week I attended the funeral of my sister-in-law's mother. My mom broke briefly from the procession to let me know that my sister-in-law and my brother weren't there--they were at the hospital. My sister-in-law had gone into labor that morning. We said goodbye to her mother and hello to her daughter on the same day.

During the funeral we sang "Morning Has Broken," a song made popular in the early 1970s by folk singer Cat Stevens but originally published in 1931, according to Wikipedia, as a hymn for each day. It borrowed its tune from a traditional Gaelic song, "Bunessan," which was also used for the Christmas carol "Child in the Manger, Infant of Mary." The text of "Morning Has Broken" was likewise repurposed, modified by its author, Eleanor Farjeon, for the hymn "A Morning Song (For the First Day of Spring)." So it's appropriate for spring, for St. Patrick's Day--for any day, really. But a funeral?

When I was a kid, we often sang "Morning Has Broken" as part of our Sunday mass. I never thought of it as a death song. Maybe a spring song, perhaps a birth song, possibly even a resurrection song. But I don't associate beauty or hope or even Ireland--all of which I associate with "Morning Has Broken"--with death.

After this week, though, I'm starting to think that's because sometimes I lack vision--or, maybe more to the point, sometimes I lack faith.

During mass we recalled Betty's baptism and anticipated its fulfillment. We remembered that in dying, Jesus destroyed our death and in rising he restored our life. We recalled Jesus' cross and resurrection, and professed our faith that he will come again in glory, ushering in the resurrection of the dead and the life of the world to come. We reflected on the fact that Betty, like each of us, was a bearer of the divine image, sprung from the word of God and inspired by the breath of God. And we sang "Morning Has Broken" as much as a reminder to ourselves as an acknowledgment of the objective truth that each day we are given, from the first day of all creation to the last day of our life, is a gift to be embraced and celebrated as "God's recreation of the new day."

So, yeah, maybe "Morning Has Broken" is a funeral song, if only we have ears to hear. If nothing else, it's a song I wouldn't mind having in my head as I pass from this life to the next. It's a paean to life, of which God is the author and finisher; and it is right, by means of it, to give him thanks and praise.

Posted by Dave Zimmerman at 12:59 PM

March 10, 2011

March Music Madness: It's Been a Long Cold Lonely Winter

For the past month or so, I've had the Beatles hit "Here Comes the Sun" running through my head. It didn't come to mind, I assure you, due to some sudden shift in the Chicago weather whereby the sun appeared in a way that indicated some type of long-term commitment. It was, I think, just wishful thinking.


If you can't tell, we Chicagoans are feeling a little winter-weary. I'm sure George Harrison was truly longing for sun in England, but I'm also sure that any Midwesterner who sings, "It's been a long cold lonely winter" means it more. (George Harrison's stint in southern Illinois was, after all, in the summer.)


It's hard not to feel hopeful when you listen to "Here Comes the Sun," though. (Try it. I dare you. Try not to get out your sunglasses and be optimistic while singing "do do do-do" and "Sun, sun, sun, here it comes" at the top of your lungs. And who doesn't like to be called "little darlin'"?) You can almost smell and see and taste spring as you listen.


We're not just in a physical winter right now, though. As Christians, we're in the season of Lent--a time that can sometimes be cold and sometimes be long and sometimes feel devoid of light. Because it's a season when we contemplate Christ's suffering--his suffering that has saved us, yes, but a deep, deep suffering just the same. And we ponder our own sin--our sin that's the cause of his death, and that causes our own suffering, our own deaths, every day. We sit in silence; we face ourselves and our brokenness; we confess.


But underneath it all--and even right in the midst of the mourning--there is light, shining on our broken places and then revealing who we really are: not sinners but people who belong to God, people in whom Christ dwells. So we receive forgiveness and grace. We create space to be with God in new ways and somehow come to know the depths of his love for us more and more as we contemplate his suffering. And we lean into and long for the light to come in its fullness.


Easter, of course, gives us a glimpse. Moments when we get to participate in bringing God's kingdom reign to places of darkness give us a glimpse. But when Christ returns, his light will reveal all things, and his glory will be beyond anything we can imagine.


This past Sunday, on the morning of my church's Solemn Assembly in preparation for Lent, I read these words from Peter:

Be truly glad. There is wonderful joy ahead, even though you have to endure many trials for a little while. These trials will show that your faith is genuine. It is being tested as fire tests and purifies gold--though your faith is far more precious than mere gold. So when your faith remains strong through many trials, it will bring you much praise and glory and honor on the day when Jesus Christ is revealed to the whole world. You love him even though you have never seen him. Though you do not see him now, you trust him; and you rejoice with a glorious, inexpressible joy. (1 Peter 1:6-9)

This, I think, is Peter's song, reminding fellow believers that even when the winter feels like it will never end, even when the One you thought was the Messiah is killed on a cross and sealed in a tomb, be glad. Trials last "for a little while," but there is wonderful joy--purification and resurrection and revelation--ahead. 

So whether you're winter-weary, or experiencing trials, or mourning your sin: I say it's all right. There's light and sun coming. Trust me, little darlin'. Do do do-do.


Posted by Lisa Rieck at 10:04 AM

March 9, 2011

March Music Madness: Between Two Lungs

Breathing is the first thing each of us learns to do. It is fundamental, even before crying or eating or sleeping or trusting other people. We must breathe if we are to live. There are many things we must do if we are to live (and yes, there is debate even over what it means to truly live), but without that first burning burst, the breath of life, none of the other requirements for living are necessary. We must breathe. It's so important, really, that we generally don't have a choice in the matter. God didn't leave it up to us to remember to breathe--he required our lungs to do all the heavy lifting for us. Probably, he knew that we'd become caught up in other things--like food or sleep or work or reading crime novels or gardening--and forget.

Even still, I sometimes forget to breathe. Or rather, I find myself holding my breath a lot. It's as though all the energy of breathing is rerouted to my brain, and my lungs play second fiddle for a while. Obviously it can't last long. The brain cannot override the lungs for long and survive. Technically, the lungs can't get along without the brain, either. Truly, it is a predicament.

The song "Between Two Lungs" by Florence + the Machine (one of my favorite artists) is my music therapy for this situation. Somehow, when breathing--along with picking up the dry cleaning and keeping appointments with friends--is forgotten, I listen to it and breathing becomes easier.

Posted by Christa Countryman at 8:02 AM

March 8, 2011

March Music Madness: The Time to Rise Has Been Engaged

Today is important. It's the convergence of three significant events: International Women's Day, commemorating the working women of the world; Mardi Gras, a celebration of indulgence of all stripes, from paczkis to parades; and the release of Collapse into Now, the fifteenth studio album from R.E.M.

I've been a fan of R.E.M. for, literally, decades. They were my first foray into alternative music (not much made it onto the airwaves in Des Moines, Iowa, circa 1985); my friend Patrick and I intentionally misinterpreted the lyrics to their song "Catapult" (off their first full-length studio album, Murmur) as "Cat Food." That song is ridiculously catchy, so if you're looking to mine their discography, "Catapult" is a good place to start.

That's not my song of the day, however. My song of the day is off the album Document, which came out in 1987 and was to be the band's last album with minor label IRS Records. The opening track, "The Finest Worksong," was also the third single (after their wildly popular "The One I Love" and "It's the End of the World As We Know It [and I Feel Fine]"); it kicks off the album's eleven-track flirtation with populist uprisings, including the labor movement (hence the connection to International Women's Day). Document is a fiery album, and "The Finest Worksong" will get your blood pumping.

But it's not simply a work song, just as Mardi Gras is not just a celebration of self-indulgence. Today is also the last day of Ordinary Time, the eve of the circumspective season of Lent. And "The Finest Worksong" invites a certain amount of circumspection, even as it compels its listeners to raise fists to the air. "What we want, and what we need," Michael Stipe sings painfully, "have been confused."

In some ways that's the story of the labor movement, which has evolved from its origins as a collective epiphany that there's power in a union, power among groups of people, that wealth and privilege can't overwhelm, to an institution that never doesn't have a place at the table and must now figure out how to wield its own established power and privilege.

But in a more profound way, the notion that "whate we want and what we need have been confused" is also the story of the human condition--women and men alike, who too often think that their desires are needs, and the things (and people) that inhibit their desires are evils or enemies.

In "The Finest Worksong" R.E.M. advises us to "take [our] instincts by the reins"; that's a pretty good practice to guide us through the forty days leading up to the cross and resurrection of Jesus Christ. It's also pretty good advice for Ordinary Time, and particularly for Mardi Gras, when our instincts can often run rampant. It's also good advice for when the time to rise has been engaged; let us speak truth to power, but let us not hoard it or lust after it.

Posted by Dave Zimmerman at 10:15 AM

March 7, 2011

March Music Madness: Spares Me

Continuing our series on March Music Madness.


I wish I were the type of guy who follows a local music scene. I bear all the markings of such a person: I listen to a lot of music, I regularly thumb my nose at the mass-consumption music on offer, and despite having not played a musical instrument for about fifteen years, I still fancy myself a musician. I watch American Idol, but I only like the weirdos, like this guy, or that guy. So yeah, I guess you could say that I'm that type of guy.

And yet I don't typically follow the local music scene. I blame it on two factors: (1) I'm cheap, so I don't like to pay cover charges; and (b) I'm sedentary, so I don't like to leave my house. I occasionally part from my normal behavior, however, particularly when I'm allowed to take center stage.

This was the case when the good folks at Redeemer Lutheran Church in Park Ridge invited me to give a talk at their monthly Reimagine Worship event a couple of years ago. Sharing the bill with me was a local two-person Americana band, who very kindly accommodated my request that they learn the song "40" by U2. I got to talk with both of them during the break and after the show, and we did what I suppose you might call an "artisan barter": copies of my books for copies of their CDs. By the end of the night I was a raving fan, and even though I've not caught a live show since, I'd gladly hop out of my recliner and throw down some money to see them again, if anyone's interested.

The Spares are Jodee Lewis and Steve Hendershot. They've been described as "hauntingly gorgeous," which I think is apt and thanks mainly to their willingness to be spare and selective with the sounds they pull together. Jodee's voice is shockingly clear, penetrating every barrier between her lungs and your soul. Steve's a highly disciplined guitarist, concentrating on riffs and rhythms that keep songs moving without veering off into self-indulgence and without distracting from the vocals. He's also got a lovely voice that complements Jodee really nicely. They remind me more of the Cowboy Junkies than anyone, although they've drawn comparisons to Gram Parsons and Alison Krauss. If you like Over the Rhine you'd probably like the Spares, but they're really nothing like one another.

No, the Cowboy Junkies are the best comparison, as the Spares can put together a driving rhythm and the end result will still work as a road-trip song. This is late-night music, melancholy-mood music, life-is-what-it-is music. I suppose that makes it, generally, good Lent music, which may be why this week I'm into the Spares.

Lent is a late-night, melancholy-mood, life-is-what-it-is sort of celebration of the church. For forty days leading up to our commemoration of Jesus' resurrection, we consider why Jesus died in the first place: because he so loved the world, because the world so loved the darkness, because we were made to live in the light. Lent is a time of confession, most fundamentally a collective confession that we don't understand Jesus or a divine ministry that includes suffering and death. As the apostle John puts it, "The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not understood it." Whatever Easter is, it's anticipated by the acknowledgment that life is what it is, and what it is, without a God who conquers death and brings good news, is melancholy.

Forty days of melancholy is a pretty long road trip, so you better pack some good music. If you want a taste of the Spares go to their Myspace page, or better yet, download a couple of tracks: I recommend "Waiting for the Smoke to Clear," "Not Break Just Overflow," "Center of the World" and "Jesus I Long for Thee." They're cheap (like me) and they may just get you out of your chair and onto the road set before you this season.

Posted by Dave Zimmerman at 8:32 AM

March 1, 2011

March Music Madness: In Like a Lion

It's March already. Normally this would freak me out a little; I regularly flirt with despair at how quickly time passes, how relentlessly I age. But this year I'm glad it's March already. Chicago had one of the snowiest Februaries of all time; and if it wasn't snowing, it was cold, and if it wasn't cold, it was snowing. I was pretty much over it by Groundhog Day. March, thank you for coming.

They say that, in terms of weather, March is a pivot month: "In like a lion," they tell us, "and out like a lamb." We might consider March an icon of our emotional spectrum, a calendar of psychological turbulence that we experience simply by waking up. March is always there for Lent, wherein we grieve the ways we've fallen short of the glory of God; it's also always there for St. Patrick's Day, wherein we celebrate passion, boldness, spiritedness. If you don't like your feelings in March, wait a minute; there's surely another one around the corner.

This March we decided it might be fun to develop a soundtrack for all that turbulence, Music, as they say, soothes the savage beast, but it can also get us back on our feet when we've drifted into semi-consciousness. Music knows what to do with a lion, and it knows what to do with a lamb, and it has something to offer for every emotional animal in between.

Maybe it's my mood, maybe it's the cliche associated with the start of the month, but I find myself thinking about songs having to do with lions. There are actually a lot of them: there's "The Lion Sleeps Tonight," in which people croon in falsetto tones, confident that for tonight at least they're not going to get eaten by an otherwise ferocious beast. There's "Oh Them Lions" by the delightful Lost & Found, the only band I ever literally followed; in that song they riff on the apostle Peter's likening of Satan to a roaring lion "lookin' for whom he will devour." Their instrumentation for the song includes the Slinky--it's fun for a girl and a boy, you know--which won them a permanent place in my heart. Then there's the breakout 2010 hit by Mumford & Sons, "Little Lion Man," in which a man invokes some potty-mouth language to express his bitter regret over some self-destructive behavior. Joy, defiance, regret--lions can draw a lot of different feelings out of people.

But I think the first day of anything, including the first day of a month or the first day of an experiment, calls for a more wistful, unsettled song than any of these. So my song for March 1 has to be "Listen to the Lion" by Van Morrison.

Like the best of Van Morrison's work, "Listen to the Lion" meanders back and forth between lyrical depth and wordless, pensive vocalization. Sometimes there are no words, after all, and the best songwriters know that and aren't afraid of it. The chord structure is simple, ten minutes of swaying back and forth that console you without distracting you from the fact that you're setting off into uncharted waters. Such a trip demands your attention, but the undertaking itself demands your circumspection.

Lions aren't sea creatures (unless you count the sea lion, I suppose), but this song is set on the sea. From Denmark to Caledonia, from the Golden Gate to New York City, "Listen to the Lion" takes you around the world and all around--the destination is never really clear. What is clear is that wherever you go, you can't escape the tears you've been crying, the love that you spilled and sundered, the soul that is your lion's den.

I hear this song and I'm reminded that we're each an awkward mix of what we've concocted for our identity and the true self we've not been able to shed or silence. I'm also reminded that we're each on a journey, although the destinations we set for ourselves don't ultimately take us anywhere. Our true destination, meanwhile, will present itself when the lion in us has devoured the falsities we've taken comfort in, and our outer life is made to match the inner life that was not created by us but was created for us. It's no surprise that the Messiah was likened to a lion; it takes a certain amount of ferocity not just to deliver us from our enemies but to deliver us from ourselves. This song reminds me of that, and as scary as that reminder can be, it's also reassuring, because the same Messiah is equal parts lion and lamb, and the kingdom he inaugurates is one in which whatever tears I've shed along my journey--the wrongs done to me, and the wrongs I have done--will be wiped away, and I'll dwell in the house of the Lord forever.

But enough about me. What song is on your inner repeat today?

Posted by Dave Zimmerman at 10:29 AM

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Behind the Strangeness

Lisa Rieck is a reader and writer who likes to discuss good ideas over hot drinks and gets inspired by the sky. She takes in all kinds of good ideas as a proofreader for InterVarsity Press.

Rebecca Larson is a writer/designer/creative type who has infiltrated IVP's web department, where she writes and edits online content. She enjoys a good pun and loves the smell of freshly printed books.

David A. Zimmerman is an editor for Likewise Books and a columnist for Burnside Writers Collective. He's written three books, most recently The Parable of the Unexpected Guest. Follow him on Twitter at twitter.com/unexpguest. Find his personal blog at loud-time.com.

Suanne Camfield is a publicist for InterVarsity Press and a freelance writer. She floats ungracefully between work, parenting and writing, and (much to her dismay) finds it impossible to read on a treadmill. She is a member of the Redbud Writers Guild and blogs at The Rough Cut.

Likewise Books from InterVarsity Press explore a thoughtful, active faith lived out in real time in the midst of an emerging culture.

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