Friday, December 31, 2010

Over the Rhine - The Long Surrender

The Long Surrender
Artist: Over the Rhine
Label: Great Speckled Dog
Release Date: February 8, 2011
Duration: 13 tracks, 55:34

For those unacquainted with Over the Rhine (OtR) The Long Surrender is a soft, wonderful adventure. For the veteran this album is that and more. This collection of songs is reminiscent of Drunkards Prayer and most of their double CD Ohio. The album showcases the piano of Linford Detweiler, the vocals of Karin Bergquist, and the song writing of both. Made possible with the financial support of fans, this offering injects saxophone highlighting the haunting melodies always apparent in OTR music. Also, rare duets are found on this LP. Mixing is crisp and clear, production by Joe Henry is artistic and very well done.

The Long Surrender is mainly a collection of ballads telling of life’s tales in a beautiful, artful way. “The Laugh of Recognition” has a gypsy melody with soft, sensuous lyrics. The full emotion and velocity of Bergquist’s vocals can be found on “Rave On”. “Infamous Love Song” harkens back to earlier songs with haunting lyrics ‘Baby, our love song must survive’ accompanied by Detweiler’s signature piano. Bergquist shines in a familiar way with “Only God Can Save Us Now” with backing chorus and underlying acoustic guitar. Beyond the ballads, “The King Knows How” rocks with a reference to the memory of Elvis Presley’s offerings. “All My Favorite People” is a wonderful song of faith, friends, and our times supported by the soft, languid vocals of Bergquist, Detweiler’s rambling blues piano, and well seasoned with a spattering of sax and guitar. Finally, the all too short instrumental “Unspoken” ceremoniously concludes a great, great offering by OtR.

While The Long Surrender is a wonderful, soulful additional to OtR’s catalogue filled with gems, many fans will hope for the next album to again offer the off-beat stories of life with greater emphasis on guitar and percussion. Whether laying out a smooth, soul-filled ballad or romping to a frolicking melody, Over The Rhine is and always has been about quality underpinned by their faith, with a sound all their own which only the richness of time spent together over years of refinement can offer.

SS Mertens

FM Static - 3 Out Of 4 Ain't Bad

3 Out Of 4 Ain’t Bad!

Artist: FM Static
Label: Tooth & Nail Records
Release Date: November 22, 2010
Disc 1 - What Are You Waiting For 11 tracks, 40:00
Disc 2 - Critically Ashamed 12 tracks, 38:06
Disc 3 - Dear Diary 10 tracks, 32:28

FM Static is the California punk pop rock offspring of Thousand Foot Krutch singer Trevor McNevan and drummer Steve Augustine. 3 Out Of 4 Ain’t Bad! is an anthology containing FM Static’s first three albums in their entirety, plowing the road for an upcoming fourth release.

The FM Static anthology provides the tale of today’s teenagers, done in power punk and low lying anthems. Lyrics portray youth’s relationships, experiences, and emotions of growing up in the world today. Listening to this collection in the order the LPs were released follows youthful life experiences from high school to college age with all the highs and lows that come with these times. Stories are filled with wonder, doubt, love, and loss against a backdrop of Christian faith.

In succession, the set is comprised of
What Are You Waiting For? (2003), songs keying the success of FM Static include “ Crazy Mary” and “Hey Now (What are You Waiting For?”).
Critically Ashamed (2006), “Six Candles” and “Nice Piece of Art” highlight.
Dear Diary (2009), teen anthems “The Unavoidable Battle of Feeling on the Outside” and “Take Me as I Am” set the mark high for FM Static’s fourth release.

For the uninitiated or veteran, this anthology provides the story of teen angst in current American culture, as well told and colorful as it comes. Well worth more than a brief listen, the trio of albums paints a spot-on picture of youth with a story ranging from brokenness with residual sadness, to the confusion and fun of youth.

SS Mertens

Mike Reeb - Breaking


Artist: Mike Reeb
Label: Midwest Analog Music
Release Date: November 19, 2010
Duration: 10 tracks, 28:53

Mike Reeb’s second CD Breaking is an acoustic folk rock album of mainly relationship based songs. Like some of the better candies of our time, there is a surprise in the middle!

Solid instrumentation is found throughout with heartfelt lyrics and well placed, well sung choruses. The title track, “Breaking” is an acoustic tribute to love lost, the majority of the album’s songs follow this lead. However, “What Are You Fighting For?” gives a different light. This is the hallmark of the album with a strong beat and posing a set of hard questions poised at our world’s fixation with war.

‘What are you livin’ for? You got all you need behind those doors. What are you dyin’ for? We ain’t got that long, that I’m sure. What are you fightin’ for? Some may say that it’s just war, but what are you fightin’ for?’“It’s Been A Real Hard Year” is another truthful tale of hardships in our country with unemployment, family issues, war, and a protest against a government sometimes blind to the people it represents.

Both “What Are You Waiting For?” and “It’s Been a Real Hard Year” stand head and shoulders above the rest with the message they provide. While the majority of songs are well written, country folk songs of relationship woes, Reeb’s true forte may be in edgier acoustic-based offerings drawing out his artistic soul.

SS Mertens

Holly Starr - Tapestry


Artist: Holly Starr
Label:  Holly Starr Music
Release Date: October 19, 2010
Duration:  10 tracks, 37:12

A sophomore release is normally a very difficult challenge for a musician. Many have met their end or close to it when the second release does not meet or exceed its predecessor. This is certainly not the case with Tapestry, the sophomore release by Holly Starr. Starr is a CCM (contemporary Christian music) artist from Washington State who writes and performs pop rock with an emphasis on Christian praise.  Occasionally reminiscent of Rebecca St. James, Starr has something new and bright to offer.

Tapestry is a well produced, well written, well performed collection of songs heart felt and thought provoking in the simplest of ways. Easy for the widest of audiences to embrace. Among a host of offerings, three stand out as over the top in what they convey. “Undertow” tells the difficulty we all face leaving the secular world and its trappings behind for faith and a new beginning.   A rocker, “Surrender”, gives the message of being broken by our world and surrendering to Christ’s calling. “What Is Love” stays with the listener using reverb, synth, and echo on the refrain ‘What’s love’, successfully portraying the asking of this question over and over without answer.

Tapestry is a great offering - wonderful music and a huge leap for a sophomore release. Holly Starr is a trooper - she restlessly tours, creates great music, and shines for Christ. Yes, this Starr does shine brightly!

SS Mertens


What's in a name? What's in a series of numbers? Meanings can run deep dependent on the action behind the name or number. As New Year's Eve came into focus over the last few weeks I've often thought about this relationship. Could 1/1/11 have something good in store or bad?

Following the terrorist attack on the United States on 9/11 I often wondered if the parties in back of this evil plot thought about the relationship between 9/11 and 911, our nation's accepted telephone number for reporting emergencies. If there is any credence to this thought, what is the next number they might use - 411, 511? No. This would be so far in our future that our means of communication should completely change by that time. That is if the human race is still functioning or God and his nature take over to start all things new due to man's spoiling His great gift.

So, what will happen on 1/1/11? A new evil plot? A new disaster? Or anything at all? Let's hope for a calm first day in a new year where we, as the human race, take a first step toward peace, love, and careful stewardship of this great gift of God's.

Sunday, December 26, 2010

The Civil Wars - Poison & Wine, Live At Eddie's Attic

Poison & Wine
Artist: The Civil Wars
Label: Sensibility Music LLC
Release Date: November 15, 2009
Duration 4 tracks, 12:31

Live At Eddie’s Attic(Free 9 song download)

Creative collaborations have been born out of changes to the music industry in the past decade. Recently two have been prominently placed among recent tunes I play often. One is The Civil Wars and the other is Fistful of Mercy found in another of my reviews this month.

The Civil Wars collaboration consists of Joy Williams (vocals, keyboards) and John Paul White (vocals, acoustic guitar). Here, Joy’s maturity in music finds a partner in John Paul White’s soulful style with melancholy songs of life and its relationships. The songs flow with strong emotion, are easy to listen to while complicated in message, musically light and airy, yet lyrically heavy.

“Poison & Wine”, the EP’s namesake, has a hint of Damien Rice inherit in the refrain ‘I don’t love you, I always will.’ Where this song stands on its own is in the sorrowful lyrics of relationship, powerful in the combined voices of this duet. “Go” and “Pressing Flowers” display a great play of lyrics and voices accompanied by soft acoustic guitar. “Tip of My Tongue” romps along with brilliant acoustic guitar, sharp and pointed vocals, and very well placed breaks making this a fun and fresh experience.

For a free taste of The Civil Wars, download Live At Eddie’s Attic at
. Here you will find 8 songs recorded live ending with a demo version of the song “Falling”. This is a great introduction to the fresh sound of The Civil Wars with:

• “20 Years”, showing a good guitar intro leading to smooth harmonies
• Live versions of “Poison & Wine” and “Tip of My Tongue”
• A great cover of Sade’s “No Ordinary Love”. The offering is fresh and smooth, crisp with Joy’s voice and haunting with John’s additions to vocals on refrains
• “Dance Me to the End of Love” highlights the flow of Joy’s and John’s vocals holding the listener hostage in the rapture of this very emotional song

While Poison & Wine was released in 2009 and Live At Eddie’s Attic has been offered for free download for months, these efforts offered only a taste of what is to come. The Civil Wars current North American tour is leading into their first full length album, Barton Hollow due out in February, 2001. In The Civil Wars, Joy and John have bred great chemistry with a passion and pulse in each song performed.

SS Mertens

Post-publication note: The Civil Wars has offered a free download of their Christmas song “Track in the Snow” and “O Come, O Come Emmanuel” available at their myspace site listed above.

Fistful Of Mercy - As I Call You Down

As I Call You Down

Artist: Fistful of Mercy
Label: Hot Records
Release Date: October 5, 2010
Duration: 9 tracks, 39:34

There is an extraordinary amount of music produced today in which indies are flourishing and major labels are floundering. Out of this maze is born many new and little known bands competing with big names forcing new sounds and new discoveries in music. And fruitful collaborations. Two of which I’ve recently discovered, both sharing amazing harmonies and unique directions in music. The first is Fistful of Mercy and in another review this month, The Civil Wars.

Fistful of Mercy is the collaboration Ben Harper (vocals and guitar), Joseph Arthur (vocals, guitar, keyboards, and bass), and Dhani Harrison (vocals, guitar, keyboards, and bass). To add the cherry on top, Jim Keltner the ‘king’ among current rock drummers, was added to the sessions. As I Call You Down could loosely be categorized as shoe gaze, but there is something entirely new and overwhelming in this grouping’s lyrics and sound. There is a Beatles-like aura (no play intended on Dhani’s lineage) in the chemistry which shows through in their music. Acoustic guitars lay the foundation throughout while great harmony is found per song occasionally sounding like America.

The opener “In Vain or True” slips into “I Don’t Want to Waste Your Time”, both with haunting harmony and dream-like qualities. The album’s namesake “As I Call You Down” begins with ‘You love like I love’ setting the tone for the song’s soulful message. “Father’s Son” has a touch of deep-south knee slapping showing the band’s versatility while the band’s name sake “Fistful of Mercy” showcases strings backing folk-like guitar strumming. The instrumental “30 Bones,” highlights Arthur’s acoustic guitar prowess against the backdrop of a violin providing an interlude leading to “Restore Me”. The only change that would make “Things Go ‘Round” sound more like a Yellow Submarine tune would be to have Ringo Starr joining on vocals and drums. The album’s conclusion shines as “With Whom You Belong” leaves the listener with a message of importance of friendships, ‘And come what may, I hope you find friends with whom you belong’.

What Fistful of Mercy brings to the table is a meaningful musical journey with a uniqueness making music fun again. It doesn’t ‘rock your socks off’, have a provocative message, or bring one-hit-wonder material. This is good, solid fare from a group whose popularity as a team is evident in their North American concerts being sold out prior to release of the album with a European tour yet to come. What beats in the heart of this team is chemistry, this is what makes the difference on As I Call You Down. Looking into the making of this trio and the how the songs and recording quickly came together, it proof of this chemistry is very strong. A chemistry which reaches out to the listener, is hauntingly beautiful, and shared by the band.

SS Mertens

Jars Of Clay Presents The Shelter

Jars Of Clay Presents The Shelter

Artist: Jars Of Clay
Label: Provident
Release Date: October 5, 2010
Duration: 11 tracks, 48:41

Christian collaborations, and there have been many, are often very good and are often soon forgotten. Not the case with Jars Of Clay Presents The Shelter. Why? Crisp, clean production, orchestration, well matched harmonies, and the magical lyrics and music of Jars Of Clay as a foundation. What stands out for _...The Shelter_ are collaborations with Brandon Heath, Audry Assad, Mac Powell, Derek Webb, Sara Groves, Burlap To Cashmere, Leah Nash, and many others.

As with all great Jars tunes, the refrains grab and retain while musical innovation continues from song to song. There’s a magic to this writing and to this music found in few band’s offerings, Christian or secular, similar to the musical history of The Beatles (is it any wonder why so many refer to Jars Of Clay as the Christian ‘Beatles’?). …The Shelter’s song collection is in the vein of pre-Who We Are Instead. Showing the style and grace of Jars past musical offerings, this effort shines in so many ways. Here is a well mixed group of songs ranging from acoustic and folk to rock with songs of praise, hope, community, and the human condition.

“Small Rebellions” sets the tone with a message of Christian daily life with the refrain ‘If our days could be filled with small rebellions, senseless brutal acts of kindness from us all’. The song is supported by strong musical accompaniment and features Brandon Heath sharing vocals with Dan Haseltine. “We Will Follow” features a great flow between lyrics and lead guitar with Lisa Gungor sharing vocals. The album’s ‘eye opener’ is “Eyes Wide Open” with a great play of voices from Dan Haseltine of Jars, Mac Powell of Third Day, Derek Webb, and Burlap To Cashmere in a song underlined by simple, yet highly expressive percussion and strong acoustic guitar work.

“Shelter”, a signature Jars piece and the album’s namesake, features Brandon Heath, Audrey Assad, and TobyMac highlighting the album’s community concept with lyrics ‘In the shelter of each other we will live’. A soft, sticky Jars song, ” Run in the Night (Psalm 27)” will stay in memory long after the song has ended, in part due to the haunting refrain ‘By You I Can Run in the Night’. Something here pushes the listener to press replay – many times. Rockers include “Lay It Down” offering the triad of Haseltine, David Crowder, and Dawn Richardson bringing great harmony. “Out of My Hands” provides good pop rock featuring Mike Donehey and Leigh Nash. Softer ballads include “Love Will Find Us” with Sara Groves and Matt Maher, and “Benediction” with Amy Grant.

Overall, this is a terrific collaboration of artists on each song with Jars personnel laying the foundation and leading the way. The song list brings us back to the shine and glimmer of earlier releases with thought provoking lyrics, ever evolving musical experimentation, and strong choruses. While similar to the ‘City On A Hill series’, ...The Shelter brings a greater sense of continuity.

Jars of Clay Presents The Shelter is a topical piece much like Derek Webb’s recently released LPs, this time expressing the need for community. For the most part, this release stands strong with earlier Jars greats. This is most definitely a purchase for your collection. Beginning with Monsters, then The Long Fall…, Jars is back on top. The again, have they ever really left?

SS Mertens

The Essential Christmas Collection

The Essential Christmas Collection

Artist: (Various)
Label: Provident
Release Date: October 19, 2010
Duration: 12 tracks, 44:51

Ah! ‘Tis the Season to praise our Lord, welcome family friends, share feast and fare, and dig up past year’s Christmas tunes to salute the season. What’s this? The Essential Christmas Collection! ‘Essential’ depends on you the listener. This is by no means a ‘Bah Humbug’ review. While some of the songs have appeared elsewhere in the past, certainly the artistry found here is wonderful. The selection is essentially some of the best Christmas tunes of all time performed by wonderfully talented Christian musicians, and if you don’t have a vast collection of Christmas tunes I suggest you definitely start here!

Essential… greets the season with understated music highlighting the signature voice of Mac Powell on “Angels We Have Heard On High”, an awesome rendition. “Go Tell It On The Mountain” by Tenth Avenue North has a great roving, country-ish melody complete with a wonderfully light horn solo. Brandon Heath once again amazes with “The Night Before Christmas” making great use of strings combined with Brandon’s soaring vocals. Only Building 429 could build a substantial rocker with grace out of “What Child Is This?” – very well done. Michael W. Smith’s “All Is Well” shines here as it has on previous releases. Finally, a light and gentle rendering of “It Came Upon The Midnight Clear” is presented as Jars Of Clay once again comes through with a Christmas jewel.

One for the collection - definitely. Most tunes are wonderful and will become part of your Christmas for seasons to come. Others, not so much. As a collective, this is a very nice addition to anyone’s Christmas collection with each artist providing a wonderful contribution.

SS Mertens

Yancy - Stars Guitars and Megaphone Dreams

Stars Guitars & Megaphone Dreams

Artist: Yancy
Label: Yancy Ministries, Inc.
Release Date: November 2, 2010
Duration: 12 tracks, 43:34

Stars Guitars & Megaphone Dreams contains straight ahead guitar rock with pop sensibility amidst soft praise and worship ballads. For those unfamiliar with Yancy, she is a performer/song writer/praise leader of many talents with multiple releases and successes. Having a voice similar to Bonnie Raitt and Sheryl Crow while her style occasionally has glimpses of Jennifer Knapp and Pat Benatar, she has wide range. Soft, acoustic praise and worship springs from deep within this artist, the pop rock explodes with unbridled enthusiasm well suited for a festival or other large Christian gathering.

A hot rocker, “Make it Loud”, opens as the CDs signature song, giving a great segue to perhaps the best rocker of the group “Love God Hate Sin” shining with great percussion and hot lead guitar, and Sheryl Crow-like vocals. Throughout the album, Yancy easily bridges between fast-paced pop rock to soft ballads each supporting praise and worship lyrics. “Forever and Ever” is a well written rocker, similar to early Jennifer Knapp. The highlight is in Yancy’s remake of the Fleetwood Mac favorite “Don’t’ Stop”. This excellent, rocking rendition is slated as the first radio single from Stars, Guitars and Megaphone Dreams.

Yancy continues to show great talent as both a writer and performer of solid Christian CCM. With Stars Guitars & Megaphone Dreams she has successfully taken her next step to reaching many.

SS Mertens

Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Last Lungs - Look At That Old Grizzly Bear

Look At That Old Grizzly Bear

Last Lungs
Label: Deep Elm
Released: July 30, 2010
Duration 10 tracks, 48:02

Among today’s indie instrumentalists, Last Lungs clearly stands front and center in providing an offering in Look At That Old Grizzly Bear with roots as deep as ‘70s progressive pych rock’s Jade Warrior and as impactful as Jeff Beck’s seminal works of Blow by Blow and Wired. Surprisingly, this is the debut album for the Preston, England based five piece band.

As a collective, this instrumental pop offering is excessively clean and airy with guitar interplay washing over percussion and bass. The album’s storyline paints an expansive musical adventure ranging from calming waters to storming seas. This is an awesome first effort giving their all - heart and soul.

The opener, “Oh, Good Morning”, is progressively emotional setting the mood for what is to come. “33” continues the hot pace with multi-layered guitars and a charge of musical energy while the title track “Look at that Old Grizzly Bear” builds, settles, and builds passion again. This could be a soundtrack for an epic medieval battle, immense in its message. “Inglend” (a trilogy) begins slowly and purposely with an echoing which haunts throughout, like beginning a journey down a quiet path to the unknown. Part two provides a steady reign of energy in its rhythm with a heavy bass line accompanied by light guitar and synth dancing in and out of the percussion. The occasional high strains of a lead guitar replace the rhythmic steadiness providing the songs momentum. Energy is sustained in the trilogy’s finale with a distorted guitar-leading climax giving way to heavy bass and percussion trailing to an end. The haunting electric guitar underlined by heavy bass and light rhythm guitar initiates, the pace quickens, and at nearly three minutes in the song explodes as the lead guitar paints a rainbow of sound giving way to quiet pastures of rhythm. Inglend is what this collection is all about, successfully painting an emotional picture of sound in one’s mind.

The album seems to have a second operatic act as “Wax & Wane” invites us to the remainder of the collective with a single guitar on reverb taking us on a slow, casual stroll through the woods. Have you ever lifted a kaleidoscope to an eye, slowing turning the outer tube to produce patterns, then slowing down to take in the parts of the pattern only to begin turning the tube faster to bring the pattern to life? This is “Kaleidoscope”, a song musically well painted. “Now Against the Staircase, Part 1 is a powerful musical image of leaving a calm lagoon while moving out to the ocean’s pounding waves. The song gives way to Part 2 which gently rolls along with the albums only vocals. The band’s rudimentary chorus layers its vocals adding a sense of helplessly hoping to the song’s story - ’ Here I step out of the sailing ride, and heel by heel take the hallway in my stride, and shed our clothes, a torn up paper lantern glows, and swing into the dark’. The vocals fade, followed by a gentle instrumental discourse again rising to a crescendo which plateaus to a low and peaceful place.

These songs are emotionally charged indie alt-rock, so well written and performed one can slip on the headphones, close his / her eyes and wonder off into adventure. Listening to Look At That Old Grizzly Bear brings me back to the days of listening closely, and I mean really listening closely without distraction. As in days of old with song lists of Pink Floyd on a good set of headphones, this music compels you to listen, to feel, to be a part of the music.

SS Mertens

Cup 'O Joy 21st Anniversary

Cup ‘O Joy 21st Anniversary, 1989-2010

A 21st birthday conveys a coming of age, a test of time, maturity, and respect earned.

While many ministries have sustained the test of time, few acting as a Christian concert venue can claim the same. Imagine a concert venue offering 104 concerts a year, 103 of which ask only a free will offering. All concerts are smoke free, alcohol free, family friendly, hosting everything from blues to gospel, mellow acoustic to hard rock. Now imagine this concert venue in its 21st consecutive year of operation in a moderately sized Midwest city. This hidden jewel does exist, waiting for you to come to its next offering. Located on one of the oldest streets in of the oldest cities in America’s Midwest, the Cup ‘O Joy concert venue can be found at 232 South Broadway Street in Green Bay, Wisconsin.

Of humble beginnings, The Cup, as it is lovingly called today, began in September, 1989 housed in a rundown brick building of the late 1800’s which had served as a shoe store and a later a print shop. With the help of many volunteers and a good share of patience the Cup began to gain momentum. In 1999 The Cup moved to a new location, a former Salvation Army and Knights of Columbus building built in 1950, converted to a bar, then abandoned. Today the venue has state of the art sound, video, and creature comforts.

Over time, the Cup transitioned from a coffeehouse atmosphere to a concert venue.
The first 5 to 7 years as an outreach saw the inclusion of music in the form of local talent. Then ‘Eli’ performed as the first national act, building a relationship with the Cup. John Cox, The Crossing and others began performing at the Cup. The list continued to grow with Super Chick, Sara Groves, Disciple, Building 429, Shawn McDonald, December Radio and others. Today, major acts come to perform on the Cup stage, with every style of music represented. Concerts are held every Friday and Saturday night, and admission is by free will offering only with one inexpensive benefit concert annually to help keep the lights on. No funds are received from the city, a church, or major sponsorships.

Here, artists find they can truly connect with people. The venue’s atmosphere lends itself to a close, one-on-one artist / audience relationship building a true channel of communication where both artist and audience share a mutual level of respect. Friendships thrive when the audience is physically next to the performer, seeing them live and sharing their art. This is what ministry is all about, building relationships by sharing Christian faith.

The venue, the artists, and the audience owe a vote of thanks to the volunteers. The unpaid staff, from the manager with 21 year tenure to those providing meals for the artists, maintenance, and administration, every one has a function and is a blessing. Roughly 100 volunteers representing 35 different faiths and all walks of life serve in various capacities. Sustainability is made possible by the volunteers - people bringing their gifts to the table with a love to serve. Each brings his or her talents willingly without reservation creating a sense of community too often lost in today’s culture.

The Cup has a ministry built with a greater focus than a small outreach. One that builds lasting relationships, crossing the borders of denominations forming Christ’s church. The
focus is faith-based entertainment for all comers providing an opportunity to grow closer to God and community. Reaching out to all with a commonly understood mode of communication – music. In the spirit of love and faith, the Cup reaches this goal. The audience grows in their relationship to Christ, sharing this relationship with family and friends, and planting seeds with others.

The Cup builds relationships and keeps relationships growing on an intimate basis. These relationships and friendships continue to evolve between individuals, artists, and volunteers. Their relationship with Christ is the focus of this ministry and will continue to be its focus for its 25th anniversary and on into the distant future. Join us at The Cup!

Tuesday, September 7, 2010

There Came A Lion

There Came a Lion

Tooth & Nail Records
Release Date: February 5, 2008
Duration 11 tracks, 44:14

There Came A Lion represents Ivoryline’s first major release, which hit the streets in early February, 2008. This album fit the mold of power pop Christian rock of the time falling in with Storyside: B, Everyday Sunday, and Stellar Kart. And like others, they hit the charts hard with “Be Still and Breathe” and “Remind Me I’m Alive” while hitting the tour scene with the same velocity.

With a clean, hard rock-pop sound this LP is technically great with good production and song writing. ‘He will deliver, failure is not an option’ and ‘Our complacency won’t last much longer’ lead good lyrics framed by strong guitar work for the lead song “Days End”. The Storyside:B-like sound of “We Both Know” provides great radio fodder. “The Last Words”, the last song on the album, shows a change in direction, tempo, and message. Perhaps this is evidence of growth.

Despite its early success, There Came A Lion doesn’t provide a need to replay beyond once or twice. Why? The answer is found in the repetitiveness of its content. Hot guitars, singular vocal range and message don’t make for multi-play. The sound is spacious, but not dynamic. After two years, changes in personnel, and related seasoning Ivoryline may provide a new and improved sound with its next effort, Vessels, out July 27, 2010. Change is good.

SS Mertens

Thursday, August 26, 2010

Who Needs Johnny Review

Who Needs Johnny

Who Needs Johnny
Direct Music Distribution
Release Date: June 1, 2010
Duration 10, Tracks, 31:33

With a target audience of teenage girls, Who Needs Johnny offers an album of related relationship songs amid hard driving thrash. These teen anthems are set to raw power punk with a fresh sound. Samantha Haedrich provides lead vocals, backing guitar, and bass with a youthful voice similar to Joan Jett and a style like Pat Benator without the full range of either at the young age of 17. Lead guitar and background vocals are supplied by Alyssa Clotfelter showing simple, yet sharp guitar play with occasional flash. Jeremy Colson is the band’s solid foundation on drums.

Amid the consistent theme of teenage relationship, a number of songs shine. “Poison”, the consensus highlight of the set, has a good overall beat with lyrics relating to ‘the pain inside’ of a relationship, ‘The pain inside is killing me, will someone please suck out the poison’. “Pray for Brian” is actually a plea for help with ‘if you want to leave then go, just don’t pray for me anymore’. A great song standing alone in its simplicity is the finale “Without You”. Solid with a single guitar as the only instrument for the entire ballad, the vocalist extends true remorse with ‘the world keeps spinning without you, if you are gone I might as well be too’. In its simplicity, this song has a strong message of loss and need.

As a freshman release, Who Needs Johnny is a solid effort with hard hitting percussion and clean, fast paced guitar all lead by a strong youthful voice. The lyrics of this set center on youthful relationships experienced by the band members which focuses on a concentrated segment of teenage listeners. With experience lending itself to extend the band’s lyrical storyline and musical experimentation we can look for Who Needs Johnny to offer greater substance by their junior release.

SS Mertens

Wednesday, August 11, 2010

December Radio in Concert

December Radio
Concert Review
Cup ‘O Joy Concert Venue
Saturday, July 25, 2010
Green Bay, WI

A long, meandering line of concert goers stretched across the Cup parking lot as DecembeRadio fans patiently waited on a hot and humid July night for the sound check to complete. The doors flew open at 6:30 pm to a capacity crowd revving up for an evening of high energy southern rock.

DecembeRadio is a Grammy and Dove award winning rocker from the deep the south. From their first LP, they hit the ground running and never locked back adding hit after hit. Surpassing their string of hits is their live performance - this band is pure energy. The minute they step on stage lead singer and bassist Josh Reedy taps the NOS and this band flies taking all in the audience with them. If you’re not pumped after a DecembeRadio concert you’re not among the living.

With few breaks between songs and most songs blending together the pace was fast and furious. The set list hit hard from the onset with “Believer” blending into the crowd favorite “Love Found Me”, which cut into a short cover of “Wayward Son” by Kansas.
The melodic “Find You Waiting” broke into the classic “Saving Grace’ with the audience providing vocals, then into an extended lead guitar jam reminiscent of the early '70s Allman Brothers’ Duane Allman and Dickey Betts. With lead guitarist Brian Bunn switching to banjo, “Drifter” provided a heart felt moment. “Give Me Wings” introduced a new tune in a country vain. Though out the set, band members were introduced, each performing unique solos adding to the night’s performance, including Hammond organ, awesome bass slapping, soaring guitar solos by both the lead and rhythm guitarists, and the popping fireworks of an awesome drum solo.

By the end of their set, the audience was too charged to let the band go for the evening. With the entire audience on its feet, collectively stomping amid high volume chants for more, DecembeRadio returned for “Mighty to Save”. Again the audience was not to be denied. With a few young members of the audience asked to join the band on cow bell and tambourine, the rocker “Satisfy Me” gave the audience something to recall long after the night’s excitement subsided.

This hard driving rock group is indeed a crowd favorite, leaving an audience reeling and rocking. DecembeRadio is the quintessential southern rock group with hot rocks, moving ballads, a little blues, a lot rock, and southern hospitality mixed in a molotov cocktail of a live performance. The audience was lucky to have an internationally acclaimed band provide an up close and personal performance the likes of which can only be had at Green Bay’s Cup ‘O Joy.

SS Mertens

Tuesday, August 10, 2010

Lifest 2010

Lifest 2010

A Christian Festival
July 7 – 11, 2010
Oshkosh, WI
Production: Life Promotions, Inc.

Excitement builds as the opening date for Lifest, a five day, six stage Christian festival looms on the horizon. News of bands and speakers signed for the event trickles in over the months leading up to the festival. Suddenly, the date is near, gear is packed, plans are hurriedly put into action. YES, we’re riding down the well worn path to Lifest. We enter the gates, wait amid long lines of cars, then picking our way to our campsites we set up camp. Friends, smiling faces old and new, and wonderful experiences are about to take off. With over 150 bands, comedians, and speakers we plan our week of festival activities.

The Lifest festival held in Oshkosh, Wisconsin is produced by Life Promotions, a faith-base, youth centered ministry. In its twelfth consecutive year, the festival has a daily attendance of nearly 15,000 and a total attendance of roughly 70,000 over its five day duration. Lifest is family oriented with camping, activities for youth of all ages, daily seminars, keynote speakers, market place, food court resembling a miniature Las Vegas with its night lights, and Christian entertainment – lots of it, held on 6 stages. The festival is held from the second Wednesday of July through that week’s Sunday.

Wednesday, July 7

The temp’s are in the mid-80s with high humidity as small cities of tents begin to emerge over the course of a few hours. Anxious youth are walking through exhibits and finding adventure for the week. With rain in the forecast, fewer people than usual are at the gates for the noon opening making for a more organized entry. Suddenly, it is nearly the time for the first act to appear and like ants to honey, hoards of humanity move toward the Grandstand stage with chairs in hand and children in arm.

Sara Groves opens the festival with her angelic smile, friendly voice and stories of family and friends. ‘Setting up the Pins’ telling the story of our everyday lives gives way to ‘Love Wash Over all Things’ and ‘Different Kinds of Happy’. As Tenth Avenue North is in mid-set the clouds break giving a timely entry for their song ‘My Hands are Holding You’.

The first keynote speaker of the festival, Shane Claiborne takes the mic speaking to love and Christ’s teaching. Claiborne, author and advocate to the homeless, speaks of our common need to serve while conveying his related background of working with Mother Theresa and the homeless in Philadelphia.

Family Force Five takes the Grandstand stage with their unique blend of southern rock mixed with a good measure of rap, heavily laden with synth. The crowd is into it and the first night has kicked off. With a hard rain after midnight, I stumble into my tent, falling asleep knowing the Lord is watching over us tonight.

Thursday, July 8

Day breaks hot but less humid. Nothing but sunshine and friends in sight all day!
33 Miles lit up the day’s activity with great lead guitar, including dynamic solos and a soaring instrumental. Their sound is classic rock with faith-based lyrics. Presented on the small Café stage, this performance was close to the audience who responded with great participation. “One Life to Live (One Time Around)” provides an example of their hopeful message.

Andrew Marin, founder of the Marin Foundation whose ministry is to bridge the gap between Christianity, and Gays and Lesbians, talked of building a bridge between God and self then building a second bridge between self and those in need. This model is intended to support both the person in need, as well as, the person serving. This message again highlighted the call to all Christians to reach out and serve.

FM Static provided a rare appearance on the Edge stage to a capacity crowd. TFK (Thousand Foot Krutch) lead singer Trevor McNeven and drummer Steve Augustine founded this band with a southern Californian pop punk sound. The set list included songs from three current albums and ‘Cinnamon and Lipstick’ from their upcoming CD. Opening with ‘One Thing We Know’ and closing with ‘Crazy Mary’ and ‘Take Me as I Am’. Sanctus Real gathered a huge crowd on the Grandstand grounds. After 14 years together, the band remains true to its name, ‘Sanctus’ meaning sanctuary, ‘Real’ meaning authentic. With great narration and crowd interaction, lead singer Matt Hammitt worked effortlessly through a heart moving set including “The Face of Love”, “We Need Each Other”, and the heart rendering “Lead Me”.

TFK put a cap on this awesome day at the Edge stage. Trevor was in high spirits stoking the crowd to new levels kinetic energy between each song. In a standing room only crowd they opened with “Welcome to the Masquerade”, and plowed the road with “Move”, “Absolute”, and “Scream”. A new offering “I’m Already Gone” had the audience moving steady and lead to “Falls Apart”, and the seminal “Rawk Fist”. Another new tune “Fire It Up” fired up the audience for the encore “Puppet”. This was big time, every time - TFK!

Friday, July 9

A quieter Friday led to great times around the camp and market areas meeting old and new friends alike. The venue was mellower than the previous lay with highlights by a young female soloist in Holly Starr who will make a mark in the CCM industry with her upcoming release ‘Threads of Tapestry’.

A sparkling jewel was found when Ilia returned to Lifest at the Pit stage. I was stoked to attend, front and center of stage. This all female fronted band has recently returned after a year plus hiatus with a new lead singer / rhythm guitarist. Their five song set, four from first EP, and encore ‘The Rescue’ from the upcoming LP coming out as indie late in the year had the crowd reeling and pleading more. This was heart felt smash with a message. It had been a long, long wait for Ilia fans but worth every lost moment to witness the energy of their songs and stage performance with new tune with a sharper technical edge. Bring it back, bring it on!

As evening rolled in the key note speaker of the day, Jim Wallis, took the stage amid a few fundamentalist boos. For weeks prior to the festival, a few local Christian organizations created a stir by taking a stance against Wallis’ liberal views fearing his effect on youth. The founder of Sojourners, Wallis was not nearly as political as these organizations made him out to be. He spoke of his past service to the poor and needy, challenging all, especially youth, to serve the poor. Wallis spoke engagingly of restoring the Bible to modern society and provided the best quote of the festival in ‘Don’t go to the left, don’t go to the right, GO DEEPER (in your faith).’

The Newsboys capped the night in their new form with only the drummer from the original band and Michael Tate at the helm. I was curious and hesitant at the same time, after all, The Newsboys without Peter Furler – hmmmmm. The band was tight, Tate added a little reggae to the sound, and the visual experience was outstanding! New songs and old songs presented in medleys were excitedly received by a capacity crowd at the Grandstand stage. The set list included a few DC Talk favorites (“Be in the Light” ) and covers (“Mighty to Save”) capped by two encores, “One Shot” and “Jesus Freak”. The annual Friday night fireworks were well placed after this extravaganza. I made my way to a late night show seeing Laura Story at the Café stage. On acoustic guitar with accompaniment the song list included sincere songs of praise segmented by Laura’s very funny stories and audience connections. What a great way to end the evening.

Saturday, July 10

Stormy Saturday! Every festival has some ‘gift of weather’ and this one had a day with two huge rain falls. Not to worry, youth found a way this day with Woodstock-like glee making a 100 foot-long mudslide on a campground road. Through delays and rescheduling of bands the crowd remained unscathed as each storm’s low rolling, dark lined cloud formations came ever closer with strong winds and steady rains.

At last, Need to Breathe took the Grandstand stage to a rain soaked crowd. Despite a few sound issues the set went off without a hitch. The band is a tight southern classic rocker with the lead vocalist / guitarist also chiming in with occasional harmonica. Most of the set include songs from their latest LP including “Outsiders”, “Prisoner”, and “Something Beautiful”. The band had some fun with the weather by dragging up many rain-related songs as introductions to some of their own, “Have you Ever Seen The Rain” gave way to “Washed by the Water” and the band gave an unbelievable cover of Led Zeppelin’s “When the Levee Breaks” in its entirety. “Let Us Love” closed their set with a message for the entire festival.

Due to rain provoked rescheduling a number of headliners were playing simultaneously at the 6 stages but not one in attendance missed the evening’s finale of Skillet on the Grandstand stage. Skillet has played at each of Lifest’s twelve festivals. They began their set with the deep voiced countdown to “Hero” and continued through “Comatose”, “Awake”, “The Last Night”, “Savior”, and “Monster”. Theatrics, colored flames, and fantastic lighting abound as bassist and lead singer John Cooper provided comedic moments and crowd surging banter between songs, at one point doing an acoustic cover of ‘Jesus Freak’ before playing ‘Live Without You’. The addition of a cellist and violinist brings class to this rocker and crowd favorite. The set ended with ‘Rebirthing’ as the crowd went wild.

As the night wore on many headed for camp and an early night’s sleep after a day of heavy rain and three days of fun in the sun. I slowly packed a few items intending to get an early start home on Sunday morning but could not resist spending time in solitude at the campsite pondering the many wonderful moments of Lifest – a refreshing break in a hectic life. One of so few moments we can come closer to the Lord while taking in the quiet of the moment.

Only a few people milled about. at 1:30 AM Sunday morning. Far in the distance I heard bits and pieces of a song giving way to a jam the likes of early ‘70s Santa / Buddy Miles. As if lifted and floating to the sound, I made my way to various stages – all shutting down for the night. At the Grandstand stage under a few working lights was a band playing away at the jam with a half dozen onlookers taking in this rare site. I arrived to watch Kutless jamming at 2:00 AM in a sound check for the next day’s finale. This was truly a gift as each band member took up their solo while other filled in the rhythm making for a unique moment. The sound check wound down, the lights faded out, and I crawled into my sleeping bag with a smile on my face enjoying the quiet of the last night.

Sunday, July 11

As Sunday’s sun entered my tent I felt the sadness of another festival ending. While many stayed and new faces arrived for the Sunday services and closing by Luis Palau and Kutless, I packed up to hit the highway early. I said my goodbyes with one last peek at our campsite and the stages as I hit the road full of memories and refreshed for another year.

Despite the rain, this was again a moment captured and to be enjoyed for time to come. Warm thoughts and excitement, like a warm coal, will be fanned by the winds of memory and hints of what is to come for Lifest 2011. Refreshed by the grace of the week, I have gained traction to keep growing.

SS Mertens