Wednesday, July 7, 2010

Jennifer Knapp - Letting Go

Letting Go

Jennifer Knapp
Grayline Records
Released May 11, 2010
Tracks: 10
Duration: 34:51

Jennifer Knapp, the Dove award winning and Grammy nominated artist, has returned after a long sabbatical with a soul searching, lay-it-out-on-the-line album. Over this time, her signature voice, lyrics, and song writing skills have matured. This album’s song collection has slid up a few notches compared to previous offerings showing greater personal expression in acoustic lead ballads and angst in edgier rockers. With a new label and recent life changes have come a new message and a new beginning.

Knapp’s newest and long awaited collection of songs ranges from heart and soul ballads of love and longing to angst-ridden hard rockers all coming straight from deep inside of the artist. It is easy to acknowledge Knapp’s personnel growth, faith and life experiences by following her music from her early indie releases ‘Wishing Well’ and ‘Circle Back’ to her hit albums, and at long last to this collection of very personalized songs. Letting Go does just that for Knapp, who in this release continues her musical journey of growth by letting go of her past and bravely entering a new world baring her soul to her audience through her art – the trade mark of every great artist in every artistic venue. These offerings clearly show the hurt and pain of an artist living with the expectations of her public and the industry / media she works in.

The opener, ‘Dive In’, is a rocker giving the listener an insight to life’s personal struggles - “I’m so tired of standing on the edge of myself, You know I’m longing for it, Dive in. You know your walls will push me over the edge, Dive in.” Rockers are well mixed with acoustic ballads such as ‘Fallen’ with lyrics of true love “Even though they say we have fallen, Doesn’t mean that I won’t do it twice, Given every second chance, I choose again to be with you tonight” and ‘On Love’ driven by strong acoustic guitar rhythm and soft lyrics. The title track ‘Letting Go’ is a strong rocker and archetypical Knapp, telling of relationships and change. The collection ends with the wonderful acoustic ballad ‘Stone to the River’.

Although Letting Go is a departure from the Christian focus of Knapp’s past, her spirituality remains embedded in these lyrics and their story. Knapp has journeyed further than most Christian artists, sharing her faith while sharing her life’s truths. A Christian artist’s genius includes their faith and their personal experiences, in this way Knapp’s life and music are similar to the late Judie Sill’s message which was baked into her songs from her personal story. Like all truly great artists, Knapp has grown, presenting in her art both her personal emotions and experiences – the mark of a truly great artist.

To the Knapp aficionado, Letting Go retains her long honed acoustic foundation while breaking away from folk rock with orchestral arrangements and adding new, raw electric rockers to the mix. Whether a song of love or pain, raw emotional lyrics are found throughout the album. Knapp’s song writing remains strong , growing with more well rounded, personally defined offerings simplistic in message despite having an overall larger sound. Although not strictly a Christian offering, Letting Go will appeal to a broader audience which is a disciple’s destination and focus. This offering is very worthy of addition to your musical library.

SS Mertens

Future of Forestry - Travel III

Travel III

Future of Forestry
Label: Credential Records
Release Date: June 29, 2010
Tracks: 6
Duration: 24:50

Hard and fast by land is the mode travel found within Travel III, the third in a series of three EP offerings by Future of Forestry. The continuation of this set is again adventurous and experimental with one-man band member Eric Owyoung moving on to new musical ground. Like the first two EPs, Travel III is at times spacious and moody, and at others light and airy. The collective sound is new and fresh with an ethereal quality. Owyoung again performs most instruments, provides vocals, production and mixing only to share the artwork with his wife. This is a work of love by a true musical artist.

Although lyrically expressive, and musically fresh and experimental the collection is very bass heavy and at times difficult to clearly understand the lyrics for both the bass and percussion. The title cut “Bold and Underlined” highlights with heavy guitar and signature percussion. Subdued vocals promote the songs story, ‘I wonder how you live, I wonder how you drive your demons away’. “Working to be Loved” does a 180 with a great acoustic guitar intro and light, lively lyrics contributing to a bouncy romp keeping the song floating along at a good pace. The melancholy “Did You Lose Yourself?” asks ‘Did you lose yourself, did you leave yourself behind, did you lose yourself, did you let your heart rewind’ with mellow synth and electonica laying its foundation. The dramatic “Protection” has great story with vocals unfortunately at times lost in heavy bass. Weighty drums, echoed vocals and low lying guitar plow the road for “Horizon Rainfall”. Finally, “Your Day’s Not Over” brings a message of hope and love with ‘Come with me, we could be lovers, there’s hope for us all, your day’s not over’.

The richness of Owyoung’s lyrics and vocals are sometimes lost in heavy bass and synth while the percussion, generally understated guitar, and soft lyrics continue to provide the signature expressive and dream-like qualities that are Future of Forestry. Travel III lacks the punch the first two offerings of the set have with high water marks “Traveler’s Song”, “Hills of Indigo Blue”, and “Holiday” but continues to give fresh, experimental sound. This EP set, like recent sets offered by Sarah Masen and Jon Foreman are must adds for your collection.

SS Mertens

Building 429 in Concert

Building 429 / MereSide West Concert
Cup ‘O Joy
Friday, June 25, 2010
Green Bay, Wisconsin

Celebrating ten years of Christian ministry nearly to the date, Building 429 gave a praise-filled performance to a capacity audience at the Cup ‘O Joy in Green Bay, Wisconsin amidst the heat and humidity of a mid-summers night. The band’s history at the Cup includes four visits beginning before the band had a contract and toured by van across the country performing to small audiences, and continues today while touring around the world to large audiences at festivals and concert halls.

MereSide West opened the night with rarely heard Christian jazz. The set opened with two covers of Ben Folds songs, closing with two original offerings. The first, an instrumental written by band leader Taylor Henzen, ‘Take Ten’ presented a great platform for two keyboards (Taylor on one and Justin Wrezinski on the second) playing off of each other. Another original, lively and rocking, ‘Steal Your Identity’ was written by Justin who performed lead vocals and keys. Alex Degener on bass and Mike Henzen on drums formed the foundation of this solid, jazz-based group.

Building 429 lead singer, Jason Roy, opened the set with lead guitarist Jesse Garcia on keys performing an acoustic rendition of ‘I Believe’ to end an impassioned plea for continued aid for Haiti. Michael Anderson on drums and a session bassist joined to kick the concert into high gear with a cover of Phil Collins’ ‘I Can Feel it in the Air Tonight’ segueing into ‘Fearless’. A calmer, softer version of ‘Coming Home’ lead to Jason’s gifted story telling and ministry, continuing with ‘End of Me’. The band punched it up a degree with ‘Glory Defined’ ending with Jason’s addition to the original lyrics “You’ll have to catch me, I’ll be gone!” Seamlessly, the band flowed directly into ‘You Carried Me’ which gave way to a darkened stage and sting arrangement opening for ‘Always’ with strong backing vocals by Garcia. The first verse of ‘Amazing Grace’ lead to a surprising cover of the Newsboys ‘I Am Free’. Hot guitar work flowed through ‘Singing Over Me’ while the pace slowed for the audience to come to its feet, joining in for the majestic ‘Oh, Happy Day’. The encore gripped the audience with ‘The Space in Between Us’ again having the audience join the band to end the evening singing ‘Nothing But the Blood of Jesus’.

Ten years have passed with a multitude of changes, ups and downs, for Building 429. My curiosity peaked for this concert after not having seen the band live for two years and only a ‘best hits’ release in the last three. Clearly the heat of the rockers with the depth and breadth of praise proves once again Building 429 is one of the most gifted, proven Christian rock bands touring today.

SS Mertens

Fjord Rowboat - Under Cover of Brightness

Under Cover of Brightness
Fjord Rowboat
Label: Roxton Records
Release date: June 15, 2010
Tracks: 10, Duration 43:29

Under Cover of Brightness, the recent release by Toronto’s ‘Fjord Rowboat’ provides a good mix of electronica laced shoegaze. A little like ‘Future of Forestry’, a little like ‘Anchors’, a lot like ‘The Clash’ on valium. Like most music of this genre, most of the songs meld together being both moody and dreamlike.

This is well written shoegaze showcasing lyrics which moderate the emotional increase shown though music. “Even You Out” is a fine example with steady vocals and increasing crescendo. “We Are on Time” takes a somber look at our world and culture with the cutting chorus,

‘We are on time, for the last reconstruction of our minds’.

Lyrical gems continue to flow with ‘The Only Ones” presenting a story of despair, accountability, and hope with,

‘Gotta take ‘em all head on before you go and loss your own, maybe we’re the only ones that still have them screwed on’.

“Cottonwood Glacier” provides master shoegaze,

‘I turned my back on hell when hell turned its back on me, I grabbed a better seat at that distant shining sea’.

“When I Speak of Violence” turns it up a notch having a life of its own as the rhythm romps along providing foundation for lyrics and guitar,

‘When I speak of violence I’m thinking of you, ‘Cause when I speak of violence you better know I’m talking to you, when I speak of silence I’m speaking of you, when I speak in silence you best know I’m talking to you’.

The album is a solid effort, this is shoegaze zone-out at its best. The more you listen the more you’ll find yourself turning back to this LP. Post-punk lives on in Under Cover of Brightness.

SS Mertens

The Road

The Road

Main Cast: Viggo Mortensen, Kodi Smit-McPhee, Robert Duvall, Charlize Theron
Director: John Hillcoat
Release Date: 12/2/2009
Street Date: 5/25/2010
Run Time: 111 minutes
Released By: Dimension Films, The Weinstein Company

Yet another recent release dealing with the apocalypse, this post-apocalyptic tale tells the story of a man (Viggo Mortensen) and son (Kodi Smit-McPhee) travelling south to the ocean while dealing with lack of food and water, protection, violence, and illness. The movie does not deal with the source of the apocalypse, but focuses on the father / son relationship while they deal with the world around them fraught with desolation and despair. The duo moves through starvation, adverse environments, cannibalistic gangs, loneliness, loss of family and community to reach their goal of a better life only to experience loss, risk, and change at movie’s climax.

Early indications of an Oscar nomination for Mortensen were erased when the film was not widely advertised and distributed. Rumors of similarities to another post-apocalyptic movie, The Book of Eli, and lack of funding / support by the studio abounded as Oscar nominations were announced without Mortensen on the ticket. For interested movie goers not within easy access to the few movie houses presenting this picture, the wait persisted until the May 25 street release date.

While not a family film (violence – cannibalism , some language) the story line defines the love inherent between a parent and child. Hope is prevalent in the story line as the father and son press on through plight after plight. The movie is generally dark and occasionally slow. Early kudos was rightfully given to Mortensen for a fine and revealing portrait of a man and parent. Greater attention should be given to Kodi Smit-McPhee, who portrays Mortensen’s son, for a believable and enduring role. Cameo appearances by Robert Duvall and Charlize Theron are spot-on but short and somewhat disconnected to the original story line.

Overall, The Road is good adult fodder showing hope and faith for those who can stomach the dark underlying current of the story. Of interest is how this film truly portrays a post-apocalyptic world without wasting valuable story line on presenting the actual apocalypse. In this light, it becomes clear how critical great acting is to pull of this type of film without adding an hour of special effects to tell the story.

SS Mertens

Hillsong Live - A Beautiful Exchange

A Beautiful Exchange

Hillsong Live
Label: Sparrow Records, Hillsong / EMI CMG
Released: June 29, 2010
Duration: 13 tracks, 75:06

A Beautiful Exchange marks the 19th worship album released by Hillsong Live. Annually, the Hillsong churches select their top worship songs for public release. This 12 song collection was recorded with the help of their Sydney, Australia congregation.

Of this collection, ‘Forever Reign’ is first radio single, with strong lyrics ‘Running to Your arms, the riches of Your love will always be enough’ supported by good percussion. The title track ‘Beautiful Exchange’ depicts the sacrifice of Jesus in exchange for our souls - 'You gave your life, what a beautiful exchange'. Of note is the song ‘Like Incense / Sometimes By Step.’ with a wonderful female vocal lead. The cracking in her voice as the audience takes over singing the first chorus couldn’t depict greater meaning in the song’s message. Midway through the song a break leads to a distant, somber lead guitar giving way to praise-backed audience vocals - very memorable as an anthem of praise.

A Beautiful Exchange nears the excitement of the ‘Passion’ worship series with understated melodies, percussion driven crescendos, and a good mix of lead vocals and audience participation. As a collection of worship-based songs, the album does drifts off, lacking collective cohesiveness.

SS Mertens

The Literary Greats - Ocean, Meet the Valley

Ocean, Meet the Valley

The Literary Greats
Label: (self-released)
Released: October, 2009
Duration 10 tracks, 34:10

With a name like ‘The Literary Greats’ you might be expecting fresh Brooklyn / Greenwich Village indie. Not so. The sophomore release of this Houston based band is a bit of post-modern country rock, a bit of loud lead guitar, and a touch of Americana / pop. In some ways I am reminded of ‘Satellite Soul’ when listening to Ocean, Meet the Valley, but without the Christian framing.

The band’s foundation is what holds the complete work together in Darin Lee’s bass and Chris Ginsbach’s percussion. Harmonies by Taylor Lee and Brandon Elam provide another highlight. The addition of Kris Becker on keyboards adds volumes to the package. But something is missing in the ebb and flow of the album. The lead guitar has a hard, protruding edge in nearly every song taking away from the overall message and emotion. At times, somber lyrics do not match up with a whaling lead guitar losing the pace of the song. Overall, the lead guitar and drums could be toned down a notch to allow the lyrics and rhythm to provide direction.

The album opens hard and fast with ‘That Mountain Yonder’ storying life’s materialistic woes. “All that I have is what I believe, you’ve got to believe, I fill my heart with things that break, I’m not OK”. The opener has good build up, breaks, and is a good rocker. The spacey country-acoustic based ‘Dreadnought’ shows some life but the remainder of the album slowly drifts in obscurity with a mix of country rock and a forgettable pop rock attempt in ‘Ocean Side’.

In The Literary Greats there lies a talented band with a fresh sound badly in need of good production. The collection of songs that is Ocean, Meet the Valley lacks collective cohesiveness with a mix of hard breaks, heavy leads, and lost lyrics.

SS Mertens