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