SPECIAL MESSAGE FROM AUTHOR: Tomorrow is my 27th birthday, which apparently only happens once in your life (corresponding age and day of the month your birthday lands on), so it’s going to be pretty special. I know we’ve been friends for a while, so I feel no shame in asking you for something. More than anything, for my birthday, I don’t want to have to decide on an album to write, so please comment here or on any other entry the name of an album you’d like to see in lights. If no requests are made (let’s face it, this blog ain’t that popular), I am going to write about the absolute worst album I can think of at that time. Thanks in advance!
Ok, now that it’s Autumn and I’m starting to “feel” the more morose side of music, let’s talk about one of my top 10 favorite albums of all time, ever:
To understand why I love this album so much, one must understand a little bit about how I “grew into” this style of music. For one, kind of like how I wouldn’t watch anything “serious” or “not animated” when I was a little kid, I refused to listen to anything set to a minor key when I listened to music (unless it was classical). The reason is quite simple, I just liked the brighter side of things, and since my musical experience up to that point was pretty much Classical, Blues (which is usually major key), and Newsboys, there wasn’t anything The Smashing Pumpkins or Nirvana or any other “alternative” band could do at that point to please me (my Smashing Pumpkins appreciation wouldn’t manifest until almost 10 years later).
This album came out when I was 13 years old, and though I intially hated it (“You can’t even understand what the guy is saying!”), it became the album that would break me, and open me up to the other 50% of most musical scales.
How did they do it? Well, Poor Old Lu had something that other bands didn’t have, and to this day, I’m not too sure what it was, but I identified the hell with it. Maybe it was just timing, but the first time I heard “Rail” in a good set of headphones, I was hooked on this gloomy rock stuff forever. This, despite being the “final” album before their brief reunion in the album The Waiting Room, this was the first album I heard from the band and would become the basis for how I judged every other “alternative” act, even to this day.
The album, even compared to the already bleak Sin, was dark… very dark, in fact. The band’s songwriter, Scott Hunter, I feel had grown into a more consistent songwriter, and the band really seemed to have this general feeling that they didn’t have to write to be popular because they just weren’t going to be a “popular” group. Hence, the pressure was all but gone to put out a “bankable” product (not that they were ever too concerned with that), so they just let the emotion shine through. And there’s a lot of emotion to be conveyed here.
Unique to Poor Old Lu’s sound, as always, is Scott’s raspy-yet-not-metal voice, which is in top form here. Also to be noted is the stunning production by now-deceased Christian Rock pioneer Gene Eugene (a name you see often in the “good” C. Rock albums, including a few I have already written about like Kosmos Express’ Simulcast) and Aaron Sprinkle, who himself really seemed to find that winning combination of subtle tones and ways to accentuate musicality that made him the in-demand producer he is today. The album sounds gorgeous, is what I’m saying, and that’s not a phrase I use often because it’s kind of gay.
The whole thing starts with “Rail”, the band’s first official foray into songs over 7 minutes long. Its long intro is one of those “perfect” buildups to a mid-tempo rock-out. For what seems like the first time, there are a multitude of guitars layered over each other for this song, but not in that reviled “Wall Of Sound” kind of way, I mean there are anywhere from 2 to 5 guitars all playing different riffs utilizing various tones that kind of sounds like if all the types of guitars you could throw into a grunge-shaped alternative sound all got together and…. uh… played a bunch of notes (we’re keeping it family friendly here at Album Du Jour).
The lyrics to the song set the tone just right. Eschewing a multitude of words for a few simple, yet powerful, lines of spiritual longing, Scott breathes out the following words:
Jesus, tie these hands
I used to think that everything I touched turned gold
But it don’t, it turns cold
And reason guides this man
Like Spring to Fall, and wind and sand
I sway, I sway, I can not stand
What do I do, when I relate to Judas more than you?
And I can’t ever… I can’t ever see the end
Jesus, help me see
It’s not about consequence, it’s peace
And I won’t seek, I won’t seek on my own knees
And Grace is over me
It’s true, I feel, I know it’s real
But will I live what I believe?
I absolutely love those words, and you may remember how I said that, as a Christian songwriter, you can write the worst dirge of all time as long as you have the redemptive last lines? I kind of love that this song turns it right back around into doubting and lets it hang there. Indeed, we’re dealing with some pretty strong stuff here.
After the equally long and powerful play-out (with a clean guitar riff that sends chills down this young reader’s spine), the first “rocker” of the album takes center stage. The song is called “Receive” and it follows along the theme of the first song, dealing with depression, specifically speaking to a youngster, seemingly anyway. Lines like “Made a crown, for the pain, and it falls on your mind like so much rain” and “Check your name, check your head, I’ve heard more joy from some… someone dead” gives way to a chorus that is simply “Receive”. In the storm of fast-moving chords and an awesome beat from Lu’s amazing drummer Jesse Sprinkle, the bridge is one of my favorite parts, featuring Scott growling out the lines “Too close, too far, too insane”.
Indeed, even on an album as dark as these songs have been building up to, it’s good to take a bit of a break, and in fact “A Better Me” is just that. Lyrically, it’s not such a pepper-upper, but the chords are in a major key, with a bubbly guitar effect (either a flanger or fast-set phase shifter) hiding in the background, and a very interesting bridge. The band, particularly Scott Hunter, have gotten down on the song before, but I quite like it. It seems to present an idea that there is a lot that can be accomplished in this world, but not all of it is particularly beneficial for spiritual growth.
Then it’s back to the (more) depressing stuff, and what can be more depressing than a title like “What If Uncle Ben Had Lived?” Of course, one may then realize the titular Uncle Ben is from the Spiderman ethos and in fact this song’s title was taken from a graphic novel of the same name. Still, the song itself is no joking matter. Featuring acoustic guitar played over a droning organ (out of tune with each other, which bugs me but in a way that seems necessary), the song is slow and intentionally trashy sounding. The distorted guitar, run through some kind of oscillating effect, is so distorted that the tones are barely recognizable, which conveys exactly that feeling that something is wrong. Then we hear the lyrics:
Reaching for a star
With my eyes dead on the floor
Racing all the time
My soul can’t take much more
Touch the silent man
Who made himself so low
The breeze is too much for me anymore
(I’ve seen this in people who are weak)
And if I push the blade in deep
Will in break inside of me
In me, in me, in me…
Wow, you may be thinking. Indeed, such a song seems quite hopeless (and is, in fact, the first of *two* songs that refer to suicide), and the simple “Touch the silent man” lines are finished in thought at the very end of the song:
Touch the silent man
Who made himself so low
Make yourself as small
Just He, and I, and all…
Another song that the band seems to get down on is “Joy I Had Was Joy I Sold”, mainly because it was rush-written, in the studio, and kind of just cobbled together out of a few chord changes and some interesting rhythm ideas. I have to say, despite this suspect process of putting together a song, it still stands above about 90% of other alternative rock songs. Just sayin’.
Still, the very first song I ever heard from Poor Old Lu, “Chance For The Chancers”, was also written entirely in the studio. However, unlike “Joy I Had”, this track is one of those songs that just stays with you forever. It is, in fact, one of my absolute favorite songs ever made. It starts with a simple guitar melody in a nice 6/8 time signature, that then switches to 4/4 for the actual song portions. The song is one of those 4-chord “alternative” progressions, but it does everything so right that it’s hard to fault for such behavior. The song is lyrically a plead to someone who is too wrapped up in despair to realize that “Everything is gonna be ok”, and I defy anyone to try and recreate the vocal melody, because it’s deceptively difficult. Indeed, the band really outdid themselves on this particular song with its beat changes and overall “haunting” feel (as described by singer Scott), they couldn’t possibly do any better, right?
Actually, what follows is what I, in any amount of “objective criticism” I can lay claim to, consider to be the best song written in Christian Rock. That’s really saying something since it never even directly refers to God. It’s another song that starts in 6/8, only it stays there this time. The chord progression follows a downward spiral from Am to its 5th, as any good gloomy song should, and it features one of the best guitar solos in the Lu catalog in the bridge, not so much because it’s a technically amazing solo, but because it is the second most despair-ridden thing in this song. The first, of course, are the lyrics:
Choices cloud my head again
Wrapped up in myself instead
And if I fall this time, will it be the last time
For this crime
And anger has more of my soul
Than I ever wished it would hold
And as I let it go, and watch how it grows
It won’t fold
Do I love this world?
Can I breathe beyond here?
The message that is conveyed is one of standing in the same place, in a rut, which is where the despair kind of gets to you. The “as I let it go and watch how it grows” line is referring to sin and how letting it go can cause it to grow, like a weed, and you can see where it’s going from there:
Flowers have grown round my eyes and ears
The soil it soaks all my tears
How I’m tired of standing here
And I’m sick of that heat that’s so near
And if we’re all right
And if we cannot be wrong
Then we needn’t fear
We’re almost there
Like I’m depressed and I hold a gun
Once again, following in the same theme, we see not only depression and torpor, but actual suicidal thoughts (second of 2 scheduled appearances of such in the album). The “If we’re all right” lines are a an amazingly bold statement regarding the attitude that being Christian is enough to be “all right”, like if you’re “saved” then nothing can touch you. The song clearly disagrees:
It’s all the same
Just falling rain
All the more the reason to stay
What is the scene
It’s brown and green
The weeds that grow around my feet
The chorus above is sung once after the second pre-chorus, and again after the solo, but then the most important part of the song brings it home, a repetition of the line above:
And if we’re all right
And if we cannot be wrong
Then we needn’t fear
We’re almost there
Which, isolated at the end of the song, uses the exact same words that, earlier, conveyed a sense of dread, now seem to be hopeful. Indeed, no matter how bad it gets, “We’re almost there”, but only “If we cannot be wrong”, and thus is presented the very core of Christianity: absolute faith constantly racked with guilt and doubt. For that reason, this song kind of represents the song that best gets it right. The scholars may disagree, but I feel pretty strongly about it, which might explain why this writeup is now over 2200 words with no sign of slowing.
Either way, it’s about time for a fun song. Sure, “Enough” may be in a minor key, but the psuedo-circusy organ blats that form the backbone of the song along with the staccato guitar chords make it at least interesting enough to avoid being gloomy. The bass-line that is layed over the thing, which doesn’t follow the rhythm the way a bass should, is something I strongly approve of. It really makes the song. The words are good, the melody is good, but the bridge is great, and in fact it should be, they’ve used it before. Yes, this is the song that shares the bridge with “Never Said” from Star Studded Super Step, and due to that, is typically joined-at-the-hip with it in live shows. The bridge also features a neat trick involving a rubber rat toy, a lot of delay, and a lot of reverb which kind of has to be heard to be appreciated.
Finally, however, it’s time to close this mother down. First off is one of the very few overt “relationship” songs in Lu’s discography, “Hello Sunny Weather”, which of course is an ironic title. It’s about the pains of growing up and trying to be in a relationship that is growing more and more difficult, I guess. I actually can’t really tell what the song’s about, but it utilizes the great love-song chord progression in a way that really turns itself on its ear. I approve, though this has proven one of the less popular Lu tunes to people who have heard this album and lived to tell me about it.
Finally, we have the aptly-named “Closing Down”. The song is built around those late-night frustrations with life when one can’t sleep because the next day is never going to be better than the last. The song’s ultimate message is to pray, and indeed that’s Poor Old Lu’s calling card with these kinds of songs. The main draw to this song is that it has this amazing crescendo of 3 chords and a cadence that just builds up and builds up until it, well, kind of fades out. Really, a great way to end the album, it leaves you about as sad as it found you, I suppose.
Even now, almost 14 years after first hearing the album, I still get excited to hear it, and count it among the very rare Christian albums that are just good enough to be heard by dirty heathens or just anybody who likes dreary music and has had enough of The Cure (which the Lu boys admit were a major influence on their sound at this point).
Sure the guys broke up pretty quickly after this album was released (perhaps a bit of irony was that they did so right before the beginning of 1997, which was otherwise a very good year for Christian alternative music), and maybe this album isn’t any better than Sin or The Waiting Room, but it still had enough of a profound impact on my own music appreciation to warrant this extra-long entry. After all, if it weren’t for these guys, I might not have opened my mind to the variety of styles and sounds out there, and this blog either wouldn’t exist or would be dedicated to all the bands I listened to before which, trust me, you don’t want to hear about.
Filed under: Albums | Tagged: 1996, 90's, Poor Old Lu | 6 Comments »