Smalltown Poets – Smalltown Poets

Whew, sorry if yesterday’s entry was a little abstract for the norm, Basically I wasn’t prepared mentally and physically to write an entry about a 20-song album, especially when I love each and every lovin’ song on it, so I decided to just fill out my time with a few key notes here and there and a whole lot of weirdness in between. Welcome to my writing the way it was 10 years ago!

Today I am not only very pressed for time (meeting up with a new group, it’s hard to be spread across 8 musical acts, I tells ya), but the $4 extension cord that connects my very short $500 headphones to my 10,000 song Zune has called it quits, so it’s time for a trip to Wal*Mart for another weekly weak cable, but not before writing a quick writeup about an album I am very familiar with just from memory:

Georgia is for squares, yeah I said itWhy yes, it’s another great Christian Rock album from the year 1997 (I wasn’t kidding when I said that was a good year for God-rock). This one took me a little while to warm up to, mostly because my sister liked it before I did and she tended to hate it when I liked stuff she liked, one of the quirks of growing up in close proximity I guess. Either way, once I did like it, I really liked it, and once I was able to get out of the house, I went and saw them twice in the DFW area, and both times were pretty fun. I’ve talked to these guys and they are nice as can be, and they’re apparently hiatus now, but their 8-odd years together produced some interesting works, this being the most interesting among them.

For one, I have yet to hear an album by any artist in any genre that is this smooth. Tonally, everything works. From the soft keyboard chords held at the beginning of the first song, to the clean electric guitars, to the upper-range bass work, to the soft cadence of the drums (even when they rock out the drums are still very delicately handled), and finally, to wall-eyed lead singer Michael Johnston’s incredibly smooth and beautiful voice going from a soft tenor to a loud but still smooth tenor, this album is therapeutic in how tightly produced it is, at least until the last few songs.

The other strong point about all this is the lyrics. It is no mark of pretension that the band should call themselves Smalltown Poets, as the songwriting team (I think it’s mainly the lead singer and keyboardist Danny Stephens but I’ll have to dig out the CD itself to verify those facts and yeah no time) is one of the best in the Christian music game, and as you know about me, I only listen to Christian music if I consider the lyrics to be well-thought-out and even profound at times.

The real strength of the songwriting ranges from clever to heart-felt, where you’ve got pop songs with whimsical word-play and imagery that blend into straight-forward emotionally honest praise songs that sound like they could be played right in the middle of church (and probably are in some churches).

One of the examples of whimsical and interesting imagery is in the first song, “Prophet, Priest, And King” which goes:

Put down my thoughts
In a letter to the President
Penciled and packaged with all due respect
Elvis commemorative just for effect
Never heard back, think you know a guy

Which, of course, represents a common man’s inability to be thought of or even detected by the higher-ups in the world, which brings us to the point of the chorus:

But my closet’s a shrine to an old friend of mine
Here I talk all the time with a prophet, priest…

Which is a very fancy way of conveying a quite simple message. I can’t help but respect it.

Skip ahead a few songs, another “clever” song I dig is the psuedo-rockin’ “Everything I Hate” where the singer condemns his tendency to be pulled in different directions:

I think I am elastic
These arms they are a wonder
They pull from sideways, up, and under

And regrets the fact that “I’m into everything I hate/ my spirit is not fooled, my members take the bait”, and it’s overall a very fun song, particularly the bass-lines. Another song that falls along the same line, but with much more severity, is much further in the album, called “Monkey’s Paw”, which is a play on the old story of the monkey’s paw that grants wishes. It ends with a crazy profound note:

I held the monkey’s paw today
Put my wishes into play
Thanked Heaven for my trophies
But I still had Hell to pay
So I brought my spoils to the altar’s edge
Heard You say “Obey instead”
For all of my labors and best-laid plans
Have only earned a reprimand
Forevermore to understand
That dreams come true can kill a man
If never graced by sovereign hands
I held the monkey’s paw

The album is also, like I said, broken up into some very humble praise songs. It’s fitting that the band should be called Smalltown Poets, not only because they’re from Duluth, Georgia, but because they have such a small view of themselves, which is always good to convey if you’re trying to convey these types of messages.

A good example is the song “I’ll Give”, which is basically a really laid-back and smooth song where the chorus is simply “I’ll give, I’ll hold nothing”. Another example is in the song “Trust”, which is the tune that could be canonized in any hymnal and not be detected as a pop song:

Eat this bread
Drink this cup
Know this price has pardoned you
From all that’s hardened you
But it’s going to take some trust

And really, there are a lot of songs on this album that I adore, not only because I like the words and the positive/humble message, but because I simply love tagging along with the singer’s amazing tenor high-notes. I’ll be the first to admit that they, along with Radiohead, are probably the only reason I can sing with any confidence.

The only track I would take anything away from would be the final track, “Inside The Bubble”, which is actually a good enough song within its own metaphor, but the whole imagery of a bubble is dangerously close to the old mostly-true stereotype of Christians who live in their own little world outside of the world. I don’t tend to agree with that type of thinking/living, because I think as humans we’re meant to be with other humans, no matter what we think or believe, and seperating ourselves is much like seperating yourself from germs, you just don’t develop the kind of resistance against maladies that your body naturally builds up, so if you’re inside your protective bubble, the first germ that gets through is going to put you on your death bed. It’s kind of like Johnny Cash has said before of people who believe in that sort of isolationism, “You’re so Heavenly minded, you’re no Earthly good”. Of course, Smalltown Poets aren’t conveying this message at all with this song, they’re more conveying a message of serenity and independence of earthly worries that comes along with a faithful life, and indeed the chorus rings true:

What’s it like inside the bubble?
Say the souls who’d like to try
Cut your tether, come and join me
We can sail across the sky

So yes, tomorrow I will bring a fresh, thoughtful insight into some other more relatable genre, but until then I’ve got video game tunes to learn. Ta!

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4 Responses

  1. The only reason I seemed to “stop” liking things that you liked was because whenever you started liking stuff I liked, you’d start playing them — to death. You weren’t the great musician you are now, back then, and you’d have to go through some really wrong/rough spots to get at a decent copy of the song. That just got on my nerves after a while, especially when you would follow me from room to room serenading me :p

    All that to say, that I love this band, particularly this album, always have, and probably always will 🙂

  2. […] with “Liquid”. They had a lot of help on the song, as it was partially written by Smalltown Poets‘ talented bassist, Miguel DeJesus, and the song was produced by none other than 80’s […]

  3. […] would a Smalltown Poets album about Christmas be such a surprise? Well, as I might have mentioned before, the band has been on hiatus for 7 years. That’s longer than I’ve even been in bands […]

  4. […] Looking back at that time, as I’ve said before, 1997 was a VERY good year for Christian music. While most of my favorite albums that came out that year have been long forgotten, it was a great year for original music that didn’t just seem like the Christian Rock alternative of Alternative Rock, you know? Two particular releases really set that year in the stone of my mind, both of which were put out by the once-great Forefront Records: The Waiting’s self-titled debut, and Smalltown Poets’ self-titled debut. […]

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