Smalltown Poets – Under The New Sun

Today we’re going to talk about Christian music!

Now that most of you are gone, I feel that, to adequately describe my thoughts on today’s album, I really should reveal a little bit of history about myself with music in general. Hopefully, even if you don’t agree with me, you’ll at least see why I consider Smalltown Poets’ new EP, Under The New Sun, one of the most important things to happen to Christian Rock music since that most excellent of years for Christian Rock Music: 1997. Read on, won’t you?

In the year 1997, I turned 15, and I am pretty sure the only music I really listened to at that point was either Classical, from a video game, or a lot of Christian Rock. On top of the obvious explanation that I actually AM a Christian, my mom used to manage a Christian book store that had a great selection of music, most of which she was responsible for stocking. Naturally, when she would get demos and pre-releases, we’d wind up with a copy at home.

Thus, not only did I get to hear all the perennial favorites like DC Talk or Newsboys, who were HUGE at the time, but also super obscure stuff that, upon writing about it on this blog, I find that I’m literally the only source for (somewhat unreliable) information.

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.

What this era in Christian music marked for me was not only a slew of original musical ideas and just generally great tunes, but it seemed like this general maturing of the genre. What The Waiting and Smalltown Poets (and some others) brought from their southern homes was a sense of poetry and meaning to these already great melodies and rhythms, and they did it with the most important element I think can be brought to music, Christian or otherwise: honesty.

Yesterday, neatly 15 years and some change since their debut album, Smalltown Poets released a recording of original music, for the first time since 2004, and the first to feature all 5 original members of the group since said debut. It’s an EP of 7 tracks, 5 of which are totally original, and a couple of which are hymns. I’d probably better talk about it!

Interestingly, the EP opens up with an instrumental track bearing the name of the album. I like this kind of move in music because it gives one the sense that this is a collection of songs that’s meant to be heard together (rare form in this age of digital singles), and this particular track is about a minute and a half of really good buildup. Indeed, the next song, “Turn Around“, benefits from having a nice buildup, since it has a rather minimalist intro that works best as a bridge between the full sound of the introduction and the awesome chorus to come. This is quality album construction, folks.

Once everything kicks in with “Turn Around”, the BPM’s are brought down ever so slightly for the mid-tempo “Charlie Brown’s Lament“, which is a stunningly catchy tune that, to me, most evokes the feel of the older SP recordings. The lyrics are definitely classic Smalltown Poets; a little moody and introspective, but also slightly cheeky and fun. I like how the references to the Peanuts world are so subtle; in fact I didn’t even think that any of it was a reference until I read the song title (I listened to the whole thing without even looking at it a couple of times, in my excitement), and once I did, it didn’t take anything away from the song, it just made the “Doctor is in” line funnier.

On another note, what a coincidence that they wrote a song in reference to Charlie Brown and I also made a reference when talking about their Christmas album. Crazy!

Still, I think that my favorite song has to be “Grace Is A Song“. From that guitar note that hits right after the downbeat, to the piano part that drives the whole thing, and especially that crazy good melody, everything sounds entirely new and unexplored. This is important, because it doesn’t make me reminisce about the Smalltown Poets of 1997 as much as it makes me really excited about the Smalltown Poets of 2012.

Bringing things back down into a slower, more echoey vibe, the Poets do a stunning arrangement of a classic hymn, “Jesus I Come“. Apart from the echoes, the song is actually fairly minimal and straightforward, with just enough flavoring to be easy to mistaken for an original tune, which I think is exactly how hymns should be covered by bands. Still, the best is yet to come in that regard…

The next song is “The Ballad of Time and Eternity“, and while it’s probably the most straightforward of the bunch as far as sound is concerned, what lies underneath is a really great allegorical poem set to music. I really recommend checking out the lyrics to this one; in fact I’m still trying to process it all myself.

The last song, and I’ve said this many times before while talking about the Christmas album, is entirely unfair.

Seriously, putting together an album to be heard by southern-raised old-school church-goers like myself and ending it on one of the best hymns ever written, “I’ll Fly Away”. Seriously, where is the justice? Pretty much as soon as I saw that, I knew I had to grab a tissue for my first few listens to this EP, and sure enough, the arrangement is tear-jerking perfect.  The song is complemented by a nice southern-style slide guitar, vocal polyphony, and a lovely beat, but the melody is left entirely, beautifully intact, ringing out those infamous words denoting the greatest sentiment that the Christian life has to offer: being totally ok with the inevitability of death and the life afterward. There’s a reason this song is one of the most recorded hymns in history, despite being relatively new (as in, 1930’s new), and no matter how many times I hear it, it gets me every time.

So yeah, calling “no fair” on that one, but obviously I love it.

As an EP, this is certainly a stand-out release, but what it represents to me is a kind of resurgence of the Christian Music that I remember. In this age of the dying record industry and artists having to kind of make their own mark in the world, I’m noticing that a lot of the best bands of a decade or two ago who went away are actually coming back! I noticed the OC Supertones had a Kickstarter up for an album, Smalltown Poets are back in business, and even though I joked about The Waiting coming back next, it totally happened too!

Thus, while it may not be as important to you as it is to me, I’m actually excited about new Christian music in a way I haven’t been since literally half my life ago, but to all of you out there who just want some really great music, Under The New Sun comes with my highest recommendation, and I think we should all look forward to the next thing!

(Yay SP are back!)