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!)

Smalltown Poets – Christmas

In lieu of updating this thing 12 times with 12 different Christmas albums in a theme I like to call “Chris is starting to show OCD tendencies”, I decided to update 3 times this week with 3 different Christmas albums. They will represent the Good, the Bad, and the Twisted*, and believe me, there is nothing I’ve needed more this year than something Good in Christmas music, which is why today’s entry is about an album that I still can’t believe exists, Smalltown Poets Christmas:

I get it now! Smalltown Poets was his SLED

Why 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 (well, good ones anyway), so it’s like being visited by the ghost of Christian Rock past.

Still, the thing that finally brought them all back together after so long was making a Christmas album, so it stands to reason that it wound up being a pretty good Christmas album, right?

Yeah, try the best Christmas album ever.

Now, you may have heard from somewhere that I am decidedly NOT a fan of Christmas music. Without going back into all the nasty opinions I have about the institution (I’m saving that for tomorrow), I will re-iterate that  Christmas music has a habit of being very cheeseball and almost incoherent in the face of the rather broad cultural changes that occurred between the 50’s and today. I am almost sure that at least 3 generations grew up wondering why Jingle Bell Rock doesn’t actually rock (because that’s what they HAD for “rock” back in the 50’s).

In the glut of overdone Bing Crosby hits, hideous novelty songs, and the rank odor of popular artists “cashing in” on the holiday with their own take on Christmas, one may begin to crave, even ache for, some piece of genuine Christmas love that touches the soul and reminds us, as a TV special once did, what the true meaning of Christmas is. Luckily for you, Dear Reader, I am about to tell you about an album that does just that!

Christmas opens up with guitar feedback, which may seem unsettling, but don’t worry, they’ve got this under control. You then hear church bells (how I love church bells in music), and just as this seemingly epic song starts to swell, it all simply goes away, and in its place, a piano starts playing “The Carol of the Bells”, but immediately after that, a voice starts singing “O Come O Come Emmanuelover the tune to Carol of the Bells. It almost seems unfair that a Christmas song can be that awesome, but that floored me about this recording, and we’re not even a minute into the song.

As if that wasn’t enough, all the OTHER instruments burst into the song and give it a full rock band sound for like a second, and then mostly disappear for another verse, comes back in again, and then disappears entirely so that Michael Johnston’s amazing voice (which sounds just as good if not better than it did in 1997) takes a chorus entirely unaccompanied, then suddenly the song becomes a verse of “Come, Thou Long Expected Jesus”, which gave this old Calvinist chills.

In listening to this album, expect amazing moments like this to pop up with absolutely no warning. On top of these smooth and introspective interpretations of classic hymns, Smalltown Poets took it upon themselves to refer to other songs within the songs, and you’ll find yourself wishing that these parts were actually longer, which is surely the sign of a good recording.

Speaking of good, the second track of the album is “In The Bleak Midwinter“, which, while listening to the album without looking at the CD liner notes, I was SURE was a Smalltown Poets original, as it’s a beautiful poem contained in this heart-breaking melody, but no! It’s totally a hymn (based on a 19th century poem, no less!) from 1906! How did they find an awesome Christmas hymn that I have somehow never heard before?

Still, there is no shortage of well-known hymns given the modern rock treatment. In particular, “O Little Town Of Bethlehem” and “The First Noel” (the latter featuring a really cool drum part from Byron Goggins) are given the full rock band treatment, but certainly not to their detriment; in fact, the backing parts doing an amazing job reminding one that these old familiar melodies are actually still really strong, and nothing is going to get in their way.

I will say this, however, the backing parts and re-arrangements (many of which are credited to Danny Stephens, SP’s errant keyboardist, boy am I glad he’s back) actually help some of the hymns that I feel don’t really stand on their own otherwise. I’ve never been a big fan of “Good Christian Men Rejoice” with its traditionally bouncy 2/4 brashness, but Smalltown Poets slow it down, add some tasty Kevin Breuner guitar goodness and a cool groove from bassist Miguel DeJesus and drummer Byron Goggins, and then throw in an almost secret taste of “Silent Night” to make this song a real stand-out on the album. My heart grew 3 sizes that day.

In fact, speaking of the “Silent Night” interval, one of the most interesting things about this album is how satisfied it seems with simply reminding us of certain songs without actually playing them all the way through. “We Three Kings“, “Angels We Have Heard On High“, and others are only introduced briefly before giving way to something else. I am fascinated by this, because it seems to me that, instead of being this showcase of the band saying “Look what we can do!” by making a huge production out of every song, the album is just this kind of fluid journey through these beautiful yuletide melodies, and even without singing the words, you understand what is being said here. Then the band gets back into the full-form songs and they just become  all that much better.

Possibly my favorite hymn to receive a much-needed rearrangement is “Hark The Herald Angels Sing” (especially after Dylan’s version, yeesh). I am not kidding when I say I may have been cutting onions during the first 4 or 5 listens of this song, but the lyrics to the song are incredible, and the Poets even include my favorite verse that seems to go unnoticed in other versions, so kudos to the boys for that one.

Another great thing about this album is that there actually are original songs to be heard. They’re given almost no spotlight (and, in fact, you may mistaken them for the traditional songs like I did), but are nonetheless excellent. “On Christmas Day” is kind of a reworking of Ave Maria (which I’m not too familiar with, being Protestant, but it’s a good tune) that has some great lyrics, and the penultimate track is “His Delight“, which is a great kind of folky song that I’m still trying to wrap my head around.

Speaking of wrapping one’s head around something, there is an almost uncharacteristically bouncy track close to the middle of the album called “St. Nick Is Alright” which evokes both memories of SP’s second album (which I need to get on here soon) and The Beatles during that magical mystery era (at least at the end). It’s a sweet song, and it’s always interesting to hear a Christian group essentially singing about Santa Claus, but they handle it so gracefully that it then becomes something to ponder further, which is something I’ve almost never done with a Christmas song, much less one about St. Nick. As impressive as this album is, I am not surprised in the least to find myself hearing the songs multiple times to find some more hidden ideas and meaning, until I think of it as a Christmas album again and notice that Christmas will be over next week.

Thus, Smalltown Poets have performed what I can only describe as a Christmas Miracle; they recorded a Christmas album that I am going to sorely miss when the season is over. From beginning to end, this is a superior album by any standard, and is a bright spot in anyone’s existence, especially if they find themselves brought down by what Christmas has become thanks to modern culture, which I will get to soon enough, but for now, thank you, Smalltown Poets, for bringing Christmas its soul back.

I seriously can’t wait for these guys to record another album of originals, and if this recording is an indication, they may be able to outdo even their earliest work, which would be awesome. Until then, please check out Christmas and give it a purchase or two, and make it part of your Christmas antidote for yet another rendition of “White Christmas” or “Rudolph The Red Nose-I can’t even finish that title”. Merry Christmas, everyone!

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*Note: I never did write this third entry. There’s always Christmas 2012 I guess! 

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!