Sarah Hart- Above Earth’s Lamentation

Sarah Hart has long been one of my absolute favorite singer-songwriters.  She is one of Catholic music’s most talented artists and she has been a songwriter for some of contemporary Christian music’s biggest hits (eg. Amy Grant’s “Better Than a Hallelujah”).  Her honest lyrics, country-influenced musical style and her beautifully delicate vocals serve the songs well on her latest offering, as the songs talk about deep sorrow and the ability to still see and reach out to God in spite of the pain.  “Above Earth’s Lamentation” starts beautifully with “How Can I keep from Singing.” The songs “Praying  With a Broken Heart” and “Better Things” sings to the heart of anyone who needs a song that comforts without downplaying the pain that comes with loss.  The Christian music scene has often been accused of being all sugar and spice, but Hart’s album shows that there are artists who are creating relevant art that speaks to all the harsh realities that strike even devout believers.

Sarah graciously agreed to answer some questions and I am delighted to share them with my readers.  Please also check out Sarah’s new album by clicking here for iTunes or here for a physical copy of the CD.

Dave:  Your new album is about sorrow.  It seems like the past two years for you have been particularly painful.  It is interesting that you haven’t disclosed the particular events that caused you so much suffering.  Was this so that the songs could impact a broader audience by not giving your grief a context for the listener?

Sarah:  In part, but also because some of these things are still too close, too hard to talk about.  I guess it’s also true that art is also best observed through the lens of newness… so it seems unnecessary to “explain” the songs or how they came to be always. To let the listener perceive what they will, how they will, is a welcome thing.

Dave:  It seems that many artists seem to want to avoid hard questions about their faith in the current contemporary Christian music scene.  Do you feel that the industry needs to explore the fullness of the Christian spiritual journey, with all its bumps and bruises?

Sarah: I do. I also, however, think there are a LOT of artists out there doing just that. You may never hear them over the airwaves, but they are doing great things, exploring meaningful subject matter with honesty and poetry. Worth seeking out!

Dave:  It seems like there is new openness to Catholic artists, such as Matt Maher and Audrey Assad, because they seem to bring a dimension to the lyrics which our Evangelical brethren are often missing.  For example, the Sacraments, the concept of suffering and the role of the Saints.  How do Catholic artists continue to foster this?

Sarah:  I think the best way to foster it is not to bring attention to it; but rather, just to do it. Writers who are Catholic will write from that perspective; and some who are not Catholic will respond to it for whatever reason. Writing needs only to be honest, and people will be attracted to it.

Dave:  There seems to be a real crisis within the music industry, both secular and Christian, with the listening audience more and more expecting their music to be free and accessible through downloads.  How do you survive as an independent artist, one of the few who seem to be making a comfortable living doing what they love?

Sarah:  WOW! Big question…I survive personally by being on the road a lot, being open and willing to write for things that may be outside of my comfort zone, and being open to work in new mediums and in new ways. I also survive simply because I am compelled to do music; I can’t help myself. Even if I made little to no living, I still think I would do it. But let’s hope that is NOT where we are headed in general!

Dave:  I consider you to be a mentor to many Catholic artists, although perhaps reluctantly so as I know how humble you are.  What would you say to the new generation of musicians who want to make their mark on the world for Christ?  There is no longer the vast support network there once was when Christian music was so popular.

Sarah:  HONESTY. That is the only word today’s young writers and musicians need to know. Be true to yourself. There’s nothing worse than hearing something contrived, or something that is trying too hard to be like everything else out there. Be true to your vision; read, think, pray, agonize over lyrics. But for heavens sake, keep honesty at the forefront.

Reviews: for King & Country, Audio Adrenaline, Skillet

for King & Country- Crave
When I went to Kingdom Bound, one of the few remaining large Christian music festivals still standing, I was wowed by the live performance of this band, originally hailing from Australia.  For King & Country is simply one of the best new acts in Christian music to come around in years. Joel and Luke Smallbone, brothers of Christian music superstar Rebecca St. James, absolutely enthral with their superb vocals, particularly when they hit their ethereal falsettos.  The arrangements of these incredibly catchy songs are awesome, with piano driven pop layered below beautiful orchestration.  From the opening track, “Light it Up”, to the huge hit “The Proof of Your Love”, to the most heartfelt ballad heard in years on a Christian album, “Love’s to Blame”, there is not a weak track in the bunch.  Lyrically, this band has managed to stay clear of cliches and display depth not normally found on a debut album. Highly recommended.  In fact, go out now, grab the album and support this promising young act.

Audio Adrenaline- Kings and Queens
When lead vocalist, Mark Stuart, had to retire from Audio Adrenaline six years ago, Christian music had apparently lost one of its biggest drawing acts.  In a surprising move, however, this band has come back with former dc Talk lead vocalist, Kevin Max, to release the comeback album of the year.  The album kicks off with “He moves You move”, which shows that this new rendition of the band has a sound that is more dc Talk than Audio Adrenaline., with a big anthemic sound, clean keyboard-driven arrangements and a pleasing pop-rock presentation.  “Kings & Queens” and “King of the Comebacks” shows that this band is capable of creating hugely radio-friendly songs, a hallmark of this band’s past achievements.  Kevin Max is singing as well as ever, with “Change My Name” featuring a stellar vocal delivery.   It seems a bit odd hearing familiar dc Talk voices now fronting both this band and the Newsboys.  Regardless, this is an album worth getting for sure.

Skillet-Rise
Skillet is one of my favorite bands and this album is probably one of the most anticipated in 2013.  The title track, “Rise”, is also the first cut and roars out with their typical intense rock sound and gritty lead vocals of John Cooper, offset by Jen Ledger’s sweet female vocals.  This is apparently a concept album about a teen growing into adult and it manifests itself here with an eerie use of a children’s choir and disturbing inter-song ear candy.  The album has a bit more of a synthesized rather than orchestral feel overlaying the hard rock, which means only a few songs like “Not Gonna Die” will evoke the sound of previous albums. This creates almost an 80s feel to some of the songs. Some of this works and some doesn’t.   Lyrically, this album is weaker than previous albums, and the David Lee Roth-esque  “My Religion” is actually an unnecessary attack on organized religion as well.  Overall, I was hoping for more from one of my favorite bands.

The State of Worship Music

Christian music has switched almost entirely into praise and worship mode.  The charts are dominated by artists such as Chris Tomlin, Matt Redman and Hillsong United with virtually every other artist releasing at least one album in this genre.  That being said, this reviewer is finding that some of these stalwarts are struggling to bring novelty into this mature style of music.  It is at this crucial time that Catholic artists such as Matt Maher and Chris Bray are joining the fray.

Chris Tomlin- Burning lights

Chris Tomlin is probably the most successful worship artist ever.  This album debuted at the no. 1 spot on the Billboard charts, only the fourth time ever for a Christian artist.    This is the praise and worship artist that everyone emulates.  On this album, however, one senses a shift in direction.  The song  “Awake My Soul”   features a rap-reading bridge with LeCrae.  It is definitely different and seems to indicate a desire to shake things up. Lyrically, the album goes above the norm for praise and worship, and songs like “Sovereign” are as good as any song that Tomlin has written.  However, most of the songs are still in the style expected by Tomlin fans; repeatable, hook-laden and familiar.   There are some weak songs in “God’s Great Dance Floor” and “White Flag” which are about, yes, dancing for God and surrendering to God.  This album is indicative of the crossroads now reached in worship music.   With so many similar sounding artists, everyone is trying to break out of the common mould.   Tomlin is to be commended for making such an effort.

Matt Maher- All the People said Amen (Live)

Matt Maher is the Catholic artist that has made the greatest inroads ever into the Christian music scene.  He is definitely one of the genre’s most popular artist.   This album is a greatest hits compilation to some extent, with a mix of new studio songs and live rendition of all his favorites.  The live cuts really show his abilities as a worship leader.  Drawing from Catholicism, the depth of lyrics in “Adoration (Tantum Ergo)” and “Great Things” (which is essentially the Magnificat) are very unusual for worship songs.  Popular hits like “Your Grace is Enough” actually find new life in a live setting.  The new studio recordings, such as “All the People Said Amen,” will continue Maher’s rise in the Christian music world.  This is a great example of the direction where worship music should be going.

Chris Bray- Beloved Child of God

Here is another Catholic artist who is gaining traction on Canadian Christian radio.  This album reunites Bray with producer Andrew Horrocks and should continue Bray’s increasing presence on Canadian Christian radio.  The title track is a great and catchy, with a feel of country mixed with some Mumford and Sons.  Other highlights are “I surrender all,” with guest vocals by Kate Adams, and “You Claim Me”.   There is a great deal of promise from Bray’s latest release, with his smooth comforting vocal delivery and relaxed pop sound.  Chris is one of the few Catholics who does music ministry full time, and deserves our support and prayers.  This album will definitely appeal to worship music fans.

Hillsong United- Zion

Hillsong United (as well as all the other variations offered by this group) have often been accused of creating a formulaic worship sound (live, big arena, U2-ish) with predictable lyrics.  This album, however, surprises in that it has a much different sound.  Part of the reason is that this is a studio effort.  If I were to use an analogy, I would say this is more Peter Gabriel than U2 in its feel and sound, most particularly felt in the song “Stay and Wait”.   The first song, “Relentless” has a great hook, with lyrics that are less worship then usual.  On “Oceans”,  there is atmospheric and dreamlike imagery used that is similar to the Divine Mercy prayer.   The later songs drift back into a more typical Hillsong sound  but, overall, this is definitely my favorite Hillsong United release.

Phillips, Craig & Dean- Breathe in

With the worship trend in Christian music, many bands are continuing to jump on the bandwagon.  This group is one of the most established in the industry, with twelve albums and over a decade under their belt.  However, delivering a solid worship album is not easy. as this effort demonstrates.  This release essentially tries to sound like all the other worship albums out there.  Several songs feature the formulaic background vocals made popular by secular artists like Phillip Phillips  in songs like “Home”.  The lyrics here have little depth and feel contrived. Given the history of this great band, I have to admit that I am quite disappointed.

New Music for Spring 2013

In many parts of Canada and the USA, it seems like winter doesn’t want to loosen its grip. The Christian music industry has been in similar doldrums, with very few new interesting releases. Here are two new releases to knock the snow off the roof and hopefully welcome in a new springtime for the industry.

Red- Perfect Life
The moment the first track from this album, “Release the Panic,” hit my speakers, I knew I was in for a treat. The intensity of this and other similar tracks like “Damage”, alternating between a screamo growl and melodic vocals, will appeal to anyone who loves their spiritual message with an edge. The title track shows that the band can rock with smooth vocal chops equally effectively. Interesting loops makes songs like “Die for You” equally at home in the mosh pit and the dance floor. Lyrics have a positive slant but are not explicitly Christian, making this accessible to youth who may not be in sync with a more in-your-face message. The overall theme of the songs is the state of the soul without Christ. “Hold Me Now”, however, shows that the band can also write a heartfelt ballad and it is one of the stronger tracks on the album. Consider Thousand Foot krutch mixed with Family Force Five and ignited with a touch of Anberlin, and that pretty much sums up this excellent release. This is poised to be one of the top hard rock releases for 2013

Colton Dixon- A Messenger
Colton Dixon first came into the public eye by being an American Idol finalist. There was no doubt of his Christian upbringing in the choice of several explicitly Christian songs on the show. This is his first release and it is solid. The lead cut “Noise” is a great rocker, showing off Dixon’s distinctive vocals. Much of the album has lush arrangements and a clean vocal approach painted over top of a solid hard rock rhythm. A great example of this is a highlight of the album, “Love Has Come for Me”. There is some very nice piano on some of the cuts, which is Dixon’s instrument of choice. “I’ll Be the Light” and “You Are” are both great ballads with very direct spiritual lyrics. Stylistically, the album could use a bit more variation but, for a debut album, it is a tremondously promising release. I look forward to hearing more from Colton Dixon.

Boycott Christless Christmas Playlists!

I cannot believe it.  A local radio station, 103.9 More FM, from London, Ontario in Canada, has switched to a “All Christmas, All the Time”. format.  However, they have pretty much excluded any songs that have direct mention of the reason for the season, Jesus.  Over the course of the past few weeks, it has become clear that this station is trying to eradicate the religious aspects of the holiday season from their playlist.  Think I am exaggerating?  Here is a sample of a recent playlist.  Forty songs and not ONE song that mentions Christ.

Christmas Playlist without Christ

What is worrisome is that this is a trend heard more and more across North America.  Now, this is a free country and if this station and Corus Entertainment, the monster conglomerate that controls these stations, wants to eliminate Christ from Christmas, they are free to do that.    However, Christians are also free to boycott these stations.  We need to take a stand or else we will soon find ourselves with a sanitized secular C—tmas on the airwaves.  Just like a local mall that tried to remove a Nativity Scene that had traditionally been a part of their holiday display, public pressure can force change.

How can you help?  Check out the playlists of your local radio stations (most have them on their websites).  Send an email to any such radio station and their owners, expressing your displeasure.  Spread this message by sending to anyone who loves the real reason for Christmas.  If you are in any store during the holidays that is playing Christless Christmas radio stations, ask the store to change the station, or you will shop elsewhere.

It is time to drawn a line in the snow.  There is nothing wrong with Santa, Rudolph and Frosty.  However, in my opinion, removing my Saviour from this Christian celebration should get you a lump of coal, a red nose and a very cold shoulder.

Great new Christmas music for 2012

Long time readers of my blog know that I love Christmas music.  Imagine my excitement when a local rock radio station went to an all-Christmas format in late-November.  However, this turned quickly to disappointment when I realized that the station had pretty much taken  Christ out of the songs that they are playing.   There is little mention of the reason for the season.  In its place are harmless secular messages with its focus on Santa and commercialism, but there are also even a number of songs with an anti-religious slant.  It is a terrible way to deflate the holiday spirit and to leave a distinct hollowness to this wonderful time of year.  To help remedy this, here are some CDs to provide an antidote and that put the Christ back in Christmas.

Steven Curtis Chapman- Joy

Steven Curtis Chapman, like Amy Grant, is one of the Christian artists I turn to most when I want to listen to great Christmas music.  This is his third seasonal album and it matches the excellence of his previous efforts.  The most impressive aspect of this album is again the wonderful original compositions.   Stylistically, this is still country but with a sparkle of jazz.   “Christmas Card” is a simple song which reminds us that Jesus is with us, regardless of how sad we might be during this time of year.  “Christmas Kiss” is absolutely sweet and would be a winner on secular radio.   “Christmas Time Again” is infectious and will bring a smile to even the most jaded holiday shoppers.  “I Am Joseph (God is with us)”  reminds us of all the major characters in the Christmas story.   The covers of the standards all have originality, such as the melody changes found in “Joy to the World” which help bring freshness to a familiar classic.  Highly recommended.

Francesca Battistelli- Christmas

One of the most Christian music’s most popular female vocalist delivers here in a big way.  Her distinctive pop vocals and great new compositions makes this CD one to look for.  The originals include “Christmas Dreams”, a ballad that is lush and gorgeous, as well as “Christmas Is”, which has a youthful sass that is simply infectious.   Francesca Battistelli does a fine job on the jazzier outings, such as “The Christmas Song” and “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas.”  There is a sense of fun in “Marshmellow World” with its 60′s rock sensibilities.  The highlight of the album, though,  is  “You’re Here“, a song penned by this young artist that takes the point of view of an adoring Mary holding the baby Jesus.  This is one of the best Christmas CDs I have heard this year.

Jeremy Camp- Christmas: God with Us

Jeremy Camp is a worship artist with gritty vocals that has garnered him a huge following.  He brings this intensity into these carols in a way that is quite pleasing.   This is a back-to basics acoustic rock sound featuring heart-felt singing and fine guitar work.  “O come O come Emmanuel” and “Hark the Herald Angels Sing” are  highlights in that these versions are as good as any I have ever heard.  “Jingle Bell Rock” is also given a nice reworking.  Nothing fancy here.  Just great enjoyable Christmas music.

Scotty McCreery- Christmas with

This American Idol winner won over the nation with his deep country voice and his charming personality.  This album is at its best when it is similarly fun and playful.   You can almost see his disarming smile  on cuts like  “Let it Snow“,  “Santa Claus is back in town”, “Jingle Bells” and “Holly Jolly Christmas”.   The ballads, although well-sung,  are not as strong, perhaps betraying the youth of the artist.  A song like  “Christmas in Heaven” is more effective when sung from a heart that has been often broken.   Nonetheless, very good effort from a new artist.

Starfield – Songs for Christmas Vol 1

This EP is from one of Canada’s most celebrated rock bands.  For the most part, this is pretty standard fair.   “Angels We Have Heard on High” and “Go tell it on the mountain” are nice catchy versions.   Not a bad effort but nothing too innovative and new to add to the holiday repertoire.

Rock with an edge from P.O.D. and Anberlin

Christians have a bad habit of trying to find secular artists who may be Christian in order to place them on a pedestal.  Artists such as U2, Sufjan Stevens, and now Mumford & Sons have all been held up as secular artists who may be Christian.   These fans try to grasp at any clues in the lyrics to find inklings of Christian influence, as if that would validate that artist of being worthy of a Christian’s adulation.   This often leads to disappointment when the artist, either in their interviews , lyrics or lifestyle, display behaviour that is scandalous to the scrupulous listener.

In my opinion, this is a banal way to appreciate art.  One should listen to music simply because it speaks to the heart and soul.  In fact,  great art should mean different things to different people.  There are glimpses of the truth everywhere and even the most profane artist can create a gem worthy of admiration.

This tendency to want to idolize applies even to Christian artists.  Examples include Michael English and Amy Grant, who have fallen off their pedastals in various ways.  Some, like Evanescence and Katy Perry, even started in Christian music but abruptly abandoned their fans in very unsavory ways.

At the end of the day, we need to place our trust in Jesus and not in whether or not some individual is a bona-fide card-carrying Christian.  This is even more relevant in the hard-edged music being reviewed this month from P.O.D. and Anberlin, where the former has strained their relationship with their Christian fans with some choice profanities in their lyrics and the latter have lyrics that seem to be quite ambigous with respect to God, drugs and sex.

Payable on Death (P.O.D.)- Murdered Love

P.O.D. has arguably been one of the most successful Christian hard rock bands ever.  Their albums, “Satellite (1999)” and “Fundamental Elements of Southtown (2001)”, are considered to be huge artistic and secular successes.  After some tumultuous lineup changes, the band is now back with the members and producer that created these classic albums.  This is great news as P.O.D. has always been one of my favorite bands, combining nu metal and rap-core, spiced with reggae.  This album is definitely a return to form and include guest performances from several secular bands, such as Cypress Tree.  “Murdered Love” and “Babylon the Murderer” are as good as anything the band has ever released.  “Lost in Forever” and “Beautiful” display maturity in both melody and lyric, dealing with the afterlife and with suicide.    Musically, the best song on the album is “I am”, a song sung from the perspective of a sinner who is questioning God.  However, this is the song that will challenge many Christian listeners, with several “F-bombs” throughout.   There are a few disappointments, like the bizarre “West Coast Rock Steady” but overall, this is a great return to form for P.O.D.

Anberlin-Vital

A review of this band is long overdue and this is a great place to start. In short, this is one of the best albums of the year.  On this release, Anberlin combines their alternative rock with some of the smoothest and melodic vocals I have heard in a long time.  The album starts with the intense “Self Starter” and “Little Tyrants”.  The album really hits its stride in the”Other Side,” with its 80′s meets modern rock feel.   “Someone Anyone” builds on this with its anti-war message.  The best tracks, though, are the songs “Desires”, “Type Three” and “Orpheus” which  adds to the previous songs some very creative drumming.  The song “God, Drugs & Sex” will raise some eyebrows but Anberlin has never advertised itself as a Christian band.  If you are looking for pointed spiritual lyrics, you won’t find it here.  If you love great music with a positive message, this could be the album of the year for you.