Friday, April 26, 2013

Old Light: Songs from my Childhood & Other Gone Worlds - Rayna Gellert

The influence of memory on songs old and new

Old Light: Songs from my Childhood & Other Gone Worlds
Artist: Rayna Gellert (
Label: StorySound Records
Length: 41:01 minutes

When it comes to murder ballads, I am traversing unfamiliar territory. Sad songs are a different matter. Songs like “Eleanor Rigby” have always resonated. Old Light contains a little of both, which is a reflection of Rayna Gellert’s childhood.

But this is more than just five traditional songs made new. There are five original songs, which touch on the theme of memory.

“The Platform,” caught my attention as I thought of it in terms of someone describing what it feels like to experience Alzheimer’s and/or dementia. The first person account makes it unique: “My writings in the margins/Of all these books that I’ve read/How could all those ideas just fall out of my head.” Original songs like this one have a poetic imagery that is more accessible to me than the traditional ones.

Even so, the craftsmanship on all the songs is a thing of beauty. The gorgeous instrumentation, including the occasional melancholy pedal steel, and the picking of stringed instruments, led by Nathan Salsburg, give this a rustic and rural feel that is ever so welcome.

Salsburg also serves with Gellert as an arranger on every track. This is a wonderful collaboration.

Listening to this CD reminded me of George Harrison’s fondness for The Band. It had something to do with the timeless quality and the organic sound of their songs. Their songs sounded old. Old Light feels even more stripped-down and authentic. The new songs sound old, and the old songs have a newness. Each one is expertly performed. A couple of murder ballads are appropriately ominous.

As faulty as memory may be, I have it on good authority that Gellert is a past performer with Uncle Earl. She is an established fiddle player, but here she makes modest use of that talent, choosing to let the arrangements dictate the instruments.

Her background includes gospel songs, and though this includes a few spiritual references, it would be a treat to hear this group of musicians work their magic on some old hymns.

Saturday, April 20, 2013

Michael Card - A Violent Grace: Meeting Christ at the Cross (Book & CD)

Inspiring meditations on the cross of Christ for any time of the year

A Violent Grace: Meeting Christ at the Cross (Book & CD)
Author & Artist: Michael Card
Publisher: IVP Books ( & Covenant Artists
Length: 182 pages & 16 tracks/60.08 minutes

Whenever my reading takes me to the crucifixion account, I sense that it will add a wonderful solemnity to my life. I have no fear of it making me morbid. Rather, I imagine it making me more fit for the daily grind. It puts my trials in perspective. As the author of Hebrews writes, “In your struggle against sin you have not yet resisted to the point of shedding your blood” (Heb. 12:4 ESV).

The different glimpses that I get of Christ’s sufferings make A Violent Grace possibly my favorite of Michael Card’s books. Each of the 21 brief chapters focuses on a different aspect of what Christ accomplished through the cross. Each thought on the subject sets up a contrast, beginning with He was born to die, so I could be born to new life.

If you are familiar with Card’s music, you know that his songs are informed by insights gleaned from Scripture. It’s no different with his books. It’s the little details, background information and insightful reflections that make this rewarding.

Reading one chapter a day, I finished the last one on Easter morning, which was entirely appropriate. I want to quickly add, this is worth reading any time of the year, regardless of where we are in the church calendar. Being in touch with these momentous events throughout our days will help us to live in light of them.

Card’s closing thoughts in the last chapter confirm and echo an application made by mature Christians:

Jesus dies a slave’s death on the cross, not so He could somehow ‘lord it over’ His disciples. He suffered to serve. He endured the humiliation because that is what servants do (180).

Obeying. Suffering. Serving. Christ left us an example to follow. A watching world will note this kind of life more than one that asserts itself, finds self-fulfillment, or attains that which is highly esteemed by our culture.

This book is the product of an ongoing relationship with IVP Books, which started with a commentary series on the gospels that is still in process. With every commentary, and with this book, Card has produced a companion CD of music reflecting the book’s theme. The book and CD are separate purchases.

I was surprised to discover that A Violent Grace CD is a live recording. I imagined Card reworking a number of his songs on the cross in the studio. This does include a number of Card’s past songs, but here they have a timeless quality because the only accompaniment is Card on piano (occasionally guitar) a choir and strings. I see the wisdom of letting lyric and melody be heard in a pristine setting. There’s no production that will date this anytime soon.   

This resurrects such Card classics as “Know by the Scars,” “Why,” “This Must be the Lamb,” and “Love Crucified Arose.” This also includes the hymn “O Sacred Head” as well as some new material.

Each track is meticulously arranged and performed with the attention to detail characteristic of Card. The depth in the lyrics and softer sounds make this ideal for considering again what Christ did in dying and rising from the grave.

The subject matter along with the beauty and excellence might provide solace for those who are afflicted. I find the “Death of a Son,” a mournful lament that includes cello, strangely comforting. Christ’s agony gives meaning to our own suffering. As much pain as we might experience, Christ’s triumph means that it is not the end. Suffering and death do not have the last word.

Love crucified arose
And the grave became a place of hope
For the heart that sin and sorrow broke
Is beating once again

Michael Dalton

Monday, April 15, 2013

Shake Heaven - Montell Jordan and Victory World Music

Multi-cultural worship at its finest

Shake Heaven
Artist: Montell Jordan and Victory World Music
Label: Victory World Music (
Length: CD (13 tracks/66.17 minutes) & DVD (18 tracks/100 minutes plus bonus tracks)

A variety of music styles enrich this worship experience. In particular, this makes me appreciate the influence of African Americans. Here it takes the form of distinctly urban sounds, smooth R&B and hip-hop. It is especially evident on the opening songs led by Montell Jordan.

This applies to the CD and DVD, which vary in performers, content and song order. The CD contains studio versions of the tracks found on the concert DVD. In addition, the DVD includes introductions, a dramatic testimony, an interview with Montell Jordan and additional songs not found on the CD.

The DVD is the main feature, offering a more immersive experience. The Shake Heaven CD was previously released separately.

The concert, which was recorded on 11/11/11, also reveals a charismatic influence. Jordan announces that someone in the audience will be healed and encourages everyone to be expectant. It also includes an impassioned prayer on “Usable” and a spoken word segment extolling the wonder of a holiness that makes us whole. Jordan makes it clear that this is more than a concert; it’s a sincere desire to worship God in everything, and this succeeds admirably.

There is hardly a misstep. The performances and production are nearly flawless. This may not get as much attention as more popular releases by other artists, but the quality here is as good or better. The variety makes this unique. This ranges from the aforementioned African American influence to pop, rock, folk and even classical.

It’s also great to see different races performing together, each contributing to the whole, including Rachel Lampa, who makes a couple of guest appearances on the DVD. It makes me want to see the inclusion of other cultural influences. Native American immediately comes to mind, but no need to stop there.

Perhaps the peak of this performance is “You Are” featuring Chris August on the studio version and Christian Lewis on the DVD. The latter’s performance is especially electrifying. The winsome rhythm and creative lyrics extol what it means to be in relationship with God. It’s the ultimate feel-good song, but it’s not inward-looking. Like all of these wonderful expressions, the gaze is on God.    

Thursday, April 4, 2013

VeggieTales: The Little House that Stood (The Parable of the Wise and Foolish Builders) DVD

What can compete with a trio of well-dressed pigs and a narrator that sounds like a famous actor?

VeggieTales: The Little House that Stood (The Parable of the Wise and Foolish Builders) DVD
Length: Approximately 49 minutes

Something similar to Once Upon a Time, the hit TV show, takes place on the latest VeggieTales DVD. Fairy tale characters are creatively imagined in new ways and settings. Larry the cucumber (dressed in ginger bread) meets Mother Goose. Bob the tomato becomes Humpty Dumpty. The cast of VeggieTales take on the role of storybook characters.

They do so to illustrate two parables: one from Matthew 7:24-27 (the wise and foolish builders) and Luke 10:27-37 (the Good Samaritan). Hopefully, this alleviates any concern that in a mad dash to bring fairy tales to life, VeggieTales has lost their Sunday morning values. Grace and truth win! Plus you get a healthy dose of humor. Unusual characters and stories are just the means to get the attention of little ones (and the young in heart).   

In the main feature, the Three Little Pigs, looking and sounding like high-rolling hipsters, come to Cabbageville looking to build houses. Even the narrator, who sounds like actor Billy Crystal, has suave sophistication. It all leads to the question: will the pigs be taken in by appearances, or will each of them make a wise choice when it comes to selecting a builder? There are three builders, but only one who knows the importance of a strong foundation. This is an excellent adaptation of the story told by Jesus.

The Good Egg of Gooseville, also included, is full of witty rhymes, lots of fairy tale characters and takes aim at being selfish and uncaring. The importance of sharing and being helpful are clear, making this more of an application than a retelling of the parable of the Good Samaritan.

It made me think more of Proverbs 18:1, “Whoever isolates himself seeks his own desire, he breaks out against all sound judgment” (ESV). The mayor of Gooseville, Humpty, played by Bob, just wants to be left alone. He doesn’t want to be bothered with the problems of Little Bo Peep, Old Mother Hubbard and Jack Be Nimble (a role made for Larry). You could say he is headed for a fall. As a better known proverb puts it: “Pride goes before destruction, and a haughty spirit before a fall” (Proverbs 16:18 ESV). When Humpty finally escapes to his dream vacation, it turns out to be as hollow as the life he has lived. This has its moments, even if does not quite live up to the main attraction. What can compete with a trio of well-dressed pigs and a narrator that sounds like a famous actor?

In between the two episodes is a new silly song, “Happy Tooth Day!”

This is worth having for The Little House that Stood, which is classic VeggieTales. The many storybook characters that inhabit The Good Egg of Gooseville, make it an appropriate fit with the former. Together they help viewers discover that vegetables can make you smile, even laugh. I’m glad someone imagined  waltzing with potatoes.

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