Monday, February 23, 2015

Uncountable Stars - Joanne Hogg


Wrestling towards rest and the wonder of the Kingfisher

Uncountable Stars
Artist: Joanne Hogg (www.joannehogg.com)
Label: Independent
Duration: 13 tracks/51:40 minutes

Inspiration from the created order is immediately evident on Uncountable Stars by Joanne Hogg. Turquoise, turquoise everywhere! “A blaze of turquoise, between the greens/and the browns/All hidden from the sky.” The cover has an artful depiction of the Kingfisher in flight, fish in beak and turquoise all over its tiny frame. A part of its glorious wingspan is shown on the back cover. A kaleidoscope image adorns the CD label. Alternating pages in the CD booklet have a turquoise background. This wondrous winged creature even has a song named after it.

“Kingfisher” captures the sentiment of someone reveling in the beauty of nature. “And here I lie/The meadow grasses swaying over my head.” It’s a picture of the rest of faith, a ceasing from striving and enjoying all that God has made. A pastor once said that joy is a mark of maturity. Being able to enjoy inward rest is also characteristic of growth in grace.

This particular track introduces a new element in Hogg’s sound—a muted trumpet, also heard on “Lay Down,” a song that takes its inspiration from Psalm 23. Here and throughout Hogg distinguishes herself from Iona, the progressive Celtic rock powerhouse that she fronts. I like Iona and Hogg’s previous solo work, but this sounds a little different, which appeals to me. It’s the sound of Hogg branching out, exploring some new arrangements and themes.

“Mountain of Debris” is an intriguing example. I’ve repeatedly listened to gain greater understanding of the intended meaning. It begins with Hogg surveying the life forms (including human) that are sustained by a massive garbage heap. She asks, “Do you see mercy, do you see love/Why don’t you come closer and take a look.” Is she seeing God’s goodness and kindness in a situation where many might be tempted to turn away? “There’s something there for everyone, from the greatest to the least.” She comes to see it as an opportunity to express mercy, “God, won’t You send Your angels to clean up such a mess/You say … Come with me, roll your sleeves up/and we’ll heal the brokenness.”

Even though many of these tracks encourage and convey trust in God, Hogg continues wrestling on “River of Tears.” It could describe so many of the war-torn areas in our world. “And so the children learn/The history of the fight/Who to love and hate/Each believing they are right.” In the midst of her heartache Hogg asks, “How can I come to you and rest/When all the world’s in such a mess.” Even without an answer, she feels her burden lifting, her fears dissipating, as God washes her in the river of her tears.

Glimpses of Hogg’s mystical side are heard on “Come Away,” adopted from the Song of Solomon and “My True Love,” which is in the same vein. These somewhat meandering keyboard ballads may not satisfy those who prefer a more structured rhythm and a complementary beat. There is, however, a richness that can inspire toward greater intimacy with God. It’s the Song set to music.

I relish the guitar strumming and earthy sound of “Rest.” It reminds me of the simple but sublimely organic sounds of The Band. It also may be the closest thing to a Celtic sound.

The words “uncountable stars” come from “Out Here,” written by Carole McGlashan. Much of the inspiration comes from the glorious outdoors. The chorus transitions into a gorgeous musical interlude of a familiar lullaby. I will keep the title a surprise for the benefit of those who may purchase this release.  

Frank Van Essen of Iona on violin leads the way in this segment. Van Essen on violin and viola and Gwyneth Reid on cello play on a number of tracks and it’s always beautiful.

Even though some of Hogg’s previous work may initially be more accessible, I might prefer this for its depth. It rewards repeated and careful listening. 
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