Desire Like Dynamite

As I get older, the more cognizant I am becoming of my shortcomings. Keeping up with the blog, for one. Writing music reviews, for two. I’ve tried my hand over the years at writing album reviews, but I find they are more difficult to write than book reviews. That said, this post isn’t so much a review as it is a recommendation for Sandra McCracken’s new album Desire Like Dynamite.

We saw McCracken live a couple weeks ago at a small venue in downtown Lancaster. It was just her and her acoustic guitar, playing a flexible setlist and taking requests. She introduced each song with a story about its meaning or background. There was even a receiving line after the show, where she chatted with fans as they left. We found her to be warm, humble, and likeable; we went home feeling like we had known her for a long time. She played several songs from her new album while mixing in old favorites. Overall, a very enjoyable evening out.

This simple acoustic show was different than the sound of her new album, which features a fuller sound than her previous records. But even though there are more layered sounds on this album, McCracken’s voice features prominently, with its stripped down, unflashy, folk sound. It’s a stellar album that has been garnering rave reviews.

At the concert, we learned a lot of the album’s back story. McCracken explained how she is the daughter of a biology teacher, which gave her a deep-rooted appreciation for nature. She also related how she has come to view much of the environmental rhetoric as cliched and shallow. So she wrote a deeper, more complex album that conveys her sadness for the lack of care for creation, as well as ultimate trust in God. One of her goals was to provide a more robust vocabulary of sadness (inspired by McEntyre’s Caring for Words in a Culture of Lies), which is reflected in the overall tone of the album being that of lament.

Lament themes are evident, but not in an overpowering or preachy way. Instead, they are thoughtful, passionate, and artful, much like two of her main influences for this album: Wendell Berry and the Psalms. Berry’s influence is hard to miss, especially on the songs Redbird, Gridlock, In the Garden, and the title track. The title track was inspired by the closing of Berry’s novel Jayber Crow:

I dreamed I heard the sound of the last great god bird singing
Lying in the trees I could hear the ax machines that were ringing
This is like a fable to be told, but I’d rather put it down
Will we choose the noise of our desire or the hope that makes no sound?

That said, this album is not just about the environment, nor is it a protest album. There are also prevalent notes of forgiveness, parenting and children, and longing. You may recognize McCracken’s name from her work on the Indelible Grace projects over the years, so it should not be surprising that there are biblical themes present. Biblical, but not in a way that these songs would ever be played on K-Love. In fact, several of the songs have psalm-like qualities: themes of waiting, light, lament, hope, and restoration. Glimmers of hope undergird the lament on the album, giving the lament a reason and a direction. My favorite song on the album is probably Hourglass, which is a subtle example of this hope underneath lament:

We’re tangled in the cords
Of every new invention we are begging to ignore
And I saw our home
For the first one was gone, every good thing was restored
And the sea was no more.

The album fittingly closes with In the Garden, not to be confused with the awful “hymn” of the same name. Imagery of gardens and the seasons is juxtaposed with longing for the consummation of all things and hope in the resurrection:

The winter branches, gray the landscape
Like snow, in silence we are found
Disconnected bones, dust and ashes
We will be raised, one body from the ground

Red the rose, the years like vapor
The king, the table, and the feast
We are waiting for the consummation
Until the sword is thrown into the sea.

I highly recommend this album; it is (buzzword alert!) thoughtful, honest, sincere, poetic, and *gasp* authentic. Some closing ramblings: her songwriting shows artistry and maturity, comparisons to Sara Groves on a couple songs are not far-fetched, Matthew Perryman Jones and Derek Webb make cameo appearances, and the song Sweet Amelia was written for her friends’ adoption. You can get a sampler of the album below via Noise Trade, or purchase the album here. Tour dates can be found here.

Who Will at Last His Israel Free

Indelible Grace released their sixth roman-numeraled studio album (and eighth overall) yesterday, Joy Beyond the Sorrow. It features many regular artists, including my favorites Andrew Osenga,  Sandra McCracken, Jeremy Casella, Matthew Smith, and the return of Derek Webb. Unfortunately, this is the first Indelible Grace album that Matthew Perryman Jones is not on.


My point is not to review the album, but to point you in the direction of the first track, “From the Depths of Woe.” I’ve written previously about my affinity for Psalm 130, and linked to a very early demo recording of this song in that old post. With lyrics by Martin Luther (based on Psalm 130), and vocals by Andrew Osenga and Emily Deloach, this new recording is arguably the best Indelible Grace song ever. I’m not exaggerating; it’s incredible.

You can listen to all of it in its seven minute glory here, (along with the rest of the album) and follow along with Luther’s words below. Then go buy the album, a steal at only $9.99!

From the depths of woe I raise to Thee, a voice of lamentation.
Lord, turn a gracious ear to me, and hear my supplication.
If thou iniquities dost mark, our secret sins and misdeeds dark,
O who shall stand before Thee?

To wash away the crimson stain, grace, grace alone availeth.

Our works, alas! are all in vain; in much the best life faileth.
No man can glory in Thy sight, all must alike confess Thy might,
And live alone by mercy.

Therefore my trust is in the Lord, and not in mine own merit.
On Him my soul shall rest, His word upholds my fainting spirit.
His promised mercy is my fort, my comfort, and my sweet support.
I wait for it with patience.

What though I wait the live-long night, and ’til the dawn appeareth,

My heart still trusteth in His might, it doubteth not nor feareth.
Do thus, O ye of Israel’s seed, ye of the Spirit born indeed,
And wait ’til God appeareth.

Though great our sins and sore our woes, His grace much more aboundeth.
His helping love no limit knows, our upmost need it soundeth.
Our Shepherd good and true is He, who will at last His Israel free,
From all their sin and sorrow.

Favorite albums of 2012

My two favorite albums this year so far have both come from solo artists with ties to the Indelible Grace community. Both albums are by excellent (though widely differing) song writers who take their craft seriously. Each of the albums stands or falls as a whole, as they aren’t merely a collection of songs thrown together. Both albums are passionate, well-crafted, excellently performed, and reward careful listening.

Andrew Osenga – Leonard, the Lonely Astronaut. It’s a concept album, and a great one. Osenga even went so far as to construct a spaceship studio in a storage unit, and recorded the entire album while wearing a space suit. But rest assured, there’s nothing gimmicky or fluffy on this album. The album is written from the perspective of a man who leaves earth to get away from a broken marriage, bad relationships, and from himself. The album follows his journey through space and through his inner struggles – starting with him saying “good riddance” to the world then moving into longing, regret, repentance, and wrestling with with his own failures. It closes with his hopeful return to earth as his spacecraft reenters the atmosphere on “Shooting Star.”

The trio of songs “Firstborn Son,” “It was not Good for Man to be Alone,” and “We Never Said Goodbye” form a poignant turning point of the album, and are amazing songs. Other highlights for me include the confessional “Out of Time” and the sweet “Ever and Always.” “Firstborn Son” is my favorite track, though, as it features Osenga’s songwriting at it’s best. Taking the last verse out of the context of the song (and the album) doesn’t do it justice, but it gives a glimpse into Osenga’s strong songwriting:

“I’ve worked a job since I was twelve years old / a student of the middle class of America / pull up your bootstraps, baby, you’re on your own / you are what you have and you don’t have much / the manna rained down from the sky / and I looked for explanation / Moses walked the sea bone dry in my father’s generation / and this firstborn son won’t stop asking why. / God help the man who helps himself! He needs no other devil / Give me courage now to face myself and dance as these walls crumble / torn down by the blood of a firstborn son.”

I’ve said before that listening to Osenga is like listening to a dear, old friend. His voice is strangely familiar, and his lyrics really resonate with the listener. The album was prereleased this spring, and won’t be officially released until this fall. It’s a steal for only $10 at his website. Osenga is also touring this fall, so make sure you support good music by going to see him if he’s in your area!

Matthew Perryman Jones – Land of the Living. You’ve heard me say this before, but Matthew Perryman Jones consistently releases thoughtful, well made albums. His voice is reminiscent of an early Bono (but more mature), and his music of a more intelligent, less formulaic Coldplay. I don’t hesitate to describe his new album as borderline masterpiece. Written after his father’s death, the album moves from darkness to light, despair to hope. A melancholic joy is subtly present throughout. It’s a profound album with excellent songwriting in which Jones’ well-crafted melodies match perfectly with the mood and flow of the words. Jones has a gift for capturing the human condition in the midst of grief while searching for joy.

“O Theo” is the highlight for me, inspired by Van Gogh’s letters to his brother. I view it as the fulcrum on which the album hinges, where the darkness and despair begin to turn to light and hope, even if only dimly. The closing phrase of the song hauntingly echoes Matthew 10:29-30

“I was caught in the tangles of midnight / long unanswered prayer: ‘Are you there?’ / And the light of morning rose on a field of fallen sparrows / I was longing for a home with nowhere to go.”

Speaking of haunting, the mournful/joyful “The Angels Were Singing” captures the painful tension between hope and grief, before turning to the breaking through of the light on the closing title track: “Thinking of Jesus by Lazarus’ side / a heavenly sadness and shadows of light / His eyes saw the city where all is made right / And I heard that angels were singing that night.”

This is an album that rewards multiple listens, and I highly recommend setting aside 40 minutes to just sit and listen to it. A good interview with Jones on his influences and the album can be found here.

As an aside, if you want to purchase these albums, buy from the artists’ own website, as they see more of the revenue!

Wilt thou persue thy worm to death?

John Newton, the famous slave-trader turned preacher, wrote dozens of stunning hymns, including some of our most beloved and well-known. Amazing Grace, Glorious Things of Thee are Spoken, How Sweet the Name of Jesus Sounds, and Let Us Love and Sing and Wonder are just a few of these. His best hymns rank with the most profound and beautiful poetry of the church.

More recently, Indelible Grace has done some very good reinterpretations of old hymns, including some John Newton texts. I really enjoy their fourth album, Beams of Heaven, though I typically skip the third track, “I Asked the Lord.” Recently looking up the lyrics to this hymn, I learned it was penned by John Newton. Its text stands as a stirring reminder of the grace of God in tribulations and in answering prayers for faith. It’s also quite a contrast to the faulty thinking that assumes constant health, wealth, and blessing from the Lord.

I asked the Lord that I might grow
In faith and love and every grace;
Might more of His salvation know,
And seek more earnestly His face. 

‘Twas He who taught me thus to pray,
And He I trust has answered prayer;
But it has been in such a way
As almost drove me to despair. 

I hoped that in some favored hour
At once He’d answer my request,
And by His love’s constraining power
Subdue my sins and give me rest. 

Instead of this He made me feel
The hidden evils of my heart,
And let the angry powers of Hell
Assault my soul in every part. 

Yea more with His own hand He seemed
Intent to aggravate my woe;
Crossed all the fair designs I schemed,
Cast out my feelings, laid me low. 

Lord why is this, I trembling cried,
Wilt Thou pursue thy worm to death?
“Tis in this way,” the Lord replied,
“I answer prayer for grace and faith.” 

“These inward trials I employ
From self and pride to set thee free,
And break thy schemes of earthly joy
That thou mayest seek thy all in me.”

RCVRY

If you’re a fan of Indelible Grace, you might be familiar with some of Jeremy Casella’s work. He’s a recent addition to the I.Grace community, and his songs include “Guide Me O Thou Great Jehovah” (from IV), “Cling to the Crucified (from V),” and “Hallelujah, Praise Jehovah” (from Acoustic). On a whim, I recently downloaded his 2007 solo album, RCVRY, from Noise Trade. For some reason, it’s been removed from Noise Trade, but you can stream some songs at his MySpace page. You won’t be disappointed.

The album is difficult to describe, but it’s a mixture of folk, rock, and Americana. If I had to compare the album to other artists, there are hints of newer Jars of Clay, Matthew Perryman Jones, and Belle & Sebastian in there. He is self-described on his MySpace page as “disassembled acoustic folk-tronica.” He’s a solid songwriter with passionate, poetic lyrics combined with complex music. No 7-11 choruses or three-chord diddies here. I’m not positive, but I think Matthew Perryman Jones is featured on “Distress Signal.” My favorite tracks so far are two you can listen to on MySpace: “The Space Between Living & Dying” and “Hypocrisy 785.” The moving title track has up some of my favorite lyrics on the album:

Put your sorrows in the ground
All the broken pieces wrapped up in shadows of places and people you’ve known
Weeping shapes and sounds all strung together like a crown
Lead a heart out of stone with a melody making you new

A Prayer for the Broken Hearted

Here are the lyrics to Chelsey Scott’s beautifully haunting “A Prayer for the Broken Hearted” from the new Indelible Grace acoustic album. The words are an adaptation of an old Puritan prayer (from the Valley of Vision).

No day in my life has past
That hasn’t proved me guilty;
Prayers are uttered too fast
From a heart that’s cold and empty.

Oh blessed Jesus,
May we find a covert in Thy wounds;
Though our sins, they rise to meet us,
How they fall next to the merits of you.

Oh, all in me calls for this,
It calls for my rejection;
This heavy unrighteousness,
Oh, is there no protection?

My best services are rags;
My best deeds are filthy.

Grant me hear Thy shoring voice,
That in Thy wounds is pardon;
Grant me see Thy willing choice
To make my hard heart softened.

Keep the broken-hearted sure,
Clinging to Thy cross, our cure.

Oh blessed Jesus,
May we find a covert in Thy wounds;
Though our sins, they rise to meet us,
How they fall next to the merits of you.

By Thy Mercy: Indelible Grace Acoustic

As evidenced by my frequent posts about them, I am a big Indelible Grace fan. Indelible Grace (IG) is a community of musicians based in Nashville who strives to “help the church recover the tradition of putting old hymns to new music for each generation, and to enrich our worship with a huge view of God and His indelible grace.”

IG recently released their sixth album, By Thy Mercy. Each successive album shows more musical and lyrical growth, and this album is no different, as it is a completely different album from their previous efforts in a number of ways. First, By Thy Mercy is IG’s first intentionally all-acoustic album, which allows the musicians to focus even more on the great old hymn lyrics.

Acoustic music, in my opinion, is less forgiving and necessitates more intricacy, and as such needs to be executed more precisely. The musicians succeed in producing a polished (but not too polished), rich sound that exhibits tight musicianship and solid songwriting. Highlights in this regard include Jason Feller’s “Jesus Lord We Look To Thee” and Matthew Smith’s title track.

IG goes in some new directions lyrically as well. On their previous five albums, they would stick to old hymn texts. But with this effort, they include two non-hymns: Chelsey Scott’s “A Prayer for the Broken Hearted” and Matthew Perryman Jones’ “Rock of Ages When the Day Seems Long.” Scott’s song is an adaptation from an old Puritan prayer from the Valley of Vision, which makes for excellent lyrics matched with perfect accompanying music. Jones’ song is a new text written by Sandra McCracken in the style of old hymns (included on her Builder and the Architect; music by Kevin Twit). Jones is consistently my favorite IG artist, and his style is a perfect fit for this song.

The last new concept on this album that I noticed is the inclusion of horns. On a couple of the songs (A Prayer for the Broken Hearted, Hallelujah Praise Jehovah), there is a subtle but powerful inclusion of brass, which I strongly approve of.

It’s also encouraging to see another Psalm text included, something that has been missing since Matthew Perryman Jones’ “Psalm 73” on IG’s second album. “Hallelujah Praise Jehovah” is an excellent reworking of Psalm 148. Here’s to hoping future IG albums include more Psalms!

My favorite song so far is “A Prayer for the Broken Hearted.” One of the main reasons is the powerful Puritan prayer, which I’ll probably post sometime in the near future. But the song is masterfully written and performed, which surprises me because I’ve never been a huge fan of Chelsey Scott’s style. But she shines on this song, and it’s been on repeat several times already.

A couple more passing observations: “Salvation to the Lamb” doesn’t seem to fit the rest of the album, as its music is reminiscent of IG’s first album, but not coherent with the sixth. The two “bonus tracks” are remixes of two older IG hymns: “Arise My Soul Arise” and “O Love That Will Not Let Me Go.” While I enjoy these songs, and can understand why they may have included them (to stimulate interest in older IG albums/hymns?), I don’t think they will excite old Indelible Grace followers very much.

In conclusion, I love By Thy Mercy, and recommend it to all old or new Indelible Grace fans. It includes all the familiar IG artists (Jones, Matthew Smith, Andrew Osenga, Sandra McCracken, etc.) while moving the group to a richer sound. They lyrics of each song form a coherent whole of sincere prayer and God’s gracious replies. I’d love it if they continued down the acoustic path.