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Wednesday, November 20, 2013

Jars of Clay -- The Long Fall Back to Earth

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Where Jars of Clay's Good Monsters dealt with the macro of the biggest issues in life, The Long Fall Back to Earth deals with the micro realm of relationships. The former deals with man's relation to the universe and the Almighty, but The Long Fall Back to Earth deals with our relationships with each other. Jars of Clay incorporate more of an electronic, slight 80's flavor into their sound while doing their usual stellar job of holding on to their own identity. The good news is that the band further the level of excellence they reached with the preceding album. The bad news is that if you like bad music, you won't find any here.
Actually, I don't have much more to say. Jars of Clay, at this point in their career, are at the top of the songwriting chain. In any genre of music they attempt, they find wild success. Remember the last Coldplay album? Coldplay tried and mostly failed to successfully blend their sound with quirky electronics. Jars of Clay attempted the same thing on The Long Fall Back to Earth, and was wildly successful...two years before that Coldplay album was even released. "Scenic Route" essentially does everything Coldplay tried to do on that album in one song, except it's excellent.

Maybe that's just because Dan Haseltine is a far better lyricist than Chris Martin. The unique perspectives he finds song to song from people yearning for connection with others strike gold again and again. Maybe Jars of Clay are just a far more talented band than Coldplay. Why am I still talking about Coldplay? Jars of Clay are one of the best, and certainly one of the more underrated bands on the planet today. If you miss out on the work they've released in the last decade, you are doing yourself a disservice. You can't say you haven't been told.

2009 Gray Matters/Essential Records
1. The Long Fall 2:19
2. Weapons 3:28
3. Two Hands 4:26
4. Heaven 3:18
5. Closer 3:56
6. Safe to Land 4:47
7. Headphones 4:54
8. Don't Stop 3:44
9. Boys (Lesson One) 4:01
10. Hero 4:52
11. Scenic Route 5:41
12. There Might Be a Light 3:56
13. Forgive Me 3:53
14. Heart 5:50

Monday, November 18, 2013

Jars of Clay -- Good Monsters

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If you want to skip the decade of experimentation Jars of Clay went through between releasing their first album, and absolutely perfecting their craft, you can go straight to Good Monsters. You shouldn't do that, because you would be missing out on several very good albums, but Good Monsterssees the band reaching the rare mountaintop of "great band."
Where to start describing it, though?
Good Monsters mixes together every sound Jars of Clay have ever explored with a wash of something new. The result is something the band had to refer to as "our first rock record" simply because they couldn't say, "Our first record that blows everything else our peers are recording out of the water." All this to say, you could tag this with a genre, "rock,"indie-rock," "rock with a sometimes gospel flavor," but you wouldn't be doing the album justice. Good Monsters is something altogether new, and this is Jars of Clay.
The album begins with "Work," perhaps the most conventional song, and a great jumping off point. The song combines a driving beat and fun sense of urgency with the power the band has wielded since its infancy. Also, the video.

"Work"'s chorus line, "I don't want to be alone," nicely sums up the themes of the album. This is the human condition in a nutshell. These first songs show a bit of a Police influence (the band did tour with Sting in the late 90's), which is kind of ironic, as track seven, "Oh My God," works as a direct response to that band's song of the same name. Also, "Oh My God" is one of the best songs any band have ever recorded, if not just simply the best song ever recorded. Yes, I just typed that, and considering it's been a long time since I first heard the song, and I still feel that way, I have to be correct, and you have to agree. If that line I highlighted from the first song is the human condition in a nutshell, "Oh My God" is the human condition in six soul-wrenching minutes.

The final line, "this is our greatest offense," has a double-meaning that opens up a million possibilities, and the fact that this song makes even early favorites like "World's Apart" nearly seem pedestrian is a miracle. The song is incredible, and as a centerpiece to an album, you can't ask for better. The following song, "Surprise," begins with the opening line "Shoot a dream in your arm, and sleep away," which only serves to make "Oh My God," even more powerful. That's how an album is supposed to work, and Good Monsters is an incredible achievement. It takes the band's exploration of their Christian faith to a depth and complexity no other band is even touching upon, and places it atop the most creative and enjoyable mix of music the band have composed to date. This album and this band should be consistently going platinum instead of just being spoken of with awe and hushed tones by dorky bloggers. It's time for Jars of Clay to get their due.

2006 Essential Records
1. Work 3:53
2. Dead Man (Carry Me) 3:20
3. All My Tears 3:45
4. Even Angels Cry 4:22
5. There Is a River 3:51
6. Good Monsters 4:05
7. Oh My God 6:06
8. Surprise 3:50
9. Take Me Higher 4:40
10. Mirrors & Smoke 3:58
11. Light Gives Heat 4:42
12. Water Under The Bridge 3:58

Friday, November 15, 2013

Jars of Clay -- Redemption Songs

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While it may not have sold a million copies, Jars of Clay's fifth album, Who We Are Instead, was quite well received. The band decided to explore the sound and themes of that album even further by taking the next logical step: releasing an album entirely composed of re-envisioned hymns. However, Jars of Clay are wise enough not to attempt to breathe new life into these songs--they understand they have to let these songs breathe new life into them.
The joy the band is experiencing by simply playing these songs is infectious and powerful. Nothing here sounds like it was written hundreds of years ago, yet the collection feels ancient all the same. Redemption Songs takes the gospel and country flavors of Who We Are Instead and infuses into them a touch of what, in 2005, would have been called "indie quirk." In other words, there's a twinkle and a bounce to these songs that sets the collection apart from other Jars of Clay albums. Though it is a natural progression from its predecessor, Redemption Songs continues the tradition of no Jars of Clay album sounding like another. Going back to the second sentence in this paragraph, despite the constant hops in genre, there's an underlying timeless identity to every Jars of Clay release, and Redemption Songs is no different. And let us not forget how powerful this band can sound.

2005 Essential
1. God Be Merciful to Me (Psalm 51) 4:31
2. I Need Thee Every Hour 3:47
3. God Will Lift Up Your Head 4:22
4. I'll Fly Away (featuring Sarah Kelly) 4:42
5. Nothing But the Blood (featuring The Blind Boys of Alabama) 4:13
6. Let Us Love and Sing and Wonder 4:23
7. O Come and Mourn With Me Awhile (featuring Martin Smith) 4:04
8. Hiding Place 4:06
9. Jesus, I Lift My Eyes 3:28
10. It Is Well With My Soul 3:54
11. On Jordan's Stormy Banks I Stand (featuring The Blind Boys of Alabama) 4:32
12. Thou Lovely Source of True Delight 4:31
13. They'll Know We Are Christians By Our Love 3:02

Monday, November 11, 2013

Jars of Clay -- Who We Are Instead

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As several great bands have done for their fifth album, Jars of Clay looked west. Who We Are Instead incorporates a country-gospel feel into the band's sound. But just as U2 sounds only like U2 on The Joshua Tree, Who We Are Instead sounds only like Jars of Clay. This isn't a country album, this is a Jars of Clay album with alt-country flavors.
Jars also decided to take a page from the humble themes of Johnny Cash, who's work inspired much of this album. Who We Are Instead wrestles with grace, throughout, in a meditative,thoughtful, and sometimes difficult fashion.
The song, "Jealous Kind," does so most explicitly
"Trying to jump away from rock that keeps on spreading/For solace in the shift of the sinking sand/I'd rather feel the pain all too familar/than be broken by a lover I don't understand." If you aren't following my U2 logic, this song is Jars of Clay's "I Still Haven't Found What I'm Looking For."
Who We Are Instead is also a lot of fun. All that pedal steel isn't there to depress--there's as much foot-stomping as contemplation. The only flaw is the inclusion of Jars of Clay's cover of "Lonely People." I'm a big fan of America's original, and I even like Jars of Clay's interpretation. It just doesn't fit on the album, and as track three, it takes a little bit away from Who We Are Instead's building momentum. Without that minor gaff, Who We Are Instead is a near perfect album from a bunch of desert-walking Southerners, working out their salvation in fear and trembling. Or if you're not into that, from a bunch of talented, smart dudes who harness emotion really well. Either way, it's brilliant.

2003 Essential Records
1. Sunny Days 3:30
2. Amazing Grace (featuring Ashley Cleveland) 5:18
3. Lonely People (America cover) 2:45
4. Only Alive 4:04
5. Trouble Is 3:50
6. Faith Enough 5:24
7. Show You Love 3:33
8. Lesser Things 4:36
9. I'm In The Way 2:33
10. Jesus Blood Never Failed Me Yet (Gavin Bryars cover) 3:39
11. Jealous Kind (featuring Ashley Cleveland) 4:10
12. Sing 4:11
13. My Heavenly 3:29

Wednesday, November 06, 2013

Jars of Clay -- The Eleventh Hour

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It's safe to say I might never completely understand the way I feel about Jars of Clay's third album, If I Left the Zoo. I don't hate it, but it's very far from my favorite. Compared to the rest of the band's work, it is a little short on power. There aren't many moments on If I Left the Zoo that come close to the power of a "World's Apart" or a "Frail." Also, with the band attempting to explore new directions, If I Left the Zoo is short on focus, as well. Fourth album, The Eleventh Hour, rectifies these problems. That sentence was meant to be serious, but rectify just sounds too much like rectum.
The Eleventh Hour has a clear focus musically and lyrically. Soundwise, The Eleventh Hour explores an expansive, Euro-rock style. Does that make any sense? The songs sound big, the drums go back and and forth between...
Crap. Here's the problem I always have promoting Jars of Clay:
No one wants to listen to the band's work past their debut. Obviously, that was a great album, and none of the rest of their work sounds like it, but Jars of Clay got out from under the weight of it, and anyone who appreciates good music needs to do the same.
The Eleventh Hour doesn't sound like the self-titled album. It uses electric guitars much more, and the bottom end is far more driving and rockish, and far less hip-hop sounding than the debut's. The songs focus on "need" as the centerpiece, and lead single "I Need You" spells out the theme. "I Need You" is a very simple song with the chorus simply those words repeated as nearly a mantra. The simplicity actually becomes mystical, and the song takes on a power the band would prove they could wield for the next decade, and possibly for the next ten years and the next until they are just a bunch of superhuman skeletons, holding guitars.

If you didn't like that, I'm going to review six more albums by this band, and they all sound different. I'm not going to bring up their debut again, and I am just going to act like Jars of Clay are the great band they are.
Showing great depth, the song immediately after "I Need You" is "Silence," which follows the cry of "I need You" with the question "Where are you?" It's a difficult song, but if you've been through anything, you can empathize. Bringing up the rear, the title track maturely explores the idea of "need" to its conclusion, with a dogged hope and resolve that is tear-inducing if you have feelings. If you do have feelings but can't get into the band's faith, someone made a video for the song with the Doctor as Jesus, and Amy as the attractive ginger you pretend to be in the mirror when no one is around. Since I enjoy Jesus, Doctor Who, and Jars of Clay, this video gets triple points. This review also gets triple points for using the words "rectum," "crap," "bottom, and "rear."

I'm gonna go redeem those points right now and get a sandwich. What, did you think I was gonna say fish fingers and custard?

2002 Essential
1. Disappear 3:56
2. Something Beautiful 3:46
3. Revolution 3:42
4. Fly 3:20
5. I Need You 3:40
6. Silence 5:17
7. Scarlet 3:32
8. Whatever She Wants 3:43
9. The Eleventh Hour 4:27
10. These Ordinary Days 3:04
11. The Edge of Water 3:54

Monday, November 04, 2013

Jars of Clay -- If I Left the Zoo

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Man, I haaated this album when it was first released! If I Left the Zoo is the point where a lot of people deserted the Jars of Clay bandwagon. Those who did ended up missing the seven excellent albums that followed, but I can't really blame them for leaving. I almost did myself. Thankfully, I'm stubborn, and I don't quickly leave a band I like behind. With that said, If I Left the Zoo definitely isn't what anyone signed up for.
Some publicist recognized this before If I Left the Zoo was released, panicked, and tried to push the album as "returning to the sound of the band's debut." This is true in the fact that Jars of Clay use a lot of acoustic guitar on both albums...and that's about it.
Where Jars of Clay's debut sounded deep and full, If I Left the Zoo is really bare-bones, unadorned pop-rock at its core. That's about my least favorite genre in the world, and I think most of the band's ex-fans felt the same way. Of course, this band meets that genre with the same level of excellence that they've met any sound they've attempted in their illustrious career, but I can only see that with fourteen years of retrospection. Even with that personal growth, and the knowledge that Jars of Clay would one day make a lot more albums that were much more my thing, If I Left the Zoo is still a little hard for me to digest.
These songs are extremely unadorned. They only use what they absolutely need, and that's a tough thing to accept in a band that has shown they can do so much with more. All of the evocative atmosphere of the band's previous work is gone. When strings pop up, they are more whimsical than powerful. Also, the fact that the band dialed up the pop-aspect of their melodies still pains my ears a little. They can be so much more subtle than this, and the stripped down aspect of the music only highlights the poppiness. The lead single, "Unforgetful You," might as well be the shiny poster-boy for this aspect of the album.
It would be a disservice to If I Left the Zoo to pretend like the whole thing is a poppy mess, though (this sentence was a prepositional mess). The only messiness is found in the fact that the band were searching for a sound here. "Grace" hints at the more alt-country flavor the band would pursue with high payoff a few years down the line. "No One Loves Me Like You" shows that Jars of Clay can turn bare-bones into an asset, expressing aching emotion as well as any other song in their catalog. The songs are here--even at their weakest, Jars of Clay still write great ones. The most powerful is album closer, "River Constantine," which displays the kind of atmosphere fans expected from the band.

So overall, If I Left the Zoo isn't a wash. It contains a handful of great songs, and if anything, the rest is interesting, if not ideal. If I Left the Zoo is the bridge between the early conception of Jars of Clay, and what the band could truly be. Bridges are cool, right?

1999 Essential
1. Goodbye, Goodnight 2:53
2. Unforgetful You 3:20
3. Collide 4:46
4. No One Loves Me Like You 3:48
5. Famous Last Words 3:26
6. Sad Clown 4:27
7. Hand 3:36
8. I'm Alright 3:40
9. Grace 4:31
10. Can't Erase It 3:35
11. River Constantine 4:48

Friday, November 01, 2013

Jars of Clay -- Much Afraid

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And now we have the Jars of Clay story. Their first album went multi-platinum, beloved by millions. It caught so many people off-guard, it established new expectations for what a debut should sound like. Unfortunately, it also set higher expectations on the band itself. With fans set on the band's acoustic rock sound, Jars of Clay could have simply delivered a sequel. That they didn't is much to their credit, but by not attempting to duplicate the sound of their debut, Jars of Clay altered the path of their career forever. This meant that Much Afraid, this very different sophomore album, was the last by Jars of Clay to go platinum. But this means that those who have stuck with the band til now have found themselves much rewarded. I am getting ahead of myself. Let's talk about Much Afraid.
From the start, it is clear Jars of Clay aren't content to retread their steps. Opener, "Overjoyed," features just as much electric guitar as acoustic, more keys, and real drums. These three elements stick around for much of the album. The band use drum loops from time to time, most notably on the intro to "Fade to Grey," but for the most part, there's a real guy pounding away in the back. Maybe "pounding away" isn't the best description. Much Afraid is far less aggressive and urgent than Jars of Clay's debut. Also, remember those strings that I blabbed on and on about in the last review? They pop up here like a leaping short guy's head over a tall brick wall, and that's about it. The ornamental nature of the band's sound is completely stripped away.
For the most part, Much Afraid features four major players, one singing, one playing electric guitar, one playing acoustic, one playing keys, and a couple of guys filling in for a rhythm section. While I wouldn't go so far as to say this is coffee house music, Much Afraid certainly resembles lighter, 90's style contemporary rock. It could probably play in a coffee house.
Fortunately, in that genre, Much Afraid is, song for song, a really, really good album. It's not like there are no landmarks to their previous album, either. "Frail," an old demo track re-done here, is one of the best things the band have ever recorded. The strings are allowed a moment to return, and the song builds to an excellent climax behind some of Dan Haseltine's most vulnerable lyrics to date. I've heard this song can make people cry...

While it is certainly different, Much Afraid hosts its own special magic. It fits its title. It is a bold move, but one done with a recognition of its cost. It speaks to a feeling of courage, coupled with nervous reluctance--the bravery to take a plunge, while fearing the landing the entirety of the fall. It is the work of a band talented and brave enough to re-invent itself, but smart enough to understand the consequences.
Also, 90's FOREVER!!!

1997 Essential Records
1. Overjoyed 2:58
2. Fade to Grey 3:34
3. Tea and Sympathy 4:51
4. Crazy Times 3:34
5. Frail 6:57
6. Five Candles (You Were There) 3:48
7. Weighed Down 3:39
8. Portrait of an Apology5:43
9. Truce 3:11
10. Much Afraid 3:53
11. Hymn 3:53