2013 in Review: Music

Since I laid out my books, I thought I’d briefly go through some musical purchases that I enjoyed this year.

*NOTE 1: These aren’t necessarily 2013 releases; they are 2013 discoveries

*NOTE 2: I don’t listen to quite as much music as I used to, so don’t expect to be wowed. I just thought I’d share.

*NOTE 3: I still listen have a steady list of “older” favorites that were in heavy rotation in 2013 (though not purchased):

  • Live at Leeds. The Who.
  • El Camino. The Black Keys (one of Levi’s favorites)
  • Sevastapol. Jay Farrar (one of my top 5 driving CDs)
  • Most of Emmylou Harris’ catalog
  • Most of Sigur Rós’ cataglog
  • High Violet. The National

But anyway… here’s 2013 music:

  • Ode to Sunshine. The Delta Spirit. Maida Vale shared a stage with these guys in 2008 or 2009, and they blew us away with their raw intensity and musicianship. Reminded me of a much more angsty version of  The Band.
  • Sea of Cowards. The Dead Weather. When I first heard this band, they were just too creepy for me. Either they have gotten less creepy, or I’ve gotten moreso. Either way, Jack White and Alison Morehart are a potent duo, and they write killer riffs and haunting songs. Scary, but good.
  • Wise Up Ghost. Elvis Costello and the Roots. Oh my: this is virtually required. There’s not a super-catchy pop song on this collection, IMO, but just by virtue of the fact that it’s Costello (one of the most well-respected songwriters in this era) and The Roots (they should be declared a national treasure, the way Brazil declared Pele a national treasure back in the 70s), you should be listening to this. 
  • More Than Just a Dream. Fitz and the Tantrums. This was part of the summer soundtrack of the Case household. We collectively love these guys. Best if listened to loudly, while dancing.
  • Love in the Future. John Legend. I pretty much love everything John Legend does. So there.
  • Born and Raised. John Mayer. If there was a soundtrack to my sabbatical, this was it. This record just broke me down, and helped me heal. The title track also served as the inspiration for “My Redeemer Lives”, from my little release this summer. I haven’t been pierced by lyrics like this in a long while, and it felt good.
  • The Invisible Way. Low. This is “Where have I been?” Part 1. These guys are simply amazing. Gentle, rainy music. I found these guys through “Silver Rider” from Robert Plant’s Band of Joy disc, but boy I’m sure glad I found the rest.
  • Trouble Will Find Me. The National. Oh yes. Just as subtle, melancholy, and “New York” as the previous ones. Thank you.
  • Hesitation Marks. Nine Inch Nails. After Wilco’s Sky Blue Sky came out, a friend of mine remarked, “You know, I think that lyrically I like addicted Jeff Tweedy a little more than sober Jeff Tweedy.” Insensitive, I know, but I think I can relate: I like angry Trent Reznor a little bit better than married and content Trent Reznor. However, everything is relative: “content” Trent Reznor is still pretty dark and twisted. Hesitation Marks isn’t my favorite NIN record by far, but it still has its darkly groovy moments.
  • Woman. Rhye. This is another summer soundtrack in our house. This record is gently and sensuous. Definitely a cool, mellow, evening music. (P.S. the singer’s a dude!)
  • Kveikur. Sigur Rós. Creepy. Just creepy.

Well, there you have it. No links or anything, so if you want it … go snag it.

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Connecting the Core

For those of you who may be leading musical worship in some context…

A while back, I wrote about “Knowing Your Core”: knowing how you would essentially describe the Gospel. (If you haven’t taken the time to write down your core, I’d encourage you to take a few minutes and do this).

It’s not enough to know your core; the real challenge is to make sure that our ministry reflects these beliefs.

For some of us, that means making sure that the songs we sing on Sunday match what we believe is the core. In other words, though we may claim that our Gospel “core” looks like this (this is my core, by the way)

  1. mission/vocation
  2. community
  3. restoration
  4. the Holy Spirit
  5. God-With-Us

However, if we’re not mindful, the lyrics of the songs we choose to sing on Sunday may look like this:

  1. God is really great
  2. We are sinners
  3. Jesus died on the cross
  4. We are still sinners
  5. Good thing Jesus died on the cross

This disconnect isn’t healthy, either for you or for your congregation.

For those of us who are leading music, take a look at the lyrics that you’re singing week-to-week. Are those lyrics consistent with your core? With your church’s core? (Again, first you need to know what your core is.)

For those of us in another form of ministry, we can still examine how our values, actions, and words are connecting with that core.

There is no reason that ministry cannot be an expression of our deepest and “truest” selves, but we do have to do the challenging, reflective work of knowing what that deep and true self looks like.

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A Somewhat Random Music Mantra

Over the past few days, I started thinking about the essentials of the way I approach music. It’s probably not complete, and it’s probably not the last time I’ll do something like that, but here ya go…

  • There is no such thing as “simple” music
  • If you think that a genre of music is “easy” you’ve already lost
  • The point is not to get great gear; the point is to make great art
  • There’s a fine line between “ambient” guitar playing and simply not knowing the music
  • Training your ear makes you dangerous
  • Learning music theory makes you lethal
  • A great amp makes an average guitar sound amazing
  • Rhythm guitar is a lost art; go rediscover it

Anything you’d add or take away? 

Four Ways Gigging Made Me a Better Worship Leader / Church Musician

One of my favorite quotes is in the movie Rocknrolla: 

There ain’t no school like the old school and I’m the #@$%@#$% headmaster.

When I started playing guitar, playing in church was not an option. Our church was a piano/organ place, and we only did acoustic guitar on a very, very rare occasion.

In fact, as crazy as this may seem, I never heard real electric guitar—not the heavily compressed, chorused, thin sound—in church until I was probably 30 years old.

So, musically, all my formative years weren’t spent in a youth band; they were spent in clubs.

This is what I think I learned:

  1. Be excellent, quickly.My first gigs were in a cover band. Two hundred dollars for a night (for the whole band). Two 60-90 minute sets. You were paid to be the entertainment. If you couldn’t grab the crowd’s attention, than you (a) were going to have a boring night and (b) weren’t going to be invited back. You had to get their attention, and then hold it. Probably the most extreme situations were when we’d play for a group of bikers; the pressure to entertain and “be cool” was definitely heightened. You had to be on your game.By contrast, church is mostly a captive audience. They’ll tolerate mistakes and give you second chances. However, just because the congregation lets you get away with a bad note doesn’t mean you should let yourself get away with it.
  2. Have your gear together. Even in the era of Guitar Center, you still couldn’t find a place to buy a cable at ten o’clock at night (maybe you still can’t). I remember driving 3 hours to a gig where the drummer forgot his hi hat stand. Outcome: gig with no hi hat. You had to double-check your stuff, and be prepared. Churches today come stocked with complete drum kits, miles of cabling, and usually a tuner (or 4) lying around. It’s nice to have a backup plan, but it’s also unprofessional to show up without a guitar strap. It assumes that someone will take care of you.
  3. Expect the worst. I remember playing a gig in this big wooden room that was essentially tuned to Ab. Every time we hit that note (which we did a lot, because we tuned 1/2 step down), the whole place would erupt with Ab feedback. It made for an interesting set. I also never knew that multiple monitor mixes were even possible until I was probably 25; my first 10 years of playing were spent learning to hear my voice—and the other instrumentalists—in one mix (that was usually too quiet).These days—if I can sound a bit crusty—a church is considered a bit lacking if the Aviom mix isn’t in stereo. Listening—and thus true interactive musicianship—isn’t based on the quality of your monitor mix; it’s based on the discipline of working to hear everyone on the stage, and to be aware of what they’re playing and how it impacts what you’re playing.
  4. God is everywhere. Though I wasn’t always firmly rooted spiritually, I learned that beautiful music can be made in the dirtiest places. On my final (probably) jaunt around the country, I was playing a gig in Lawrence, Kansas. The band I was in “gave in” to the crowd and played a (somewhat ironic) version of “Freebird.” As I played that ridiculous slide part, I practically heard God speak to me, “Do not think for one minute that I’m not hear in this bar. Do not think that you cannot send these notes to Me as worship—as thanks—right here in this moment and in this place. I am here.” 

    Though the church as a body is sacred and essential, God is also everywhere. When you only play music on Sunday morning, or only for your youth group, it’s easy to fall prey to the idea that God is only in the church, or that He is only “listening” to corporate worship music (that is often too safe). Playing music in so many environments helped me understand that God is out there, always moving, sometimes even moreso than what we see on Sunday.

Anyway, that’s it. I’m old school, but I think we do well to make sure our church musicians are seasoned and prepared, and have as wide a view as possible of God’s activity in the world.

43:23 (or Thereabouts)

I recently purchased and downloaded Beethoven’s 9th Symphony.

Wow.

Considered to be one of the most amazing works of Western music, its power and beauty can be breathtaking. But, as I listened, something struck me about the piece. In case you didn’t know, the 9th is long. Over an hour (that’s pretty rare in our modern world, yes?).

For most of that hour, we—the audience—is waiting; waiting for “that” melody that we recognize. By my (admittedly dodgy) calculations, the musical theme that we identify with comes in at around 3:35 of the 4th Movement. That’s over forty minutes into the piece. 

But you know who waits even longer?

The choir.

A choir—a rarity in symphonic music at the time— sings the theme again even later in the 4th Movement. They have waited for almost 50 minutes to sing; to do their part in the symphony; to contribute to one of the most beautiful moments in symphonic music.

Sometimes it’s easy to feel like a member of the choir. We sit with nothing to do, watching others play and develop the masterpiece. We may feel like we’re on the sidelines, or that our gifts aren’t needed. But eventually it will be our time to sing. It will be our time to open up our mouths and to do our part in the music that’s been written. We need to be ready.

Are you in a time of waiting? Are you being called to contribute, but the “way” hasn’t seemed open yet? Is it just that the symphony hasn’t arrived at your part yet? When the time comes, are you prepared to sing?

When it does, rest assured that you are helping to create a work of beauty and redemption.

This vision is for a future time.
It describes the end, and it will be fulfilled.
If it seems slow in coming, wait patiently,
for it will surely take place.
It will not be delayed. (Habakkuk 2:3)

Mind “The Gap”

 

 

I got my first electric guitar, a Fender Musicmaster (with a silverfaced Fender Champ) around 1981 or 82, I think. For the next three or four years, spent 2 to 3 hours a day trying to learn songs off of a few key records that I had, including:

  • Meaty, Beaty, Big and Bouncy (The Who; horrible name—wait, an awesome name!)
  • Still Life (Rolling Stones live record)
  • For Those About to Rock (AC/DC)
  • Moving Pictures (Rush)
  • Under a Blood Red Sky (U2)

Let me try to paint a picture of this process for you. Because there was no iTunes or YouTube, all this woodshedding had to be done physically.

Prepare to play.

Drop the needle (or maybe, if you were lucky, hit play on the cassette player).

Listen, try to play along (God help you if they weren’t perfectly in tune).

Try to work out what you got wrong, and then listen again. And again. And again. And again.

I think one of the main differences, creatively speaking, between this era and the 60s-80s, is something I call, “The Gap.” Basically, “The Gap” is that mysterious place between what I heard coming out of the speakers and what my fingers produced. The gap used to be large, because technology and information didn’t exist for you to know exactly what Jimmy Page, or The Edge, or Alex Lifeson was playing.

So you had to make a creative decision for yourself.

And that creative decision, made inside “The Gap” would lead to new discoveries, new approaches, new thoughts about your instrument. 

The thing is, today “The Gap”, at least in the context of learning songs is almost nonexistent. You can dial up on YouTube, or a myriad of web pages, just about every single bit of information about a musician:

  • his or her gear
  • the gear they used on a particular track
  • video of how they played
  • the chord charts
  • inaccurate versions of the chord charts
  • their thought process

The list goes on and on and on.

“The Gap”—the place of mystery and creativity—has shrunk, at least for learning music. 

But that doesn’t mean it’s disappeared.

If you’re doing creative work: learning an instrument, writing, simply coming up with new ideas, you must find “The Gap” in your life. 

  • Where are you going beyond your boundaries?
  • Where do you have to make a “best guess” as to what to do next?
  • Where can you say, “I’ve gotten all the best information I could find, but I’m still uncertain about XX% of this process?”

Because that’s where your Gap is now. And that’s where you have to move to.

“Low Frequency Living”


There is nothing, absolutely NOTHING, like hearing a master drummer lay down an amazing groove…

When it all comes together, it’s amazing: the drums become a groovy, powerful symphony that is practically irresistible to any listener. The cymbals, snare, toms and kick all blend together across a wide dimension of frequencies to make this happen. Each drum has its own space in the sonic landscape: from the high peaks of cymbal crashes to the thud of the bass drum. In turn, each of these frequencies have certain characteristics and effects on a listener.

High frequencies (high hats and cymbals) capture our attention instantly—like the whistle or chirp of a bird or the cry of a train—but they diminish quickly. The sound waves are small and tight, and do not travel far in the air.

Middle frequencies (snare drums and toms) are the “bread and butter” of the drum set—like our normal every day voices. Their sound waves travel farther distances then the high hats and cymbals.

The bass drum occupies the lowest frequency. Though they don’t always capture our immediate attention, low notes travel the longest in the air—like a fog horn, or the low moan of a tuba.

Each instrument works together to provide a sonic voice, a sonic message…

What if our lives have the same potential? I was thinking: there are things that I do that get great attention in the short run (playing and singing on stage), but ultimately don’t “travel that far”, spiritually speaking.

In the “middle frequencies”, there are things such as “every day conversations”, with friends and family over meals and coffee, that have much more resonance, much more power to linger. They may not grab the attention that singing and playing do, but they have more “legs”, sonically speaking.

Finally, there is “low frequency living”: things that may elude the notice of most people, but have tremendous staying power. They boom through my life, resonating for days, weeks, maybe months. What’s more, the sound usually carries over to the world around me. Things like…

… fasting

… secret giving (is it still secret? uh oh)

… prayer

… solitude

… silence

This is “Low Frequency Living”: doing things that escape the eyes of most people, but that “boom” throughout the moments and days that we live. We need the cymbals, and snare drums, but it’s that resonance, that reverberation, that makes the groove all come together, and makes it irresistible for everyone who is listening to our “song.”

What does low frequency it look like for you?

“MoFo.”

This is a bit of rant…

I was on my favorite gear discussion board today, when I noticed a few posts with similar titles: “Post your favorite U2/Praise and Worship Pedalboards”; “Favorite Praise and Worship Overdrive Pedals”; and so on…

<sigh>

Church, what have we become? Where has our creativity, our imagination, our artistry gone?

In 1998, “The dotted 8th” (let the musician understand) was a revelation. It was new, it was majestic and ambient, rhythmic and interesting, and could lay down tremendous beds of comforting sound around a band and worship leader.

That was 13 years ago now, folks. We were absorbed in the sound of U2 because, well, that sound was cresting and peaking. Now, the culture has moved on. U2 is still selling out stadiums, but Arcade Fire, Mumford and Sons and The National are making exciting music now. Why won’t we embrace them as “temple musicians”? Why have we stopped growing?

Yes, U2 is an amazing, even anointed band. Yes, Coldplay is their scrappy sonic younger brother. But we’ve all missed the point, and by missing the point we’ve cheapened U2/Edge’s sonic tapestry as well as the creative element in worship music.

Because what we should really be interested in, musicians, is the way Edge thinks. Not how to rip off his delay tone.

He said once in an interview, “I’m interested in abusing technology.”

Where’s that attitude and approach in our efforts? Have we settled?

We pick and choose the safest parts — we love “Where the Streets Have No Name” (c’mon, I know it makes you cry; I’ll confess: me too!), but we shy away from “Mo Fo” sonically as well as lyrically (even though I’d say that the latter is about an overtly spiritual song as you could find, if you, um, cared to read the lyrics). Feed 3 or 4 fuzz pedals into a Whammy Pedal and hit “Go” … because that type of thinking is where all of this tapestry came from!

But we’d rather figure out how to find the right “Praise and Worship Overdrive Pedal”.

You know what the right “Praise and Worship Overdrive Pedal” is?

The one you can afford. The one you’re stepping on right now.

Because worship music is about incarnation. Which means it’s about God’s intersection with you. With your experiences, your gear, your creativity, with your imagination.

Worship guitarists out there — what are you afraid of? Ry Cooder once said, “Go where it’s dangerous and say, ‘Yes.’”

Go ahead. Step on the pedal; the one that’s “NSFW” (“Not Safe For Worship”). It will be okay (though I didn’t say it would be easy)… Edge would be proud.

And the church, in the long run, will be edified…

Because we still need imagination. Maybe now more than ever.

Creativity in Worship (v2010) + Collaborative Leadership

Twice — I think in 2000 and 2001 — I was privileged to teach a seminar at the Willow Creek Arts Conference called something like “Towards Spontaneity in Worship.” The seminar was designed to help worship leaders safely navigate being able to have some “unplanned creativity” in worship: extended outros, “Holy Spirit” moments where the worship leader can just open up some space to respond to something that God made may be doing.

In my estimation, the seminars weren’t all that good; I’m not that great at unpacking things that I do intuitively (just ask me to try and give you a guitar lesson!). But last night I was thinking about it, after a couple of “unplanned musical moments” in our worship set yesterday, and realized that I had something to add to the topic. So here you go:

In order to experience some kind of spontaneity in worship (or in any creative enterprise), a leader must be willing to acknowledge that what others might be offering — in terms of notes, ideas, or melodies — may be better than what that leader had in mind.

If you can’t start here, I’m not sure that it’s possible to experience much in the way of spontaneity. Why? Because you’ll control it. And as long as it’s only you controlling it, you won’t encounter much of anything that you haven’t already thought of or discovered. To use a metaphor, I think that most leaders look at a task (or a song) much like a musical equation that they have come up with: A + B = C. A collaborative leader is willing to introduce an unknown or two: A + B + __ = __. The end result might be “C”, but it also might be C*.

Adopt the mindset that everyone on your team — everyone in the room or at the table — has something potentially amazing to give to the experience, and the possibilities become endless! Release control that the song is supposed to end the way you wanted it to; that the chorus is supposed to be quiet rather than loud; that a ministry should have one strategy versus another.

You are still “the leader”; you still have the right to say, “No thanks.” But in the meantime, entertaining the idea that there is something better residing in the hearts and minds of your musicians and/or team makes introduces the concept that something new, unplanned and unexpected can be created out of your collective efforts.

… And that’s fun!

What can you release control of?

Yes, yes, yes.

I get this, at a very deep level. This is how I approach music.

“Either you are the music or you’re not. There are a lot of people that want to do what I do, but what I do is about humility and righteousness and understanding, because music is precious. I know it’s just rock and roll, but there are moments in there. There really are and you can’t miss them. It’s got to be soulful, it’s got to speak to you, it’s got to twist your little heart, and you have to be turned on.” – Andy Johns, Producer, in September 2010 Guitar Player (see credits here)