Wildwood Kin

(Press image)

The Devon trio release another magical, harmony-drenched set of hooky songs. This is beauty with guts and purpose.

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Deborah Rose – The Shining Pathway

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Even before hearing a note, I found Rose’s story intriguing.

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Dave Walker – Revenge of the Flower Arrangers

(Canterbury Press) There is an idiom ‘Many a true word is drawn in jest’ (or something like that). In his anticipated bi-ennial collection, the definitive church cartoonist uses the full scope of what cartoons can achieve, with plenty of observation feeding his work.

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The Rise and Fall of Christian Rock – A Personal View: Pt 1. The Pioneers

Larry Norman (Photo credit: Derek Walker)

Contemporary Christian Music (CCM) hits 50 years old this winter. This 4-part series tells its story and is an expanded version of the feature Christianity Magazine published in Dec 2019.

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The Rise and Fall of Christian Rock – A Personal View: Pt 2. The Professionals

Delirious? (Image via jesusfreakhideout.com)

While Christian Contemporary Music (CCM) became established over the 1970s, music of true professional quality was more the exception than the rule. But across the following two decades, the genre – as it was to become – exploded with talent and creativity.

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The Rise and Fall of Christian Rock – A Personal View: Pt 3. The Problems

When comedian Ross Noble appeared on the TV show Room 101, where celebrities list the several items that they would most like to eradicate from the world, his first choice (ahead of “people with clipboards”, Craig David and “people who look like cats”) was Christian rock bands.

The thought of them going on tour and “tidying hotel rooms” was just a passing objection, he claimed.

His main argument was that rock is angry music, but Christians don’t know how to be angry. The two were incompatible.

This captures the reputation of Christian music as bland and to be avoided – something that both music lovers and musicians feel, with God-loving bands avoiding the label ‘Christian rock,’ in case it damages their career.

But in the ’90s, Christian music had everything going for it. So how did it get to this?

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The Rise and Fall of Christian Rock – A Personal View: Pt 4. The Present

Wildwood Kin

In the 1970s the pioneers of Christian rock had plenty of passion and several had great talent, but rarely the resources to make polished work. When the demand grew in the following decade, outstripping supply, resources came flooding in, creating a peak of passion and professionalism, with creativity expanding to fill the gaps. But the labels began to take control and by the turn of the century, the original vision was largely squeezed out.

Just as technology (CDs) boosted the industry in the ‘80s, when people re-bought their old music in a more durable new format, technology did the opposite in the new millennium, as illegal file sharing threatened to close the industry, further pressurising Christian labels (between 1999 and 2013, the annual revenue of the global record industry dropped from around $29bn to just under $15bn).

But the same technology was a lease of life for quality artists with an established fan base. As the internet became the go-to communication channel, artists like Jars of Clay, Iona, Switchfoot and Over the Rhine formed their own labels and went straight to their audience, free of the censorship and creative interference we saw in Part 3. Most of these have thrived and released some of their best material as independents.

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Foy Vance – From Muscle Shoals

Foy Vance (image via Irish Mirror)

This set is like time travel – today’s gritty, soulful vocalist playing alongside studio legends in the studio that produced soul classics. It is a fine match.

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High Noon – Is it Really a Western?

High Noon‘s Blu-ray release is a great chance to revisit this work. It is not only a classic movie that every film-lover should see at least once, but also one with a timeless warning about coming together to stand up against evil.

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Neal Morse: Jesus Christ, The Exorcist

Neal Morse, via Brave Words.com

A rock opera?! There’s something we haven’t seen for decades – and this one is worth exploring.

Morse’s last three albums have been so good that two have been among the best releases of their years. But how would this compare, being a progressive rock opera, rather than a collection of songs?

Morse is plainly no stranger to concept albums – his past releases have included a work about God’s glory, Morse’s own story (twice), Bunyan’s The Pilgrim’s Progress (twice again, as if a double album isn’t long enough!). But this is different, as it includes a rock choir and a lot more characters in conversation to tell the story. And isn’t the concept of a rock opera a bit 1970s?

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The Badly Behaved Bible

Nick Page via http://nickpage.co.uk

I wish Nick Page taught me history at school. The self-described “unlicensed historian, applied ranter and general information-monger” is like a mate who nudges you in the ribs and asks mischievously, “Hey, did you know…?”

In a tongue-in-cheek one-man mission to ban bible study, he argues that we find the bible difficult because we have been misinformed about both what it is and how to read it. It is badly-behaved because it will not fit neatly into our expectations (and more literally, because Page has a section on its rude bits).

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Bruce Cockburn: Crowing Ignites (Crowing Ignites??)

This album is a real surprise. Cockburn named his last release Bone on Bone, because he was suffering from arthritis to such an extent that it was affecting his guitar playing.

One might expect his response to major on singing, where arthritis has no effect, covering over any guitar-playing deficiencies, but no. Maybe he thought it his last chance to feature his guitar work before the fingers do give up.

Cockburn’s recent albums have generally been better for instrumental tracks and here he does the whole disc wordlessly. In some players’ hands that might mean a lot of similar sounding music, but this album revels in variety. Yes, there are plenty of his cascading compositions, but the style differs from track to track.

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An Activist the Press can’t Pigeonhole

Today is the first day of Extinction Rebellion’s fortnight of disruption across major cities in Europe.

The BBC covered the story from many angles: protesters dressed up as Red Rebels, people chaining and glueing themselves to immovable objects, celebrities moving about among those blocking bridges.

Christians turned Lambeth Bridge into a ‘faith bridge’, while on Westminster Bridge someone was getting married. I wasn’t surprised to see it was Tamsin Omond. It is almost ten years ago to the day that my interview with her was published in the Church of England Newspaper. It seemed worth putting an edit of it here.

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ECM’s Touchstones Series is a Jazz-lover’s Playground

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Regular readers will have noticed my love of music from the prestigious, award-winning ECM label – which is essentially one man’s high quality, long-term project.

For 50 years, German bassist Manfred Eicher has been recording over one thousand jazz and classical albums with a pristine sound quality. He has struck up an excellent trusting relationship with Arvo Pärt, arguably the world’s leading living classical composer, and cross-fertilised many of the world’s best jazz musicians, such as Keith Jarrett, Jan Garbarek, Chick Corea and Pat Metheny.

To celebrate this half-century, ECM have re-issued 50 classic albums. Deciding which to review has involved pleasurable hours of research, but the album that most grabbed me (twice) and led to ecstatic rambles through his live works on YouTube was Eberhard Weber’s The Following Morning.

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Weber plays a resonant fretless, upright electric bass and does so in a distinctive style with real lyrical flair. This album consists of only four tracks averaging ten minutes each, which means that they have time to naturally go where they need to.

Rich as it is in tone, there are no drums here, which helps to create a fluid, atmospheric beauty in this music. The sound is hard to capture in words, as it is unlike anything else I know. A warmer, more relaxed, instrumental version of Talk Talk’s Spirit of Eden might come close. While Weber is generally much more fluent and accessible than the Talk Talk work, he does have the fragmented album closer “Moana II,” where (aided by an occasional unaccredited synth) he tantalisingly teases an earlier theme (from surprise, surprise, “Moana I”) which he then spells out right at the end.

Weber’s main colleague here is pianist Rainer Brüninghaus, with whom he played in saxophonist Jan Garbarek’s band, but while the bass and piano do trade licks, this rarely feels like a standard jazz album with piano taking the traditional jazz role. Weber treats his bass like a lead guitar, double- (or triple-) tracking where necessary to play more normal bass lines against it. He leaves a lot of space around it, which the piano isn’t obliged to fill.

Instead, many of the spaces are occupied quietly by the soft celli, French horns and oboe of the Philharmonic Orchestra, Oslo. So at times – such as in the title track – it can feel like a version of Miles Davis’ Sketches of Spain, but with bass taking the place of trumpet.

The blend is gorgeous – as is that title track, with a melody line that will stay with you long after the piece is finished.

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Touchstones is a music lover’s playground and likely to provide new excitement for anyone interested in jazz. A runner up for review album from this series was John Abercrombie’s delicious Night, featuring an all-star cast with Jan Hammer, Jack DeJohnette and Mike Brecker. On Hammer’s “Ethereggae,” they manage to combine jazz, rock and reggae in one gloriously original – and successful – eight minute piece.

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The Triangle, a more conventional piano trio consisting of bandleader bassist Arild Andersen, pianist Vassilis Tsabropoulos and drummer John Marshall, comprises nine largely languid tracks that have a healthy balance of improvisation and distinctive themes.

Tsabropoulos, who has a classical background, has written most tracks and arranged a beautifully wistful version of Ravel’s “Pavane,” in which Arildsen’s double bass plays sensitively off him. It may be this background that adds some precision to the pianist’s style and form to his composition, but his classical history never dilutes the freedom of his playing.

“Simple Thoughts” is a contemplative piano-based piece, beautiful and serene, a mood continued by its successor, “Prism.”

For all the disc’s gentleness, there is a brief upbeat burst with “Lines,” which has a touch of the Keith Jarretts to the piano, but nothing at all messy or angular.

The nearest this 2003 album gets to that is the group composition “European Triangle,” which starts with a prowling piano left hand and develops into a more skittering piece. By contrast, it’s followed up by the very dreamy “Cinderella Song.”

The three players balance well; while the composers generally feature more fully in their own pieces, Andersen refuses to hog the centre and this is a true team effort.

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Another piano-based work is Red Lanta, a 51-minute duet from Art Lande and Jan Garbarek. As you might expect, once you spot that the title is an anagram of Lande’s name, the pianist composed each track and piano takes the brunt of the workload here, with Jan Garbarek largely filling in and echoing for emphasis.

Garbarek is undoubtedly one of the label’s most popular artists – not least due to his Officium collaboration with the Hilliard Ensemble, blending his sax with their choral work, which was one of ECM’s best-selling albums ever. He features on half a dozen albums across the Touchstones collection.

While he is mainly known for his saxophone work, on this release he unusually spends more time playing flute – although to these ears, some of the best tracks across the album are those where he does pick up the saxes (soprano and bass) such as “Velvet,” with its call-and-response lines, and “Meanwhile.”

When he plays flute, there is an almost classical tone to some tracks, including the opener in 5/4 time “Quintennaissance” and “Waltz for A,” one of several where flute hints at a bird-call at times. It is only the freer, more improvised mood that takes it in a jazzier direction.

Towards the end, Lande takes a solo piano medley that nicely simplifies the sound before Garbarek returns on saxes and expresses tones verging on the oriental, before taking the lead in the final piece, the lyrical “Cherifen Dream of Renate.”

The drum-free disc, recorded in 1973, moves between sprightly and sauntering pace, but by and large feels casually relaxed. It catches Garbarek at a point where he has turned his back on earlier, more dissonant, projects in favour of this more mellow approach.

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Also worth investigating is Juni by the Peter Erskine Trio. It is part of a set I reviewed here

While The Following Morning is superb, other ECM releases beat several of the Touchstones. Albums like Anouar Brahem’s minimalist Souvenance and rounded Blue Maqams are just two of his works that deserve wide recognition. Investigating the label’s hugely impressive catalogue can be a fascinating and fun occupation.

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Mostly Autumn – White Rainbow

Mostly Autumn’s last release Sight of Day was superb. Now they’re back – and this time it’s personal. Very personal.

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The Unthanks – Lines

Photos via The Unthanks

I get the feeling that you’ll always learn something with an Unthanks project, and this one is an English teacher’s dream.

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Stopping the Loss

Sumptuous. That was my initial reaction at handling this release, a CD tucked safely inside the cover of a 112-page hardback book, inspired by another book, itself inspired by yet another book.

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Tim Farron Pt. 1: Past, Present and Future

Tim Farron via christiansinpolitics.org.uk

In July 2015, Tim Farron became leader of the Liberal Democrat party, a role he resigned from in July 2017. So July 2019, when a new leader has replaced Vince Cable, seemed a good time to catch up with him and find out whether he wakes up in the morning, wishing that he were going for the role now, with the party surging in the polls, rather than in the post-coalition years, when the party was risking extinction. Our conversation took place a few days before Jo Swinson was elected as the new leader.

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Tim Farron Pt. 2: When is a Liberal Not a Liberal?

In Tim Farron’s almost evangelistic resignation speech from the Liberal Democrats – which ended by quoting Isaac Watts – he said with feeling, “I seem to be a figure of suspicion because of what I believe and who my faith is in… We are kidding ourselves if we think we yet live in a tolerant, liberal society.”

It is a theme he eloquently expounded in a Theos Lecture and Guardian article later that year, at a depth that contrasted strongly with the shallow media hunt for a quick news soundbite that largely lost him the party leadership. Whereas the media seemed keen to grab a piece of drama, Farron wanted to set the party’s approach straight – something that could only happen with a bit of self-examination.

The fact that he felt pressured to resign, because of his faith, from a party that espouses the values of diversity and freedom suggested that something was dangerously wrong. In his lecture, he accused liberalism of “eating itself.”

In this part of my interview with him, he covered the pressures on Christian politicians, religious illiteracy and whether liberalism really is eating itself.

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Molly Tuttle – When You’re Ready

There aren’t too many singers who could keep me very happy just by singing a privacy policy. Dusty Springfield and Cara Dillon probably could, and Dusty would probably even find some emotion in there somehow. Molly Tuttle might just be good enough to join them.

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