I felt like the year 2004 began with a renewed sense of certainty. Its earliest months are memorable to me and Christine for our first real experiences of traveling together. Whether alone or with a group of people, I learned that she’s a really good travel buddy.
In with the New:
Christine Denté (as a solo artist – appears previously with Out of the Grey)
Sleeping at Last
Out with the Old:
It Was Worth a Try:
…And You Will Know Us by the Trail of Dead
Listen on Spotify:
February 2004 was Christine’s first trip back home to see her parents in Hawaii after moving to California, and also the first time we took a trip to one of the “Outer Islands” together. We went to Maui, where she had been as a child, but which was entirely new to me. She had mentioned wanting to take me there a while back, and told me that Haleakala was a wonderfully beautiful and romantic place that she wanted to share with me. Turns out she had her memories mixed up; she had never been to the Haleakala summit as a kid, and she was thinking of Iao Valley. So driving to the top of this volcano was a brand new experience for both of us.
Where in the world is this?
1) “You Dance”, Eastmountainsouth (Eastmountainsouth, 2003)
Eastmountainsouth was my first musical discovery of the new year, thanks to a recommendation from a Phorumer who praised its lush, gentle cross between folk and pop music. This was the immediate standout, an upbeat dance of piano, programmed drums and didgeridoo, with Peter Bradley Adams’ beautiful words of commitment: “I won’t face another day/I won’t wait until tomorrow/I won’t spend another night without you/Let me carry you away/Let me wake you every morning/Let me wander every day beside you.” I was on the verge of knowing what it truly felt like to be that much in love with someone.
2) “Fall Awake”, The Echoing Green (The Winter of Our Discontent, 2003)
I wanted to do something different with this mix, so I intentionally started off mellow, then went a bit moody, before finally getting to the upbeat, rocking stuff that usually shows up hot and heavy at the beginning. This long, meandering darkwave track was the “moody” part of the equation, fading in with crickets and synthesizers and trying to reach through the darkened haze to shake a depressed person out of their half-wakened state. We’d been through a rough year; now I felt like we were coming out on the other side of that tunnel, relieved that we had chosen to embrace each other and push forward through the worst of it.
3) “Sunday Bloody Sunday”, Pillar (In the Name of Love: Artists United for Africa, 2004)
To a lot of U2 fans, covering U2 is something that you simply do not do, especially not when you’re an obnoxious Christian nu-metal act like Pillar who is known for having zero subtlety. On the flipside, having your favorite Christian band cover U2 gave the illusion to some youth group kids that it was now “okay” to listen to their songs (even though it was never not okay). I was in between the two camps, starting to really like U2 on their own terms, but not minding when a younger band tried to punch up the arrangement of one of their classics. Pillar downplays the rap here and just goes for a straight-forward power chord assault, and personally I think it worked, even though there’s no hope of improving on the original, which is one of my favorites with its militant drum beats and its furious violin. Pillar left out a few lyrics, too. But they really emphasized “The victory that JESUS WON!!!!!” Which sort of made me laugh, but also made me wonder how many folks missed that line in the original.
4) “Pistola”, Incubus (A Crow Left of the Murder, 2004)
The new Incubus album leaked a few weeks early, and it was… bafflingly inconsistent. I loved this feisty little rocker about the power of words, though. I figured they were trying to say, “The pen is mightier than the sword.” Which was partially true, but what I didn’t know at the time was that “Pistola” was used as a slang word in Italian. So it was really more like, “The penis mightier than the sword.”
5) “How Near, How Far”, …And You Will Know Us by the Trail of Dead (Source Tags & Codes, 2002)
Trail of Dead was a fluke discovery, generally too much of a “screamy” band for me to get into, but a guy who programs HTML for a living couldn’t resist checking out an album called Source Tags & Codes. Turns out this song was pretty solid, roaming back and forth between brooding guitar, and speedy, rolling drums. No real personal connection to it, but a good reminder that interesting things turn up when I explore beyond my usual horizons.
6) “Treason”, Kutless (Sea of Faces, 2004)
And then on the other end of the artistic/exploratory spectrum, you have Kutless, who couldn’t do anything creative if their lives depended on it… ah, my favorite critical punching bag. I made fun of them to no end and that particularly irritated Linda, who was a big fan. They did briefly manage to capture my attention with this song, which despite its blatant ripoff of a Live guitar riff, made some decent points about the blesing and cursing that comes from the same mouth. I was guilty of this at times. I probably took it too far and made it too personal toward bands like this, and their fans, believing that making bad art equated to a lack of intelligence overall and therefore a lack of spiritual maturity. I still suspect that it doesn’t help and that it’s best to wean people from the “baby food” variety of Christian music. That said, I have my guilty pleasures, and this is here as a reminder to not take myself too seriously.
7) “Collide”, Skillet (Collide, 2003)
Dramatic strings collide with heavy rock. That was all it took to sell me on this one! Christine popped in Collide out of curiosity during a long drive up to Big Bear one January weekend. She had heard some of their past stuff (of a much more gentle nature, given what I carefully selected for mix CDs for her), and was promptly shocked: “I didn’t think there’d be this much yelling.” It was funny. At least she had an open mind.
8) “Harder to Breathe”, Maroon5 (Songs About Jane, 2002)
I think my initial reaction to Maroon5 was somewhat myopic – I just heard a bad-ass cross between rock and R&B and I didn’t realize the sexual and frankly, violent overtones of an extremely catchy hit song. I even rationalized that “Not fit to funkin’ tread the ground that I am walking on” was the actual lyric, not just what they printed in the booklet to get around the obvious, so I could say I’d stuck to my “no songs with cursing go on my mix CDs” rule that honestly no one cared about anyway. Whatever. It’s still a fun song, but I have to read it as an angry declaration of the dumpee meeting the natural consequences of her decision, rather than the singer proactively promising to pour out his wrath on her, in order to walk away from it without wanting to punch Adam Levine in the face for being a big jerk.
9) “Asthma”, P.O.D. (Payable on Death, 2003)
Asthma might be a reason why it’s harder to breathe. This was definitely one of the few intense rockers on P.O.D.’s latest, and I liked its analogy between a person why physically struggled to get oxygen and a person wrongfully judged by the holier-than-thou. Let’s just say that P.O.D. had more than a bit of first-hand experience with being under the pop culture microscope at this point, with Christians in particular analyzing every detail of their behavior and lyrics and album art, as if looking for something to criticize. Sure, I never thought they were the smartest band in the world, but I appreciated the gap that they were trying to bridge.
10) “Grace Like a River”, Delirious? (World Service, 2003)
Grace is the antidote to all of that judgment, all of that suffocation. My first reaction to this track at the beginning of the new Delirious? album, which I remember playing for Christine on our way up the mountain on that Saturday we decided to trek up to Big Bear in the dead of winter, was that the guitar riff rose up like fire, burning out all of the sin and judgment and bad stuff in the past and leaving only the good. The new year felt like a gracious gift – a chance to start anew and redefine who we were in light of God’s love for us, not our own failed plans.
11) “Harbor”, Vienna Teng (Warm Strangers, 2004)
What started out as an instrumental experiment in 5/8 time (the missing title track from Waking Hour) blossomed into a fully realized pop song, shifting between several time signatures yet paradoxically ending up as one of Vienna’s signature songs, and probably the most obvious “single” from her new album if such a thing needed to even be defined. It was certainly a highlight of the first of many concerts we would see her perform at the Hotel Cafe in Hollywood over the next few years. Beyond the musical genius of it, I loved the message of encouragement as she wrote from the point of view of her own lover, someone encouraging her to go out and have all of the adventures she needed to have and promising he’d be her safe harbor when it came time for her to return home. That to me is one of the greatest expressions of love… the willingness to let someone go and not hold them back, and the assurance that they’ll be back in due time anyway because they love you just as much.
12) “Open Skies”, David Crowder Band (Illuminate, 2003)
“Praise Him under open skies, everything breathing praising God.” For me, the sanctuary that inspires the most reverence is not an ornate, man-made building, but rather the canopy of trees and clouds and stars that form the roof of nature itself. It’s the reason why I feel the most “spiritual” when I can just get away from it all and go off to the beach or the mountains or somewhere exotic, to marvel anew at God’s imagination. This jubilant worship song reflects that feeling, simply describing all of creation in harmony, praising the God who created it all.
13) “Lonely People”, Jars of Clay (Who We Are Instead, 2003)
It was Khat who first introduced me to America and The Eagles and Firefall a lot of their 70’s soft rock contemporaries. That was her favorite stuff and she hated that it got a bad rap. So she was absolutely tickled to discover that Jars of Clay, rediscovering their acoustic roots on their new album, went ahead and covered one of America’s best-known songs. I’ll be honest – it’s a little inane. “Drink from the silver cup and ride that highway in the sky”? What does that even mean? But it’s a fun reprise of an oldie, and I think Jars helped to give it a little context, or at least a touch of bluegrassy goodness if nothing else.
14) “One of You”, Vertical Horizon (Go, 2003)
Vertical Horizon could be so economical with words that their lyrics didn’t make sense to me sometimes – case in point, this aggressive rocker that had a solid riff but whose lyrics mostly contradicted themselves. It was fun figuring out the riff on my acoustic guitar, but then VH’s musical approach tended to be pretty basic, too. I pretty much got over them after this point, and they dropped off the pop culture radar for several years anyway.
15) “Numb”, Linkin Park (Meteora, 2003)
I honestly thought this one was “Pushing Me Away, Pt. 2” on first listen, but it grew on me. I think it became more popular after it got mashed up with Jay-Z’s “Encore”, but I still prefer the original recipe. I was caravanning with some friends on the way out to Devil’s Punchbowl, in the high desert out past Palmdale, for a hike in January when someone rummaging through my CD collection decided to put on Meteora. One very talkative friend by the name of Evelyn was in my car at the time, and all of Chester Bennington’s screaming scared her somewhat.
16) “Endless Sacrifice”, Dream Theater (Train of Thought, 2003)
Train of Thought was my second dip into Dream Theater’s deep well. It was their darkest, angriest album by a long shot, but also quite musically accomplished… if you could overlook some of the corny lyrics, at least. I thought this song, at its monstrous 11-minute length, fared the best, paying tribute to the sacrifice made by the lover who stayed home and let the adventurer (read: musician) go out and roam the world and do his thing, even when at times he feels the pull of home and would rather just pull the plug on the whole show and be back with her. It’s kind of the opposite perspective of “Harbor”, though in a way different musical world (with about as many time signature changes, though). It seemed like a solid note to finish side one on, especially with that classic drum crescendo at the end! Christine mistook this for Petra the first time I played it. I guess I can remotely see the vocal resemblance, but everything else… haha, NO.
At the end of February, I finally got to return to a place I’d been longing to visit for eight years – Joshua Tree National Park. Mark and the Evergreen Hiking Ministry organized a camping trip there, which I really wanted to be part of despite just having gotten back from Hawaii and having virtually no time to rest in between. It was ridiculously cold in that weekened – so much so that I woke up shaking and had to scramble for more clothes the first night, and saw a gorgeous desert sunrise due to not being able to sleep past 5 AM. But getting to explore that desert and climb those rocks again was a dream come true for me. This is a picture of a rock pile at the end of the parking area in Hidden Valley, taken while climbing up another rock pile adjacent to it. I’ve never been one for extreme outdoor adventure, but free-hand “scrambling” is an amazingly fun sport when you’re out there with people who know what they’re doing, and you want to see if you can figure out how to get to the top of something.
Where in the world is this?
1) “Upside Down”, Barenaked Ladies (Everything to Everyone, 2003)
A song about complacency vs. change. You’ve heard that change is good for you, but you’re comfortable where you’re at, so you make all sorts of silly rationalizations about why you don’t want to turn you upside down. This is classic, self-deprecating, and self-destructive Steven Page, set a to a manic “accordion rock” soundtrack that I found irresistible.
2) “Autobahn”, Anberlin (Blueprints for the Black Market, 2003)
A simple ode to the joy of driving. I could think of few better ways to spend a Saturday than hitting the open road with Christine as my passenger and a favorite CD in the car stereo, with an ultimate destination in mind, but willing to stop and explore spontaneously along the way. Getting there was less important than enjoying the trip.
3) “New Gold Dream (81, 82, 83, 84)”, The Echoing Green (The Winter of Our Discontent, 2003)
The Echoing Green loves their 80’s remakes – this was a Simple Minds cover, not a song that I was personally familiar with, but one with enough energy to get me pumped. It was a particularly motivating soundtrack for a hike one drizzly afetrnoon during our visit to Oahu, when I had taken a wrong turn looking for the Aiea Loop trail, and ended up at Pali Lookout, exploring the old Pali Highway that was now overrun with weeds and boulders, and which was fun to walk down while enjoying the view of Kaneohe, but which took a little more motivation to walk back up after it starting raining. This song had the sort of beat to it that made it perfect for a workout.
4) “With You”, Delirious? (World Service, 2003)
I’m strongly reminded of our last day on Maui whenever I listen to World Service. I had played it in the rental car on the way to Iao Valley, and later as we drove back to the airport. This exhilirating, piano-based rocker probably cut it a bit too close to ripping off Coldplay’s “Clocks”. I wasn’t yet at the point where I’d heard that done a million times, so this became one of my instant favorites despite being something I’d have criticized if it had come out a year or so later.
5) “Through with You”, Maroon5 (Songs About Jane, 2002)
I put “With You” and “Through with You” together just to be ironic. They don’t really fit musically or mood-wise. Nor was anything going on in my life that fit the song, since it’s a pretty harsh breakup song that Christine rightfully observed sounded a bit like the work of a boy band. Not that she minded boy bands; she just found it funny that I was listening to this sort of thing, and I tried to counter that these guys were an actual band, but that wasn’t a particularly defensible position.
6) “All I Need”, Matchbox Twenty (More than You Think You Are, 2002)
You could take this song at face value and it would simply feel like Rob Thomas whining about being lonely and needing someone. (Which a lot of his songs do.) But I took it as having more of a sarcastic bent to it, describing the heartbreak others go through when they dive into relationships without looking where they’re going, and basically saying “Yeah, that’s exactly what I need right now” with a big roll of the eyes. I figure if you look for a relationship just for the sake of having one, you run the risk of settling for someone who will use your desperation to manipulate you, so it’s better to be sure you really want the specific person rather than just the general experience of “falling in love” and having a significant other.
7) “How Long Have You Been Stoned?”, Over the Rhine (Ohio, 2003)
The lone rocker on the long, sprawling Ohio, buried deep within the second disc. It stood out to me for obvious reasons, and despite the title and the burned-out vocals, I don’t think it’s specifically about drugs, just about going through your life so zoned out that you don’t really care about what’s going on. Maybe bad experiences led you to apathy, or maybe there’s some addiction or preoccupation keeping you from seeing how you’re just getting used. It can be a dark and defeating place to exist, with time sort of zooming around you until you don’t know how you became so old and jaded.
8) “In the Morning”, Norah Jones (Feels Like Home, 2004)
Norah’s new album was another one that I got a sneak peek at due to a pre-release leak. This was a clever song, which seemed to be about learning to let go of a guy who was bad for her on the surface, but which was really about attempting to quit coffee cold turkey. Caffeine is an insidious drug – it’s perfectly legal and not as naughty on the surface as anything you might get “stoned” on, but it’s funny how it can take over your life like a bad relationship if not kept under control. I used to way overdo it on the caffeine back in college, without realizing it, and I had to learn to scale it way back or else I’d have a pounding heart and crazy insomnia. These days I still love my coffee and couldn’t imagine never having any again, but if a day goes by without it, it’s not a big deal.
9) “Jealous Kind”, Jars of Clay feat. Ashley Cleveland (Who We Are Instead, 2003)
As a bridge from the more bitter taste of the previous songs into some more reflective stuff, I placed this confessional highlight from WWAI. It’s one of Jars of Clay’s starkest songs, basically admitting to complete depravity before God, but turning into a rousing prayer of thankfulness toward the end. It’s the perfect song for realizing you’ve gotten caught up in idols – relationships, drugs, the caffeine you can’t start your day without, unwillingness to change, whatever distractions they may be – and you just need to start over with a clean slate and plead, “God, take me in again and grant me new life.”
10) “All the Stars”, Eastmountainsouth (Eastmountainsouth, 2003)
This is actually a pretty sad song about a would-be celebrity who burned out before he was ever recognized, but it’s got such a peaceful, cinematic scope to it that it feels perfect for a night spent staring up at the sky in wonder. Pretty much all of Eastmountainsouth’s lone album makes me think back to that chilly but beautiful day spend driving through the mountains to Lake Arrowhead and Big Bear, but especially this song.
11) “Far Away from Here”, Avalon (The Creed, 2004)
This is more or less Avalon’s typical dance-pop formula coming out to play, but it was a fun enough song about looking forward to Heaven, the place where heartbreak and disease and so forth ceased to exist. I don’t know why I was initially so eager to proclaim that Avalon’s new configuration (with Greg Long joining his wife Janna in the group after founding member Michael Passons departed) was in any way an improvement. He just didn’t seem to fit the group’s vibe all that well – not to mention being awkwardly Photoshopped into their press photos at first! But whatever, I didn’t expect much but simplistic pop fluff from Avalon at this point anyway.
12) “Good-Bye”, Christine Denté (Becoming, 2003)
A more articulate song about Heaven, and its unexpected intrusion into mortal life, came at the end of a lovely little solo album by the voice of Out of the Grey. I had bought it as a gift for Christine to celebrate our “year and a half anniversary” back in December, but really, I just wanted an excuse for the two of us to enjoy new music together, by someone who felt like an old friend. Christine Denté had the sort of voice and wistful feel to her songwriting that generally put me in a lovey-dovey mood.
13) “Too High”, Dave Matthews (Some Devil, 2003)
The previous song faces its mortality with a knowing smile. This might be the flipside – Dave sees himself veering too close to the brink, decides he’s not ready yet, and slams on the brakes. He’s always had a weird obsession with death, but he’s written some incredibly dramatic songs about it, and this one could have easily been the climactic moment on a DMB record if he hadn’t used it on his solo disc instead. Either way, I love how the light but tense acoustic guitar rhythm builds into this cacophony of horns and strings near the end – like you’re seeing the light at the end of the tunnel, but being assaulted by oncoming cars as you try to fight the flow of traffic and escape back to Earth.
14) “Deliver Me”, David Crowder Band (Illuminate, 2003)
Of all things, the DCB went and covered classical vocalist Sarah Brightman. Their version of this simple prayer is minor-key, moody, and epic in its scope, evoking a feeling of desperation that momentarily hangs on its last note – “Come pull me through” – before plunging forth into its epic instrumental outro, “Coming Toward”. It was when I was playing this song in the car that Christine asked me if we were ever going to see this band live. I decided then and there that I’d make the arrangements, since they were coming to Azusa Pacific University that spring.
15) “Life to Me”, ZOEgirl (Different Kind of FREE, 2003)
ZOEgirl wasn’t all teenybopper pop music. Some of their mellower stuff could be particularly adult contemporary, but I felt that this praise song with its long, slow build was a beautifully understated ending to an album that attempted to expand their sound beyond their original target audience (so that maybe I could feel a little less weird about liking them?) This was sort of my farewell to the group – they released one more album before breaking up, but I had grown out of a lot of the CCM pop stuff by then.
16) “A Skeleton of Something More”, Sleeping at Last (Ghosts, 2003)
I didn’t realize what an amazing discovery I had on my hands when Sleeping at Last was first recommended to me. Andree, who used to post at the Phorum and who became a noteworthy music critic at CMCentral and later Christianity Today, had strongly suggested that I missed the boat by not having this band on my “Best of 2003” list, so I checked out their debut album and was met with a dreamy, swirly sort of alternative rock sound that was bursting at the seams with interesting poetry, but that didn’t seem to catch on during the first several listens. Interestingly, this song found itself stuck in my head during our trip to Maui, when we were out and about seeing the superlative sights at Haleakala and the Road to Hana and so forth. I hadn’t even brought Sleeping at Last’s music with me, so it was a remnant from something I’d listened to at least a week prior. But the haunting wisps of this lovely song sunk in and wouldn’t let me go, and that was the beginning of my love for a band that remains one of my favorites still today.