In the summer of 2004, I began to set plans in motion to take hold of the future I really wanted for myself and Christine. Slightly hampering those plans: A few sudden, unexpected financial difficulties. It was demoralizing at first, but I was beginning to believe quite strongly in the value of delayed gratification.
In with the New:
Out with the Old:
The Echoing Green
It Was Worth a Try:
Listen on Spotify:
Christine and I went to our first Evergreen Church Camp in July 2004, at Concordia University in Irvine. It was great to get away and be with people from our church over the wekend, and more or less have a whole college campus to ourselves. We had worship in their chapel, and I really liked this picture that Christine took of Pastor Melvin (seen at the very bottom of the picture) leading worship, dwarfed by the massive pipe organ. It kind of reminded me of how our attempts to express worship are so miniscule compared to God’s glory, but they permeate the heavens all the same.
Where in the world is this?
1) “21st Century Darlings”, Kevin Max (Between the Fence and the Universe EP, 2004)
We had seen Kevin Max perform live at the Hard Rock Cafe in Beverly Hills almost a year prior. His backup band were members of Luna Halo. He was previewing a lot of new album material at the time, some of which got released in the form of an EP the following year. This was my most-anticipated track on the EP: A snarling, bewildering rocker with verses in 11/8 time or something like that. I’m not normally the type of fanboy who actually has the gumption to approach a musician after a show, but I decided that just this once, I should be brave, and go tell Kevin how his willingness to explore the tension between his Christian faith and his unique personality had inspired me, and to tell him, “Keep on being a freak” or something like that. He referred to himself that night as “God’s little Frakenstein”. It was fitting. He doesn’t seem to fit into typical Christian subculture, or really want to.
2) “Rains Pour Down”, Something Like Silas (Divine Invitation, 2004)
Also fast and furious, though a bit more conventional on the rhythmic side of things, was this frantic worship song, pleading for God to bring rain to a dry, thirsty soul. This one was best enjoyed at the peak of one of L.A.’s hot, dry summers.
3) “Bring Me Down”, Pillar (Where Do We Go From Here?, 2004)
I make fun of Pillar a lot, but I couldn’t deny that this song kicked ass. All of the factors that normally made them sound a bit silly (the rappy vocals, the screams, etc.) were well-placed and fiercely executed here, with what might just be the best hook the band’s ever come up with. It had me convinced for five minutes or so that the group might finally be maturing. More likely, they were probably just trying to escape the sinking ship that was nu-metal music in those days. (Later on, they decided they just plain didn’t care and more or less split the difference between this and their old sound. And my interest in them dropped off quite sharply. So this song is probably where they peaked.)
4) “Cycle Down”, Skillet (Collide, 2003)
This was a bit of an intentional song title gag on my part, stringing three hard-hitting songs with the word “Down” in their title together. This one hit so viciously and then came to such an abrupt ending that it seemed really freaking strange to have it as the closing track on Collide. I felt like it worked better in the middle of a raucuous succession of harder rock songs.
5) “What Happened to Us?”, Hoobastank (The Reason, 2003)
I was getting a lot of good music recommendations from Tim and Krista in those days – we’d more or less toss music over the wall at one another just to see what stuck. This was one of Tim’s suggestions, and initially I had sort of considered Hoobastank as a bit of a poor man’s Linkin Park, but that wasn’t really a poor comparison, as they leaned closer to power pop than anything rap or nu-metal-oriented (at least on this album). I would soon get sick and tired of hearing “The Reason” everywhere I went in the ensuing months, but most of the album was almost criminally catchy, and I was particularly struck by this sad (but bouncy!) song about two young lovers who somehow went from thinking they could conquer the world together, to waking up one day and realizing they hardly knew each other. It made me think back to how things had gotten derailed with Sharon all those years ago. I wasn’t gonna let that happen again.
6) “Broken Heart”, Falling Up (Crashings, 2004)
This was a safe enough debut single for Falling Up – it had all the energy without the spastic genre-hopping that might have freaked people out on some of their other tracks. It was actually one of the tracks on their first record that took the longest to grow on me, probably due to its (comparatively) more direct lyrical approach. It seemed appropriate to fade in with this as “What Happened to Us?” faded out. “Father, Healer, deliver me from broken love.”
7) “Love Song”, Anberlin (Blueprints for the Black Market, 2003)
Not one, but two bands had the audacity to cover a classic song by The Cure (at least, it seemed like audacity to hear a Cure fan react to it) within the span of a few months’ time. The more popular cover was 311’s version, featured in the credits of 50 First Dates, which had quickly become a favorite movie for me and Christine. That version took more chances, recasting the song with a bit of a reggae vibe, and I couldn’t decide whether I liked that or Anberlin’s more straightforward cover better (which followed the rules of the original, just adding more guitar crunch). Ultimately I went with Anberlin, just because I was listening to their record so darn much that I couldn’t help but keep cherry picking songs from it.
8) “White Trash Wedding”, Dixie Chicks (Home, 2002)
This one’s here as a big LOL at my own expense. Let me explain that, because I don’t want to give the incorrect impression that Christine and I were thinking about getting married to an unexpected pregnancy, or that it took alcohol to eventually get me to the altar (which is how it goes for the hapless couple in this song). The main hook here was a taunt to the redneck groom who had gotten the bride-to-be into this mess: “You can’t afford no ring.” Through some incredibly stupid negligence on my part, I had failed to realize that when I consolidated my college loans in 2003, one of the three loans hadn’t qualified, so that one remained separate, still needing to be paid each month on its own. Since I’d been lazy about forwarding my mail, bills were still going to my Mom’s house for the old loan. So it went unpaid for several months, and eventually went into default status, which is when the collection agency called me with what turned out to be a rather rude surprise. I needed to come up with about five thousand dollars stat, and at the time I didn’t have that much in savings. What I did have saved up was supposed to pay for an engagement ring and a special trip so that I could pop the question. I’d already been hinting to Christine that I wanted to take her on a trip – I didn’t say why, but come on, she knew! So I felt pretty stupid and frustrated when I suddenly had to reroute all of my savings (and some quickly borrowed funds from my 401k) into paying off this looming loan before they sent uido to come break my legs or whatever. The special trip, unfortunately, had to be postponed. And none of that was any fun – but sometimes you have to step back from a truly aggravating situation and have a good laugh at yourself to remember that it’s not the end of the world.
9) “The Dress Looks Nice on You”, Sufjan Stevens (Seven Swans, 2004)
This ended up being my favorite track on Seven Swans – a brief, modest track, but what a lovely one! It was a reminder of what I had to look forward to as I fought through all of these stupid financial hassles and the big, looming unknown that was our future. I couldn’t wait for that day when I got to see Christine walk down the aisle in her wedding dress. I knew that I would just melt at that moment.
10) “I Do”, Abra Moore (Everything Changed, 2004)
Ha ha, that song title’s another pun. A bunch of songs about marriage and life commitment surround it, but this one isn’t about marriage. It’s more of an affirmation that no matter what you go through, no matter how much you think the world can’t seem to understand or love you, I do. I think it was an affirmation that Christine needed to hear as she faced the rejection of going from job to job that year, trying to find something that was a good fit for her, but often being saddled with unfair workloads and impatient managers. I was listening to this song when she called one day to tell me she’d found a new job – one that she felt reasonably happy about and that would turn out to be one of her more solid and reliable ones. When I asked where she got the job, she said, “I got it at Ross.”
11) “‘Til the Day I Die”, Third Day (Wire, 2004)
Pretty basic stuff here: A big, confident Southern rocker built to assure you that no one can love you like I love you. Probably meant to have a more spiritual implication, since it’s Third Day and you know how Christian bands are about romantic love songs. Still, the whole reason God gave us marriage was to help us gain a greater understanding of that overpowering, unconditional love. We can never perfectly reflect it, but we learn so much about ourselves by trying.
12) “Out Is Through”, Alanis Morissette (So-Called Chaos, 2004)
So-Called Chaos seemed to be Alanis’s rare “happy album”, most of it written when she was dating and engaged to Ryan Reynolds. Even though that tragically fell apart, it seemed like she gained a lot of wisdom from it, and I liked that this song tried to split the difference between acknowledging that real love is difficult and fraught with conflicts. People seem to believe that true love is effortless, that you see everything eye-to-eye, and that leaves a lot of couples shell-shocked when they have their first big fight, as if it means they must be with the wrong person. It doesn’t mean that at all. I’d learned from both of my relationships – the one that didn’t work out and the one that ultimately did – that you get to know each other a lot better by pushing on to get through the conflict, to really work it out, rather than just sweeping it aside and pretending it’s not really happening. I’ve actually told people who are considering getting married that I wouldn’t recommend it until they’d had at least one big fight and realize they still really love each other after that. If that person is willing to take you in after seeing you at your worst, then you’ve got something incredibly good.
13) “Echoes of Heaven”, Christine Denté (Becoming, 2003)
You can’t tell me that this isn’t an Out of the Grey song. That rich, percussive acoustic riff is pure Scott Denté, so this was clearly a team effort. Naming conventions aside, This was the perfect soundtrack for a long, peaceful sunset on a summer’s evening – the kind of moment where you can almost reach out and touch the innocence of childhood again. I’ve always held a special level of affection for songs that talk about finding God in nature. Earth may be messy, dirty, full of disappointments and the consequences of our mistakes, but every now and then, it just takes one glimpse of the untouched beauty of creation to remember who’s in control and how much more He has in store for us.
14) “Bittersweet”, The Echoing Green (The Winter of Our Discontent, 2003)
This aching, mechanical track feels like it’s trying in vain to grab hold of those beautiful, innocent days as they fade like the waning rays of the sun. Is it just a fundamental truth that we must grow more wary and jaded as we get older? I feel like at certain periods of my life, I’ve been able to grab hold of enough happiness that I honestly find myself drifting back toward innocent optimism, and away from the more cynical, sardonic view of life that most people probably know me for. I just can’t quite seem to hang on to it. Stuff hits me unprepared. It’s like I can’t taste the sweet without also tasting the bitter, so having a sober awareness of the bitter while not losing faith in the sweet seems to be what keeps me balanced, realistic, less likely to be blindsided by disappointment. But is that who God really designed me to be?
15) “Feather Moon”, Vienna Teng (Warm Strangers, 2004)
Probably the most abstract, spacious song that Vienna has ever written. It took a while to make heads or tails of it, and it was certainly a challenging track for her to open an album with. Its foreboding mood seemed perfect here, after “Bittersweet” – the sun had gone down, that glimpse of gleeful innocence was seemingly gone forever, and now you were left grasping in the dark for familiar landmarks. The chorus felt like a simple mantra designed to take the edge off of the stress caused by this sudden, disorienting loss: “Breathe in, breathe out, exhale, inhale.”
16) “Twilight”, Shaun Groves (Twilight, 2003)
Life exists in the tension between happy and sad, between sin and righteousness. Day and night are always fighting for control. Shaun Groves summed it up quite well in this quiet, reflective song that admitted to this broken cycle, while trying its best to see the glass half full. In the midst of dark night, you can’t really see anything, and during the day, the light can be so blinding that you might forget the possibility of that light leaving you even exists. It’s in the twilight, the transition period between the two, where we have the most honest view of ourselves. It’s interesting that the actual moment of the sun dipping below the horizon, or coming back up again the next morning, tends to be one of the most revered moment of the day, the one that makes us temporarily put a stop to whatever we’re doing and just admire the changing colors.
In August, a group of Japanese kids from Kobo Cottage, an orphanage in Japan that our church supported, came to visit some families from Evergreen. They got the royal tour of Southern California, including Disneyland, Hollywood, and the San Diego Zoo. They needed volunteers to help look after the kids (teenagers, actually) so that they wouldn’t get lost at the zoo, so Christine and I volunteered to go along. We couldn’t really communicate with them beyond hand gestures and other vague ways of indicating “Come this way!”, but we had a good time at the zoo, and it was interesting to see what aspects of American culture were a novelty to them.
Where in the world is this?
1) “Shekina”, Blindside (About a Burning Fire, 2004)
“Shekina” is a terms that translates to “God’s glory manifested among men”. I have an oddly specific memory of this song that dates back to the afternoon of July 31, 2004, when it was running through my head. Evergreen’s church camp was that weekend, but Christine and I had left camp during afternoon free time to attend Jeff and Clara’s wedding, which was back up in L.A. County, so close to my apartment in San Gabriel that it wasn’t worth going back to camp during the break between the ceremony and the reception. (We had seen others from camp, amusingly friends of the bride when I was a college friend of the groom, who had come up for the wedding and who presumably faced the same dilemma.) So we just hung out at my apartment, blasting the A/C for a few hours and taking a much needed nap (since it’s impossible for me to sleep on retreats), and it was one of the most relaxed and happy afternoons in my life. God’s glory had certainly been shown at the wedding – we were so happy for Jeff and Clara, and looking forward to our own wedding even though nothing was “official” quite yet. I just felt overhwelmingly blessed that afternoon. (Also: I put this song at the beginning of Disc Two, because the Swedish yodeling lady at the beginning of the song sounds to me like she’s singing “CD Two”.)
2) “Ocean Breathes Salty”, Modest Mouse (Good News for People Who Love Bad News, 2004)
Some of the Phorumers got me into Modest Mouse that summer. They didn’t take easily – was alternately amused and annoyed by Isaac Brock’s wide array of vocal yelps and occasional profanity-laced outbursts. The band had a certain spastic character that was fun, though, and for me, that was best exemplified in this upstart song that expressed a heavy dose of skepticism about the afterlife. I’ve always believed in an afterlife (obviously), but I do agree with the notion that if you spend this life sitting around and waiting to be whisked away into a better afterlife, you’ve kind of wasted the time you were given here. Mostly I didn’t think about stuff, and instead I just enjoyed shouting along: “Well, THAT is THAT and THIS is THIS!!!”
3) “A Crow Left of the Murder”, Incubus (A Crow Left of the Murder, 2004)
Incubus was making their own attempt at being more lyrically abstract than usual yet. It’s still a bit of a headscratcher for me, but I’m reasonably certain it has something to do with standing out from the crowd, and unlearning habits that previously led you to just go along with group-think.
4) “No Fear”, Abra Moore (Everything Changed, 2004)
“There is no fear in love”. That’s basically the driving force of this song, which somehow manages to mix chirpy, girlish vocals, trumpet fanfares, and a chilled-out trip-hop vibe to recreate the feeling of being so in love that you don’t care what the crowd thinks or how cold the rest of the world can be.
5) “Simply”, Pillar (Where Do We Go From Here?, 2004)
“You simply love, despite all the stupid things I’ve done.” Grace seems to be one of those cyclic things. We sin, we learn that all can be forgiven, we ask for forgiveness, but then we forget what we’ve learned and still let our sins get us down. Sometimes it’s those who feel like they’ve fallen the farthest who are best able to grasp how much they’ve been forgiven. Sometimes the hardest sin to “kick” is our very lack of belief in the grace of God, as if we had somehow figured out a way to mess up badly enough that we could be an exception to the “multitude of sins” that we were taught love could cover.
6) “Sleeping Jesus”, Neal Morse (Testimony, 2003)
Testimony was a sprawling double album that ditched the usual prog rock allegories and told, rather matter-of-factly, the tale of how Neal Morse came to be a Christian. While intricately composed and technically accomplished, a lot of it was so straightforward that it struck me as a bit corny. But I liked the imagery in this song, which seemed to describe the hand of God working in Neal’s life before he was even aware of it – a “sleeping Jesus” living inside of him that was slowly being awakened. The acoustic guitar breakdown in this one was absolutely thrilling, too.
7) “Spirit Waltz”, Something Like Silas (Divine Invitation, 2004)
“Jesus, my heart cannot break enough for Your love, a well that runs deep within my soul.” Such a quiet, peaceful, unassuming little slow dance of a worship song. It was little more than acoustic guitars strumming in 3/4 time, some subtle bells and background vocals, and maybe an accordion. I grew to love its quiet approach, intentionally avoiding a big, overblown, radio single type of chorus, sort of maintaining a hippie vibe throughout, until the fade at the end which changed the setting from campfire to cathedral, as Malina’s bells and organs gradually took over. It became one of my favorite worship songs, and it was a great early hint at the sort of grandeur that would later be evoked by the reconfigured version of SLS known as Future of Forestry.
8) “Feel It Comin’ On”, Delirious? (World Service, 2003)
“When You call my name, it feels like Heaven.” This song was a fun victory lap near the end of World Service; I couldn’t listen to it without getting the image of someone running across an open field, towards a great, blinding light.
9) “Animal Skin”, Joe Henry (Tiny Voices, 2003)
Leading straight from an upbeat Delirious? song into this smoky jazz song was probably one of my more awkward and ill-conceived transitions. I had a handful of worship songs and then a string of sad/melancholy songs, and I couldn’t really figure out a logical way to get from one mood to the other, so I just sort of jumped the tracks. This song’s definitely about temptation – something that’s physically avoided but secretly craved. It’s sort of a soundtrack for the things that happen under cover of night, when we assume no one else is watching.
10) “B.P.D.”, Over the Rhine (Ohio, 2003)
Ohio was always a bit of a task for me to get through from end to end, but in terms of individual songs that really grabbed my attention, it was the gift that kept on giving. This one was right up front on the album, sort of OTR’s version of a “power ballad” that went from their usual, quiet piano into something a little more gritty and indie-rock oriented near the end, while lamenting/lampooning someone’s Borderline Personality Disorder and the constant messes it caused them to make. Sometimes I feel like that person, trying to hide the fact that he has two personalities, because the thoughtful, humorous, happy-go-lucky guy who goes to church and leads worship and stuff is just a whole lot easier to be friends with than the moody, temperamental, impatient guy who struggles with things you’re not supposed to talk about in polite Christian company. I can’t be the only one who compartmentalizes like this, of course. But because it’s natural to not want our darker sides to show, everyone who lives this sort of “double life” can be fooled into thinking they’re the only one.
11) “The Ballad of Young Alban and Amandy”, Eastmountainsouth (Eastmountainsouth, 2003)
A simple folk ballad, dressed up with pounding drums and twangy bouzouki riffs (or whatever exotic instrument that is), which tells the epic tale of a kidnapped maiden and the hero who raced the clock to save her, and how they rode off into the sunset together. Like Braveheart with a happier ending, or something. I have no idea whether this was an actual traditional folk song, or just something Kat and Peter made up to sound like it was.
12) “For the Driver”, Ron Sexsmith (Retriever, 2004)
A thoughtful acoustic song that expresses sympathy for the person who gets labeled “the bad guy” in tragic situations, but who was really just in the wrong place at the wrong time. It’s one of those lyrics that says so much about human nature in so few lines – the way I see it is that we have trouble making sense of tragedies that seem to happen by pure accident, that we have to have somewhere to direct the anger, and since you can’t really get anywhere being mad at the universe itself, the blame usually gets deflected to people who were mere pawns in the overall scheme of things. At least, that’s how I am when circumstances go awry – I get mad at the people who I think could have theoretically prevented the situation from happening. The hardest thing for me to accept sometimes is that a situation is nobody’s fault – Murphy’s Law just kicked in at the worst possible time, as it is wont to do.
13) “Passage”, Vienna Teng (Warm Strangers, 2004)
It seemed appropriate to follow up a song about the “at fault” driver’s perspective with one that follows the viewpoint of the person who died in the car crash. This one is astoundingly chilling – absolutely nothing other than Vienna’s voice and the distant noise of nature and highway sounds. A disembodied voice chronicles the gradual changes in the lives of everyone she loved, how they reacted to the tragedy and eventually moved on over the following weeks, months, years. It’s grippingly sad in one sense, because the course of events is irrevocably changed without her present in their lives, and yet it’s also hopeful, because these people learn how to cope with the tragedy, and eventually how to love, trust, face life again. I like to think of this as the song that kicked off a grand tradition on Vienna’s albums, where the penultimate track is generally guaranteed to FREAK YOU THE HELL OUT.
14) “Ghosts”, Sleeping at Last (Ghosts, 2003)
A song about ghosts seemed appropriate after the musings about dead people. Though this one’s probably not literally about human souls that are having trouble passing on into the afterflife. Rather, it’s more about the nagging things that hold us back, the regrets over past decisions we should have made differently, the worries over dreams that might go unrealized. “The doves come to gather our every need, they lift them up to Heaven through us now.” Sometimes I have this habit of separating my “spiritual” side from my “practical” side, so worship songs and prayers and theology and all that “God” stuff seems well and good when I’m in the appropriate venue, but once step out of it, worry takes over and it’s up to me to solve all of it. That’s a fancy way of saying that I have trouble truly giving the things which haunt me over to God, even though my head knowledge reminds me that God knows my needs, even in times where what I think I need is far from what I actually do.
15) “Circle Up”, Chris Rice (Run the Earth, Watch the Sky, 2003)
It’s fitting that a beautiful album with songs that are heavy on nostalgia and longing for heaven would conclude with what feels like a campfire song about the afterlife. It sounds like something designed for a camp counselor to teach a group of kids to sing around the fire, yet it’s really about the multitudes of people gathering around the throne to offer praise to God. A bit corny? Perhaps, but also delightfully peaceful. I would have wrapped the album with this one since it’s a nice concluding thought after all of the melancholy stuff about death and ghosts, but I never end with a track that actually concluded the album, so…
16) “Seven Swans”, Sufjan Stevens (Seven Swans, 2004)
Whoa boy. This one definitely goes back to the chilling side of things – it’s a dramatic folk song that lifts its lyrics from the book of Revelation, imagining the destruction that will b wreaked at the time of the Apocalypse. it doesn’t shy away from some of the disturbing imagery, and yet there’s a sense of peace and majesty at the end of it when all the voices wail “He is the LOOOORD!”, as if to illustrate both the upside and the downside of no one being able to escape the glory of God. It’s a testament to exactly how much Sufjan gets away with simply by being a multi-talented musician with an oddball personality and an aversion to his music being lumped in with the rest of “Christian music” – even when he’s blatantly straightforward about his Christian beliefs, he comes up with something that can be respected on its own merits. Most self-proclaimed “Christian rock” acts would go down in flames (no pun intended) if they tried to pull off something like this. I must have been in a weird mood when I chose to end with this song, but on the other hand, it’s got a definite air of finality to it.