Christine and I were just insatiable when it came to traveling in 2007. Perhaps it was the sense that we figured at the time we might start a family soon, and that we should get the exploring out of our systems while we still could. As it turned out, that goal was a lot further off than either of us could have anticipated at the time. We needed the time, not just to explore the grand sights and backroads of California together, but to more fully explore and understand each other, too.
In with the New:
The Polyphonic Spree
Listen on Spotify:
The travel bug led us through the miserably hot San Joaquin Valley over Labor Day weekend, and up into the relatively cooler Sierra Mountains, traversing the winding highways that led through Sequoia and King’s Canyon National Parks. This picture was taken from near the end of the road in King’s Canyon, not long after we had gotten out of the car to talk to the occupant of the small vehicle driving ahead of us – who we just so happened to recognize as our friend David from church. He had chosen to drive up on his own for a mini-camping trip that very same weekend. We ended up caravanning together out of the canyon and through Sequoia, and it was one of those awesomely rare experiences of traveling with a friend that we probably wouldn’t have thought to plan ahead of time on purpose, because our travel schedules never seem to line up with other people’s once we’ve figured out where and when we want to go.
Where in the world is this?
1) “The Championship”, The Polyphonic Spree (The Fragile Army, 2007)
I can think of lots of bands that seem to have a cult following, but The Polyphonic Spree was pretty unique for embracing a quasi-cult image, basically being a rock band built around a massive choir and an array of instrumentalists, with upwards of 30 people in the band at different times. They had weird choral robes, and later uniforms, to reinforce this image, but as far as I can tell their music wasn’t overtly religious. It just had about twice the fervor of a lot of religious music, which was kind of fun for those in on the joke. The final track on their second album was such a glorious victory lap that I had to include it as the opening track here. It just takes off running, making a mad sprint to the finish line, apparently celebrating a victory of unity and basic human decency over dogamtic or political forces that would seek to keep people at odds with one another.
2) “Rewind”, Deas Vail (All the Houses Look the Same, 2007)
This early single, from a band that was quickly becoming one of my favorites, continued in the mood of “running at breakneck speed toward something glorious”. The shimmering guitars, fast-paced drums, and glowing piano made me imagine an invincible video game character busting through energy barriers and racking up one hell of a high score. It was a peaceful song despite the frantic pace of it, as Wes’s sweet falsetto explained “This is how it feels to break up sound waves and fall into a quiet place.” I was never much for running myself, but I know some folks who are really into it, and who experience the “runner’s high”, and I bet for them, that’s the magic moment where pure speed and adrenaline converge with a peaceful moment of zen.
3) “Can You Feel It?”, David Crowder Band (Remedy, 2007)
Christine and I saw the David Crowder Band in concert that fall at the Wiltern Theatre, with The Myriad as the opening act. (They’d go on to become a favorite of mine in 2008, but at the time I didn’t realize they had an independently released album out, so sadly they didn’t get any representation on this disc.) While I’d been a bit critical of Remedy for returning to more of a straightforward, simplistic style after the more complex A Collision, I loved what songs like this one did to pump up the energy level. Crowder has always been going about putting the lyrics up on screen so that folks can sing along, and gathered together with that crowd, wanting to be one of those places where two or more being gathered would mean God showed up, I realized for the first time that this song’s chorus was saying “Can’t” where I thought it had said “Can”. “When we can’t feel You there/When we can’t see You there/When we can’t comprehend that You are there/You are there, You’re everywhere.” A lot of worship songs are rather touchy-feely, describing a tactile experience of God that I’m not going to say is incorrect, but it’s at least not literally the case. I absolutely believe people genuinely experience God in those settings, but it’s not something you experience with your five physical sense. It’s something you “feel” in an emotional sense. And sometimes, you don’t feel it. It would be disingenuous to assume that the right combination of words and chords and instruments, awesome as it all may sound, would generate that feeling in every worshiper, every time. A lot of times in the life of a Christian, you have to believe God is there even when you don’t feel that high. And I like how that act of faith is expressed in this song, which acknowledges that the noise of everyday life makes it hard to “feel” or “see” God sometimes, but we don’t need that in order to know God is present among us.
4) “Madmen”, Wavorly (Conquering the Fear of Flight, 2007)
Heh. “Mad Men”. I’m pretty sure this song had absolutely nothing to do with the acclaimed cable drama, which apparently had just premiered earlier in 2007, but I knew nothing of it at the time, and I’m gonna guess the song was written and recorded before that point. This slamming rocker, with its whiplash-y guitar riffs and full-throated vocals, seemed to be about some sort of selfishness or hubris regarding the best laid plans of simple men – “We say that we’re the future/Only want it if it goes our way!” The second verse gave me the biggest clue to what it might be about: “This is the real adventure/To move past what’s mediocre/Obsessed with entertainment/Step up or miss the point of it.” Like a lot of Christian bands, they wanted to get a message across and not just have fun for its own sake. With that said, this song was still a ton of fun and a great way for the band to open the one and only album that they ever made. (I could end up eating my words on that. They’ve apparently announced a reunion, but lead singer Dave Stovall has been busy playing bass for the revolving door that is Audio Adrenaline, so who knows.)
5) “Rocket”, Mae (Singularity, 2007)
So much sheer kinetic energy at the beginning of this disc! I had forgotten how much fun this one was. This late-album surprise from Singularity had meaty guitar riffs and relentless, rolling drums, even though it was also a very synth-happy and melodically inventive song about blasting off into space with someone you love. Metaphorically, at least. It had the same sort of “love makes all things possible” sort of optimism as their earlier song “Anything”, just with a much more frenetic pace to it. I’m bummed that I never got to see Mae play this one live – I’m sure it would have been breathtaking.
6) “Down to Earth”, Barenaked Ladies (Barenaked Ladies, 2007)
Another solid Ed Robertson track from an album where he seemed to have no shortage of witty ideas. The placement of “Rocket” and “Down to Earth” back-to-back was intentional on my part, since I loved this song’s smart-alecky takedown of a celebrity who put on a really good “I’m just like the common people” sort of act while still coming across as way too rich and privileged to be truly relatable. I needed a little cynicism to balance the unrelenting optimism at this point. I have no idea who Ed wrote this song about, but it seems even more apt now, with the rise of social media and various “lifestyle” blogs and way too many starlets trying to convince us they’re normal people while hawking products and “life hacks” and such that often seem a bit too impractical to make a lick of sense to those of us with limited time and resources. As much as Ed seemed to have fun mocking this phenomenon, he admitted he wasn’t above enjoying the guilty pleasure of it all: “Some people are just all show/Well, I don’t mind that if the show is worth watching.”
7) “Hold On”, KT Tunstall (Drastic Fantastic, 2007)
KT made more of an aggressive bid for pop stardom on her second disc. I think it might have come out a bit too soon after Eye to the Telescope gained her some notoriety in the states, which meant she ran the risk of oversaturation, but to be fair, the UK had several years to fully digest that album and come out of it wanting more. This song sort of an established a template of quirky riffs, an insatiable pop/rock beat, and a “tough girl wanting to be your best bud” sort of attitude, which she seems to repeat at least one per album, but I’m not gonna lie, it’s a fun formula.
8) “15 Step”, Radiohead (In Rainbows, 2007)
Radiohead releasing an album almost completely out of the blue, independently through their website, with no label and almost no promotion before the release date, was pretty revolutionary back in 2007. Giving it away for whatever listeners felt like paying for it (which meant “nothing” for a lot of folks) made In Rainbows a landmark release that ensured Radiohead would continue to get talked about even by people who knew nothing about Radiohead. I had made some sort of a joke not long before it came out that it wouldn’t surprise me if they dropped an entire new album on us with no warning whatsoever, figuring they were the sort of contrarians who would enjoy bucking the system. I had no idea at the time how right I was. Still, even if it had been a conventional release, this was an intriguing enough set of songs that I’d have bought it the conventional way. I can’t remember what I decided to pay for this one, but I know that I paid for it, because I appreciated the gesture. And it started off with what would quickly become one of my all-time favorite Radiohead tracks. I was sold just from hearing the first few bars of the programmed, hand-clap beat in 5/8 time. One of the most addictive rhythms of any song I’ve ever heard. And the way the band built a quirky, kinda-creepy jam session on top of it, full of cool guitar and bass licks and the occasional cheering of a classroom full of children, told me they were far from running out of new and interesting ways to tweak their exploratory sound. Seeing their live performance with a marching band from the Grammy Awards telecast a few months later, after they somehow managed to snag a best album nomination, was immensely satisfying. I had long since stopped caring about the Grammys, but dang it, that was cool.
9) “Many Funerals”, Eisley (Combinations, 2007)
I had heard this eerie, twisted rocker, in which a character laments the deaths of her parents and suffers a bit of a mental breakdown in the wake of this tragedy, when Christine and I saw Eisley live for the first time back in 2006. It still needed work at the time – something about the pacing of it was off-putting back then, but they tightened it up for Combinations, on which it made a hell of an expectation-shattering opening track. I saw Eisley for the second time as an opener for MuteMath that fall, at the Avalon in Hollywood, but I had to go by myself due to something else Christine had to do either that night (or perhaps just having to get up early for work the next morning). They opened with this song, and it was, of course, amazing. I had been chatting up a group of MuteMath fans who weren’t familiar with Eisley before the show, explaining what I enjoyed about the band, and by the end of this song, those folks were sold. That’s a happy memory to attach to an otherwise intense, dreary song. But what I remember most when I think of that concert is that earlier that day, I had gotten to meet my two half-brothers, Chris and Kevin, from my dad’s first marriage. Even though none of us had seen our Dad in ages, my Mom somehow got in touch with the two of them, and one of them was visiting L.A. while the other one had actually been living nearby all these years. So we all met up at my Mom’s house and spent the afternoon together, later driving over to Forest Lawn to visit Grandma Martin’s gravesite, since my half-brothers hadn’t been able to make it out for the funeral back in 2005. I couldn’t quite wrap my head around the fact that these guys were my brothers. It felt like I was meeting long-lost uncles, since the age gap between us was pretty significant. This was a time in my life when I was learning to appreciate my extended family, after going through a lot of my teenage and early adult years not really feeling like I had much in common with any of them. Sadly, that would be the only time I interacted with Chris in person before he passed away a few years later. Kevin is still trucking across the country as far as I know, and in the years since, my half-sister Wendy managed to find me on Facebook. I feel like my upbringing and my life in general has been quite different from theirs, but every now and then some aspect of the brief interactions I’ve had with my half-siblings will remind me that we’re all cut from at least some of the same cloth. And you know, it’s not a bad thing to have some actual positive reminders of what my Dad was like, in the form of his other offspring.
10) “The Way You Dance”, Blindside (The Black Rose EP, 2007)
This dark rocker used a dance between a man and woman as a metaphor for some sort of strife or even violence between them. I couldn’t figure out which one was the abuser and which one was the abused as they swung each other forcefully around the room, dancing on broken glass. Either way, it probably wasn’t a pretty sight. Who gets to lead in a dance is often seen as an analogy for who has control in the relationship, and in this case, it seemed like both people thought they should lead and the other should follow. Unsettling as this portrait of a dysfunctional relationship was, I’m a sucker for an ironic, hard rock take on dance music tropes. This one wasn’t fully electronic like some of Blindside’s later dabbling in the genre, but it had these weird synths that came in at one point, just to add to the overall creepiness factor. I was sad that this one got relegated to an odds-and-ends EP released during what was otherwise a long dry spell for the band. This should have been the lead single from a brand new album.
11) “Don’t Wait For Tom”, Over the Rhine (The Trumpet Child, 2007)
I’d had a few albums to get used to Over the Rhine’s whole “Quiet music should be played loud” shtick, so it surprised me when they pulled a 180 and released one of their most playful albums. The Trumpet Child still had its share of torch songs and melancholy folk ballads, but there were also a handful of songs that celebrated the sheer joy of making music. This track, mostly a spoken word piece by Linford, with Karin chiming in on the chorus, was a tribute to one of their favorite musicians, Tom Waits. I can’t say that I’ve ever been into Tom Waits. His gravelly, chain-smoking Muppet voice is just a bit too much for me. But I can tell Linford and Karin deeply admire the man, since this song makes numerous references to songs and albums of his, with a cacophonous chorus of percussion sounds clanging along the entire time. (And puns up the wazoo. “Chopping up a rooster for a pullet surprise”? Genius!) Only with a song this brash and quirky did it even remotely make sense to put Blindside and Over the Rhine back-to-back. That’s a combo I’m pretty sure I wouldn’t be able to pull off under normal circumstances.
12) “A Love that’s Stronger than Our Fear”, Derek Webb (The Ringing Bell, 2007)
I love how much fun Derek Webb was able to have with the guitar riffs and the strong chorus melody on this song. It felt like free-wheeling rock and roll, but it actually had a very serious message, and it was because the two coexisted so well here that it kind of bugged me on past records when Derek would make the music more slow (and sometimes kinda tedious) as if he thought we’d miss the message otherwise. Here was talking about the price of freedom, and whether torture and warmongering were justifiable means to achieve the end of keeping our country safe. As with a lot of the subject matter on his last few albums, this probably made a lot of Bible Belt Christians uncomfortable, but it needed to be said. Though it was short and a bit disjointed, this album had a bit of a “protest song” vibe on a lot of its tracks that made it one of my favorites among his solo records.
13) “Lovesong of the Buzzard”, Iron & Wine (The Shepherd’s Dog, 2007)
To my ears, this was the perfect example of the beauty Sam Beam could accomplish with the more intricately layered, expansive sound he had fully realized on The Shepherd’s Dog. At its heart, this was still a folk song based around simple percussion and electric guitar. But then he threw in some upright bass for a bit of a jazzy effect, accordion for a bit of a swampy bayou feel, and a slide guitar refrain so memorable that the song didn’t even need a chorus to be super-catchy. And several things were often happening at once, to the point where there was a hint of psychedelia to it. What might have sounded cluttered to your average fan of Beam’s hushed early work was, to my ears, total heaven.
14) “Genessaret (Going Out Over 30,000 Fathoms of Water)”, Anathallo (Floating World, 2006)
“Genessaret” is a Hebrew word for the Sea of Galilee, which shows up a few times in the Gospels, as the Disciples have their faith tested in various ways on that sea. Anathallo’s lyrics were never quite straightforward enough to strike me as a direct allegory to any such story, but there’s definitely a lot of “surface tension” in this song as it quietly unfolds; it reminds me of an uneasy person sailing out into dark and potentially stormy waters. What I really love about this one is how the mood inherent in the song’s melody shifts from dread to awe and wonder as the bells and chimes come in and the vocals get a lot more exuberant. It’s like a big sigh of relief at having passed the test of faith.
15) “Pagan Poetry”, Björk (Vespertine, 2001)
Volta had opened the floodgates for me. After years of keeping Björk at a distance because I thought she was too weird for me, I had started to eagerly devour her back catalogue. The album that spoke to me the most was Vespertine, which was very much a “winter” album, with its meticulously arranged microbeats and synths and music box sounds consistently setting a relaxed, romantic mood, with an occasional bit of darkness creeping in, but also a huge sense of wonder at the snowy landscape. It was the perfect antidote to a hot summer that seemed to drag on for far too long. I’d describe a lot of that album as “intimate”, not just in the sense that it’s a very gentle and personal record, but also in the sexual sense – not necessarily flaunting sexuality like a lot of pop starlets, but just delighting in the depth of relationship she shared with her partner at the time. This song was the pinnacle of that intimacy, celebrating a deep connection between two lovers in terms that sounded almost mythic. Why was this act of love considered pagan poetry? Probably because more conventional religious influences tend to make sex a taboo topic, so when you’re enjoying it as a means of simply sharing pleasure, without the pretense of it needing to be a means of procreation, that tends to be one of those things you can’t publicly express appreciation for, or you risk corrupting young minds or some such nonsense. I personally believe that act of two people sharing deeply with each other in a committed relationship is something that God delights in. I feel like a lot of Christian marriages end up being rather lukewarm because a couple hasn’t been taught how to communicate about their needs in this area, or to see sex as a means of giving and sharing rather than just a means of getting a personal need met. I’m happy that this is an area where Christine and I have been able to communicate pretty clearly. I think it’s strengthened the bond between us, so that when other conflicts or communication issues arise that would threaten to tear us apart, we’ve been strong enough as a couple to weather those storms.
16) “A Guide to Marine Life”, Falling Up (Captiva, 2007)
The new Falling Up record that came out that fall was a pretty radical departure from their older, more riff-heavy stuff. It was still very rhythmic, and it had a bit of a sci-fi bent to it, but the immediately catchy guitar riffs were gone, for the most part, and the group seemed to be aiming for something more conceptual with their lyrics that I couldn’t easily unravel. I gradually found that there were a lot of incredibly beautiful songs on Captiva, but since I didn’t know what to do with most of the record at first, I decided that at least I liked the first track, and that its moody, watery intro gradually leading up to a big, glowing, space-aged rock chorus, would work pretty well as an ending song, too. So I put it here, as a final burst of wondrous underwater discovery after the contemplative “deep dive” of the last few songs.
Our continued desire to explore the nooks and crannies of the Greater Los Angeles area led us to Big Tujunga Canyon in October, which was pretty scenic despite the extremely dry weather in the fall of 2007. We brought up box lunches from Noah’s Bagels and ate in a lovely little picnic area partway up the secluded canyon, before driving too far up the highway afterwards in search of an out-of-the-way hiking trail to a nonexistent waterfall. For our trouble, we were rewarded with this unexpectedly placid view of the Big Tujunga Reservoir. Sadly, most of this area got scorched in a wildfire just a few months later.
Where in the world is this?
1) “Part One”, Wavorly (Conquering the Fear of Flight, 2007)
I always loved the big, “swooping” guitar riffs of this song – the story thread running throughout the album had an element of fantasy to it that culminated in a fight with a dragon, so I liked to imagine this song as the sound of the dragon swooping in an enveloping a village in smoke and fire. I don’t know if I ever stopped to fully consider what this song’s lyrics were actually about, though. Looking back at it now, it seems to lament being caught in a moral grey area, and knowing that it’s untenable to maintain this in-between position for too long before being pushed over to either the dark side or the light side. I’ve always been a bit more comfortable with “grey areas” than a lot of other Christians, I think. That’s not to say that I have a relative view of morality, but I think sometimes our efforts to make things strictly “black and white” fail to take into account the nuances and personal experiences that can complicate moral decisions each individual has to make. With a personal issue that I’m going through, I know I can’t stay in the grey forever. But I can’t always extrapolate those situations into overall guidelines that work more generally, and I actually think a lot of damage can be done by trying to enforce such rules where they don’t practically fit the situations other people are in. (See: The Pharisees and their hundreds of nitpicky laws before Jesus showed up.)
2) “The Fool”, Luna Halo (Luna Halo, 2007)
Luna Halo’s second album was a long time coming. They had pretty much rebranded themselves as a straightforward, mainstream rock act, which I had misgivings about, but I couldn’t deny their new sound packed a punch, even if I did miss the awe and mystery of their old sound… which admittedly borrowed pretty heavily from Radiohead, while their new sound was more of a “heavy Britpop” sort of thing. You gotta adapt to the times, I guess. The most forceful song on the new record was surprisingly co-written by Kevin Max, and it had a bit of the playful swagger he had experimented with in some of his solo work, but there was also some anger here. “Every time you say something predictable, it’s the same damn thing I’ve heard before.” Whoa, Christian bands don’t use “damn” like that, do they? (I was still so innocent back then!) This guy was absolutely fed up with a woman playing him for a fool time and time again, and the song seemed like his attempt to stick up for himself, only to fall for her charms yet again when she tried to flirt her way out of the consequences. It’s nothing a million pop songs hadn’t covered before it, but it was fun.
3) “The Joke”, Lifehouse (Who We Are, 2007)
This song was a real shock to the system, considering the comfortable pop/rock groove Lifehouse had settled into by that point. With its sharp-edged guitar riffs, its weirdly up-tempo rhythm, and Jason Wade almost shouting a lot of the lyrics, this was a pretty good attempt to capture a cry for help from a suicidal young man who was sick and tired of being the butt of everyone else’s jokes. Finding his lifeless body hanging in the bedroom is what he envisioned as his revenge on the world. Having followed Lifehouse before that point (and honestly, even in the years since), you’d never expect a song like this from them in a million years. But it was better for it, even if the results were a bit disturbing. The last few lines of lyrics as the song fades out do seem to imply that the guy realizes it’s a mistake and he doesn’t actually go through with it. I have no idea whether someone in the band personally struggled with these thoughts, or whether it was a commentary on a friend or a fellow musician going through it. It’s especially chilling for alt-rock fans to hear this one ten years later, having lost both Chris Cornell and Chester Bennington in this exact manner, mere months apart from each other.
4) “Come Right Out and Say It”, Relient K (Five Score and Seven Years Ago, 2007)
I’m generally a fan of brutal honesty. There’s much that goes unsaid, maybe due to different people’s cultural norms or perhaps a tendency to avoid confrontation, that I think can do more to damage relationships in the long run than it would if they’d just spill the beans about what was bothering them and have the argument right then and there, instead of letting it fester for months or years. I related to this song (the true opener on Five Score if you don’t count the acapella intro track “Plead the Fifth”) pretty much right away, as it had that same balance between sensitivity and agreesion that Relient K pulled off so well on some of their more friendship-oriented songs on Mmhmm. Nobody likes to take criticism. It makes us all uncomfortable, and giving it even when it’s warranted isn’t a walk in the park. But I can think of so many instances where I’d have preferred a person gave it to me point blank, rather than them suffering whatever annoyance or genuine offense I was causing them in total silence.
5) “I’m a Sucker for a Kind Word”, Copeland (Eat, Sleep, Repeat, 2006)
Was I deliberately trying to contrast these two songs? I can’t remember. This one certainly feels like it’s saying that a guy puts way too much weight on the things other people say about him, to the point where he gets restless and can’t sleep at night. But it really seems like it’s his own internal voice, constantly projecting the criticisms others might make of him, that he can’t escape from. He’s holding his loved one tight as he tries to get to sleep – maybe it’s a girlfriend or wife, maybe it’s a small child, I was never quite clear on that point – and trying to remind himself how much she, in turn, hangs on his words, wanting to make those count and not give her the same negative image of herself that he struggles with in his own mind.
6) “Hoodwink”, Anathallo (Floating World, 2006)
This song directly follows “Genessaret” on the album, as evidenced by the sound of metal chains being shaken that acts as the rhythm bridging the gap between the two. Breaking them up to put both on opposite sides of this soundtrack felt a bit weird, but this is such a bizarre and misshapen song, whose structure seems to constantly evolve, that there was pretty much no logical place to put it. I didn’t know what it meant then, and I’m still puzzled by it. But it’s always a fascinating listen, with the rhythm shifting in unorthodox ways throughout the track, the bells and chimes adding a little color to the moodiness, and exuberant background vocals chiming in here and there, almost as if they’re characters in some sort of a play written stream-of-consciousness style by a mad playwright. Anathallo’s music sometimes sounded more like performance art than it sounded like “songs” in the conventional sense. I miss those guys.
7) “Expectations”, Caedmon’s Call (Overdressed, 2007)
What’s a band to do when a founding member leaves, becomes a noteworthy solo artist in his own right, and meanwhile they’ve brought on another singer/songwriter to replace him, then he ends up rejoining the band? In the case of Caedmon’s Call, at least for this one album, there was no such conflict. They already had three vocalists – the original lineup was Cliff and Danielle Young plus Derek Webb, then Webb left and they brought in Andrew Osenga (former frontman of The Normals), and then when Caedmon’s Call left their old label and they didn’t have to worry about the controversy Webb’s more confrontational solo material generated with the CCM radio audience any more, that eliminated Webb’s entire reason for leaving the band in the first place. So he rejoined, and for this one album, they had four lead singers. I liked the diversity of viewpoints that this brought to the record, and for my money, Osenga finally came into his own as a member of the band here, singing lead on a few of my favorite tracks. This one in particular was an interesting blend of a quirky indie-pop approach and the more open, layered, 12-string guitar-heavy sound of classic Caedmon’s, and I loved it for that. Osenga’s lyrics were about the effect that branding and advertising have on churches and the general public’s perception of Christianity. A guy sees a billboard promising a bright, smiling future with no problems, so he comes to check out the church it’s advertising, only to find that it doesn’t deliver on those promises, because the people there are as broken and messy as they are anywhere else. The intersection of Christianity and consumer culture is an uneasy one for this reason. We want to put our best face forward and bring people in… but Christ isn’t a brand to be advertised, and Christ-followers are fallible spokespeople, because we all fall short of Christ’s directive to “Be perfect as I am”. Do we deal with this reality head-on, or are we so obessed with covering up the imperfections in our communities that we give others a fake impression of our entire reason for following Christ in the first place?
8) “Nothing Lasts Forever”, Maroon5 (It Won’t Be Soon Before Long, 2007)
I was never a Kanye West fan. Heck, at this point, I wasn’t even much of a Maroon5 fan. But a collaboration between Kanye West and Adam Levine on West’s song “Heard ’em Say” was what ultimately led to one of my favorite Maroon5 songs. Levine had written the chorus that Kanye ended up using a few years before his own band completed their version of the song, so it worked a bit like reverse of the usual “hip-hop artist samples a pop song” approach, where the actual pop song came later. I loved how rich the sound of this one was, with the fast-flowing tempo and the beautiful acoustic guitar picking. It hit a sweet spot that was rare for Maroon5, in that it was a bittersweet breakup song that wasn’t angry, and a sensitive song that wasn’t schamltzy like a lot of their ballads can be. It’s simply a recognition that two people, who have grown distant and have avoided admitting it to each other, need to own up to it and go their separate ways. With anything Adam Levine writes, there’s unfortunately still a subtext of “Let’s get this over with so I won’t have to feel guilty about sleeping with someone else”, but that’s just because of other songs that have nothing do with this one, on which he plays a sleazebag that seems to be a bit incongruous with his real-life personality. (Honestly, he strikes me as a pretty nice guy when he’s not singing.) He pulls off the “nice guy having to tell a painful truth” act better than he ought to be able to, considering that context.
9) “Tell Mary”, Meg & Dia (Something Real, 2006)
Meg & Dia Frampton wrote these songs that seemed simple on the surface, but that had little details which made them feel like mini-novels when you really paid attention to them. This one was a sad-mini novel about a woman who was apparently in the dark about a man who was getting ready to leave her, but couldn’t quite work up the courage. The Frampton sisters played the role of confidant to this man, telling him it was better to be honest and deal with the fallout it would cause than to stay in a dead relationship where the passion had been lost long ago. Even though they’re talking to the guy about the girl, rather than consoling the girl directly, they seem to feel a bit of contempt for him for getting bored with her, as if the real tragedy is how he only wants what he hasn’t already attained, and the spark going out in the relationship could be a sign of it being more about the conquest for him than it was about the actual joy of being together.
10) “Two Sisters”, Fiction Plane (Left Side of the Brain, 2007)
This song was pretty clearly about a two-timing jerk, who couldn’t make up his mind which of two sisters he was more in love with, apparently leading to some sort of a violent duel in which the two duked it out while their father and pretty much everyone else in their community cursed him for causing this horrendous conflict. There wasn’t any subtext to my choosing this song, or including it among a string of songs about breakups and jealousy. I just thought the song rocked, and Joe Sumner played the role of the philandering creep exceptionally well, as if to one-up his own father’s creepy stalker anthem “Every Breath You Take”. (Fiction Plane was the opening act for part of The Police’s reunion tour that year, so there’s a very real chance both songs were played from the same stage at some of those shows.)
11) “House by the Sea”, Iron & Wine (The Shepherd’s Dog, 2007)
Sam Beam might have drawn inspiration from reggae or calypso or some island-y genre for this song, but of course it was pretty far removed from the source material, since he didn’t do straight-up genre pastiches so much as he just took little bits and pieces and worked them into his overstuffed brand of cinematic indie folk music, like a pizza with about ten toppings on it. Again, I wasn’t complaining. I found the mix of rhythmic and acoustic sounds intoxicating, and there was something sinister about this mad brew of instruments that fit the lyrics, about a man headed for a house inhabited by two sisters (hey, nice segue!), both of whom seemed to love him jealously, and both of whom seemed ready to resort to weaponry and witchcraft in order to keep him captive.
12) “(*Fin)”, Anberlin (Cities, 2007)
The longest, and emotionally heaviest, song in Anberlin’s entire catalogue was the appropriately-titled grand finale of Cities, and a fan favorite that they pretty much had to close most of their concerts with after fans caught on to how epic it was. Several stories that only Stephen Christian knows the full details of are interwoven with his own personal demons here, all of it coming together to make the point that while God remains sovereign, Christians will ultimately disappoint you and none should be viewed as a perfect example. “We’re not questioning God, just those he chose to carry on his cross”, was the line that stood out the most to me here. I know I’ve hurt people and let them down in my failed attempts to be a window to Christ for them. I know there’s grace to cover that, but it still hurts to think of the accidental damage I’ve done, and to think of the deliberately malicious damage some Christians have done by marginalizing others who need Christ just as much as they do. This song carries a lot of weight on its shoulders. I didn’t know at the time that this song would become an important one for my brother as well. I didn’t find that out until seven years later when we attended one of Anberlin’s final concerts together. The line “I am the patron saint of lost causes”, which shows up in both this song and “Dismantle. Repair.” right before it, was the standout for him. I think that shows what a well-written song it is, if both of us, having had very different experiences with faith in our adult lives, could come to it independently of each other and find so much depth in it for both of us to relate to.
13) “Light to Follow”, The Polyphonic Spree (The Fragile Army, 2007)
This song affirms the need everyone has for love, and for some sort of a guiding light they can follow, in rather broad and not-specifically-religious terms. It just sounds religious, because duh, the choir. They make everything this band does sound religious. I needed a lighter, pick-me-up sort of song after the heaviness of Anberlin’s magnum opus, and the trashy beat, careening guitars, and weirdly operatic vocals of this song certainly fit the bill.
14) “The Trumpet Child”, Over the Rhine (The Trumpet Child, 2007)
Over the Rhine really went meta with this one. It’s a slow, jazzy torch song… about the end of days being anounced by the blowing of a horn, in the form of a slow, jazzy torch song. That’s right, Gabriel blowing his horn is apparently going to involve some improvisational riffing in the tradition of Louis Armstrong and Thelonious Monk. Leave it to OtR to combine their love of jazz and their Christian faith into an inventive, unorthodox take on the end times. What a lot of Christians were probably taught to envision as a call to war, Karin Bergquist sings about in a slow, but joyful tone, envisioning instead a redemption of the Earth than mankind has all but destroyed.
15) “On and On and On”, Wilco (Sky Blue Sky, 2007)
As much as I hate the flak Wilco got for making a “dad rock” album, you could legitimately call its closing track “dad rock”, because Jeff Tweedy wrote it for his dad, seeking to comfort him after the death of his mom. It makes no apologies for being sentimental and wearing its big, hopeful emotions on its sleeve, imagining a couple whose souls are meant to be together for eternity and assuring the person who isn’t yet ready to shuffle off of this mortal coil: “Please don’t cry, we’re designed to die.” The piano and guitars are so gorgeous on this one, especially when that sweet guitar solo gets let loose in the middle eight, accompanied by the strings, bringing it all home in the sort of finale that, to me at least, inspires a good “happy cry”. Without reading any religious belief into Tweedy’s lyrics that clearly isn’t meant to be there, I will say that this song captures what I imagine the mood of heaven to be like a lot more aptly than a lot of Christian music that deliberately tries to describe the place.
16) “Combinations”, Eisley (Combinations, 2007)
While this love song comes from a more youthful perspective, it also has a timeless quality to it due to the harp and dulcimer (and later the trumpet) giving it a bit of a classical feel, even though at its heart it’s still an acoustic guitar-based twee pop song. The sister’s vocals were gorgeous on this one, affirming a love between two people that couldn’t be broken by the passage of time. Putting it after “On and On and On” almost made it feel like it was describing a couple who had met up again in another life, getting to live out their love story again in a completely different historical setting. I may have watched one too many fantastical love stories on the big screen. What can I say – as much as I may love a good tale of deception, jealousy and betrayal as heard in some of those earlier songs, I still have a soft spot for the concept of “true love” in the end.