Artist: Cool Hand Luke
Album: The Sleeping House
In Brief: Cool Hand Luke’s more varied and colorful new sound greatly increases the urgency of their message (as well as securing them a spot on my “Best of 2008” list).
Cool Hand Luke has always been one of those bands that seems to get a lot of critical respect from those who manage to discover them, but that I personally couldn’t get into. I’ve heard a lot about how talented this underground Christian rock band is, how keen they are with musical arrangements, how deep and challenging their lyrics are, etc. Having listened to every album they’ve put out since 2003’s Wake Up, O Sleeper, I can’t argue with any of those assessments – but something about Cool Hand Luke’s ultra-slow-burn method of constructing their songs never caught up with me. They’ve got a rather dry and sometimes raspy vocalist in Mark Nicks, whose passion for the things he sings about is quite clear, but who didn’t seem like the most obvious candidate for a piano-driven indie rock act after the group made their transition out of screamo-ville. (Thanks to the 2007 compilation The Balancing Act, I’ve heard some of the stuff from their screamo days, and all I can is, “Yikes”. They were a completely different band back then.) For all of their ability to shift time signatures and dynamics and prominent instruments during a song, they seemed content to play in a very basic, slow 4/4 or 3/4 most of the time, with any climactic buildup feeling like a leftover Coldplay or Sigur Ros idea, minus the colorful production values. Cool Hand Luke has typically been a band that’s easy for me to respect but hard for me to love.
Well, some record label machinations and a bit of switcheroo in the band’s membership happened, and 2008’s The Sleeping House was born, and suddenly I really like these guys. An old-school fan of the band might say that this is for superficial reasons – the songs are largely more immediate, more hook-laden, more melodic, more up-tempo. Maybe I’m just too obsessed with ear candy to appreciate the artistic effort shown on their past albums. That would be the cynical view. The more positive way of looking at it would be to say that the band’s gotten better at their own balancing act, allowing their most intense and most mellow tendencies to keep each other in check. And they’ve discovered how to use the piano – now the main instrument in several songs – to give a song melodic dimension instead of just plodding along on the same simple chords. They’ve learned to marry complexity with accessibility, and that approach works for me, even on some of this album’s simplest and slowest songs. There are still slow builds to gradual outpourings of emotion, but they don’t come off feeling like musical bridges to nowhere like a lot of the too-quiet material on 2004’s The Fires of Life did. They figured out what was broke, and they fixed it. I definitely respect that.
What hasn’t been fixed – and what never needed to be fixed – was this band’s seemingly inborn sense of gravity and conviction. The lyrics haven’t been watered down in the slightest. CHL has always (or at least, as long as I’ve been listening to them) been comfortable in its skin as a Christian band, with the majority of their songs aimed at what I like to call “zombie Christians” – those who have claimed to belong to the Christian faith and talked the talk for a while, but who perhaps find their faith to be a bit stale these days, or no longer really relevant to their lives. This music isn’t evangelistic in that annoying way that a lot of Christian music is – it doesn’t regurgitate pithy sayings to please the Christian crowd and make us feel good about ourselves for supposedly speaking so boldly to a mainstream audience that will probably never hbe exposed to the music due to its content anyway. It speaks most profoundly to those who know that they are Christians and know that walking with Christ is a difficult thing that is easy to stray from. One could almost accuse the band of repeating themselves, since the title and overall theme of The Sleeping House are strikingly similar to Wake Up O Sleeper. But I see the album as a bit of a reboot – it takes what the band has always been passionate about communicating, and utilizes their newly-honed skills to communicate it more profoundly.
1. Fast Asleep
We begin in a trance, with a murky piano instrumental, awash in reverb and backmasking, which bleeds directly into…
2. Cast Your Bread
Surrender, a word that we don’t understand
How are we to get ahead when we have empty hands?
We fight for what will fade, we cling to that from which we’re saved
And soon we’ll wake to find we’ve naught but fists of sand…
Here the piano melody congeals into something more definitive and we hear the voice of Mark Nicks for the first time, quietly musing on our uncanny ability to hold fast to material things that cannot save our souls. The song develops into a thing of sweeping grandeur, a plea to “Cast your bread upon the water’s edge, and you will find the bread of life”. It’s a metaphor straight from one of Jesus’ parables, but an extra layer of meaning is added to it (perhaps intentionally, perhaps not) when you consider that “bread” is sometimes used as a colloquial term for money. It’s not so much a commentary on possessions being a bad thing; it’s a commentary on where we put our trust. An excellent guitar solo from Joey Holman helps to ensure that I want to stick around to ponder this matter a while longer, but then it isn’t much longer before the last few notes of the piano float off into the distance, and we head for rougher waters.
3. Failing in Love
Would you tell me if you knew that I was dying?
Some sort of parasite that got into my brain
Would I tell you that I thought that you were lying?
Ignoring evidence, ignoring all the pain…
Two intense rockers appear back to back here, this being the most upfront and brutal track on the album with its serpentine rhythms and jagged guitar riffs. Nicks gets a good vocal workout hear, as you can hear the ragged edges of his harder rock roots when he shouts, “Am I your enemy?”, but he’s also got more of a full, melodic quality to his voice during the chorus. Pay close attention to the concept of love being described here – all it takes is to confuse an “I” with an “L” in the title and it’s easy to assume that the song is about something else entirely. The band is asking the question of whether protecting someone from a difficult truth really amounts to loving them. That’s where the failing part comes in. We forget about the “Speak the truth” part of the equation “Speak the truth in love”, and what comes out of that are vague warm fuzzies, or what would be described in much of Christian music as “Falling in love with Jesus”. It’s vaguely defined. As the band puts it, “There’s too much sugar, too much water.” Here, it’s blunt – not condescending, not forceful, but just put out there in the raw. “I’m your enemy if I don’t say enough.” All of the musical thrashing about here puts one heck of an exclamation mark on an important song that serves as a timely wake-up call.
4. Buy the Truth
If I had a dime for every dollar I’ve wasted trying to be happy
I could retire, because I would be miserably wealthy…
The second of the “heavier” songs on this album begins more ominously, with icy keyboards roaming about in a daze, while Mark poses some more tough questions about the value of earthly things versus spiritual things. It can be tricky to keep up as the band plays with different time signatures and harsher vocal textures here, creating a suitelike piece that takes multiple listens to fully appreciate. It echoes “Heroes Will Be Heroes”, a standout track from the band’s earlier work, in that regard. The band’s own calling seems to be in question here – the notion is put on the table that they could easily sell out the people they love, change their lyrical focus, and probably bring in a lot more cash. (Or get lost in a sea of other hopefuls trying to do the same thing. I’m not so confident that selling out always gets monetary results. But that’s another matter.) Instead, they remain convicted that they can only “sell” a difficult-to-swallow truth that will profit them little from a financial perspective. “What good is a tool in the hands of a fool if you don’t buy wisdom?” Heady stuff, but it needed to be said.
5. The Mirror
Oh, what fearful times are these
I know that You don’t promise this, but please
Let her feel You now…
The album’s first ballad is up next, and they might get a little too “Coldplay” for comfort here, mining familiar territory with the sensitive piano chords and a gently ringing electric guitar part. In some ways, this reminds me of a more mainstream version of the sound CHL was going for on The Fires of Life – and every now and then, you can do one of these and it will work out really well (see “Cinematic”), but the formula’s kind of been run into the ground by other bands at this point. The sympathetic message isn’t lost on me, though – a few different individuals are looking into mirrors, sizing themselves up, asking what it takes to be someone important or lovable or attractive in the eyes of others. While a bit sappy, the sentiment expressed here is valid – Mark wants these peole, himself included to measure their worth in the eyes of God and not the discriminating gaze of other humans.
6. Eye of the Storm
Did I say “I love you”? Did she know it when she died?
When she had her last glance at me, did I look her in the eye?
This song might be the album’s darkest, most gut-wrenching moment – the band paints a picture of a cold, rainy night with the moody piano and the dampened cymbals, which gives the song a thin, fragile sort of sound. Nicks recounts a phone call received in the middle of the night, the kind of call that nobody ever wants to receive. As the story unfolds, we learn that a woman he cared for (most likely his daughter, but it’s not 100% clear from the context) has been killed in a car accident, and this leads him to look back on his final interactions with her – seemingly trivial things like her spilling a drink on him, or telling him she’s just making a trip to the store. Suddenly these mundane moments reveal their importance as he realized he didn’t make the best use of his last chances to show her that he loved her. The tone of the song becomes more intense as the narrative progresses to the funeral, and the protagonist’s thoughts turn towards the difficult coexistence of faith and grief – he doesn’t want to cry for her because he believe she’s in a better place, but it’s easy to empathize and feel tears welling up for this individual who was left behind so unexpectedly (and I don’t even know if this happened to Mark or someone he knows, or if the story was purely fictional). The song offers a lot of questions and just allows them to be voiced without having to answer them all – it reminds me very much of Caedmon’s Call‘s song “Center Aisle” in that respect. The last line of the song offers a truth that gives perspective to the tragedy while still leaving us to wrestle with its implications: “God is good, all the time, even when little girls die.” Man. Gets me every time.
7. The City Prevails
Countless walk the open streets
With shackles chained around their feet
Wisdom says to fly away
But they cannot see their wings…
The album’s second half springs to life with this up-tempo rocker, dominated by its catchy rhythm and its persistent piano riffs. This is a good example of the band’s newfound ability to bump up the speed and intensity of a song without compromising the weight of its meaning – they describe an urban landscape that serves as a prison for the crowded masses who walk its streets, using it as a metaphor for the world at large and all of the noise that attempts to seduce mankind away from the truth. “The sirens are singing us to sleep”, Nicks tells us, and this is an idea that we’ll revisit at the climax of the album. The band calls for God’s voice to break through the cacophony – “Please, God, don’t be silent.”
8. Spirit Sing
Spirit grow up, into a flower
My flesh is like a weed that strangles out the seed
And blocks out the sunlight…
This track is very pensive, very worshipful in tone, but also very confessional. Watery electric guitars keep the lazy tempo moving along as the band laments the gradual loss of youth and innocence, which seems to be a major theme of the record – having been a Christian so long that you no longer seem to feel moved by the truths and experiences that were once life-changing. The song is almost like a Psalm, prayer for God to breathe life into a vessel that feels dead. It’s one of the simplest tracks on the album, but it’s amazing how a subtly beautiful song like this can stand out when CHL changes up the formula elsewhere. If this song had been on The Fires of Life, I doubt that I would have even noticed it.
9. Wonder Tour
We’ve traded in dreams and youthful ideals
For less noble themes of paying the bills
And trying our best to look like the rest
While hiding our fears by the way we all dress…
If you’ve followed the band’s past work, you’ve probably heard this one before – it was one of the new tracks presented on the scattershot retrospective album The Balancing Act. And this is a classic example of how CHL’s old style didn’t lend itself well to the individual songs being noticeable – I completely forgot that I’d already heard this one until I happened to glance at The Balancing Act‘s track listing a few days ago. So I honestly can’t say whether it’s a different recording or whatnot. I can say that it’s a little too subtle and basic in the music department for its own good – there’s little going on other than a slow, even acoustic guitar strum in 6/8 time. The words are actually quite powerful, spewing forth a series of harsh accusations that play inside an individual’s head, telling him he’s not good enough, he’ll never measure up, and that the only way to get ahead is to become an insensitive punk and take whatever he wants by force. It should be obvious to us that none of this stuff is true, but the fact that our brains know it’s not true while our hearts say, “Yeah, I can relate to that” illustrates the song’s point perfectly. The chorus offers another simple prayer: “God, speak truth to the paychecks we have trusted instead of You.”
10. The House
Naked I came, with nothing to show
You gave me everything that I call my own
I have nothing to give that wasn’t given me
You’re able to see so much more than I can find in me…
Is it just me, or does this track feel like a Leeland song with just a little bit less production gloss? That might just be because of the simple, Bible-paraphrased language and the “Coldplay as a praise band” sort of feeling, where a slow and even melody builds to a gradual, emotional crescendo. It’s not bad. The band’s ability to speak difficult truths in the surrounding songs does help this one to sound better in context, as a simple reflection on our indentity as Christians and our eternal place in his “house”. Still, the band is on the verge of merely repeating familiar cliches without any added insight here, so I can’t let them get away with too much of this.
11. The Incomprehensible Sleep
Our lives up to this point have lead to this
A garden in the dark, a deadly kiss
If you want to follow me, we’ll walk into suffering
It’s this act that will distinguish us…
The band has sort of eased back into the old “slow burn” mode of communication in the back half of this album, but I can’t say that I mind so much when they manage to work their way from hardly a whisper up to a passionate malestrom of emotion so convicingly. This is not a “loud” song – the verses almost feel like Mark Nicks is muttering them under his breath, the entire band trying to fight off a comatose state as they ruminate on the loving but challenging words of Christ. They are addressed by these words as if they were sailors, huddled below deck during a storm, stricken with paralyzing fear, unable to find the faith and courage to make their way to safer waters. Then come the sirens mentioned earlier – and this is where the melodies and the ambient guitar tones start to become more pronounced and more intricately woven, as Christ pleads with His disciples, “Tie yourself to the mast, and cover your ears with wax, and keep your eyes on em, for God’s sake STAY AWAKE!” The final words of the song even repeat the words “Wake Up O Sleeper” several times, so the resemblance of this album’s overall theme to that of an earlier record is not coincidental. This song really should have been at or near the conclusion of that earlier album, but then, this is why I see The Sleeping House as a sort of “reboot” for the band, because it gets right what their earlier albums were perhaps a bit too “sleepy” to communicate well.
12. Wide Awake
I’m intrigued by the way that the album starts and ends with instrumental pieces that are titled as opposites. This one, however, is not a manic wake-up call of any sort – it’s also a trance-like piece, played in 5/8 time, consisting of five ascending piano notes, played over and over as the quiet call of an electric guitar begins to ring out underneath them, following the shifting chords and adding a lot of dimension to an otherwise repetitive piece. It builds from the quiet beauty of a still pond to the grey uncertainty of a stormy sea, before finally collapsing into a sustained bit of harsh guitar feedback and then falling silent.
And that’s the end. Unsettling? Slightly. Convincing? Certainly. Cool Hand Luke will probably do little to convince the unconverted with this album (other than perhaps reiterating to them that Christian music doesn’t have to be boring, uninventive, and trite), but I’m OK with that because this album is really meant for a Christian audience. Specifically, it’s meant for the subset of that audience that is willing to wrestle with the concepts a band brings to light in their lyrics, rather than just having their ears tickled and being told that everything is fine and dandy. It’s easy for Christian music to go off into a falsely happy la-la land, and it’s also easy for Christians to feel like they’ve fallen short and can’t keep up the facade, and to then get confused about whether God still loves you. Cool Hand Luke dares to say through these songs, “Yes, God still loves you, and yes, you are still always forgiven and will always be, but staying in the game is difficult and painful.” It’s this balance of loving empathy and unflinching honesty that makes their music useful for someone like me. And they’re certainly not the only band that has encouraged me when I start to think “I suck at this whole Christianity thing”, but they’re one of the latest ones who has done it well, and it’s because of this that I wouldn’t hesitate to recommend them to fellow Christians at any stage of faith.
WHAT’S IT WORTH TO ME?
Fast Asleep $.50
Cast Your Bread $1.50
Failing in Love $2
Buy the Truth $1.50
The Mirror $1
Eye of the Storm $2
The City Prevails $1.50
Spirit Sing $1.50
Wonder Tour $1
The House $1
The Incomprehensible Sleep $1.50
Wide Awake $1
Mark Nicks: Vocals, drums, piano, keyboards
Joey Holman: Guitar
Casey McBride: Bass
LISTEN FOR YOURSELF:
Originally published on Epinions.com.