Artist: Out of the Grey
Album: A Little Light Left
In Brief: While it’s quite different from the glossy, catchy and quirky pop tunes of their 90s heyday, Out of the Grey has created a mellow and mostly acoustic record that feels authentic to who they are now. It’s not so much a comeback as it is a welcome visit from old friends you haven’t seen in ages.
Out of the Grey is literally the first pop music group that I ever got into. I didn’t know a whole lot about mainstream music in those early days when I was bringing home those borrowed cassette tapes from my youth pastor that would begin to lay the foundation for a lot of the things I’d end up loving and hating about music in general. As time went on, with a lot of the Christian pop and rock acts I’d gotten into in the mid-90s, I started to see how shamelessly some of them stole from mainstream music trends that, by that point, were several years old. But if this was ever true of Out of the Grey, their influences weren’t quite mainstream enough for me to easily pinpoint them. It’s true that the married duo wore their faith on their sleeves just as readily as their hopeless romantic tendencies. But as easily as their music fit into adult contemporary Christian radio formats at the time, there was something about it that seemed to nudge them into more creative territory, by way of a few quirks in Charlie Peacock‘s production, or a sassy guitar lick from Scott Denté, or a heavenly shimmering vocal run from his wife, Christine Denté. They were probably pulling from a lot of late 80s and early 90s pop influences that I can’t name, but melding them together in a way that felt like their own. I’ve raved a great many times about how much I love their 1991 self-titled debut and how I can go back to it and delight in pretty much every moment of it decades later – which is not true of a lot of the rather didactic Christian music I eagerly gobbled down back in those days. Heck, for a while there I wanted to be the Dentés, or at least be in a creative and romantic partnership like theirs when I got married someday. It was a bit of a silly pipe dream, as I never had serious plans to pursue a career in music (nor did I know how to play an instrument at the time), and I didn’t end up marrying a musician either. But it’s still a dream that I look back upon fondly, because it means that a part of me actually admired the craft and the creative sparks that fueled their relationship, not just the superficially catchy tunes.
Like a lot of my early CCM favorites who haven’t outright broken up or disappeared into total anonymity by this point, Out of the Grey has been mostly dormant past the turn of the century. Their last record released on a label was 2001’s 6.1, and the most recent thing related to either of the Dentés that I actually reviewed was Christine’s solo record Becoming, released in 2003. Since then they’ve turned up on very rare occasions as co-writers or background performers on other people’s songs, and released a devotional record called Voyage: Journey of Prayer in 2009 (confusingly billed as “Christine Denté and Out of the Grey”, so to this day I don’t know whether to count it as part of the duo’s discography), but there really wasn’t anything resembling a conventional album release until 2015. That’s when they managed to fund a fully independent record via Kickstarter, which became A Little Light Left, quietly released in December of that year. I was short on cash and already overextended in terms of promising new crowd-funded albums that I was willing to pay in advance for that year, and this was a quiet enough release that it never even ended up on Spotify, so this is the rare album by a longtime favorite artist that I didn’t jump on right away, not catching up with it until just a few months ago when I finally broke down and bought it from iTunes. (It’s rare these days for me to buy something before hearing even a note of it.) I now regret that I took so darn long.
While A Little Light Left is a far mellower record than any of their major label releases, there’s a warmth to its gentle, poppy folk style (with occasional hints of country) and a confidence to their songwriting that suggests they’re not preoccupied with proving some sort of relevance to current trends. Having kids who are on the cusp of going out into the world and experiencing adulthood for themselves has brought the Dentés a different perspective than when they were making those early albums (and they were probably just barely older at the time than their kids are now), and there’s definitely a fair amount of pontificating on how you learn to appreciate different aspects of your life and faith as you age on this record. At the same time, that doesn’t mean they’ve settled into predictable patterns – you can hear their urge to try new things in some of the arrangements, and especially in the much more frequent use of Scott as a lead vocalist – he was almost always just the guitarist and backup singer in their old days, taking the lead maybe two or three times that I can recall out of their six major label releases. On this record, he sings lead three times and duets with Christine much more audibly in a few other places, which I love. Hearing his take on a few of the subjects explored here is a refreshing contrast to the always lovely sound of Christine’s voice, which means that the tone of this album can occasionally be uneven, but the themes of making peace with growing older and learning how to be a source of support and wise counsel for your offspring when they’re no longer legally bound to do everything you tell them to, help to tie it all together. No wheels are reinvented here, but it’s nice to hear musicians with over two decades of a career behind them still pushing themselves to think outside of their comfortable box this late in the game. And while I still regard their early 90s work as their best, and I doubt this album heralds some sort of a return to full-time music making, I’m happy to be reminded that these old friends will still pop in once in a great while, and actually have something new and exciting to share about what they’ve experienced in those long intervening years when longtime fans like me wondered what the heck they were up to.
1. We’re Still Here
After my enthusiastic opening remarks about this record, it’s a bit of a bummer for me to have to admit that the first track is not at all a great re-introduction to Out of the Grey after a long hiatus. I don’t mind the laid-back, comfortable vibe of it, the lap steel that pushes it slightly into chilled-out country ballad territory, or the lyrical theme about all your stuff growing older and your house needing repairs and your instruments getting a bit out of tune, yet seeming a little warmer and more familiar for it. It sets the stage pretty well for a lot of the songs that follow it. But I can’t get around the fact that the bland acoustic guitar strumming is downright boring (especially for a duo with one of my all-time favorite guitarists in it) and the chorus just seems dreary and sad. “We’re still here, yeah we’re still here. Whoa-oh, whoa-oh.” I mean, if you’re gonna insert “Whoa”s into a song, it better be one hell of a fun musical ride, or else it just draws attention to the fact that you had nothing else worth saying in that space. The verses and the bridge are plenty articulate (and I would expect no less from the pen of Christine Denté), so what gives? The string section used here is a bit saccharine, too. There’s another married duo whose music I enjoy called Over the Rhine that’s been around just as long as Out of the Grey, and they’re generally much better at this genre than Out of the Grey proves to be here. Sorry guys, I’m just not feeling this one. Let’s move on.
2. Giving Up Slow
The acoustic finger-picking and the very light, toe-tapping beat of this song feel like we’re in much more familiar territory for latter-day Out of the Grey. Surprisingly, their son Julian Denté is credited with guitars and other instruments on this and a handful of other songs, “with help from his dad” according to the liner notes, and the guitar work feels like classic Scott, so I guess the apple didn’t fall far from the tree. Christine and Scott harmonize throughout pretty much the entire song, to the point where I can’t necessarily credit either vocalist as the “lead” here, and that’s new for them. The lyrics are classic Christine, falling in line with some of her more devotional material from Voyage and Becoming, admitting that surrendering to God is hard and resolving to just give up a little bit at a time because learning to trust is a daily battle. It’s interesting to contrast this with very early songs of theirs like “Write My Life” – the musical expression was quite different, but the lesson being learned seems like a cyclical one, and that’s one of those great mysteries of being a Christian, that we never quite get the knack for letting God be in control, yet we somehow draw closer to God in that process of wrestling over it.
3. Bubble Girl
This is another light, slightly up-tempo acoustic pop song, in the same vein as “Giving Up Slow”, but with a little more of a playful tone to it. Christine’s take on a teenage girl peering around the corner into adulthood, and all too eager to get out of the “bubble” she was raised in and explore the whole world, is cleverly written, because it expresses both the child’s excitement and the parent’s concern without getting too heavy-handed or moralistic about it. “What she don’t know, she don’t know.” I love how that line in the chorus seems like it’s just repeating a lyric, but actually it’s saying she hasn’t even conceived of how much there is that she doesn’t know. We grown-ups know our children are going to face mind-bending challenges that will shake their naive optimism to its core. It’s terrifying for any parent sending their kid off to college or whatever it is they decide to do when they leave home, but that act of letting go and trusting that you raised them to have a good head on their shoulders and make those judgment calls on their own without you there to call the shots is an act of faith that can lead to growth for both the parent and child. The bubble/water metaphor Christine uses to sum that up here is top-notch, and I’ll admit to waxing a bit nostalgic, thinking she might be singing about one of the same kids now who was just a little tyke running around the park in her beautiful song “Summer” 12 years prior.
4. The Distance
Christine absolutely knocks it out of the park on this tender piano ballad. I can’t help but think of some of my favorite intimate moments from her earlier work – “Dreaming of April”, “Joy”, “The Words”, “Summer”, etc. – when I hear this one. It’s beautifully textured, with bits of cello and light drums, nothing overbearing, but just enough to accentuate the autumnal mood of her delicate melody. Of course any song about two people taking a long drive in an attempt to reconnect with each other is going to tug at my heartstrings. Throw in a little bit of nature imagery (they’re driving the Natchez Trace in Mississippi, if I’m reading the clues correctly), and a shared love of music helping to bridge the emotional gap (in this case, the lyrics reference the now-classic Death Cab for Cutie album Transatlanticism), and of course I’m gonna swoon. The surprise here is that the song isn’t a romantic one – I had first read it as Christine and Scott trying to rekindle their romance while spending some time alone as empty-nesters, but I couldn’t figure out why she was saying he had to go on without her. The liner notes actually make it clear that this one’s for her son Julian. Maybe he’s going off to college, or maybe some intangible aspect of their relationship has changed and she’s trying to learn how to relate to him as a fellow adult rather than a little boy who hangs on her every word. Either way, I love the longing and the fragility in her voice. She’s learning to let go, as she is in so many different ways throughout the songs on this album, hoping that by holding loosely to someone she loves, that will strengthen the relationship that means so much to both of them.
The reason Scott Denté is one of my favorite guitarists isn’t because he does anything particularly flashy most of the time. There’s just something about the way that he balances a more percussive playing style with these lovely melodic runs and occasional harmonic accents that hits the sweet spot for me. I’ve been familiar with his style so long that I feel like I could recognize him anywhere without being told who it was. Not that other guitarists haven’t done this both before and after him (I started listening to Grizzly Bear due to hearing an eerily similar style in their song “Southern Point”, actually), but I think he’s still one of the best at it. A song like this doesn’t appear to be anything attention-grabbing at first – just some basic chords and his smooth, slightly smoky voice asking for a little clarity from God. But the little bits of fingerpicking in between the chords make it feel like something really special upon closer listen. It’s a mellow, devotional tune that gradually opens up into one of the album’s few climactic moments, by way of some rock drums and a bit of vocal harmony from Christine on the chorus. I like how the song is just unconventional enough in its structure that it delays the arrival of that chorus until near the very end. And again, while it sounds nothing like their early days, I can’t help but think back to their classic song “He Is Not Silent” and realizing this is another one of those lessons that we Christians are always learning – how to hear the voice of God amidst the noise. I have a small complaint about the synth tones that creep in during the climax of this song – they seem like the inorganic odd man out in an otherwise unplugged, live band sort of atmosphere. Despite that imperfection, it’s managed to grow on me as a bit of a dark horse favorite.
6. Only Love Remains
For all my love of Christine Denté as both a vocalist and a songwriter, I do have to admit that there are times when her lyrics can come across a bit cutesy and cloying. She kind of falls into that trap on this breezy little acoustic pop song, which is about all of the physical attributes and skills and possessions we have that depreciate in value over time, and the observation that love is the only guaranteed constant. I find myself regularly predicting what the rhymes will be on this one, and I can’t help but feel like they’re falling back on a lot of the same old cliches explored by numerous songs on this topic. The chorus, while mildly catchy, also falls into that same repetitive trap of really being just title of the song with some “Ooh”s thrown in for flavor. (OK, so they rhyme it with “Some things never change” after a few repetitions. That’s still a bit of a tired rhyme.) By the time they’re midway through the song, it feels like there’s nowhere else left to go with it. Subject-wise, this one feels a lot like “Diamonds and Gold” by that other married duo with the same color in its name, The Gray Havens, except that duo had the good sense to realize they had written a simplistic pop song about anti-materialism, so they went all out and gave it the cheesy 80s pop treatment. Out of the Grey doesn’t quite show that same level of self-awareness here.
7. Dropped Off
Wow, I really didn’t see this one coming. Scott’s taken us down curious paths before when he’s taken the lead on tracks like “That’s Where I Live” or “Out of the Ordinary”. But this one cuts a bit deeper, and by Out of the Grey standards, it’s surprisingly frank. I wouldn’t call it a “rock song”, per se, but the tone of the electric guitar (with his acoustic adding some flavor in the background) definitely sets it apart from the rest of the album, as do the lyrics, which tell an uneasy story of a young boy in the back seat of the car, being ignored by his father on the way to drop him off at some friend’s house or appointment or whatever. You get the feeling that the two are estranged and the dad doesn’t know how to talk to the kid, so having any excuse to get rid of him or tune him out for a few hours comes as a relief. Fast-forward a few years, and the situation is reversed – the boy is now a rebellious teenager, smoking dope in his bedroom and tuning out the rest of the world, with the father angrily yelling at him, “What the hell is wrong with you?” because the boy won’t communicate and the dad has no idea what’s going on with him. I certainly never thought I’d hear stuff like that in an Out of the Grey song – and they certainly wouldn’t have gotten away with it on a major CCM label in the 90s. I find it rather refreshing to be surprised and a bit troubled by a lyric like this, because it stands in stark contrast to the duo’s usual easygoing tone. The story never really resolves itself, either, ending on the ominous threat, “Wait until your father gets home.” The real tragedy is that he might have left for good.
8. Two to Wonder
This short instrumental, just Scott and a few other guys noodling around on their acoustics, reminds of the very brief moments on earlier albums where they’d put an unlisted interlude like this in between songs, or when Scott got to open up a bit and jam with Phil Keaggy and Wes King on the Invention album. It’s not as magical as some of those earlier examples, but it’ll do. I wish there was more room for moments like these in the songs themselves, to be honest.
9. Hard to Die
This song feels a lot like a companion piece to “Giving Up Slow”. It’s got a similar theme, this time being a little more upfront about the notion of dying to oneself and one’s own desires, and the tone of it is a little more in the neighborhood of wry self-deprecation – it’s not humorous per se, but I smile a little bit upon recognizing the common struggle Christine is expressing. There’s a little bit of slide guitar giving this one a folksier feel than the earlier songs in this vein; I’d have preferred for them to give more of these songs a distinct musical identity if I had my way, but it is nice that when I hear Christine in a musical setting like this, I think back to the Along the Road album she did with Susan Ashton and Margaret Becker back in the heyday of all three women’s careers, and I kind of get the warm fuzzies.
10. A Little Light Left
A slow, ambient intro sets a pensive mood for one of the most understated but beautiful songs in the Out of the Grey canon. The imagery of a sun setting and seasons changing is commonly used as a metaphor for aging, so while Out of the Grey might not be breaking any new ground using it here, it still rings true as one of their most personal and heartfelt songs, as they look back at all the plans they made and the naive young dreams they’ve had, and realize maybe not everything went the way they would have expected, but it’s all been a huge blessing and there’s still plenty of time to drink in the twilight together. Scott’s acoustic fingerpicking runs through this song like a gentle river, and once again the duo nails it with an almost whispered, but beautifully harmonized vocal performance. The chord changes feel magical to me, just as they did in the early days when I first fell in love with the Dentés, culminating in a breathtaking bridge where they celebrate “Years of crossing bridges built by trust, so we can find us in the dusk.” That might just be the loveliest turn of phrase on the entire record. This one takes its sweet time to get started and to wind down again, running close to six minutes. I don’t find myself getting impatient with it at any point. It’s the perfect song to unwind to at the end of a long day, or year, or lifetime.
11. Travel Well
I’m actually a bit surprised they didn’t close the album with the title track – it would have been perfectly placed at the very end. Instead, they surprise me one last time with an up-tempo, folksy benediction sung by Scott, probably the most blatant step into stripped-down Americana territory that the duo takes on this album. Here I’m tempted to draw comparisons to some of Jon Foreman‘s solo work, particularly the track “Before Our Time” that came at the tail end of his Wonderlands series. (Now there’s a dream collaboration that I’d love to hear someday.) The theme here is pretty simple, as they wish us happy trails and reminds us that peace, hope, and love all travel well. Sure, it’s a bit of a corny sentiment, but I can allow for a bit of sentimentality at this point, knowing that I might be saying goodbye to the duo for another decade or more until I hear from them again.
WHAT’S IT WORTH TO ME?
We’re Still Here $.25
Giving Up Slow $1
Bubble Girl $1.25
The Distance $2
Only Love Remains $.50
Dropped Off $2
Two to Wonder $.50
Hard to Die $1
A Little Light Left $1.75
Travel Well $1.25
Christine Denté: Vocals, piano, keyboards
Scott Denté: Vocals, guitars