Nothing Is Working – Ooze Select Blogger Review
Apr 3rd, 2009 by Sonja

I’m reviewing two album/CD’s here.   “Songs For A Revolution Of Hope” by Brian McLaren in collaboration with Tracey Howe and “Shameless Jane” by Teel Montague Cook.  LightHusband and I listened to them both together, and the review that follows is a compilation of our thoughts (he’s a retired professional drummer who has participated in the production of more than one album, I have an amateur background in music and we both enjoy listening to a broad, eclectic spectrum of artists).

I have several pet peeves when it comes to the Christian music industry and, unfortunately, neither of these albums did anything to dispel those.

First – sound engineers tend to be very cautious and the result is that you don’t where to point your ears.  Think of a painting in which the artist uses the same hue of paint all across the canvass in the same amounts and judiciously meted all the colors in the same amounts as well.  You wouldn’t know where to focus your eyes or what the artist wanted you to look at first.  That’s what happens when a sound engineer gets overly cautious.

Second – dynamic range in vocalists … vocalists also tend to be very cautious and want to live in one range.  This makes for songs that have very little aural interest.  That means our attention begins to wander (for those of us with short attention spans) and for those of us with sensitive hearing it can actually be unnerving to listen to these for any length of time.  At the risk of sounding petty, the feminist in me wishes really hard that female Christian vocalists would lose the breathy thing.  This is a personal preference (and I’ll admit it) but I prefer strong female voices, no matter what their range and breathy gets annoying after awhile.  Sing from your diaphragm and belt it out, believe in yourself and what you have to offer.  You have a beautiful gift, share it with glee.

Third – lyrics … please, oh please write some lyrics that help the audience to think about the wonder and mystery of God.   That engage the audience and invite them to the throne room of grace.  Don’t stand behind them and beat them about the head with what you think they need.  That’s all I could hear in the lyrics on these albums … here was the writer’s interpretation and they drew the picture so perfectly that there was no room for me to use their music in my life at all.  I had no use for it; there is no room for my imagination or LightHusband’s or anyone elses’.

My definition of good worship music (and by far the most excellent of these can be seen with U2) is a song which creates enough mystery, yet enough presence that the listener is invited to participate in the portrait the musician is creating of God with his/her song.  Too many songwriters now have their vision; their only requirement of the audience is that they become a mirror.  Listen to Grace by U2 as an example of lyrics which allow the listener to participate in the portrait of God rather than being told what the details are by the singer in so many other worship songs.

Songs For A Revolution Of HopeSongs For A Revolution of Hope, by Tracey Howe and Brian McLaren, produced by Brian McLaren & Tracey Howe – “…it’s better than the J0n@s Brothers.”  Thus spake LightBoy … and faint praise it was, given his low opinion of the latest teeny bopper idols.

LightHusband’s overall perspective (without any foreknowledge of who he was listening to … as he said later, “I thought this was some tiny little local church putting out an album.  Someone with the resources of Brian McLaren should be putting out a much better product.”)  was that this music deserves a much more aggressive mix; whoever mixed it was much too cautious.  This was obvious with the songs where the instrumentation was simple; those songs were handled beautifully.  When all the musicians were playing, the engineer seemed overwhelmed, leaving the listener with no direction for their ear.  As is typical for many Christian sound engineers, they had no idea what to do with the drums and consistently under mixed them; making them an annoying afterthought rather than an integral part of the music as good percussion should be.  Overall, it sounded as though it were mixed by a vocalist rather than a instrumentalist, because there was no separation of the instrument voices and they became very muddy to the ear.

Here are some specific notes about certain tracks on the album … these four were potentially the best songs on it.

Canticle – no drums and sounded really good.  The mix they were trying to force on the whole album works here.  Good balance … sounds very much like Nickle Creek and we enjoyed this song very much.

In Your Crucifixion – cut back to only acoustic guitar for intro … added in acoustic bass; instrumentation is lovely – once again the mix works and produces a lovely song.  Hint – no drums.   Lyrics needed a lot of work; I didn’t really need the vocabulary lesson … but otherwise well done.

Let’s Confess – just drums … beat music and beat poetry.  I get that the conservative Christian church is like 50 years behind the curve, but do we really need to go through all the steps?  Or could we just say that, yes … it’s been done and move along.  What was fresh and experimental in the 1960’s repeated now is sort of … um …   That said … drums are interesting and vocals are interesting … however, the mix is horrible and the drums drowned her out.

Chant – don’t do it unless it’s really part of your tradition and daily prayer walk.  It’s pretentious.  The voices in the background could have been used in some really imaginative and wonderful places … the harp was wonderful, beautiful instrumentation.  The final chorus was good and should have been used more frequently.  Those background voices were  annoying until the final chorus, when they became beautiful, but we had to wait too long and in the interim they were a distraction.

Have Love – potentially the best song on the album … ruined by the cautious mix.  We should be able to hear the drums up front, then the brass and the cowbells … instead the instrumentation sounds like mud because the engineer didn’t know what to highlight.  This song could (and should, given the subject matter) be a party in my speakers … it’s awesome, instead I’m sitting frustrated by the mud.

[Begin Rant] I am so fed up with Christians putting out a shoddy product in God’s name thinking that people will flock to it because it’s got the God stamp of approval on it. Just because you do something for God, doesn’t mean you give Him short shrift. The Classical and Renaissance periods are filled with artists who waited for the right moment or starved (hence the term starving artist) rather than produce artwork that was not their best. For heaven’s sake, do it right. Do it well. Do it for His glory rather than on the cheap.[End Rant]

Here’s a quote from the liner notes on “Songs …”: We had only five full days to track the album but were able to track most of it live, again, something that was amazing to witness as some of the songs took on great complexity.

It was interesting to read because as LightHusband and I listened to this album (before I read those notes) that’s exactly what we thought: this album was done too fast and without enough resources behind it. The songs did take on great complexity, but the mixing did not reflect that with the result is that the listener doesn’t have any direction for their ears.

Given the resources that could (and should) have been invested in this album it could (and should) have been so much better than it was.  Clearly these musicians are well trained and know their craft.  There were moments of brilliance here.  It’s a shame it got lost in a rush to put something out without the proper support behind it.

Shameless Jane

Shameless Jane – by Teel Montague Cook, produced by Earthshaking Music, Atlanta, Georgia.

Here’s the better news about Teel Montague … she’s got tons of potential. She oozes potential. I listened to her and heard overtones of Janis Ian. If you don’t remember Janis, you can hear one of her songs here at this free download. Unfortunately, this album is all about potential … unrealized potential.

Nothing is working, not even this song … this is a line from one of the tracks on this CD and cynically, it seemed appropriate for the title of this review.

The best thing I can say about Shameless Jane is that this album is unoffensive; that should never be the best thing one has to say about a work of music.

The lyrics were pedantic, not thought-provoking; they don’t leave much space, mystery or subtlety to let the listener think, process or breath. It was pretty obvious that Teel has some interesting thoughts she wants to put to music, but that’s part of the problem … she was too obvious. Dress it up a little, use some metaphor, analogy, play with words … have fun with song writing.  Although she had a few tracks where she approached this, namely Bean Dip Bomb and Peter Pan, so once again, her potential is there and I do hope that Teel continues to play and engage her craft.  There’s a lot there to be developed in the future.

The music, melody, etc. seems to be an afterthought. Dynamic range of songs never change. Tempos rarely (if ever) change. After the first song or two, my ears were tired. The acoustic guitar was well done, and the vocals strong, but breathy.  While this would be excellent to have as background music for an evening with friends, I found it difficult to listen to and engage with as a listening event because of the range and tempo issues.

Teel Cook is a mom with two teenagers at home.  This is an obvious first album that shows her roughcut artistic talent.  She’s got a lot of potential.  I hope she gets the support, time and resources that will help her to realize that potential … and I hope to hear more from her in the future.  I really do …

Rapture Ready – A Book Review
Aug 26th, 2008 by Sonja

Rapture Ready - image Rapture Ready!:  Adventures In The Parallel Universe of Christian Pop Culture by Daniel Radosh

This book was a poke in the eye with a sharp stick.  Or perhaps a harsh emetic on an empty stomach.   In any case, it should only be read if you’re ready to both laugh at what the church has become and stomach some fairly serious criticism of our pop culture and ministry life side show and what we’ve become over the last approximately 50 years.  Every other page I was either laughing out loud, or certain I could not read another word for the sheer mortification of it.

Daniel Radosh is a thirty something Brooklyn-ite and self-described Jewish humanist who decides to wander amongst the evangelical subculture for a year and see what it’s like.  He’s inspired to this adventure by attending a Christian music/rock festival with his mid-western teen-aged sister-in-law and her friends.

He went underground (so to speak) and wandered amongst evangelicals and fundamentalist Christians to write “… a book about popular culture.  It’s about entertainment, leisure and shopping.  It’s also about politics and the culture war that engulfs America.  And it’s a little bit–but not as much as you might think–about religion.”

The book begins at SHOUTfest, meanders through the 2006 International Christian Retail Show, visits the new Jerusalem of the Holy Land Experience in Orlando, Florida, interviews and spends time with editors at a Bible publishing group, time in and with the owner of an enormous Christian bookstore, met several Christian “stars” including Bibleman and Frank Perretti, but not Stephen Baldwin although he does include a very ingenious interview with Mr. Baldwin, and he goes to Cornerstone, but he ends with, of all things, sex and an ironic interview with Ted Haggard about how many times evangelical men have sex with their wives.

It’s an entertaining read.  While Mr. Radosh did not wave his Jewishness in anyone’s face as he sojourned in the evangelical landscape, neither did he hide the fact when questioned about his faith.  He was open about the responses to this information and I found those reactions interesting and sometimes painful.

In all as I read the book, I remembered the early days of my faith journey and how I didn’t want to be a Christian because I didn’t want to “check my brain at the door of the church.”  My perspective about what a Christian was and who they are was and is that “we are like sheep, gone astray.”  Not much has changed in the intervening 16 years.  Fortunately, I’ve discovered that I can be a Christian AND keep my brains.  Unfortunately, at least according to our pop culture, that’s not the general consensus.  Nor is it the consensus of this book … painful and funny as it was to read.  Unfortunately, as Frank Schaeffer (the younger) wrote in a recent Huffington Post article:

Evangelicals get direct messages from God. So who needs tradition, let alone government? That is why Evangelicals are opposed to all structure. They hate government, and they hate the idea of bishops telling them what it means to be a Christian. They hate the idea of health care for all that might involve someone (other than voices in their heads) telling them what to do. And they want the “right” to own guns, raise kids on myths and own that SUV and believe that more drilling for oil will bring down the price of gas. They also want God to speak directly to them, never mind a community of faith. And God seems to tell them weird stuff. So today’s crazy person is tomorrow’s best selling Rick Warren or Victoria and Joel Osteen. And how can they be crazy? Look how big their churches are! They measure up to the only real Evangelical creed-the ability to make money and be successful in commercial terms.

So … when some fruitcake like a James Dobson comes along and his organization calls for rainmaking to spoil the Obama speech, or the egomaniacal cult leader Victoria Osteen co-pastor of the biggest mega sect in Houston, allegedly assaults an airline flight attendant, there’s not much other Evangelicals can do who are embarrassed by their pet-buffoon-of-the-moment, other than to wring their hands. That’s because Evangelicalism is really just another version of American individualism and the entertainment industry wherein “freedom” is interpreted as the right to be a consumer and choose one’s favorite products from ski mobiles, jet skis, a trip to the Bahamas, a new-car or joining a the local mega church of the moment. Victoria Osteen today, Rick Warren yesterday, whatever wanders in tomorrow, with a book deal and nice way of talking.

Feel – A Book Review
Aug 19th, 2008 by Sonja

Feel - Image

Feel:  The Power Of Listening To Your Heart by Matthew Elliott

This book was a breath of fresh air for me.  Sort of.  Matthew Elliott wants very badly to believe what he’s writing.  But I never quite got the feeling that he really did.  And I want to believe it too.  Whenever there’s been a dust up in my life, I’ve heard this: “You’re too emotional.  Why can’t you ________?” Fill in the blank with one of the following:

  • get a thicker skin
  • blow it off
  • ignore them/him/her; they’ll get bored and quit
  • just calm down
  • stop being so irrational/emotional/unreasonable

So it was a huge relief to read a book that was devoted to the idea that emotions are not scary.  Emotions are not bad.  Indeed, emotions are a necessary barometer that help us navigate and negotiate through life.

Mr. Elliott’s premise is that, contrary to popular psychology, ancient Greek philosophy and most modern thought, emotions were and are to be trusted.  They are an inner compass to the dance of the Holy Spirit.  It is when we cease to listen to our emotions that we are most at risk for not hearing from God.   He even laid to rest the horrible train visual that has scourged so many of us for so long:

Fact Faith Feeling

The promise of God’s Word, the Bible — not our feelings — is our authority. The Christian lives by faith (trust) in the trustworthiness of God Himself and His Word. This train diagram illustrates the relationship among fact (God and His Word), faith (our trust in God and His Word), and feeling (the result of our faith and obedience) (John 14:21).

The train will run with or without a caboose. However, it would be useless to attempt to pull the train by the caboose. In the same way, as Christians we do not depend on feelings or emotions, but we place our faith (trust) in the trustworthiness of God and the promises of His Word.

Thus have thousands been coerced into distrusting their innermost compass.  There is a grain of truth to these statements, but there is also a pound is dishonesty.  Sorting it out takes finesse and maturity.  Neither of which seem to be encouraged in the church of today.

Matthew Elliott takes great pains to prove his premise … but he does so in a very rational, logical manner.  I found this both comforting and paradoxical at the same time.  He makes the fine point that the notion that emotions cannot be trusted dates back to Plato and thus may be traced through Augustine in our church history.  He then traces its path through modern psychology and Darwinian thought to the present.  But the reality in the Bible is that God, His people and our relationship with Her are all rooted in emotion from the very beginning.

For those breaking free of any kind of emotional straight-jacket this is a must read.  Mr. Elliott also has a blog and throughout the book encourages participation on it.   There is also a website with study guide resources for individual and small group study (this book would be fine for both).

Hokey Pokey – Book Review
Aug 12th, 2008 by Sonja

Hokey Pokey

Hokey Pokey: Curious People Finding What Life’s All About by Matthew Paul Turner

I remember being small and pestering my mother with “what if” questions til she’d finally cry “Uncle.”  “We’re not playing the ‘what if’ game today.”  I was a curious child and have continued to be a curious adult.

It was that curiosity that lead me to chase down God; only to find He hadn’t exactly been hiding.  I simply hadn’t been looking very effectively.   No matter, we met up.  That’s the good news.

The bad news is that the many of God’s messengers here in earth have done their level best to squelch my inborn curiosity about life, living and all things to with the here and the hereafter.  I tried to contain it for a long time.  Then I tried to channel it into respectable outlets, but I’m a woman so there aren’t really any for me.  I taught youth group, I taught women’s classes, but they all got too deep and I continued to ask too many questions.  Silly me.

So I liked this book and I didn’t like this book.  And for the same reason.  It challenged me to get off my duff once more and dance.  Life’s been sorta painful these last couple of years.  The last few times I’ve “put my left arm in and shook it all about …” I got it ripped off and clubbed with the wet end (as my grandfather was fond of saying).  I’m not so anxious to try again.  I’m not even certain I want to listen to the music at this point, but let me finish telling you about the book.

I do highly recommend Hokey Pokey (although I really wish for a better title) for those seeking validation of their curious nature and for those beginning to ask questions but wonder if it’s okay (yes, it is).

Honestly, when I first cracked this book open I wondered how much there could be to write on the subject of curiosity.  Mr. Turner takes the subject far more seriously than his title suggests.  Along the way he manages to deal with calling, the silence of God, mentors, negative relationships, community, waiting on God, our image in God as well as several other fairly deep topics (these are what struck me).  Far from being a light read, I found this to be challenging on a level that I wasn’t anticipating.  Hokey Pokey would make a good book for a small group study for a group that has been together for some time and knows one another well.  It would also make a good book to read and journal through with a friend or on one’s own (as I plan to do later this fall).  It also made for enjoyable reading on it’s own and I found a lot that I simply relished; not the least of which was that many places were familiar as Mr. Turner lived and worked in the DC area and he managed the coffee house where I used to go to church.

We The Purple – Book Review
Aug 2nd, 2008 by Sonja

We The Purple, book coverThere are several things I want to say about this book.  But I need to begin with a disclaimer.  This is one of my Ooze book reviews.  I received a copy of this book, gratis, with the expectation that I’d write a review of it.  Just so that everyone knows.  Okay …

So … I approached this book with a lot of goodwill and anticipation.  After all, I’ve been a political independent for a long, long time.  Yes, I will admit this in public now for maybe the first time.  I’m one of the few people who actually voted for John Anderson in 1980.  There are about 17 of us (actually he got about 5.7 million votes … but there are only 17 of us who will admit it).  Unfortunately, I was slightly disappointed … with the book, as well as with my vote for John Anderson (but that’s another story).

It’s a good book.  If you’re looking for reasons to join the vast middle ground in this country, I would recommend it.  If you’ve been in the middle for a long time and are comfortable there (like me), you might find it covering old ground.  I have to say though, I recommend it with a couple of caveats.  They are these.

First, I wish that whoever Ms. Ford had editing this book had done a better job.  I found countless mistakes in both spelling and grammar that left me floundering.  Some of them were clearly places where re-writes had failed to remove extra words.  Whatever the problem, the spelling errors and extra words began to drive me nuts and detract from the readability of the book.  I can overlook one or two, but several per chapter and I wanted to read with a red pen in hand.

Second, was that much of the writing had the nature of a rant and began, through the course of the book, to sound like a conspiracy theory.  Now I’m as jaded and cynical as anyone when it comes to the political process … maybe even more than most, but I’m not sure I’d buy much of what Ms. Ford is selling.  Or … maybe I’d say it this way.  I’d buy the stripped down version, but I don’t think the fully loaded set is necessarily true.  For instance, she makes the claim that it is in the best interests of both (political) parties to keep voter participation low on election day and goes to some length through out the book to back this claim up.  Some of the arguments have merit.  Some I’m not so sure of.  Like this one about poll taxes.  Poll taxes (that is taxing people on real estate and other property before they could vote) was outlawed in the early 1960’s.  They were a popular tool used in the South to prevent African-Americans from being able to vote.  Ms. Ford claims that Southern states now use other means of levying a “poll tax” without calling it that.  She used as an example the fees that Georgia charges to gain or renew a drivers license – $35.00.  That didn’t sit right with me.  So I looked it up.  In Virginia it costs $4 per year to gain or renew a drivers license and you do so for 5 to 8 years at a time.  So it will cost anywhere from $20 to $32 for your drivers license.  Now I cannot remember whether or not I was asked for identification when I went to the polls for the primary.  Apparently, you need one in Georgia.  However, in Georgia you may apply for an ID card for voting purposes … and that is free and good for ten years.   In Vermont, a driver’s license costs $40 for four years … very expensive.  But again, I don’t know what the identification requirements are at voting.  I do know that Vermont requires a Voters Oath.  (BTW … I checked Vermont and Virginia because I have context for both.  And they are about as opposite as you can get from one another in terms of culture, demographics, philosophy, etc.)

Here’s the thing.  For someone who is so impoverished that they do not have and cannot afford a state issued identification card, voting is very low on their list of priorities.  I’m fairly certain that eating and keeping a roof over their head is going to take up most of their time and energy.  I hope I don’t sound callous when I write this and I don’t mean to.  I also don’t mean to say that impoverished people should be excluded from the conversation that is voting.  What I am saying is that there are greater obstacles to their participation than that presented by a fee for an identification card.  Maybe we need to care more about those obstacles and work around them.

Ms. Ford really shines in her description of political independents and the church.  Why we’re necessary.  Why we’ve felt so ostracized.  The damage that political polarization (on both sides) has done to the church.  And how things are changing.  The book is worth the price of admission on those chapters alone.   So I’ll leave you with a quote:

Within conservative evangelicalism, the notion that America is a Christian nation is a baby step away from the potentially disastrous belief that God is on our side–as long as we have conservative Christians making vital decisions that affect our domestic life and our foreign affairs.  This attitude is evident “in the way political and religious conservatives vigorously and often angrily attempt to force their views and interests on everyone as if their interests, by definition, are God’s interests,” writes Obery Hendricks in The Politics of Jesus.  “This is not faith; this is arrogance.”

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