Rabbit Room

The Rabbit Room has invited me, along with a whole new wave of artists and writers, to become an official contributor to their online community. You can read about “The New Class” of Rabbit Room writers here.

The Rabbit Room is meant to be the digital, mostly-American cousin of the room in the back of the Eagle and Child pub where the Inklings, a literary discussion group led by writers such as C.S. Lewis, J.R.R. Tolkien, and Charles Williams, would meet to share their works in progress. While I can’t think of too many times the website has been used as a place to read unfinished works, it has, like the original Rabbit Room, become a place for connecting independent artists and inspiring discussions exploring “the intersection of art and faith”. I have followed it since its beginnings, and it has been a regular source of spiritual and creative inspiration for me for at least seven years.

This past fall I had the opportunity to be a guest at Hutchmoot, the yearly gathering in Nashville, for an invaluable long weekend of delectable feasting, literature discussions, singing, life affirming lectures on our creative vocations, author readings (Leif Enger!), Shakespearean Star Wars re-enactments, communal art projects, improvised song writing, and refreshing conversations. I can’t think of any other website that has affected me so personally, and I am thrilled to be given the opportunity to step up my own involvement there.

This post is all old news. I started writing it back in December 2013 and am just getting around to posting it.  Not only is this a belated 2013 list, but these are all recordings that that were created long before 2013. My hope is that, though it is all old news to much of the world, perhaps some of these artists will be new to you. While I am embarrassed to say that I am late to the party with these acts, many of whom are legends, I am willing to swallow my pride and say, “Hey, check this out!” as if they just performed the Superbowl half-time show.

With every passing year comes a deepening realization of ignorance, and that is no exception when it comes to learning about music – I love finding out how little I know and how much I’ve missed. Each year some of my favorite finds are from years past.  For some reason this year, probably because I have had to start working on my own act, I have been focusing on charismatic solo acts, artists who have the ability to hold the room alone on the strength of their own voice and instrumental prowess.

Lead Belly   Lead Belly is someone I knew as one of many names in the blues canon, but had never spent time with.  This year I inherited some old vinyls from my father-in-law, which included some Lead Belly collections;  I couldn’t stop listening and reading about him.  He sings like his life depends on it and often plays his gritty twelve string with a mystifying sense of rhythm.  It is no wonder he played his way out of jail twice.

Nina Simone I had listened to her casually before, but really came to love her when I used “I Put a Spell on You” while teaching The Crucible last fall. I literally did a double take the first time I noticed her mimicking the sax solo with her own voice (just after minute 1:40). The breakdown in the middle of “Sinnerman” was what finally took me by the collar and said, “Listen up!”  I’ve found that her best recordings are live.  She had the whole package as a virtuoso jazz pianist and vocal improviser worthy of a gospel revival. If you are fan of Simone I would love to hear your recommendations. Now, watch this!

Jerry Reed  I’ve been a fan of Jerry Reed for years, but my appreciation continued to grow in 2013. Self taught guitarist, clever story teller, and soulful, funky country boy. He always seems to play with a wink. Now close your eyes and wield your air guitar alongside “Alabama Wild Man”:

Nellie Mckay  Everything about Mckay is polished, perfect, and sugar sweet. She is a classically trained pianist who writes songs that sound like old showtunes. That’s why it is so surprisingly effective when she sings songs that are subversive and ironic. While that is not the case in “Normal as Blueberry Pie“, which is a re-imagining of Doris Day songs, she somehow still maintains her edge with this collection of classic covers. The arrangements are striking in their simplicity and complexity. I love how she often does so much with so little.

Johnny Flynn Several years ago I came across Johnny Flynn on Andy Whitman’s music blog, Razing the Bar, and loved what I heard from A Larum, but it wasn’t until this past year that finally I picked up my own copies of A Larum and Been Listening. It would be easy to lump him with his fellow British neo-folkies, but I think he also brings something very different to the table.  While Mumford and Sons channel Appalachian Americana and Laura Marling brings back the 70s folk scene (major oversimplification, I know), Flynn’s ballads evoke ancient, saltier, Shakespearean strains of storytelling. Something about his confident baritone says, “Gather ’round” and invites his audience to adventures and tragedies of a distinctly British nature.

Leon Redbone– The most noticeable feature of Leon Redbone’s sound is his inebriated, stumbling through the streets of New Orleans vocals. As you can tell from the artists above, I love voices with character, voices that at least sound like they have lived the stories they are singing even if they haven’t. If contrasting helps, most American Idol finalists would be at the opposite end of that spectrum. Redbone, a master jazz and blues guitar player, is a time machine artist, taking his audience at least a half century or more backwards, giving voice to the long dead, as he does to the minstrel show performer Emmett Miller with his cover of “The Ghost of The St. Louis Blues”.  I love the strings on this track. (By the way, you may recognize his voice from the movie Elf, where he played Leon the Snowman, poking fun at Burl Ives’ original snowman narrator from Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer) .

I listen to too much music, so I am not going to try to list everything I liked in 2013, but I would like to highlight a few of the recordings that have stuck with me. They are unranked.

Hem- Departures and Farewell
Closing time.  The final car to pull away from the gravesite after the memorial service.  A stage manager locks up the quiet theater the night of the last show.  Dusk.  The uncertainty of what lies ahead.  These songs are places of letting go and looking forward, each under the guidance of the entrancing vocals and natural strength of Sally Ellyson.  This album was a pleasant surprise since they had been on what I thought was a permanent hiatus.  I hope it is not their goodbye.
Favorite tracks: “Walking Past the Graveyard, Not Breathing” and “Tourniquet”
Son Lux- Lanterns

The digital age is a mess on many levels, so it is no surprise that the desire to escape and the opportunities for it seem to be more prevalent than ages past.  That is probably a gross oversimplification, but I am going to stick with it for the sake of touching on the theme of this record.  Like Departures and Farewell, Lanterns takes a hard look at what has been lost, in this case by “progress”, (“I’ve had enough of our machines”) and casts a hopeful vision for transcendence (“We rise in the dying” or “I’ll keep my lanterns lit”).  That being said, this is the album of the year in my book.  Every time I pick it up I have to listen all the way through; it is masterful.  While Ryan Lott is still working within the bounds of pop, he stretches them in the best ways and seems to accomplish exactly what he set out to do.  This is much more of an experience than a collection of songs.

Favorite tracks: “Lost it to Trying” and “Pyre”
Susanne Sundfor- The Silicone Veil
Susanne Sundfor sings alone in an abandoned digital cathedral of synths and strings.  She desperately labors to bring heat and meaning into the cold and cruel.  Sometimes it feels as if she is trying to knock down the walls with throbbing electronic heart beats and her desirous, fitful vocals.  A less figurative way of describing “The Silicone Veil” would be to say that her sound combines a voice that reminds me of a more desperate Rufus Wainwright with Daft Punk’s Tron soundtrack. Clearly I should review music for a living.
Favorite tracks: “White Foxes” and “The Silicone Veil”
Vampire Weekend- Modern Vampires in the City
Being a band of such a distinct sound, it was encouraging to see them expanding their bounds and doing so successfully.  Enough has been written about this CD, which made Rolling Stone’s number one album of the year, so I am just going to make a random comment.  Oddly, there are several places where this album makes me think of Randy Newman.   The deliberately blasphemous tone of “Ya Heah”, openly mocking the name “Yahweh”, reminds me of Randy Newman’s “God Song”, in which Yahweh, the speaker in the song, sounds like a twisted villain.  They are both uncomfortably clever and catchy criticisms.  Also, something about “Hudson” always reminds me of Newman’s “In Germany Before the War”, though I can’t put my finger on why.  Do you hear it?
Favorite tracks:  “Everlasting Arms” and “Hudson”
Mavis Staples- One True Vine
This second collaboration between Staples, a gospel legend, and Jeff Tweedy of Wilco and Uncle Tupelo captures the essence of Staples’ voice and songs while backing them with Tweedy’s minimalist alt. country/blues arrangements.  I struggle with most religious records; I have a tendency to keep most of them at arm’s length with an unshakable suspicion, but something about her voice invites me to sing along and mean every note.
Favorite tracks: “Every Step” and “Far Celestial Shore”
Bifrost Arts- He Will Not Cry Out
This is not a pragmatic worship album, aiming to build towards an arena rock version of romantic, emotional, God loving catharsis.  Instead, Isaac Wardell’s third project stirs worship through complex, beautiful melodies and production, as well as complex, beautiful theological texts.  Its aim seems to be to worship through stillness, contemplation, beauty, and community. I believe this is their first shot to move beyond interesting arrangements of old tunes to creating fully original liturgy.  It is definitely their strongest project to date. As usual, even if you are not a fan of religious music, the songs, production, and performances would be irresistible to any indie-folkies.
Favorite tracks: “Restore Us, O Lord” and “His Wounds”
Ron Block- Walking Song
Ron Block has long been an acknowledged master of his instrument.  Google him and you will see what I mean.  In Walking Song, Block, with the partnership of Rebecca Reynolds, is on the road to mastering the craft of songwriting as well.  This album exudes confidence, joy, and freedom.  The lyrics, the melodies, and the performances are the perfect blend of classic and fresh, old timey and brand new, and it is all quite catchy.
Favorite tracks:  “Nickel Tree Line” and “Sunshine Billy”
I would also like to include the new records from The National, The Arcade Fire, Jason Isbell, and Andy Gullahorn.  I have listened to them enough to include them, but I need a little more time with them before I write more.  There are also a few on my wish list (Josh Ritter, Laura Marling, Darcy James Argue’s Secret Society, Caleb Burhan, Night Beds) that I hope to catch up to once I have the means.

Chuck E. Cheese and the Lost Lyrics

I have always enjoyed hearing the stories behind songs, so I am going to share a few of my own over the next few weeks.  The lyrics to “Cricket in a Jar” were inspired by a rather luminescent source.

Many arcade games are designed for sheer delight; others solely prey on budding greed.  This one is the latter.


 I have a memory of spending an entire birthday party hassling this machine. All of my tokens went into the space age devil.  I did not want to have fun; I wanted to win.  Every string of tickets promised a longer string of tickets.  I don’t remember any prizes, but I do remember that oddly satisfying orange chain of paper.  Looking back I realize that I should probably stay away from Vegas.

 This is how it works: The game begins with a light whizzing around the circumference of the dome.  The goal is to press a button to stop the light just as it passes through two fluorescent bars.  Succeed and the tickets spew.

 I thought of this game my first year of being a dad. That year my senses were heightened.  It seemed that more than ever there were brilliant moments of life that would whirl by in an instant and disappear.  I wanted a “light stopper button”.  This is evidenced by the amount of pictures we took of Shepard’s first year of life.  We tried to slow things down with pictures, to capture the radiance that so frequently seemed to surface and vanish.  It was never adequate.

 Instead, we ended up with a hard drive full of less than exciting pictures: Here’s one of him drooling on a blanket…another of him, five minutes later, sleeping in a basinet…. here he is later that day on his stomach on the same blanket…and five different angles of that.  The camera’s “light stopper button” satisfied at the time, but in retrospect it was just a toy, allowing us to express that deeper urge to permanently secure an otherworldly, visiting joy and to feel we had at least tried.   That is what I was thinking about when I sang these lines while driving to work:

Catch the moment

It’s passed away

Catch the traveling light in the arcade game

You know how to play

 You’re probably realizing, as I did later, that this is not a perfect metaphor.  At the time it seemed on point, and I thought that it was the best way to say what I needed to say. But I’d heard from many writers, particularly Annie Dillard, not to hold on too tightly to the first lines that you write and love.  It can stunt the best work that comes from drafting and reworking an idea or a line.

 So, eventually I followed the feeling instead and moved away from that image to the one of catching crickets in a jar, replacing the chorus line about the arcade game with one that I hoped would have a broader resonance.  I don’t remember much more about how the rest of the song came together, but I am indebted to this random childhood memory for sparking the fire.

 You can read the full final lyrics in the PDF linked here and hear a sample of the song in The Rabbit Room store.

 Now that I’ve brought up a Chuck E. Cheese arcade game, I don’t think I can end without reminding you of an age many wish could have been frozen in time and which some are now trying to relive….the glory days of Showbiz Pizza and The Rock-afire Explosion:

One of my goals for this blog is to let you know more about the people that helped to bring this EP to life.

 Melanie Penn has the honor of being the only artist, outside of Bob Boyd who mastered the EP, that did not have to go through the trouble of working in the same room with Ben and me. Though I am a total stranger and an unknown artist, she was gracious enough to collaborate on “Partington Cove”, recording and sending her harmonies via e-mail from New York. What she came up with was beautiful and haunting; Ben was obviously inspired, because he then sampled her voice and subtly spun it into a ghostly breath at a key moment in the song. Listen for it.

Like me, Melanie is also in the in the thick of joyfully pursuing two careers. Currently, she is in the middle of a summer tour while continuing to work from the road for City to City, a ministry based in New York.

She is preparing to release her second full-length album, Hope Tonight, also produced by Ben Shive. Here is the first track:

You can buy her excellent debut record here in The Rabbit Room store.

You can hear her harmonies on “Partington Cove” by purchasing The Mantis and the Moon EP at The Rabbit Room, Amazon, or iTunes.

Partington stitch header

I love making music but I loathe self promotion. I’ve always cringed at the idea of putting my name on a T-shirt, coffee mug, or banner ad. Maybe it’s false humility, poor self esteem, or that I’d like to think that I belong to myself and no one can buy me. Either way, I’ve long been drawn to the idea of releasing music as an entity rather than as part of my identity.

So, Son of Laughter is my preferred name for this occasion; luckily, it is a broad canvas of a name. I can relate to it in the most innocent and depraved ways imaginable. I like it because, at the very least, it gives me the freedom to write about all of these things:

1.) Laughter can be pure. My children laugh at bubbles, the smacking of dogs’ tails, the threat of being tickled and all the strange noises they can make with their throats.

2.) Ever since I was a child, I’ve always laughed a little too much. I first became aware of this when one kindergarten teacher dubbed me “Laughing Horse” as my Indian name for a Thanksgiving feast re-enactment. Once an angry boy in a violin clinic pointed his bow at me and demanded that I explain what I was laughing at, when I hadn’t quite realized that I was even doing it.

3.) I’ve since learned that it is a coping mechanism, one tiny step towards self reliantly handling the world at its most frustrating or ambiguous. Sometimes this leads to me, as a teacher, a father, performer, and a friend, laughing at the worst times. Sometimes I even start laughing before the person I am talking to has finished their thought. That’s always awkward.

4.) My three-year-old son already seems to have the same relationship with laughter, and some of these songs are about him too.

5.) Son of Laughter is a reference to the name Isaac. It is a reminder that Abraham and Sarah laughed a terrible, despairing laugh at God when he told them they would have a son after a lifetime of barren disappointment. To say that I too have doubted the promises of God, like the ones to watch over my cherished, vulnerable family as he does the sparrow or to even make the world new again, would be an understatement.

That same type of laughter ties to this project, though this was never exactly promised to me. I often doubted, with earnest realism, that this recording would ever come to full term. It took just under five years to make a five song EP. At one point a friend of mine suggested, “Some dreams are meant to die.” I bitterly took this as sage advice.

6.) Even worse, son of laughter, as Frederick Buechner used it, can also be interpreted as Isaac’s (Laughter) son, Jacob, one of the most manipulative, deceptive, and self serving characters in all of literature. Any honest soul will find that he is a depressingly familiar personality, to say the least. In many ways a life of such deception is one of despair, having given up on everything and everyone except our own shameless cunning to survive.

7.) In all of those sad cases, God is relentlessly gracious. In the case of Abraham and Sarah, a son was born out of hopeless cynicism. With Laughter’s son, Jacob, God graced him in the middle of his wretchedness, disabling him at his most contentious and giving him a new name.

8.)  I see that same confident vision in a far more innocent son of laughter, who again boldly claimed the impossible, while he was mocked, beaten, and executed by a world that had given up on real hope, whittling it down to its most manageable, “realistic” forms.

9.) To me this God, who fixes his steady, ever believing sight on the most faithless and depraved misfits, is worth hoping in. And he is not just a listless dreamer. Out of human history’s most pathetic, sick core, he rose with great power, compassion, and joy, painfully disarming our most destructive ambitions, giving us new names.

10.)  I am hoping in the morning that he will wake us all up on the other side of detachment, cynicism, despair, and death, and we will find ourselves laughing again like amazed children.