Sunday, February 1, 2015

Ladies' Turn

It's customary for artists, especially for those who work mostly within a certain genre of music, to lament how their record companies fail to allow them to achieve all of their creative vision. A lot of times that may be true, but it can also be true that artists themselves may not be the best judge of presenting their work -- Keith Richards regularly points out that he never believed "(I Can't Get No) Satisfaction" should be a single.

That said, there are probably few record companies that would have been happy helping Audrey Assad create her third full-length album, 2013's Fortunate Fall. Sparrow Records had recorded her first two, albums of folky praise and worship and religious music that signaled she was a creative musician and a thinker. But she didn't think they would work so well with an album drawing almost entirely from St. Augustine's writing about humanity's fall from grace into sin, since it would not likely lend itself to churches seeking service music, based on both the weight of the subject matter and the sedate piano and keyboard instrumentation that only occasionally adds other types of sounds. I imagine she didn't seriously consider whether a secular company would entertain an album project based the 1500-year-old writings of a Christian saint. So enter Kickstarter and Assad's fans, who helped her fund and create Fall.

The theme from Augustine wonders over the magnitude of humanity's fall and the greatness of the savior offered to heal it. Some of the songs, like the title track and "Humble," carry an anthemic air but still fit in with Augustine's reflections. "Oh Happy Fault" brings on bells and chimes to sound like some undiscovered Victorian hymn. Assad also allows her songs their full development and doesn't restrict them to the simple three-minute slot (Four of the songs are more than five minutes long and "Good to Me" is six).

Assad has said her artistic goal is to write "church music" in the best meaning of that word, and she continues with "Spirit of the Living God," a prayer for the presence of the Holy Spirit to make the church more the body of Christ in the world. These and all of the songs are given reality by Assad's beautiful and sometimes breathy singing, which sounds all the more human for its lack of pristine operatic power.

Christians facing questions about whether people who believe can create art have almost always been able to point to great artists and musicians of the past, such as George Handel or Johann Sebastian Bach. We may with confidence add Audrey Assad as an example of someone who takes all of the gifts God has given her -- voice, talent, brains and devotion -- and made from them some mighty fine art of her own.
Although you might not believe it when you listen, Kim Lenz and her Jaguars released their first record not in 1958 but 1998. Since then Lenz and her band have brought forth four top-level slices of rockabilly flavored with some big band and jump blues spices with the most recent being 2013's Follow Me.

The record followed some personal upheaval in Lenz's life, as she learned she had been adopted and a longtime friend and musical collaborator passed away. The time of reflection and processing these events led her to a different place than before musically.

Not that Follow Me sounds particularly different from her earlier work -- Lenz records with engineers who collect vintage studio equipment in order to keep her sound as much like the great rockabilly artists of the 1950s as much as possible. The bass still slaps and the guitar work still makes it clear that the "billy" part of rockabilly matters too, and Lenz's trademark mix of yowl, purr, hiccup and swagger leaves no doubt that the boys were not the only rockin' cats around, either 60 years ago or today.

But while 2009's It's All True seemed a little too ready to re-tread familiar territory in ways Lenz had already explored, Follow Me hangs its drape jacket and sheath dress on some much more introspective and substantial subject matter. The title track opens with the band channeling the Big Bopper and asserting they like the way Lenz walks, but when she suggests they follow her it's an invitation to find out what kind of real person she is beyond the image. "Money can't buy love," Lenz says in the opener "Pay Dearly," but she "paid dearly" to learn that lesson.

There's still plenty of good old-fashioned Patsy-Cline-channeling weeping over loves lost ("Deejay" and "Right Here With Me") and rockin' accusations of infidelity like "Cry Wolf" and "Trust No One," which opens with the great couplet, "Hey girls, here's a cautionary tale about the perils/of the predatory male" before going on to spell out the reasons he should not be trusted, all while backed with a great boogie-woogie piano and horns.

The music world contains plenty of ersatz rockabilly that spends a lot of time getting the feel and the look right but not nearly enough energy on creating great songs to match the great sound. All of that may be safely ignored in order to follow Kim Lenz's suggestion and pick up Follow Me.

No comments: