In light of my recent bit of music criticism, I thought it would be worth pointing to some of my favorite contemporary acts, lest you think that I only exist in the 1960’s and 70’s. As much as I idolize and idealize that time period, there are in fact recent artists who are just as capable. Here is a wide range:

M83

Hurry Up, We’re Dreaming has an inexhaustible amount of imagination. I don’t need to add to what has already been said about this magnificent double-disc album. Certainly a fan favorite is “Raconte – Moi Une Histoire,” the life of a frog. If that doesn’t make you happy, you have no soul.

The Joy Formidable

Their Atlantic debut, The Big Roar, is about the most addicting album in recent memory, with its unique brew of shoegaze and 90’s alt-rock. They have an extensive YouTube presence; check-out “The Greatest Light is the Greatest Shade” and “I Don’t Want to See You Like This.”

Kimbra

I posted some videos of her Sing Sing sessions here. That should be enough proof that you need her presence in your life. The debut album is Vows.

Ryan Bingham

I don’t know what to make of his most recent album, Tomorrowland. I suppose every artist needs a departure, to test the waters; and after three albums of near perfection, we can cut him some slack. Mescalito and Roadhouse Sun should be in everyone’s car. Listen/watch his first single, “Southside of Heaven,” to get an introduction.

Justin Townes Earle

Here is another fine example of folk-country Americana. I would pick his 2010 album, Harlem River Blues, as a good place to start. I will close this post with his performance of the title track on Letterman:

The Mumford debate

October 5, 2012

I’ve lost count of the number of articles either defending or assailing Mumford and Sons. I haven’t seen anything like it. I was introduced to their first album when it was initially released a couple years ago. I was at work and a fellow co-worker — a super enthusiastic evangelical from California — told me that I gotta hear this band. He played one of their songs and passionately described how the song was recalling the captivity of sin or something like that. I smiled, nodded, and said something generic like, “sounds pretty good.” I eventually listened on my own time and concluded that they were okay but nothing compelling. So, I wasn’t very impressed, and now I’ve enjoyed ruminating further on what in particular is not compelling.

Consider this quote from Mumford about songwriting:

I can’t write lyrics unless I really feel them and mean them, which can sometimes be quite frustrating — because if you’re not feeling much at the time, you’re stuck.

Umm. Let me first give some background to my criticism. I’ve been steeped in the classics of American folk and country for quite a while now. My CD tower (yes, I still buy CD’s) is full of Bob Dylan, Merle Haggard, Kris Kristofferson, and the like. Why would I listen to Mumford when I can listen to “Sunday Mornin’ Comin’ Down”? This is where I agree with many of the critics of Mumford. The lyrics really do try too hard, and that by the way is my general complaint about the whole indie music scene. When Dolly Parton wrote her 70’s masterpieces (e.g., My Tennessee Mountain Home), she wasn’t groping for literary allusions. She was describing her world, painting a picture with words — not unlike Bob Dylan’s Blood on the Tracks. None of these earlier figures were trying to be philosophers or even poets really. They were mediums, storytellers, communicators — and the clearer the better. They wanted to bring comfort in all areas of life, both the highs and the lows. They were neither tragic nor idealist. They didn’t write songs about needing to accept their weakness; rather, they were weak, pure and simple, nothing to fuss about. They didn’t need to take the next step of abstract speculation or emotional grappling about their weak status! I could say the same thing about nearly every theme that dominates the indie music culture, from which Mumford derives his sound and voice. Can you imagine Merle or Kris saying that he couldn’t write lyrics “unless I really feel them”?

Everyone who is looking for “the real” or authenticity, and think they have found it in Mumford, should dig a little deeper into the American music repertoire. We perfected the “real,” with the birth of country, rock, and blues. Actually, we should specify that the South did this because of all her sins. These great forms of music were born out of the cultural turmoil of a racist and segregated South. Something beautiful and powerful was born in the collision between whites and blacks struggling in the poverty (and shame) of Reconstruction. Here, the particular is what is being fought for and loved. The small things and common things were life-giving. Mumford tries to touch on this by making the common things his themes, but he just needs to bring himself down a little from his metaphysical heights. The world doesn’t need to be infused with meaning; it already bears it. No striving necessary.

God glorifies mankind

October 3, 2012

I once had a discussion with a conservative Calvinist pastor, at Starbucks where great ideas proliferate, and I made the point that God glorifies man. He was taken aback. We were discussing the “young, restless, and reformed” movement, and I was claiming that there was a serious deficiency in its one-sided exaltation of God, a God who exits for himself, whereas the gospel is about a God who has chosen to exist for man. That didn’t compute with this pastor. He was tutored in John Piper’s view of God as, in the words of Halden Doerge, “a self-directed center of power whose ‘glory’ consisted of simply asserting and imposing his own supremacy and domination.”

So, I was pleased to come across this bit from Karl Barth, in his commentary on Calvin’s catechism:

We must stress — even if it seems “dangerous” — that the glory of God and the glory of man, although different, actually coincide. There is no other glory of God (this is a free decision of His will) than that which comes about in man’s existence. And there is no other glory of man than that which he may and can have in glorying God. Likewise, God’s beatitude coincides with man’s happiness. Man’s happiness is to make God’s beatitude appear in his life, and God’s beatitude consists in giving Himself to man in the form of human happiness.

The Faith of the Church, p. 26

Re-read that last line: “God’s beatitude consists in giving Himself to man in the form of human happiness.” This is an ontological claim — that’s who God is! Amen.