Bullet Points for a Saturday Morning

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  • Since I started working from home 8 weeks ago, my morning routine has changed. No more gym, reading and writing in the morning instead.
  • Also, WordPress is impressed with my 10-day posting streak. It’s easy to write about music. But a lazy bullet points post will get me to 11.
  • (Insert Spinal Tap reference here.)
  • Saturday mornings have become cinnamon roll mornings. It’s not helping my waistline but it’s a nice way to celebrate the weekend.
  • The siding guys are done with our house. It looks great and I’m enthused that I will not need to paint the outside of the house again.
  • I’m thankful that we have local coffee roasters still doing their thing because Walmart-brand coffee isn’t the greatest.
  • I’m kinda gonna miss the siding guys, though, since the noise and bustle of them working made it not feel so creepily quiet every day.
  • I bought a Bibliotheca Bible boxed set when they did the kickstarter several years ago. It seemed like a cool idea but I ended up not being a fan of the translation they used and they quickly just started collecting dust on my shelf.
  • This week somebody on Facebook wanted to buy them. They are like new other than the New Testament volume which has some minor notes I put in the first 5 chapters of Matthew. Oddly enough that person preferred to buy an incomplete set rather than buy a NT volume with a few notes in it.
  • Going to the post office to mail these books will be the first time I’ve gone anywhere all week.
  • These bullet points aren’t as random as they should be. It feels like a lazy way to do a partial narrative without any through line. What the heck, it’s 2020, we all deserve some slack.

10 Albums, 10 Days: A Liturgy, A Legacy, and a Ragamuffin Band

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Maybe this one should’ve been first on my list, but I decided to leave the best for last. Rich Mullins was a formative artist – perhaps the formative artist – of my musical life. I spent more time learning his piano licks (well, Reed Arvin’s piano licks) and sitting at the piano singing his songs than any other songwriter. Liturgy, Legacy wasn’t my first Mullins album, but it is the best.

Structured in two halves, the A-side (Liturgy) half of Liturgy, Legacy captures all the best of Rich Mullins. His tender vulnerability with his audience (Here In America), his keen awareness of nature’s declaration of the glory of God (The Color Green), his raw and honest heart wrestling with brokenness (Hold Me Jesus), his firm confidence in the faith (Creed), his struggles in relationship to other saints (Peace)… and that’s just the first half of the album.

Then comes the Legacy side, where Rich plays his hammered dulcimer for an instrumental and then explores the challenges of living life in the real world (Hard), wrestles with the challenges of coming from a real family and carrying their legacy (I’ll Carry On), shares the joy of Christmas (You Gotta Get Up), laments the corrupt systems of society (How to Grow Up Big and Strong) and explores the tension of both loving the country you’re born into while yearning for a better kingdom (Land of My Sojourn).

Every song on the record is a gem. And the fact that I just wrote those last two paragraphs directly from my memory of the album tells me something about how ingrained it is in my head and heart.

The other formative piece about Rich Mullins and this album is that Rich was the formative artist for many of the other artists I have included on this list. He was a mentor for Caedmon’s Call. He was the inspiration for Andrew Peterson’s songwriting. If you look behind the scenes at the artists who made Peterson’s Behold the Lamb of God record, each of them will point to Rich as the one who charted the course they are following. Then there’s also that weird bit where a guy from Rich’s band also wrote some of the songs for That Thing You Do!, but that’s a different story…

For the 20th anniversary of this record, Andrew Peterson and friends put on a tribute concert at The Ryman in Nashville where they played a bunch of Rich’s other songs up front and then played this album through front to back for the second half of the show. It is, hands down, the best concert I’ve ever attended. Amazingly almost none of it seems to have made it to YouTube, but here’s a taste.

I could go on and on and on but I’ll stop here. Suffice it to say that if you want to really get to the heart of the music that has formed me and shaped my musical soul, go listen to Rich Mullins. Peace.

10 Albums, 10 Days: Rachmaninov’s Vespers (All Night Vigil)

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I’ve really been wrestling with what album to post for day #9. But I’m gonna go with one that chronologically belongs back near the beginning of this series somewhere: Rachmaninov’s Vespers (All Night Vigil). An a capella choral composition of settings from the Russian Orthodox’s All-night vigil service, it was reportedly one of Rachmaninov’s favorites of his own works and is a peaceful, stately work of surpassing beauty.

My first encounter with Vespers feels in retrospect like a very “Chris” story. I was probably 12. I was listening to NPR on the radio. (Yes, at 12.) Toward the end of some radio program (probably Fresh Air, but who knows), a music critic was comparing various new recordings of Vespers, pointing out how the Robert Shaw Chorale was perhaps more technically polished, but how the Russian choir recording was more vibrant. What I knew was that it was gorgeous music that I didn’t want to forget.

It was probably a year or two before I bought the CD at a music store. If I recall correctly, this first recording I purchased was by the USSR Ministry of Culture Choir. It was wonderful. I’ve since purchased a couple more versions on CD, and now in today’s world of streaming music I have an overwhelming number of recordings to choose from.

Regardless of which version you listen to, the beauty of the composition shines through, and a read through the translation of the Russian texts reminds you that classical church music isn’t limited to Bach and Handel and their western ilk. This is truly wonderful stuff, and shaped my musical inclinations from a young age. Worth a listen.

10 Albums, 10 Days: Bride of the Noisemakers

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I got tagged on Facebook to do this project – share ten albums that greatly influenced my taste in music. One album per day for ten consecutive days. In theory for the Facebook version this is supposed to be without explanation… but I want to explain! So I’m going to blog the explanations here.

Now we come to Bruce Hornsby. I’m not sure whether to classify this record as influential because it shaped me, or influential in that I came to it and felt an instant musical kinship. Either way, wow, this record.

Somehow I had gotten a decade into my adulthood without being familiar with Bruce Hornsby’s music. I unwittingly knew one of his hits because Rush Limbaugh used it as bumper music (back in the dark ages when I listened to Limbaugh), but that was it. But then one day I found this album – I think as a discounted digital download from Amazon – and I was hooked.

Hornsby is an amazing technical pianist – I wish I had fingers like that – but has made his career basically leading rock jam bands. Bride of the Noisemakers is a double-length live album containing the best of Bruce along with his band (the Noisemakers). They repeatedly take what would be 4-minute songs on a studio album and turn them into 10-minute jam sessions, trading back and forth between piano, guitar, bass, drums, and saxophone.

I resonate strongly with this record because, if it doesn’t sound too obnoxious, Hornsby’s playing style and harmonies feel a lot like my own. One could listen to me improvise and think that I had learned from Hornsby even though I had never really listened to his stuff. I’m not sure where that came from, but I’m happy for it.

A couple years ago my wife and I had the opportunity to hear Hornsby live here in town. It was a solo show – just him and the piano – but a fantastic couple of hours not just enjoying the songs but also getting my head around how his brain processes stuff as a musician. (I wrote up some thoughts the next day.)

In general I prefer live music performances to studio recordings, and even better if I can see the band and enjoy their interaction as artists creating music. As such, this live Bruce Hornsby record is a no-brainer for my list.

Listen on YouTube Music

10 Albums, 10 Days: The Suburbs

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I got tagged on Facebook to do this project – share ten albums that greatly influenced my taste in music. One album per day for ten consecutive days. In theory for the Facebook version this is supposed to be without explanation… but I want to explain! So I’m going to blog the explanations here.

Once again, another band that I jumped in to mid-stream and then backfilled. I don’t remember how Arcade Fire jumped onto my radar, but once I started listening to The Suburbs it was a long time before I stopped. It became my running soundtrack the year I trained for (and ran) a half marathon, and those repeated listens let it soak deeply into my brain.

Win Butler, lead singer and key songwriter for Arcade Fire, grew up Mormon in Texas before moving to Montreal, Canada as an adult. Maybe I’m reading too much into his upbringing, but when I listen to his songs I hear a kindred spirit wrestling with a fundamentalist upbringing, a disenchantment with the brokenness of the world, and a desire for something more.

The Suburbs was a record that seemed to grow out of nowhere to then get substantial recognition. It won the Grammy for Best Album of the Year for 2010, but even as the host announced the award, they seemed unsure of whether the band name was “Arcade Fire” or “The Suburbs”. But wow, it landed for me.

I still kick myself a bit that I passed up an opportunity to stand in line and see Arcade Fire play in a little bitty discotheque in Montreal when I was up there for work several years ago. I did see them finally in an arena show on the Reflektor tour, and they were fantastic live.

Once I got hooked on Arcade Fire, I went back and got familiar with the rest of their discography and gained a deep appreciation for those, too. While my favorite AF song and favorite AF lyric may neither show up on The Suburbs, it remains my favorite front-to-back album of theirs, and deserves a spot on my 10 albums list.

Listen to The Suburbs on YouTube Music

Recommended daily reading: Heather Cox Richardson’s Letters from an American

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In these turbulent days the news can quickly become overwhelming, and the social media noise can quickly drown out the worthwhile signal. One bit of regular news writing I’ve found very helpful, though is a daily email newsletter from historian Heather Cox Richardson. Dr. Richardson has a Ph.D. from Harvard and is currently a professor of history at Boston College.

Dr. Richardson’s email newsletter, titled “Letters from an American”, comes out nightly and usually summarizes the day’s key events. She provides an historian’s perspective on what she believes is long-term important out of the day’s news rather than what just made the most noise. I particularly appreciate that she provides sources for her story at the bottom of every post. Some days she’ll take a longer view and help set this day’s events in context. In that vein I’d particularly recommend her May 3 post tracing the history of the 20th century American rhetoric of patriotic individualism.

If you’re looking for some daily summary reading, I’d recommend giving Letters from an American a try. It’s a free newsletter, and easy to sign up!

10 Albums, 10 Days: Silly Songs with Larry

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I got tagged on Facebook to do this project – share ten albums that greatly influenced my taste in music. One album per day for ten consecutive days. In theory for the Facebook version this is supposed to be without explanation… but I want to explain! So I’m going to blog the explanations here.

I started writing today’s post thinking I was going to write about a classic jazz album. One that everybody would recognize, and that is a favorite of mine for the same reason it’s a favorite of many, many people. But then I got to thinking – was it really formative for me? Probably not. And then this album sprang to mind and insisted that it be added to the list. Bear with me.

And now it’s time for Silly Songs with Larry, the part of the show where Larry comes out and sings a silly song. So, without further ado, Silly Songs with Larry.

Veggie Tales were just becoming a thing in my late high school years, and I didn’t have any familiarity with them until I hit college. Then one night I was with a church group at someone’s home and they had a Veggie Tales video on for the kids and I heard a (non-silly-song) rhyme that stopped me in my tracks. The king’s advisers are trying to figure out how to get rid of Daniel, and they include these lines:

We could use him as a footstool or a table to play Scrabble on
Then tie him up and beat him up and throw him out of Babylon

Wait, what’s that? Somebody with the nerve to rhyme “Scrabble on” with “Babylon” without blatantly winking at the camera while doing so? This is someone I needed to pay more attention to. So then I bought the Silly Songs with Larry CD, and it was all downhill from there.

This CD got dozens of plays at our house before we had kids old enough to listen to it. Heck, before we even had kids. I am a sucker for wordplay. This love would take me later to Weird Al Yankovic, and then to quickly embrace Lin-Manuel Miranda’s Hamilton. But before that was Phil Vischer and his silly songs.

Over the years the phrases have become engrained in our family’s vocabulary. “Oh where is my hairbrush?” “Where’s my water buffalo? Why don’t I have a water buffalo? Are you prepared to deal with that? I don’t think so!” “Now the moral of the story, (it’s the point we hope we’ve made): if you go a little loopy, better keep your nurse well paid.” I led a sing-along of The Cheeseburger Song at the end of a church hymn sing one time. It was awesome.

I am overly proud of the fact that my children now display the same predilection to altering lyrics to songs. My oldest once sang original funny lyrics to Rewrite The Stars from The Greatest Showman at a karaoke night. (All my kids sang Weird Al at karaoke night.) I am always quick to make up a funny lyric when I can. And one of these days I’m gonna memorize all the Spanish so I can sing Larry’s part in Dance of the Cucumber.

10 Albums, 10 Days: Behold the Lamb of God

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I got tagged on Facebook to do this project – share ten albums that greatly influenced my taste in music. One album per day for ten consecutive days. In theory for the Facebook version this is supposed to be without explanation… but I want to explain! So I’m going to blog the explanations here.

Yesterday I left off by saying that my Caedmon’s Call fandom led me to Andrew Osenga, who in turn led me to Andrew Peterson. Today it’s time to tell a little more of that story.

Andrew Osenga wasn’t an original member of Caedmon’s Call. He had a band called The Normals which opened for Caedmon’s on occasion. At some point after The Normals stopped making records, Andy was invited to join Caedmon’s. Once I became familiar with Andy as a member of Caedmon’s, I quickly picked up his two available solo CDs – an EP called Souvenirs and Postcards, and a full-length CD called Photographs. They quickly became favorites.

In late 2005 I caught wind (maybe on the Caedmon’s fan forum?) that Andy Osenga was coming to Iowa to play a show with Andrew Peterson at a little start-up Christian music festival on the side of a hill in Clermont, Iowa. So, my wife and I bundled up our one-year-old daughter and drove the 90 minutes up to hear them (along with Ben Shive) play a two-hour concert from a flatbed trailer on the side of the hill. It was, in retrospect, a really weird gig for them. As Peterson said at the time, “it’s the first time I’ve ever played a concert with somebody riding a cow in the background”. No joke. I was thrilled to meet them that day and a little extra happy when AO said he recognized me from the fan forum. (Did I mention I was a big fanboy?)

Andy Osenga on the left, me on the right. October 2005. We both still had hair.

But I’m telling a lot of stories and not getting to my album for today. Anyway, at that show I ran into a co-worker who was there to see Andrew Peterson play, and we visited a bit. Fast-forward a year or so and that co-worker emailed me. She was bringing Andrew Peterson and friends to town to play a concert. Would I be interested in helping out with it for the day? Well, that was a no-brainer. And that gave me my first opportunity to hear the Christmas record and tour that would become a tradition: Andrew Peterson’s Behold the Lamb of God.

What can I even say about this record? It’s a concept album that tells the story of Jesus from both the Old Testament and the New, with creative songwriting, smart lyrics, beautiful melodies, amazing musicianship, and a sense of humor. Every year for 20 years now Andrew Peterson and his friends have taken this record on the road for a series of concerts between Thanksgiving and Christmas. I think I’ve been 5 times? But nothing will compare to that first time I saw it in a high school auditorium in Cedar Rapids. I’d never heard the record before I hear them play it live that night.

This record is influential to me not just for the brilliant songs, but also because of how it represents Peterson’s commitment to artistic community. He toured with the same musicians for almost all of those 20 years. They were not just co-workers but friends. Peterson would later expand the vision of that community into The Rabbit Room. But none of that would’ve happened without him nurturing those relationships on tours built around this one amazing album.

Listen to Behold the Lamb of God on YouTube.

10 Albums, 10 Days: Long Line of Leavers

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I got tagged on Facebook to do this project – share ten albums that greatly influenced my taste in music. One album per day for ten consecutive days. In theory for the Facebook version this is supposed to be without explanation… but I want to explain! So I’m going to blog the explanations here.

One pattern that shows up in this list is my propensity to discover an artist not at their first album and then work forward, but to discover a later album and then work my way back through their discography. As I did with Michael W. Smith in my teens, and as I would in my 30s with Arcade Fire, U2, and Radiohead, in my late 20s I did with a little band called Caedmon’s Call.

I know my brother had a copy of their self-titled album back when I was in college, and I’m sure I listened to it a time or two but it just didn’t click for me. In retrospect, this really irks me because Caedmon’s was playing great shows and doing fan community events in the Houston area when I was in college in East Texas… road trips would not have been out of the question. But I digress.

Fast forward to 2000 and I’m a young guy wandering the Christian book store (remember when those existed?) listening to demo CDs (or those?). On a whim I gave this CD a spin, and the acoustic guitar loop and B3 organ kicking off the title track sucked me in. And then there were little trumpet accents the second time through the intro riff, and I was completely hooked. (I would find out later that long-time Caedmon’s fans hated those trumpets, but what did I know? And again I digress.)

Long Line of Leavers sucked me in and never let me go. I don’t know that it’s Caedmon’s best record – but it’s also hard to classify best. Their self-titled record and follow-up 40 Acres have their classic acoustic sound, with some twisty Derek Webb lyrics thrown in for good measure. Later on, Share The Well (a concept album written and partially recorded in India) would bring a new level of maturity to their songwriting and production and set that record apart. But Long Line of Leavers was my gateway drug.

Finding this record and this band had more long-term impact on my life than probably any other record I’ll have on this list, save maybe for the one I’ll close with. Because after finding Caedmon’s and doing some internet searches to find out more about them, I stumbled upon a discussion forum run by and for Caedmon’s fans. I lurked there for a while. In 2004 I joined, picked an unintentionally hilarious username, and started posting. The other forum stalwarts became my friends. Through the years I have met many of them in person and deepened those friendships in meaningful ways. Their friends have become my friends. 16 years later they form a community I still interact with every day.

As a musician, I joke now that I learned everything I know about playing a B3 organ from listening to Caedmon’s Call. (There might in reality be a little bit of gospel music influence in there, too, but it’s mostly Caedmon’s.) Then Caedmon’s picked up a new guitar player named Andrew Osenga and I became a massive fanboy of his stuff for several years. And then Caedmon’s community pointed me to Andrew Peterson… but I’ll leave that story for tomorrow.

Listen to Long Line of Leavers on YouTube

10 Albums, 10 Days: When Harry Met Sally

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I got tagged on Facebook to do this project – share ten albums that greatly influenced my taste in music. One album per day for ten consecutive days. In theory for the Facebook version this is supposed to be without explanation… but I want to explain! So I’m going to blog the explanations here.

So far I’ve shared my entry into classical and then my entry into Christian pop music. Now it’s time to get to my other musical love: jazz. I don’t remember which friend introduced me to this record, but it take me long to get hooked. I wouldn’t see When Harry Met Sally, the movie, for another decade, but this soundtrack hit my sweet spot. Full of jazz standards (It Had to be You, Don’t Get Around Much Any More, Stompin’ At the Savoy, Where or When), arranged by a 22-year-old up and coming jazz pianist named Harry Connick, Jr., with a rollicking stride piano version of Winter Wonderland in the middle… could you design an album more perfectly to appeal to teenaged me?

This is one of the records I know every note of. Each hit of each arrangement, every bend in the sax solo on It Had To Be You, and every one of Connick’s New Orleans-inspired alterations to Let’s Call The Whole Thing Off (“I say urster, you say oyster… I’m not gonna stop eating ursters just ‘cause you say oyster… let’s call the whole thing off.”), this record is traced indelibly across my brain.

Eventually I listened to more Connick, and then expanded my jazz horizons with Miles Davis, John Coltrane, and Thelonious Monk, but this was where it started for me.

Listen on YouTube