Sunday, June 26, 2011

Love & War & the Sea In-Between: A Music Review

I’ve been downloading music from NoiseTrade for months now. Fortunately for anyone accessing my Facebook page, the NoiseTrade folks no longer insist that I announce to you every time I download free music. Often I download stuff that I haven’t fully appreciated yet, and I’m not sure I want you to know about it. Some of it is still sitting in a folder waiting for me to give it the time of day.

NoiseTrade is great! You can download a song, a few songs, or a preset sampler of indie music. I’m not sure who owns the place, but there is a good bit of folk, pop, rock, Americana, and singer-songwriter stuff; if you look for it, you can find R&B and hip-hop, as well. A good bit of it has a Christian bent, but I’m not sure why. The quality varies, and your personal taste will determine whether it’s worth your time and trouble. But it’s certainly worth your money, since you aren’t risking any (Feel free to tip, though).

Occasionally an artist will offer a complete album. Such was the case with Josh Garrels’ Love & War & the Sea In-Between: an 18-song collection. This daring songwriter demands that we believe that free music doesn’t have to sound cheap (or come cheaply).

To make his point right out of the barrel, Garrels dares to make the music itself interesting. I didn’t suspect he was a Christian believer when I began the listen, and the opening instrumental notes did nothing to divulge his secret. I know: Christian music is supposed to be defined by the words. But unfortunately too much Christian music resembles the caricature in the “Jesus Fish” episode of Seinfeld years ago. Before you even hear the words, the unimaginative instrumentation signals: You are beginning a Christian song. The opening sounds expose the agenda, as if the music holds no creative substance of its own; it exists only to service the lyrical message. 

Forgive me if you are a Christian musician who proves otherwise. You are in good company with Josh Garrels. Before the lyrics threaten with some slave-driving whip, Garrels serves notice: this is a musical/lyrical collaboration. Then four songs in, he hammers the point with the first of several instrumentals! This one relies on electronica, the next one rests in Celtic acoustics.

But back to the first song. When the vocals do kick in, you know what you’re in for: Garrels is a Ray LaMontagne sound-alike. Or is it Dave Matthews, or David Gray? Not bad voices to sound like. Like them all Josh conveys raw emotion, his comes as raspy and folky expression. Then you realize that he’s no sound alike. But that’s the kind of artist you get with Garrels. Except on the instrumentals. Oh, and on #5, "The Resistance,” which is a rap song (a la Jason Mraz). So he’s a little difficult to pigeonhole.

Once you are taken in by the music and the voice, you get caught up in the poetry, the cinemascapes painted by word. The songcraft, the orchestration, the stylistic diversity, the vocal range, the poetry. All of these arrest the attention.

You catch the beauty, and it’s only later that you might recognize that the beauty is grounded in the Christian story. In fact, the truly remarkable accomplishment of this gallery is that Garrels uses both direct and allusive biblical references, without ever sounding trite. Anyone familiar with the biblical text or with gospel music will recognize the connections. This is no more evident than on “Farther Along,” the entrancing 4th song, which lifts from Albert Tinley’s timeless gospel song, “We’ll Understand It Better By and By.”  And like the best gospel songs and the biblical text, Garrels recognizes that religious topics cannot legitimately be removed from real life. Witness the various compositions (“For You,” and “Million Miles,” especially) that speak of romantic love better than your average pop song.

I finally went to Garrells’ website, driven largely by my curiosity of why a struggling musician would give away music of this quality. He says that he “felt led of the Lord” to release this album for a year for free. I’m not sure what the Lord had in mind; I mean this is not missionary music like Keith Green’s So You Wanna Go Back to Egypt way back in 1980.  But I’m hoping Garrels’ (and the Lord’s) gamble pays off. I for one have already paid money to hear 15 more songs from Garrrels off of 2008’s Jacaranda. I’m counting on the same caliber of music as I’ve already heard. If you’re not willing to shell out 10 bucks just based on my recommendation, at least hurry over to NoiseTrade or to Josh’s own site to download the new free album. If you like it as much as I did, you’ll probably find yourself letting go of a few dollars to hear more.