Musings, Nits, and Praises: September 2006

Musings, Nits, and Praises

A farrago of all things deemed blog-worthy by a music-loving, poetry-writing, humor-seeking English teacher

Growing Older Doesn't Mean Growing Dull - a review of Barenaked Ladies' new album

"Some stupid number one hit single has got me in this mess!" The line from Barenaked Ladies' debut album, Gordon, proved prescient for the band following the success of "One Week" from their 1998 smash Stunt. The band had always crafted a whimsical blend of the somber and the comedic, yet they had garnered notoriety mostly for their humorous work, and the frenetic, pop culture-referencing song only further established them as a clever but glib band in the minds of critics and the general public.

Set on surmounting the novelty band stigma, the Ladies toned down their customary quirkiness a bit on their next two albums--Maroon (2000) and Everything to Everyone (2003). However, Reprise sought to capitalize on more rapid-rhyming singles, releasing "Pinch Me" and "Another Postcard" as lead singles for the albums. "Pinch Me" reached #15 on the Hot 100 and Maroon went platinum, but the downright inane "Another Postcard" received little airplay, and Everything to Everyone sold poorly. Disappointed with Reprise's promotional support (or lack thereof), the band left their long-time label in 2004 to form Desperation Records.

The common critical assessment of the band's new album, Barenaked Ladies Are Me, is that it's BNL's first "mature" album. Although such an assessment shows some critics' relative ignorance of Barenaked Ladies' entire work as well as an apparent forgetfulness of their own work (many writers hailed Maroon and Everything to Everyone as the band's "mature" albums), it's fair to say that a serious tone pervades the album. On songs like the acoustic-driven first single, "Easy," and the buoyant, sing-along-inducing "Bull in a China Shop," long-time songwriting partners Steven Page and Ed Roberston explore the familiar BNL themes of self-doubt and relationship complexities. Elsewhere the duo sharpen the political commentary that emerged on Everything to Everyone. The strongest of the politically-minded tracks (and perhaps the strongest song on the entire album) is "Maybe You're Right," which builds from sparse instrumentation to a resounding brass-filled finale. The album isn't devoid of BNL's trademark humor, though. On "Bank Job," a quirky waltz that could be the premise for a Cohen brothers' film, Robertson sings of a heist stymied by one of the robber's "crisis of conscience" when the bank is full of nuns. And, on "Wind It Up," the album's southern-rock closer, Robertson delivers possibly the funniest line of the album: "I was a baby when I learned to suck/But you have raised it to an art form."

Keyboardist Kevin Hearn and bassist Jim Creeggan also contribute some songwriting, with Hearn penning the Queen-esque "Sound of Your Voice" (sung by Page) and "Vanishing," and Creeggan providing "Peterborough and the Kawarthas." Hearn's songwriting contributions, including two other tracks on the deluxe edition, are his most prolific with the band, but his soft, colorless vocals are an acquired taste.

Despite many fans welcoming the band's continuing departure from fallacious ditties (No songs about postcards with chimps? Hallelujah!), some prefer early-era BNL (Gordon to be specific) and will no doubt be disappointed with the scarcity of BNL's customary hyperactivity. Of the thirteen tracks, only a handful could really be considered "peppy." Given that the band had written plenty of uptemo songs during the recording sessions--songs like "Running Out of Ink," "Down to Earth," and "Maybe Not," all of which are available on the deluxe edition of the album--one has to assume BNL consciously pursued a mellow vibe. The album doesn't really hit toe-tapping territory until the third song, "Sound of Your Voice," and two songs--the opening track "Adrift" and "Vanishing--are peaceful to the point of being downright somniferous.

The album could use the jolt a song like "Running Out of Ink" would provide, but the bulk of the material is anything but dull. The music is the sound of five guys who clearly enjoy the new-found freedom of making music on their own terms. BNL's greatest strength has always been their songwriting, and the album shows Page, Robertson, and Co. returning to form after the uneven Everything to Everyone. Barenaked Ladies Are Me not only surpasses its predecessor but also stands among the best work of the band's career.

Isn't It Ironic?

Protests over the Pope Benedict XVI's recent speech continued today, with crowds in Basra burning effigies of the pope. The uproar stems, of course, from the Pope's quoting of Manuel II Paleologus, a 14th-century Byzantine emperor: "Show me just what Mohammed brought that was new, and there you will find things only evil and inhuman, such as his command to spread by the sword the faith he preached." Although the premise of his speech was that religion should not be spread by violence, I have to question the Pope's wisdom in using a quote so likely deemed incendiary by many in the Middle East (especially when the Pope represents an institution connected with the Crusades.)

Nonetheless, one would assume that for an Islamic group to take offense to the quote, they would have to practice their religion peacefully. However, in an internet statement today, an al Qaeda-linked group proclaimed, "We tell the worshipper of the cross (the Pope) that you and the West will be defeated, as is the case in Iraq, Afghanistan, Chechnya . . . We will break up the cross, spill the liquor and impose head tax, then the only thing acceptable is a conversion (to Islam) or (killed by) the sword."

Further proof that "Middle East peace talks" is the most absurd phrase in the English language.

Sing and Make Music in Your Hearts

I think it's safe to say that in my lifetime the debate over instrumental music has stirred up more contention in the CoC tradition than any other issue. In Austin, I very seldom heard any impassioned arguments for or against the use of instruments in worship. I'm sure some folks felt strongly one way or the other, but the matter was never a real sticking point. Since moving to Memphis, though, I've found the issue still strikes a loud chord (pun intended) in the Bible belt. It troubles me that in a city that is in dire need of the light of Christ, His people would devote some much time and energy to bickering with each other over a matter that judging by scripture holds no eternal significance. (I realize that for some people my last assertion has me cruising the highway to hell with my windows down.) Those who object to the use of instruments in worship generally uphold Paul's charge to the Ephesians to "sing and make music in your hearts" as irrefutable support for their position. If Paul were intending to pass along a command concerning instruments or the lack thereof in worship, why wouldn't he choose more precise language? A reader can interpret his statement to mean that both the singing and the music making should be in our hearts. Furthermore, if he intended his statement as a command, wouldn't he have addressed the issue in his epistles to other churches? Matters that affect our salvation and our call to a life in Christ are addressed numerous times in the New Testament, not once. Another argument for the non-instrument side is that the use of instruments wasn't introduced until several hundred years after Christ. That's certainly true, but if we're truly wanting to imitate the practices of the early church, then pulpit ministers, youth ministers, church buildings, the use of electricity, and a slew of other commonplace things in our tradition would have to go.

The pro-instrumental folks generally point to what they feel is the ambiguity of Paul's charge to the Ephesians or the use of instruments in the Old Testament as their support. I recently had a conversation with someone who suggested that the use of instruments in the OT is not support for instrumental worship because we're no longer under the old law. That would certainly be a valid point if the use of instruments was commanded in the Torah, but it's not.

I'm neither pro nor anti-instrumental music. I don't believe there's enough scriptural basis to suggest that the use of instrumental music is sinful and/or forbidden in worship. Having been raised in a rather traditional CoC congregation, I prefer a capella worship, but I believe it's just that--my preference. Because I believe the issue to be a matter of preference, I feel that one's motivation ultimately determines whether instrumental music is right or wrong. If a congregation chooses to employ instrumental worship in order to allow members of the body to utilize their talents in praise to God, then play away. However, if the use of instrumental music would create a schism in a church or drive away droves of people, then I don't see the reason to use instruments in the name of progress. At this point, a pro-instrumentalist may be shouting, "But if it's a matter of preference, then I should be able to do what I want to and other people just need to deal with it or leave!" This is where I believe our American sense of independence taints our faith and conflicts with our call to humility and unity.

Whether or not the use of instruments would be to the detriment of the unity of a church isn't the only matter to consider. Too many churches have adopted instrumental music primarily to appear hip to the culture. There's a distinction between being culturally relevant and culturally driven. One of the largest churches in Austin (not a CoC) airs radio spots promoting their Sunday morning worship as basically a God-friendly rock concert. To reduce our worship to that level not only woefully reduces the significance of the act, it also conveys to non-believers that being a Christian is basically just praying or singing to God occasionally while happily pursuing coolness and our own ambitions. That sort of self-seeking mindset, which pervades Christianity all too much in America, is the antithesis of Christ's call to His people. A church that is seeking to be more culturally relevant will seek ways to minister to their community, to meet the needs of struggling people, not to entertain them.

I suppose my hope is that at some point, CoC's will agree to disagree regarding instrumental worship, for the a capella folks to offer praise but not condemnation, and for the instrumentalists to glorify God but not our culture.

The Mars Bar Mystery

Yesterday as I was watching an episode of American Eats that focused on candy bars, I thought, "What the heck ever happened to Mars bars?" When I used to get a hankering for one, a Mars Bar was my bar of choice--chocolate, nougat, and almonds. Delightful. A few years ago I noticed that Mars Bars had vanished from the racks of convenient stores everywhere. How could Mars, Inc. stop producing such a delectable treat? I'd generally only ponder the question long enough to spot a Mr. Goodbar and go on my merry way. But last night's show provoked me to do a little research. As it turns out, Mars Bars still exist--they're now Snickers Almond. Who knew? Mars, Inc. still sells Mars Bars in other countries, but they don't have almonds.

I'm off to the nearest gas station.

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