Wednesday, May 26, 2010

More Divinity Nostalgia Pt. 2 - Top Ten Albums from Seminary

OK, so the caption thing must be even more lame than I feel right now. Luckily, I am well into the first week of CPE, where feeling lame is a daily experience as the deepest delusions of our souls are dissected and prodded in the name and hope of making us broken ministers to the broken. I start my first shift as chaplain to the Neurology unit tomorrow. Makes me want to re-listen to Pink Floyd's song "Brain Damage..."

Which brings me to tonight's post! I apologize for having to delay several posts that have been placed on hiatus due to this week's clinical exploits. I am still digesting that last episode of LOST, and have also been contemplating a volatile conversation we had at our church last week regarding the ELCA's recent decisions on human sexuality. Fun stuff to try to hold together with strokes and spinal injuries - although the latter makes me feel strangely in communion with the immortal(ly flawed) Jack Shepherd - God rest his soul.

So, to buy some time, continuing my Divinity Nostalgia series, here are my top "ten" albums that I discovered during my seminary years. As always, glaring omissions are obvious. It has become essential in recent years to describe one's musical tastes as "eclectic" or "into a little bit of everything." My list here is mostly white people music. It reflects my environment as much as the fact that, prior to seminary, I listened mainly to hip-hop, jazz, classical, and reggae. Div School was thus a kind of remembering of the current scene, as well as a welcome intro to bands I had long neglected, like Radiohead and Wilco (thanks Ben). So Hipsters, turn off your judgemento-trons. Happy listening! (Once more listed in alphabetical order).

1) The Black Keys - Rubber Factory - Other than my neighbor and co-conspirator Toby Bonar, no one has done more for my own playing lately in helping me to realize the potential and the power of getting back to the simplicity of the dirty blues. Granted, they are white guy blues, and need to supplemented with a heavy dose of Leroy Carr and Son House, but Dan Auerbach makes it moan with every note, making a strong case for the existence of the soul, as evidenced by their latest single, "Everlasting LIght" - the best song to come out in years.

2) Johnny Cash - America VI: Ain't No Grave - The Man in Black dabbled in the apocalyptic on America IV, and fittingly, on this last album, hands us a ticket for the eschatology express. If his bold proclamation in the title track doesn't inspire you to rise at the final trumpet, then you will be haunted and exhilarated by the chilling imagery of years passing by as you stand on the platform waiting for "Redemption Day" - a song which surely deserves a Baz Luhrman music video. This album is proclamation at its most convicting - and renewed my faith and hope in the hereafter.

3) Frightened Rabbit - The Midnight Organ Fight - When I can actually understand what the heck Scott Hutchison is saying, it only enhances the tragedy and the triumph of these Scottish folk-rock ballads. From the pathos of "The Modern Leper," the drama of "Good Arms Vs. Bad Arms," and the defiance of comfortable theology in "Heads Roll Off" which ponders "Jesus is just a Spanish boy's name/how come one man got so much fame?" However you answer the question, journeying with this band towards the answers is like a sudden thunderstorm on the West Highland Trail followed by a sunset wrapped in a rainbow.

4) Andrew Peterson - Love and Thunder - For those fans of Rich Mullins and Keith Green who know that just because a singer is Christian doesn't mean his songs have to suck, here's another album to add to your anti-hipster arsenal. I could have just as easily picked his stunning Resurrection Letters Vol.2, but regardless of where you begin, Peterson's elegant songwriting, mixing midrashic storytelling with passionate personal confession, will demonstrate the potential of song as legitimate narrative theological medium, all the while immersing your imagination in the strange new world of the Bible as you've never known it before. For all of us setting out into the unknown of the future, I recommend the breathtaking "Canaan Bound" - you will never think of Abraham and Sarah the same way again.

5) Sigur Ros - Takk... - Thanks to Charlie Baber for flying me to Iceland by introducing me to this masterpiece of ambient rock majesty. Regardless of whether the song "Glosoli" means the same as "glossolalia," the sheer beauty of the music, evoking as it does the land- and sound-scapes of the Land of Ice and Fire, speaks to each of us in our own language, and makes me wonder if the spiritual gift of tongues could not also manifest itself through instrument and vocals, as well as through "Gobbildigook." Not just good for background music while paper-writing, this is worth dimming the lights, lighting some candles, and relishing for its own sake.

6) Bruce Springsteen - We Shall Overcome: The Seeger Sessions - A tough call, between this and the all-American post-9/11 epic The Rising. The Boss' gritty vocals make me forget all about Bob Dylan as he digs deep into the blood-and-oilspill-soaked soil of Americana until his spade is turned at the bedrock of what might still redeem this God-haunted land: folk music. Whether he is making me weep with nostalgia for my home state of New York with "Erie Canal," telling the tales of Jesse James and John Henry, or joining the civil rights ranks with the singers of African American spirituals like "Eyes on the Prize," Springsteen makes these standards sing a new song as he pays homage to one of America's great folk artists. Again, a white guy doing black music - but, to quote LL Cool J, doing it well.

7) Mavis Staples - We'll Never Turn Back - I first heard this album by accident while picking up a book at Borders. Thank God he makes even barren places to flower in the desert! We were blessed to see Miss Staples perform at Duke, possibly one of the best concerts I've ever been to, as she preached an object lesson of racial reconciliation. The former Civil Rights activist and member of the Staple Sisters blends the spirituals and the blues with white rock music's reinterpretations of both to weave a tapestry in which both threads are bound together to testify to the power of forgiveness, as well as to the urgency of tending to the ocean of work still to be done. While most of the songs here belong to the collective consciousness of the Movement, Mavis makes them tell the stories of the particulars, including her own, as in her reintegration of a washateria in "Down in Mississippi."

8) John Michael Talbot - Come to the Quiet - This is simplicity incarnate. Talbot, a Roman Catholic who founded his own lay religious order, takes the words of psalms, hymns and canticles from throughout the Scriptures and sings them gently over the light plucking of his classical guitar. But rather than singing Kumbaya, one is transported into the warm embrace of the God of grace whose love is closer to us than we are to ourselves. As with Peterson, Talbot's meditations testify to the power of music and songwriting to serve as mediums of Scriptural interpretation akin to the best of formal theology, while following Horace's dictum to not only instruct, but also, to those willing to follow to the quiet, to delight. Listen, and hear the still small voice, praying with groaning and sighing too deep for words.

9) Derek Webb - She Must and Shall Go Free - Talking with Brian Johnson on the ride home from CPE today, I coined the term "Hauerwas' Little Shits" to name the gadflies who denounce things like the suburbs, the rednecks, the nation and the megachurch while doing nothing about it themselves. I think Derek Webb is a Little Shit regardless - yet despite my dislike for his arrogance and contrived controversy, unlike most of us, he is actually doing something about his displeasures (to his credit, he performed with Jennifer Knapp shortly after her coming-out - kudos bro). This album is as close to an ecclesiology as you will find in music or in print, and while "Wedding Dress" has certainly stolen its share of airtime (rightly so), there have been many times when I have been saved from jumping ship on my own church as a result of hearing the lyrics "You cannot care for me/with no regard for her/if you love me you must love the Church" on the final track. Thanks Derek, from one Little Shit to another.

10) White Stripes - Icky Thump - What? Another white-guy two-piece-garage-band-blues-rock-group? Without reserve - yes. Jack White (easily another candidate for the Little Shits of St. Stanley) almost attended Roman Catholic seminary, but withdrew when he couldn't bring his music gear. Praise the Lord, and praise TA for introducing me to this blessed madness! The Johnny Depp of rock and roll made it fun again to crank the volume up to 11, forget about being in tune, and just playing my heart out on the electric guitar. Seeing White for the first time in the film "It Might Get Loud" exploded the neat categories into which music has fallen, instantly making me forget about U2 and Radiohead and reconnecting me to Miles, Trane, Monk, Carr, and Johnson. Wittgenstein talks about how sometimes a blurry photograph is more useful for discerning what a thing is than a clear one - Jack White is that blurry photograph for music. Love him or hate him, this music is Gospel truth, for those who have ears to hear and amps to blast.

11) Rockumentary Hypothesis - Midnight in Montgomery - Told you J-Dub cranked it to 11! This album saw limited printing in the US, but mysteriously made it big in South Korea and in Bahama, NC. Before rocking Dudestock with the addition of fiddle player P (Sittser), the trio of D, J and E (aka TA, Jim Morgan and yours truly) brought their big tent bluegrass revival to back porch at the Refectory with their meditations on MLK's Montgomery campaign. Along with meditations and narrations of King's sermons and conversion accounts, the album also featured rare recordings of the group's musico-narrative-theological interpretation of Scripture, such as the radio smash sensation "Strange New World" and fan favorite "As I Lay Down," in addition to rare cuts of such classics as "Untitled Advent Song (Immanuel?)" and "the Epic Flannel Stripes Indulgency."

Honorable Mention: Israel Houghton - Power of One; Nas&Damian Marley - Distant Relatives; U2 - No Line on the Horizon; Radiohead - In Rainbows; Wilco - Yankee Foxtrot Hotel; LeRoy Carr - Greatest Hits; Stile Antico - Song of Songs; La Roux - La Roux; Patty Griffith - Downtown Church; Indelible Grace - any album; Brad Paisley - Play; Zac Brown Band - The Foundation; Toby Bonar - Deep Roots; Regina Spektor - Far; Glee - any album; Steven Delopoulos - Straightjacket; Dead Weather - Horehound; Raconteurs - Consolers of the Lonely

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