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The Pig and the Warbler

And Bibles, Books and Things

7/12/16

When I was a kid, there was this bookstore called Bibles, Books and Things just two towns north on the highway. It was a Christian bookstore, but I was a Christian kid, one who hadn’t quite learned to feel out of place in environments like that. I don’t remember why or how I first was taken to this store, only that I was young enough to need to be taken. What I do very much remember is seeing the huge selection of music on cassette and CD, and knowing that this was music I couldn’t find anywhere else.

You see, for me, the bibles and the books were much less important than the things, and the things were cassette tapes. I must have bought 300 tapes from that store over the years, trying out bands and special-ordering and filling in holes in my collection. As far as I knew, Bibles, Books and Things was the only place on earth to get music by the likes of Daniel Amos or Bloodgood or Barren Cross or my once-and-forever favorite, The Choir. That this was an industry geared toward a customer base never entered into my head. For all I knew, these bands were making music just for me.

I should explain that in the ‘80s and ‘90s, so-called Christian music was much different than it is now. Sure, there have always been the saccharine purveyors of encouragement-pop, geared toward moms in their minivans (or whatever moms drove in the ‘80s and ‘90s). But there was also an extraordinary diversity outside of that mainstream, a creative and artistic freedom that some of these bands would never have been granted anywhere but this industry. That many of them also thoughtfully talked about faith and doubt and pain and redemption was a bonus for a kid just learning to do that himself. What I liked was the music.

And this was music no one else had heard. I admit to feeling some pleasure at that. I knew that when I brought Tourniquet albums to my metal-loving friends, there was no way they’d ever have heard of them otherwise. When I let my college-radio-loving friends hear the Choir and the Prayer Chain, two bands matching or outshining most of independent rock in those days, I knew I’d be the one introducing them to something amazing. It was so fulfilling. I felt like an explorer tasked with visiting uncharted lands and bringing back treasure.

I was also beginning my lifelong obsession with hearing new music, and it was at Bibles, Books and Things that I really decided to try everything I could. I listened to demos and bought cassettes in all genres, and that scattershot approach absolutely paid off. I once bought a PFR album called Goldie’s Last Day just because the title was fascinating, and they turned out to be a great pop-rock band with Beatlesque overtones. And as I’ve mentioned here before, I bought Circle Slide by the Choir just because I fell in love with the cover. (I just received the remastered Circle Slide on vinyl, and it came with a print of that cover, and I plan to frame it for my wall soon. It means a lot to me.)

That give-me-everything approach has been the defining characteristic of my musical life. It’s how I have heard every one of my very favorite bands, and how I discovered all of the spiritual pop (and rock and metal and ambient and and and) that I love. I can’t imagine my life without Adam Again or the 77s or Steve Taylor or any of the other truly wonderful artists I found in that cassette rack in Milford, Massachusetts. Those cassettes are the reason I first went to Cornerstone, and now go to AudioFeed. They’re the reason I have been in a position to find artists like Timbre and Josh Garrels and Hushpad and Von Strantz and so many others.

It’s also the reason I know who One Bad Pig is, and that I was one of 317 people who helped them make their reunion album this year. When I say that ‘80s and ‘90s Christian music had a lot more diversity, I mean it. One Bad Pig was one of the pioneering Christian punk bands, and their snarky, funny, spunky records were released by one of the biggest labels in the scene. It was a time when this industry not only allowed but invited self-criticism, and One Bad Pig joined the likes of Steve Taylor in critiquing the public face of the church.

Their three main albums – Smash, Swine Flew and I Scream Sunday – ran the gamut from thrashy punk to mid-tempo guitar-pop, led by Carey Womack, a frontman who shouted and squealed more than sang. Perhaps the apex of their output is a frankly astonishing cover of “The Man in Black” with guest vocals from Johnny Cash himself. I play it every once in a while just to remind myself that I didn’t hallucinate it.

While I have personal and theological problems with some of One Bad Pig’s output (“You’re a Pagan” is hard to listen to, as is “Bowl of Wrath”), I still find them fun. The song of theirs that has made the most lasting impact is a 30-second bit of weirdness called “Pad Thai.” It consists of the band members yelling “Pad Thai!” over and over, and I can’t eat the titular food now without hearing that in my head.

That alone, I figured, was worth pitching in for their Kickstarter. Like a lot of bands from this corner of the music world, One Bad Pig has reunited 25 years after their last album, and they turned to crowdfunding to pay for a new one, called Love You to Death. And because they are One Bad Pig, they refused to take themselves too seriously, offering some hilarious incentives, which fans took them up on. Someone named Mitch Connell, for instance, paid to be the one who “presents” the album on the front cover, so everyone’s copy of the album reads “Mitch Connell presents One Bad Pig.”

As a fan of crowdfunding, I think that’s kind of awesome, and it already put me on the band’s side. The album itself is pretty good. Though all the band members are in their 50s now, they don’t seem to have lost much of their youthful energy. Love You to Death is a slightly more mature One Bad Pig album, with slightly more to say than their primary-colored early work. Womack still sounds like Johnny Rotten mixed with a terrified swine, and his voice is an acquired taste. (I’m glad I acquired it when I was 15.) The band gets serious on songs like “Heads Will Roll” and “Straitjacket,” both about religious persecution, a topic on which I now disagree with them. They also lose me on “What Does the Fool Say,” with its paean to intelligent design. But they make fine points about faith without works on “Get Your Hands Dirty,” a nifty tune that features Les Carlsen of Bloodgood and his ridiculous high voice.

It might be no surprise that my favorites here – the songs that make me glad I backed this – are the more fun ones. One Bad Pig was never scared to seem like a novelty act, and here they embrace that side of their image with gusto. They cover “The Lust, the Flesh, the Eyes and the Pride of Life,” an absolute classic by the 77s, and Piggy it up. (I really wonder what Mike Roe thinks of it.) “Sunday Skool Rawk” is a thrash-y medley of songs anyone who went to Vacation Bible School will recognize, played for laughs. And perhaps my favorite thing here is “Ben Moors,” a song written as a Kickstarter reward. Ben kicked in the required amount to have a song about him included on the album, and it’s a hoot. They even refer to him as “Ben Moors the Kickstarter funder” in the chorus.

There’s enough whimsical frivolity here to offset the moments that make me squirm. I get the sense, though, that like all punk bands, the members of One Bad Pig want me to squirm, want to confront, want to put their beliefs square in my face. And I’m less interested in that kind of Christian music than I used to be. I’m happy I contributed to a new One Bad Pig album, partially because it’s just fantastic and ridiculous that One Bad Pig has a new album in 2016. Love You to Death was worth hearing, and much of it is worth owning. I feel differently about them now than I did when I was 15, and it was worth the investment to find that out.

There are very few bands I feel the same devotion to in my forties as I did in my teens. But one of them – perhaps the most important of them – is the Choir. Buying Circle Slide, their extraordinary fifth album, on a whim at Bibles, Books and Things is one of the best musical decisions I have ever made. For 26 years the Choir has soundtracked my life, draping it in gorgeous sounds and thoughtful spiritual insights. The voice of Derri Daugherty singing the words of drummer Steve Hindalong has pulled me through many a dark time.

In many ways, the Choir is the antithesis of One Bad Pig, and of most heavy-handed Christian music. Hindalong writes about his life, seen through the prism of his faith. He never preaches, and when he hits you with a message song (like “It Should Have Been Obvious” or “The Word Inside the Word”), the message is one of love, acceptance and grace. If more Christian music were like the Choir, I would like more Christian music.

It’s a great time to be a Choir fan. Since 2010, the band has been on a roll, giving us four swell albums (including Shadow Weaver, one of their very best) and a just-released definitive live album. Daugherty released an instrumental ambient album, and has a new solo album coming soon. (He’s also about to release two records with side project Kerosene Halo, and I’ll get to those in a couple weeks.) And now, for the first time in nearly 20 years, Hindalong has made a solo album. It’s called The Warbler, and it's a thing of beauty.

Hindalong spoke at AudioFeed about songwriting and his life in music, and one thing he kept returning to was friendship. He’s been making beautiful sounds with his friends for more than three decades, and both of his solo albums are like a who’s-who of this corner of the music world. Choir bassist Tim Chandler, Hammock guitarist Marc Byrd, his wife Christy Byrd, guitarist and organist Phil Madeira, cellist Matt Slocum, guitarist Lynn Nichols, singer Kevin Max and Steve Taylor’s guitarist Jimmy Abegg all appear here. The sound of this record is tremendous, full and rich and beautiful.

Hindalong’s voice takes some getting used to – it has a high, pinched quality that isn’t immediate. I’ve grown to love it over years of hearing it on Choir albums, and he’s evolved as a singer tremendously since his first solo album. Here he sings with confidence, sounding better than he ever has. He rises to the challenge of the full-blooded music here, but even when he’s surrounded by very little – just acoustic guitars and a few embellishments on “Into the Drink,” for example – he delivers. I’m predisposed to be on Hindalong’s side, but I quite like his voice on this album, more than I expected to.

It’s the songs that win the day, though. Hindalong dug deep here, setting some of his most beautiful melodies to some of his most personal lyrics. There are barbed love songs (“I need more sorrow like I need more bad religion,” he sings on “Love You Bad”), odes to old friends (“O Jimmy A,” one of my favorites), prayers for healing (“Shellie’s Song”), promises of devotion (“That’s How It’s Gonna Be,” “For a Lifetime”) and moments of contentment (“Lucky and Blessed”). I would say it’s an uncommonly good set of songs, but this is Steve Hindalong, and for him, it’s not uncommon at all.

There are some exceptional moments on The Warbler, songs that rise above the already high standard. “Oblivious” is the first of those, a gorgeous drawl with lovely harmonies by Christy Byrd. “Sorry lovers caught in a rain storm, oblivious to the thunder, deaf to the cannon roar…” It’s a world-class song, one Jason Isbell would have been proud to write. It’s an abstract piece, in direct contrast to another amazing moment, “Into the Drink.” This spare song takes an unflinching look at Hindalong’s own alcoholism. He premiered this song a couple years ago at a Choir show I attended, and I’m so proud of him for including it here. “Blessed oblivion save me, morning sun be damned, the demon in my head won’t know me if I forget who I am…” It’s a brave piece of work, and a riveting song.

The Warbler ends with a pair of Choir songs, recast in new lights. The title track, originally released in 1996, is one of Hindalong’s best songs, and where it once rose and fell on Daugherty’s velvet guitar chimes, here it feels earthy, dark, down in the mud, looking skyward. Most of it is Hindalong and his electric guitar, but when the full band erupts to life a couple minutes from the end, it’s thick and unstoppable. Christy Byrd uses the backing vocals to correct a mathematical error in the original, too. “The Antithesis of Blue” first appeared on Shadow Weaver, an inversion of blues clichés celebrating true love. This version is a down-home hoedown, with Justin Cary on bass, Nichols on guitar and Abegg on banjo. It’s a fun way to end things, a total reinvention of a pretty cool tune.

Whenever I hear a new piece of music from Daugherty and Hindalong, whether together or solo, I think about how lucky I am to have even stumbled upon them at all. Twenty-six years of joy, with no end in sight, and it all grew from that one decision to try the lovely-looking record with the tire swing on the cover. Twenty-six years. Bibles, Books and Things is no longer in business, so I can’t go back and thank them for making this music available to a hungry 15-year-old. But I can thank Hindalong and Daugherty and every other brilliant musician I discovered by accident, just by being open to them. I listen to The Warbler’s rhapsody, and I can’t imagine my life without this music.

Buy One Bad Pig music here. Buy Hindalong's album and the Choir catalog here.

Next week is ladies’ choice with Sara Watkins, Bat for Lashes and Lauren Mann. Follow Tuesday Morning 3 A.M. on Facebook here.

See you in line Tuesday morning.