This week I was going to talk about the avalanche of live albums and remasters and box sets that pummel your local record store at this time every year. It’s a topic I revisit seemingly every fall, and I never have anything new to say about it. The record companies like money, they want your money, so they offer lavish sets to commemorate records they know, through market research, that you will want to buy or give as gifts.
It’s really that simple, and yet each year I devote lots of words to these sets, many of which I buy just to buy. Last week, for instance, I picked up multi-disc remasters of Metallica’s Master of Puppets and R.E.M.’s phenomenal Automatic for the People. But there isn’t much I haven’t already said about these records. I could talk about the first time I heard them – Master at 14 as I was truly launching my teenage metalhead phase, Automatic my freshman year in college – and what they mean to me. That would certainly fill my quota for the week.
But I’m not listening to either one of them. I think it’s partially because I have them memoried. Master of Puppets is carved onto my soul – it’s possibly the best metal album ever made, dark and progressive and socially relevant. And Automatic for the People might be my favorite album from the Athens superstars, the culmination of their search for beauty in the ‘90s. (Have they ever written a prettier song than “Find the River”?) I love these records, and I’m very happy to have them in shiny new versions. But I’m not eager to listen to them right away.
Similarly, I’ve not really dug into the live albums I’ve picked up recently. Spock’s Beard reunited to perform all of Snow, their final album with Neal Morse, and I had to have it, and I’m sure it’s great. But it hasn’t captured my attention. Same with live documents from Pearl Jam, the Pineapple Thief and Kansas. I’m sure it will be the same for Black Sabbath, Iron Maiden and ELO, which I will buy this week. I’ll get to them, but I’m not in any hurry. The one that has inched up my list is A-Ha’s new unplugged effort, but it hasn’t broken through yet.
So what have I been listening to? Well, in addition to my Doctor Who audio stories (I’m years behind) and Chopin’s complete Nocturnes (a long story involving work), my attention has been consumed with a pair of albums I paid for months ago, but just received. I talk a lot about Kickstarter here, but it’s not the only crowdfunding platform bands and artists use, and I supported both of these new albums on PledgeMusic, which basically provides a storefront for a project and manages pre-orders. In concept, it’s similar to Kickstarter, and it offers the same service – it helps bring into the world works of art that may not see the light of day otherwise.
Many of the artists who use PledgeMusic are under the radar, connecting with a small-ish audience to create personal works that probably wouldn’t thrive in the mainstream, but that hit the spot for the people who pony up. Robert Deeble certainly fits that bill. I discovered Deeble at AudioFeed a couple years ago – he played a set on his own, and then one with Choir drummer Steve Hindalong. He’s an unconventional guitar player who writes in an ambient folk style – stripped back yet lush, sparse and airy yet as full as it needs to be. He’s been making records since the late ‘90s, but I jumped aboard with 2013’s delightful Heart Like Feathers.
Beloved is Deeble’s first album since then. A hundred forty-nine of us pledged to bring it to life, and it’s everything I hoped it would be. Beloved is a deeply intimate record, telling the story of his journey as a new father, first fostering his daughter and then fully adopting her. As you might guess, it’s a very pretty set of songs, led by Deeble’s whisper of a voice. It opens with a sweet arrangement of “You Are My Sunshine,” and moves in that vein from there. It’s 38 minutes of a father’s love, which he felt from the first moment he met her (as he details in “Coal Miner”), and it’s guaranteed to leave you with a warm glow.
Deeble enlisted a pretty large number of collaborators for this record, including singers and string players, but he’s retained that open, airy feel of his previous work. “Uncertain” and “Coal Miner” are bigger tunes, the latter ending with a singalong refrain of “it’s gonna be all right” that might be the most massive thing Deeble’s ever done. But still, this feels small and intimate, like reading his diary. The fragile lullaby “To Find You” details his reunion with his daughter after a year apart (she was in the care of her birth mother), determined to come to some arrangement that would protect this little girl he had come to love. “And I’ll take all I can get to give all I can for you,” he sings, and you know he means it.
“Even Now” crackles, even though the instruments in it are barely moving. Somehow the drums on Deeble’s records tend to snap in a way few others I’ve heard manage, especially when the rest of the instrumentation is so subtle. It’s a song of sorrow, but as he says, sorrow that bonded him and his wife together with his daughter’s birth parents, so there is hope.
The final few songs of Beloved are guaranteed to move you. The title track relates the night he and his wife picked up their daughter and drove home as a family for the first time: “And we’ve cried, and we’ve cried for such a long time, and it feels like for the first time it’s going to be all right…” “Sleep” is truly lovely – you can imagine him rocking his baby girl back and forth as you listen – and the closing coda uses her actual voice, singing “doo doo doo” along with a fun beat. It’s the perfect, sorta goofy but totally heartfelt way to end.
Without AudioFeed, I don’t know that I would ever have found Robert Deeble. Without PledgeMusic, I don’t know if Beloved would have been made. My musical life would have been poorer for it. I’m enamored with this little record, this love letter in song. In a world that makes me want to hang my head daily, it’s a joy to have something this precious, this full of heart. Beloved makes me want to keep going. I’m glad it exists. You can check it out at Robert’s Bandcamp page.
Sara Groves is more well-known than Deeble is, but her new record is similarly personal. Groves has made her home in the Christian marketplace, but has always been more thoughtful and artful than most of her contemporaries. She tells stories of life through the prism of faith, admitting that sometimes life is harder than she knows how to deal with, and it is that faith that gets her through. Two years ago she made a great record called Floodplain that dealt with depression and day-to-day hardship with poetry and grace.
In some ways, it’s a bit of a shame that her new album, Abide with Me, is entirely arrangements of old hymns, but only in that I always want to hear more Sara Groves songs. There is no doubt, listening to it, that these songs mean so much to Groves. As an artist, she always makes me feel what she feels, even if I don’t always believe what she believes. That’s all I ask of anyone. These songs, she says, were with her during the hard times that informed Floodplain, and as a companion piece, it’s a beautiful thing.
And I love old hymns. Some of the most beautiful melodies ever composed were written in the service of prayer and worship. I grew up in a church that sang nothing but these often centuries-old pieces, and I always respond to them. I knew about half of the songs on Abide with Me, and grew up singing several of them. This album was recorded in a church in Minnesota that Groves and her husband have adapted into a performance venue and community center (the original building is on the cover), and just as they updated the space with reverence, they do the same for the songs.
The arrangements here are breathtakingly beautiful. Groves has, without fail, chosen songs of comfort here, songs that believers hold close in their darkest hours. The instrumentation is similarly comforting – pianos, guitars, some subtle embellishments, extremely subtle percussion. She sings these songs like an angel, but more than that, like someone who holds them dear. I mentioned in my Derek Webb review that the music I tend to respond to most is about the ways we connect with whatever is beyond us. Abide with Me is, at its core, about how Groves connects with the divine, and is drawn closer to it.
I’ll probably have a tough time mentioning highlights, because I love it all so much. “What a Friend” is a song I used to sing in church, but I’ve never felt anything like I feel for it now, in Groves’ hands. The brief “Song of Blessing” is glorious, as is the title song. I love what she’s done with “To the Dawn,” a re-working of “There’s a Light Upon the Mountains.” “And the hearts of man are stirring,” she sings, and stirs mine.
But I will make special mention of the closing song, “He’s Always Been Faithful,” because it’s my favorite. Oddly enough, it’s the only original song here – it first appeared on Groves’ album Conversations, from 2001. Performed just on piano, with a smattering of upright bass and clarinet, it’s a song about God being with us in our pain, in our sorrow, on our worst days. Songs like this have always, always gotten to me, particularly if they’re so clearly personal and honest, and Groves, as she always does, makes me feel what she feels. I like that she added one of her own songs to this, and that it fits right in. Hymns are being written all the time, as people work through and wrestle with their connection with the infinite.
I’m still working through and wrestling with mine, and music has been one of the most helpful ways I do that. Sara Groves has been with me through much of that journey, and her authenticity and genuine artistry has been deeply valuable. Abide with Me is a record of solace in a world of turmoil, and even though its songs are hundreds of years old, documenting hundreds of years of man’s yearning for comfort from above, they feel brand new in the hands of Sara Groves. I can’t stop listening to this. Once again, I am glad it exists.
Next week, who knows. Be here and find out. Follow Tuesday Morning 3 A.M. on Facebook at www.facebook.com/tm3am.
See you in line Tuesday morning.