I’m in the worship band at my church.
I know, I know, it was a big surprise to me too. I grew up in a church, but high-tailed it right around the time I started asking questions that have no answers. Honestly, it wasn’t the lack of answers that bothered me, it was the absolute certainty of those who tried to give me those answers. I was able to poke holes in everything people said they believed, and I began to see the harm those beliefs do and have done. So I walked.
But the yearning never went away. For 25 years I kept one foot in the spiritual, mainly through music. I’ve talked a great deal in this space (and will talk more in a moment) about the extraordinary spiritual rock bands that have changed and reshaped my life for nearly as long as I can remember listening to music, and if nothing else, they kept me trying out churches and reading all I could about the ineffable and the divine. I minored in philosophy and religious studies in college, covered every story about churches I could during my journalism career, and kept whatever it is that drew me toward faith alight, if only barely.
Long story short, I found a church that fits my idea of what church ought to be, which for me, mainly, means allowing me to grow at my own pace. I’m still not sure what you’d call me, but I’m happier not putting labels on things anyway. I’m different than I was just a couple years ago, though. Regardless, I told you all of that to tell you this: each Sunday I get up early and head to church to practice really Jesus-y songs with a group of other musicians. And what we play is what everyone thinks of when I say “Christian music.”
I’ve come to grips with the reason we play what we do in church, and in doing so have come to terms with so-called worship music. I generally hate the stuff – it’s so cloying, so simple, so surface-level. It’s never the sort of thing I would put on to listen to of my own free will. It works in the setting we play it in, because that setting is not about music in any way. What I really needed (and in some ways still need) to come to grips with, though, is the fact that when I talk about some of my very favorite bands, people automatically think I’m talking about something with the musicality and depth of, say, Matt Redman or Hillsong.
And I’m not. When I talk about spiritual pop bands like the Choir or Daniel Amos or Lifesavers Underground, I am describing something wholly different, something that would never be played on K-LOVE or added to the usual rotation at churches. What I like about these bands and artists is the same thing I like about any band or artist: honesty. Combine that with some serious musical chops and I’m all yours. Songwriters like Steve Hindalong and Terry Taylor are brutally honest about their faith, their doubt, their pain, their lives. That’s what I’m looking for, and that’s what I can’t find in worship music.
If you don’t believe me that spiritual music can be just as raw and ragged an emotional experience as any other kind, I have two albums you should hear. And thankfully, both of them have just been reissued in gorgeous expanded and remastered CD and vinyl editions by Lo-Fidelity Records. Lo-Fidelity is run by my friend Jeffrey Kotthoff, and for more than a decade he’s been keeping this little corner of the music world alive and kicking, supporting not only these beautiful reissues of barely-known records but new works by those musicians as well. I’m eternally grateful to him for loving what I love and putting his money and time into sharing it.
Two bands who have found a loving home on Lo-Fidelity are the 77s and the late, lamented Adam Again. I adore both of them, and I’m in the process of buying both of their catalogs again as they are re-released. (And on vinyl for the first time. They look amazing.) We’re up to the mid-‘90s with both bands, and perhaps coincidentally the latest reissues from both are the most twisted and pain-filled they ever released. These are albums without easy answers, with complicated emotions warring over abrasive and difficult music. In short, they’re ‘90s rock albums, but very, very good ones.
Michael Roe and his 77s have always been about honestly reflecting where they are as people, and the band’s 1994 opus Drowning With Land in Sight is no different. Take a second to deal with that title. The cover, as originally released, depicts a playground slide in the middle of the ocean, basically a short ride to nowhere. You can feel the hopelessness just radiating off this thing. And it makes sense – Drowning catches the 77s as guitarist David Leonhardt began his battle with cancer and Roe watched his marriage fall apart.
The album is in no way a slog, but it is difficult. It opens with a note-for-note cover of Led Zeppelin’s rewrite of “Nobody’s Fault But Mine,” Roe performing the Robert Plant and Jimmy Page parts himself. It’s a track the band didn’t want to include here – the record company made them – but it sets the tone well. What follows is a barrage of fiery ‘90s-style guitar rock with titles like “Snowblind” and “Snake,” and it’s some of the most vicious material Roe and his band have ever put down on tape.
The record gets more diverse as it goes along, with the pretty “Film at Eleven” (a heartbreak song that could have fit on the previous album, Pray Naked), the instrumental “Mezzo” and the Rolling Stones riff “Cold, Cold Night” coming in rapid succession. But it never gets less bleak, and this reissue restores it to its even more bleak original running order, removing “For Crying Out Loud,” the one ray of hope. (Like “Nobody’s Fault,” its inclusion was mandated by a nervous, meddling record company.) Drowning now ends with its two saddest songs, “The Jig is Up” and “Alone Together,” both of which are about Roe’s divorce. Both of these songs are almost inhumanly beautiful, too, and the record leaves you hollowed out. (Don’t worry, “For Crying Out Loud” is included as a track on the bonus disc.)
The 77s, at this point in their evolution, were an incredible rock band, and Roe has always been one of the world’s most underrated guitarists. And it’s a good thing, too, because the powerfully alive music keeps you going through one heartbreaking sentiment after another. “Dave’s Blues” is a shimmying powerhouse that hides a tough lyric about Leonhardt’s cancer, punctuated by the line “this ol’ world has kicked my ass,” an honest assessment that the record company censored. (The line is here in all its glory on the reissue.) “The Jig is Up” marries a swaying folk melody to lyrics of absolute isolation.
There is no light at the end of this tunnel. Drowning With Land in Sight documents a spiral, catching Roe and his cohorts at a moment in which they didn’t know what to believe, or why. It’s a record full of turmoil, one with no easy answers, so you can imagine the disdain with which it was greeted in the Christian marketplace. But that honesty makes it one of my favorites in the band’s extensive catalog. It’s a searching, difficult piece of work, and I love it for that.
I have a tougher time loving Adam Again’s swan song, Perfecta, released in 1995. In some ways, it’s the most powerful thing this band ever recorded. It’s a sloppy, abrasive snapshot of the aftermath of frontman Gene Eugene’s divorce from his bandmate Riki Michele, and it contains little of the polish and danceable joy of the band’s previous works. It’s also the last one Eugene finished before his death from a drug overdose in 1999, and it’s a wrenching, dark way to go out. Like Drowning, it offers no light, no escape, just a suffocating bleakness over 64 devastating minutes.
If you care about Gene Eugene as a person, Perfecta is a very difficult listen. Songs like “Relapse” and “Harsh” and “Dogjam” air his darker thoughts over steel wool guitars and plodding, despondent grooves. “All Right” is a pitch-black masterpiece, like crawling through a darkened tunnel, waiting to hear the rush of water. The record’s one danceable piece is “Strobe,” and it’s over early, leaving you with nearly an hour of the hard stuff. The band is so good that even when they’re being deliberately loose and messy, they’re locked in somehow, finding the essential melodies within the noise. But it might take a couple listens to really appreciate that, and this isn’t a record that invites repeated listens.
So why do I love it? Why am I recommending it? Because it’s amazing in its honesty, its willingness to plumb the depths without needing to leaven the pain with platitudes. Sincerity was always Eugene’s hallmark – his masterwork, Dig, contains at least three songs that I would rank with the best I know, and they are powerfully honest things. But here it’s like he ripped himself open and laid himself bare. He doesn’t come out of this smelling like roses – “Harsh” especially casts him in a, well, harsh light – but that’s all part of the package. Perfecta is about cutting yourself and letting it bleed onto tape, and wherever the drops land, so be it.
The album ends with one of the saddest songs I know, “Don’t Cry.” It’s almost laughably simple in its sincerity, a song of parting with words of resigned encouragement, but it makes me tear up each time. Part of the reason is that this is the last song on the last Adam Again album, and I miss Gene Eugene’s singular voice something fierce. But part of it is the song itself – Eugene sings it with such heaviness in his voice, as if he knew he’d never be back here, making another Adam Again album, and Michele’s harmonies match him. It’s one of those songs I think everyone should hear, and it works best at the end of this emotionally ragged experience. That worn-out feeling you get as the album shudders to a conclusion is the point.
Some may certainly say that albums like Drowning and Perfecta don’t offer the redemption inherent in spiritual music, and in isolation, they would be right. But what I don’t get from worship music is the understanding that redemption doesn’t mean anything if you don’t feel the pain of existing without it first. This is why I love records like this, that drag me through the mud alongside hurting and broken people. I need this for the joy of salvation to make any sense. I need the full spectrum, the full experience of life, reflected in the art I love, and I’m grateful beyond measure to the artists I have found who give me that.
In short, buy these albums and all the others you can find at Lo-Fidelity’s website. You won’t regret it.
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It’s the end of September, which means it should be time for the Third Quarter Report. But here’s the thing. For various personal reasons, I am ludicrously behind in my music purchasing and consumption. I’ve heard barely half of the records I bought in September, and I need another week to put together anything resembling a competent list. So, next week.
I’m not even sure what I’m going to review next week, either, so we’ll both be surprised. Follow Tuesday Morning 3 A.M. on Facebook at www.facebook.com/tm3am.
See you in line Tuesday morning.