On Faith, Art, Mute Math and the Violet Burning

I’ve been doing a lot of reporting recently that (coincidentally or not, depending on your view of things) has dealt with the collision of faith and commerce.

And it’s got me thinking about it.

Professionalism keeps me from being too specific about things here, but the clash between honest expression and exploitative marketing, especially when it comes to matters of faith, has been illuminated on a couple of occasions for me this past week. I expounded at length on the subject in my Cornerstone column last July, and it just keeps cropping up, especially considering that some of my favorite artists are consigned to the aptly nicknamed Christian music ghetto.

People get all twitchy when I mention Christian music, expecting that I’m going to start handing out copies of the Watchtower and smack them over the head with the King James Bible. It’s a tiresome, yet perfectly understandable attitude, and it’s mostly Nashville’s fault – most of what gets bandied about under the term Christian is target-marketed crap, assembly-line garbage that meets a certain corporate Jesus-per-minute quota. It’s wretched stuff, soulless and useless, and it does more to turn people away from whatever message it’s so relentlessly selling.

I’m honestly not religious at all, and I am no more interested in that kind of music than I am in the so-called mainstream equivalents, the likes of Jessica Simpson and most rap, which just as cynically appeals to a pre-selected market solely to make oodles of cash. Thing is, to me, music is not a tool, or a means, or a method – it is the goal, the end, the thing all of this should be about. To use it as a means of selling anything, be it beer or cigarettes or Jesus or Satan or anything else, is just repulsive to me.

And the Christian music industry is guilty as hell of this. The worst part is that young musicians who snap at the chance to sign with a Christian label are often forever branded with that stigma, and consigned to the Jesus-music racks at Sam Goody. Just look at artists like Mike Roe – one of the best guitar players you’ll ever hear, prolific and proficient in a number of styles, and an honest and heartbreaking songwriter. But he’s relegated now to playing Cornerstone and churches and that’s it, because of his lengthy history (and friction-filled relationship) with the Christian music industry.

Guys like Roe and Terry Taylor worked hard to change that industry from within, infusing their work with honesty and humor and artistry, but it didn’t work – Nashville now pumps out the same crap it always has, servicing the Family Christian Bookstores and the faithful who line up for “safe” product. And Taylor, Roe and his ilk have been abandoned, left to start their own labels and take to the internet just to pay their rent.

For the life of me, I don’t know why anyone interested in making genuine art would sign with a Nashville Christian label.

And apparently, the guys in Mute Math agree with me.

Last year, I saw Mute Math play at Cornerstone, and it was a revelation – here is a band doing something no one else is doing, and even if there were others playing in this style, they’d still be the best there is at it. How depressing, then, to find out that they were signed to Word Records, and that their debut EP, Reset, failed to capture the extraordinary sound this New Orleans foursome created on stage. Reset isn’t bad, really, but the inclusion of the sappy ballad “It’s OK” and the overall glossy sound served to obscure what makes this band special.

But hang on. Their self-titled full-length, out last month, corrects all of the mistakes of the EP. It’s fully formed, the sound is amazing, there isn’t one embarrassing moment on it, and it’s refreshingly sap-free. Oh, and it’s not on Word Records – it’s self-released, on the band’s own Teleprompt, and you can only get it from them here.

Wanna know why? Well, it turns out that Mute Math has sued Warner Bros. and Word for trying to force them into the Christian market. According to a statement by lead singer Paul Meany, the dispute is over “how Mute Math should sound and be marketed,” and that Word Records is “the last place in the world [he] ever wanted Mute Math to end up.”

Here’s my favorite sentence from his statement: “There was no way I could bear the thought of seeing the new album stamped with the ‘W’ and confined to being promoted in a manner I consider nauseating.”

That’s respect. Respect for the art, respect for the music. Rather than watch this collection of songs they labored on be tampered with to meet some Christian corporate idea of sellable, and then see it consigned to rot in select stores and cutout bins at festivals, the band took it back, and they’re bringing it to the fans, one at a time. They’re on what they call the Album Release Tour now, setting up little CD parties in every city they hit. As Meany said, they’d rather do it this way, getting their music out on their own terms, than be labeled and sold as something they’re not.

I just think that’s beautiful, and even if I hadn’t been excited to hear the record before, the lengths the band has gone to protect it would have had me jumping out of my skin to get a copy.

I’ve absorbed Mute Math about 15 times now, and I honestly think it’s the best thing I’ve heard so far this year (sorry, Belle and Sebastian), and I will be surprised if this isn’t standing as one of the 10 best albums of 2005 in 10 months. Bold statement? Sure. Here’s another one – if I could buy copies of this CD for everyone I know, I would do it. Obviously, I can’t, but I will try the next best thing, which is convincing you all to give this band a shot.

So, the sound. Imagine if the Police, circa Zenyatta Mondatta, decided to make Kid A. That doesn’t quite sum it up, but it comes close – this is a dense, dazzling record, full of electronics and trippy beats (mostly played on real drums), but with insanely catchy songs, great riffs, and soaring vocals. It is 13 tracks – nine songs, four interludes – that play like one massive, beautiful whole. The sound is often unearthly, full of electronic pianos and backwards tones and treated guitars, but the songs are beautifully realized and grounded. And Paul Meany often sounds just like Sting – Police-era Sting, not solo-era, rapping-in-French Sting.

The album opens with its most typical song, fittingly called “Typical,” all crashing guitars and shouted chorus lines, but one song later, Mute Math takes flight. “Chaos” is incredible, jagged and kinetic, like a long-lost 1980s classic re-recorded in the rings of Saturn. “Noticed” is just as cool, with a great chorus and some Stewart Copeland-esque hi-hat work. Really, these two songs would be enough to convince me to buy the record for twice what I paid, and lo and behold, you can hear them both on their MySpace site.

But they’re not done. Mute Math dives into spacier waters from here on, the band couching their fantastic melodies in more ambient sounds. “Stare At the Sun” is a superb examination of doubt, set to an otherworldly waltz right out of the second half of OK Computer. It leads into “Obsolete,” the longest of the interludes, taking the sound and the beat to more alien places. “Break the Same” is the most singable seven-minute song you’re likely to hear, and “You Are Mine” comes closest to ballad territory, but deftly avoids it with its gorgeous production.

They saved the best for last – “Stall Out” is where William Orbit meets Brian Wilson, in a way. It’s seven minutes of glorious atmosphere swirling around a stratospheric melody. The final minutes repeat the line “We are still far from over,” and I only hope it’s the truth, because this is one fantastic album. Every few seconds of it holds something new – it’s as layered and meticulous as Dark Side of the Moon, yet as accessible and tuneful as a U2 record.

I just will not accept that only a few hundred people will get to hear this. It’s been a while since I’ve been faced with something this excellent, this instantly likeable, and this depressingly obscure. This is music to be shared and reveled in, music to be played before 50,000 people, not 50. If you’re worried about the Christian content, well, remember – it apparently wasn’t “Christian enough” for Word Records, and if you bought How to Dismantle an Atomic Bomb and were okay with it, this is even less evangelical. It’s just honest, searching, wonderful work, and I recommend it unreservedly to absolutely everyone.

It will cost you nothing to check Mute Math out. If you like what’s there, you will like the rest. You have nothing to lose, and perhaps a new favorite band to gain.

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And speaking of great bands that the Christian industry doesn’t know what to do with, there’s the Violet Burning.

A full disclosure up front – I interviewed Michael Pritzl, the leader and visionary of the Violet Burning, for HM Magazine last month. I’ve also had their new album, Drop-Dead, for more than two months now, and I’m so glad I can finally talk about it. I just wanted to mention that now, before anyone accuses me of bias, and say that I jumped at the chance to interview Pritzl and hear the album early because I’m a fan, and I came out the other side of all that still a fan. This review would be the same had I never spoken word one to the man.

I got the chance to meet Pritzl after TVB’s fantastic show at the Warehouse in Aurora last week. A grand total of about 30 people showed up, and the sound problems were numerous, but Pritzl and his band still played like they had sold out Wembley. That’s just what he does – you will not find a more emotionally invested singer, player or artist anywhere. Pritzl has been giving all of himself to his music for more than 15 years, before audiences large and small, and he’s never less than entrancing to watch and listen to.

TVB’s sound has adapted over the years, going from the worshipful rock of the early records, to the dreamy expanses of the self-titled album, to the trashy glam of much of Demonstrates Plastic and Elastic. But in 2003, Pritzl threw the biggest curve ball of them all – This Is the Moment, a compressed, glossy album of mainstream Christian pop. I damned it with faint praise at the time, saying that I hoped such a blatant stab at radio play worked for both Pritzl and his label, tiny Northern Records.

I mostly said that because, while worship music has been a big part of what Pritzl does for his entire career, Moment seemed almost a forsaking of his sound. Come to find out that this is a perfect example of that faith-art-commerce thing: Moment was the album Northern asked for, designed to help them sell it to Christian outlets, and Pritzl gave it to them in the spirit of cooperation. When it didn’t set the gospel charts on fire, Northern decided to let him make the album he wanted to make as a follow-up.

Hence, Drop-Dead, a classic and welcome return to the expansive, glorious sound of TVB. The Cure and U2 influences are in full flower here, and the production is huge and dynamic. A voice like Pritzl’s, aching and emotional, sounds best over a bottomless pool of sonic depth, and that’s what you get here. Opener “Humm” states that case brilliantly – a bed of synth bass and chiming guitars surround him as he sings, “Hold me now, I think I’m breaking” over and over. It’s graceful and beautiful, and everything I’d hoped.

But wait, because the album starts rocking with the next track. “All I Want” is a chart-topping hit in a perfect world, a nimbly melodic anthem, and Pritzl hasn’t turned in a trashy rocker like “Do You Love Me” since “Berlin Kitty.” There is a definite new wave element to virtually everything here – keyboards color every track, and drummer Jason Lord Mize plays along with a drum machine more often than not. It’s most obvious on “Rewind,” a clever dance track that throbs and pulses, the backing vocalists delivering the coup de grace with their “no, don’t stop, rewind.” It’s great fun.

Elsewhere, the album takes on more serious overtones. “More” is pure Cure, especially the extended intro with its echo-laden clean guitar lines. The final two tracks are grand and sweeping, separated from the rest of the record in a way by the brief drone “Trans.” “The Ends Begin” is dynamic, the intense arrangement backing out several times to focus on Pritzl’s aching voice. And “One Thousand Years” couldn’t have been anything but the closer, its U2-esque grandeur leading to a stirring refrain: “Yeah, you’re my heart, you’re my home…”

Many have mistaken Drop-Dead for an angry record, because of the title, but notice the hyphen – it’s meant as an adjective, not as an exhortation. The lyrics are basic, universal, and endlessly romantic. This is an album about love, and about yearning. (Fittingly, it was released on Valentine’s Day…) It is, as Pritzl says, all romance and tragedy, with frequent looks skyward, pleading for grace.

Truly, it’s all good – this is the most consistent Violet Burning album since Plastic and Elastic. But you don’t have to take my word for it. Pritzl has such faith in this material that he’s letting you hear the whole thing – just launch the ecard and listen. Again, it costs you nothing to check it out. If you ever liked the Violet Burning, this record will thrill you. If you’ve never tried the Violet Burning, this is a great first taste. This is another album that very few people will get to hear, which is a shame. Pritzl is a powerful artist, both live and on record, and Drop-Dead is one of his best.

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Next week, a look at the recent spate of live albums with string sections. And perhaps the week after that, I’ll finally review that Beth Orton album. I’m taking over a much more work-intensive beat at the newspaper on Monday, which will give me even less time to devote to this column, unfortunately. But I have no plans to abandon it, and I’ll do the best I can to not miss a week. Wish me luck.

See you in line Tuesday morning.