Walking the Line
Between the Church and the Radio

My girlfriend really loves Needtobreathe.

I mean, she really loves them. Has called them her favorite band. Has already bought tickets for both of us to see them live in October. (To be fair, I’m making her go see Marillion with me the night before.) Knows all the lyrics, sings along with every song. Can wax eloquent about the deeper meaning behind songs like “Difference Maker” and about which album struck her the most, and why.

As an obsessive music fan, I love this. I can’t get enough of her excitement. I’m finding as I grow older that I don’t need to love what other people love to enjoy their love for those things. I’m also finding value in music I had unfairly dismissed. Thanks to my ever-patient girlfriend, I’m listening more to what she likes and finding what I like in it. (Nickelback would have been a deal-breaker, though. Just saying.)

So it’s because of her that I gave Needtobreathe’s sixth album, Hard Love, more than a cursory listen. In fact, I followed the whole journey of the record, listening to singles as they came out, most of them surprising me. I think the most interesting thing about Needtobreathe is that they seem to comfortably inhabit that space that plagued the 77s for their entire career on Christian labels: they’re too radio for church and too church for the radio.

Considering how much I love the 77s, obviously I think that’s a fine place to be. Most of the music coming out of that corner of the industry these days is simplistic and made for church worship bands to play. But you’ll never hear a church band play “Feet Don’t Fail Me Now,” for instance, or other songs off of NTB’s last record, the raucous Rivers in the Wasteland. And that goes double for most of the tunes on Hard Love, their most adventurous album. In fact, this one errs pretty hard in the other direction, eschewing the band’s Kings of Leon-style guitar-rock for big keyboards and big production.

And they pull it off, mostly. Perhaps the greatest divergence from their usual sound comes on the title track, which kicks off the record. It’s driven totally by synthesizers and electronic drums, much like the recent Tegan and Sara albums, and it reaches for the anthemic: “Hold on tight a little longer, what don’t kill you make you stronger…” It contains the first oblique reference to spirituality, Bear Rinehart singing “a part of you has got to die to change” and “you gotta burn your whole self away.” Save for one song, this is as church-y as the record gets.

Intriguingly, the band’s most mainstream-influenced effort contains several songs about the perils of chasing money and fame. Hell, they even call one song “Money and Fame,” and it’s a horn-driven swagger about finding “the bottom from the top somehow.” “Happiness” is nearly inscrutable, but I think it’s a half-hearted apology from a man choosing riches and security over his loved ones. “Be Here Long,” one of the most successful here, is about grief and realizing that we’re only here for a short time, and we should appreciate it. In a lot of ways, that’s what the lovely “Let’s Stay Home Tonight” and the massive closer “Clear” are about too – living for love, in the smallest and largest moments, and leaving everything else (like money and fame) behind.

In the midst of this there are several songs that are just a good time. “When I Sing” is a slinky piano-pounding love song that makes me bob my head in spite of myself. “Great Night” brings aboard folksy duo Shovels and Rope for a big ol’ rock song about dancing. “Don’t Bring That Trouble” is the most rocking thing here, Rinehart singing about the burden of carrying someone who won’t help themselves. One thing you’ll find about Hard Love is that it’s quick: aside from the single speed bump, the bitter acoustic interlude “No Excuses,” it fires like a bullet and moves like a freight train.

The one nod here to modern worship music is “Testify,” which sounds a lot like the pseudo-Mumford stuff coming out of Nashville. But it would never pass muster – it doesn’t mention Jesus once, using language like “there is a peace, there is a love you can get lost inside” and “mist on the mountain rising from the ground, there’s no denying beauty makes a sound.” I remember a time in the CCM industry when being so oblique – merely pointing in the direction of the answer – was enough to get your album dropped, and coupling that with lines like “we don’t even need to put clothes on” from “Let’s Stay Home Tonight” would have caused a scandal.

It’s clear that Hard Love is an attempt to reach a wider audience, and I hope it works. It’s a solid, well-crafted, fun record that obviously took a long time and a good deal of money to make. But what I like best about it is that, while it is definitely a change toward a more crowd-pleasing direction, it still feels like the album they wanted to make. I’m interested to see where they go from here, and gratified that there still are bands walking that line between radio and church, and doing it as well as they are.

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If there’s a band that knows all about walking that line, it’s Switchfoot.

Named after a surfing term for changing directions, Switchfoot started off in the Christian market in the late ‘90s before earning some mainstream success in 2003 with their major-label debut The Beautiful Letdown. Over the next five albums they proved to be masters at the somewhat-spiritual pop song, never writing anything for the worship band but never letting go of their roots either. Their last album, Fading West, was the emptiest and poppiest thing they had done, a clear example of falling off the balance beam.

I’m happy to report that they’re right back on it with their tenth long-player, Where the Light Shines Through. Produced by the band, this one has them sounding more like five guys playing in a room than they have in some time. There’s still a sheen to it, and a bunch of electronic elements, but more of a rock edge than we’ve heard from them in several albums. The pop single, “Float,” is one of the most interesting they’ve given us. It’s in 7/4, an odd time signature, but it’s so well-constructed that you won’t notice.

Much of the rest of the record is made up of strong rock tunes. The title track is a loud anthem of brokenness: “Because your scars shine like dark stars, your wounds are where the light shines through…” “If the House Burns Down Tonight” skips ahead on a double-time beat and a rebel love: “If the house burns down tonight I got everything I need with you by my side, so let the rest burn…” “Looking for America” is a real surprise, a socially conscious state of the nation featuring rapper Lecrae. “The doors are locked where they once stood open, a wound of fear where we once stood hoping…”

There are certainly low points. “Bull in a China Shop” probably shouldn’t have seen the light of day, and “Live it Well” is pretty boring radio fluff. But overall this is a very strong Switchfoot record, and leader Jon Foreman seems to have been emboldened by the material. Foreman is always more ready to frankly discuss his faith on his solo albums (of which he has many), but he’s right up front on this album, singing about his conversion on “The Day That I Found God” and what it all means to him on “Hope is the Anthem,” the closer.

There’s an honesty to it that I love – the band is on Vanguard Records, so no one is making Foreman sing about his faith. For a band that lives in both worlds, though, it’s interesting to hear Switchfoot tackle spirituality in such a forthright way. Not that they’ve avoided it in the past, but their last few efforts seem even more hollow in comparison to this one. Where the Light Shines Through is my favorite Switchfoot album in ten years, and hopefully the start of a new string of good ones.

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Unlike both of the above artists, Kevin Max has Christian rock bona fides.

As one-third of DC Talk, Max lived through the stricter, more ridiculous ‘80s and ‘90s in the Christian music industry. DC Talk is best known for a very silly, yet irresistibly singable album called Jesus Freak (and for shedding their hip-hop skin as grunge came along, morphing into a loud guitar band with surprising success). Since the trio’s breakup, Toby Mac has become a terrible Jesus-pop superstar and Michael Tait has stepped in as lead singer of the awful, awful Newsboys.

But Max was always the more artistically driven of the group, and his solo career has been a strange wonder to behold. His voice was always the most interesting of the three, channeling Simon le Bon and other ‘80s new romantics, and over eight surprising records, he’s carved out a fascinating little niche. His latest, Playing Games with the Shadow, dives full bore into Duran Duran territory, and fully explores his ambitions.

And I never would have expected it, but Max has entered that rarified group of artists who grew out of the CCM industry and have transcended it. Much of this record is abstract, preferring to leave snatches of lyric open to interpretation. Plenty of it could be called spiritual, but you have to dig for it and puzzle it out. Max has allied himself here with musicians like John Mark Painter (Fleming and John, Steve Taylor’s band), Steve Hindalong (The Choir) and Lynn Nichols (Chagall Guevara), and while it’s possible he draws inspiration from them, this is the most Kevin Max album yet – he wrote every song and played many of the electronic instruments.

And songs like “Girl with the Tiger Eyes” and “Election” are the best he’s given us. “Election,” especially, is a winner – it stomps along confidently, spinning its tale of insiders and outsiders. “I’d rather hide out in bars with the misfits and ghouls than pretend I’ve found a home in that social club with robotic and judgmental fools,” Max sings, putting quite a fine point on it. He writes a song for William Blake that rivals the one Terry Taylor wrote in 1985, digging into the poet’s tendency to see visions. “Muzick is Magic” sounds like Franz Ferdinand, Hindalong kicking up a storm on drums.

“Panic Button” is the only nod to his Jesus-rock past, with its chorus of “push the panic button, let go and let God in.” But even that is a delightful disco romp, one of the best melodically, and miles away from what you’d find on CCM radio. I have a strange soft spot for this corner of the music world, and for its survivors. I’m gratified that Kevin Max is one of them, and that he’s free to follow his vision. Playing Games with the Shadow is a genuine surprise, a full-blooded, totally weird album from a guy I hope keeps making them.

Next week, more music. Follow Tuesday Morning 3 A.M. on Facebook here.

See you in line Tuesday morning.