The band R.E.M. is easy to love—and hate. In the 1980s the group from Athens, Georgia, defined college and indie rock. It grafted locomotive Rickenbacker guitar and bass onto the no-nonsense beats of Bill Berry and the barely audible but alluring vocals of Michael Stipe.
New Orleans’ Lower Ninth Ward, largely inhabited by poor African-American residents, looks not much different now from when the floodwaters receded. You have to wonder how Washington would have reacted if Katrina had hit a wealthy, white gated community.
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Peter Himmelman, formerly the bushy-haired hero of the New Wave band Sussman Lawrence, has transitioned into a middle-aged rocker, and his music reveals only the best results. His songs have a muscular, energetic groove that begs comparisons with Bob Dylan—his father-in-law. The lyrics balance pungent humor and well-versed, poignant observations.
If Abe Lincoln were to once again borrow from Jesus—but for C-SPAN’s cameras—he might say, “A house divided against itself cannot stand each other.” Partisan rancor is everywhere, leaving a few brilliant minds—Stephen Colbert, Jon Stewart and Bill Maher among them—to revel in and play with the fray on TV.
David Bowie called them his favorite iPod download. U2 used their song “Wake Up” as the walk-on anthem for their last tour. Coldplay and David Byrne are unabashed fans. Not bad for a band that just debuted its second album.
Rickie Lee Jones broke into the music business in 1979 with the jazz-pop novelty hit “Chuck E’s in Love,” and she has been a maddening enigma ever since. At best she’s inconsistent, at worst she’s the embodiment of the tortured artist: all tantrum and attitude with little worthy fruit to show.
Those who discovered Joanna Newsom’s full-length debut The Milk-Eyed Mender (Drag City, 2004) fell without exception into two camps: either they ran screaming from her Betty-Boop-on-helium voice and tales of bridges, balloons and beans or found themselves enchanted and amazed.
Psalm 96 issues an invitation repeated throughout the Old Testament: “Sing to the Lord a new song.” Today’s Christian musicians follow that call into vistas that David could never have foreseen, from Celtic folk to speed metal to reggae.
In the two-CD effort Why Not Sea Monsters? Songs from the Hebrew Scriptures and New Testament,(CarpetSquare) Justin Roberts steers clear of any ham-fisted agenda while staying faithful to the power and majesty of the Bible stories, and making them his stories. On the “Hebrew Scriptures” CD, Roberts gets things off to a clever start with “Why Not a Spark?” Singing in a style that suggests John Lennon, James Taylor and Glenn Tilbrook, Roberts lays out the tale of creation as if God were a smiling child in a swirling cosmic sandbox: “On the fourth day / God said, Where are the stars? / Where’s Mercury, Venus and Mars?/ Where’s all those old rusty cars? / Wait, that’s later!”
The British band Delirious has always been smart, drawing comparisons to U2, Radiohead and Blur. With the album The Mission Bell, the band shoots for added lyrical depth and force. “Our God Reigns,” a key-of-D dirge built around spare acoustic guitar, keyboards and thunderous percussion, may be the hardest-hitting piece, tacking issues like abortion and the AIDS pandemic. (“My Chinese take away/ Could pay for someone’s drugs.”) “Love Is a Miracle” alternates between smoldering, soulful verses and wide-open, gospel-flavored choruses, while “Paint the Town Red” rocks as hard as anything Delirious has ever cut.
Everything In Between Self-released, Christian rock Danny Oertli Balancing all-American rock with ballads, Danny Oertli is a Christian musician with a difference. When he sings "Thank You, Jesus, for keeping hope alive" on "Mommy Paints the Sky," he know what he's singing about—the song is inspired by the death of his high-school sweetheart, who had become his wife. In the same album, Oertli proves he can rock in "Fight for Me" (with its dirty Wurlitzer electric piano) and in the breathless, pulsing "Nothing."
Day of ColoursReal World Records, World music/QawwaliRizwan-Muazzam Qawwali The brothers Rizwan and Muazzam, nephews of the late Sufi singing great Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan, deliver a majestic album. Imagine the droning power of Gregorian chant melded with the expressiveness of blues shouters. With the simple instrumentation of harmonium and tablas, Colours addresses spiritual themes central to the Qawwali tradition. “Light of My Life,” a Persian song in praise of Allah, is particularly arresting.
While heavy on processed drums, the disc makes for compelling listening. The young women, products of China’s top orchestras, perform with ancient instruments such as the gu zheng (a zither with up to 25 strings), pipa (four-stringed lute) and dizi (bamboo flute).
If you are a regular listener to radio’s A Prairie Home Companion or a bluegrass fan, chances are you know the signature sound of Sam Bush, a mandolinist who commands his instrument with sublime grace one moment, ferocious jig energy the next.
Spanning the sonic globe, this roundup of recent albums highlights compelling music in different genres. Alongside some popular names are lesser-known artists who deserve notice. Only some are explicitly Christian. What caught my attention were challenging lyrics, an uplifting spirit—or simply a joyful noise.