Thursday, December 29, 2011

Hearing the Smiths again for the first time

My beloved bought me the Smiths box set for Christmas, consisting of the four studio albums, the only live album and three compilations from the 1980s, all beautifully packaged in vinyl replica album slip cases. And it's a revelation.

Now I am a smiths fan. I have a good deal of their output - some of it on vinyl from its original released date. But listening to this is like hearing the band for the first time. Each album has been lovingly remastered by Johnny Marr. And I guess, they each sound as the band had intended they would.

We fans are used to listening to the muddy analogue recordings that were released during the band's all-too brief career (the studio albums were released between February 1984 and September 1987). They sounded great and yet... Listening to properly remastered versions of these great songs (and there have been a number of ghastly remastered collections over the past decade or so) reveals so much that was unheard on the original pressings.

The first album always sounded as if it had been recorded at the bottom of a fish tank. Now, although it is still very much a work in progress, a band finding their feet as writers and recorders, it glistens with flourishes of Hammond organ and rolling bass lines previously unheard. And the songs shine as a result - Still Ill, This Charming Man and and in Glove were already classics; now Reel around the Fountain, Miserable Lie and Suffer the Children take their place alongside them. Indeed all 11 tracks clamour for attention in a way they never used to.

But it's The Queen is Dead that is the biggest surprise here. The sound on the new version is spacious and deep allowing the songs to take on a new life, providing the proper sonic backdrop to what I think is Morrissey's best set of lyrics.

Meat is Murder is still a bit of a disappointment - but I never really rated it their best (unlike a lot of critics) - the sound is crisper but some of the tunes are still limp and the title track is as preposterous now as it was then. Morrissey should stick to what he knows best - yearning love songs and wry observations on the lure and emptiness of celebrity. Still, The Headmaster Ritual, Rusholme Ruffians and That Joke isn't Funny anymore are still crackers.

If you got vouchers or cash for Christmas, do yourself a favour and get this; it's £30 really well spent.

Friday, December 23, 2011

the 2011 festive fifteen

Well, it’s high time for my festive fifteen, the stand-out albums of the year fast slipping away. One record secured its place in the top spot early in the year and, as expected, nothing has dislodged it. But other artists have produced music of outstanding quality this year. So before we get to the top of the spot, here’s ten of the best in no particular order.
Early in the year, Radiohead surprised with a download only release of startling quality. King of Limbs has since made it to all formats and is a joy (if you can use that term of a Radiohead album), full of great tunes and packing an emotional punch.
American Justin McRoberts has been putting out a multi-EP collection called CMY, of which C and M have emerged. Thoughtful lyrics swinging from robust and beautifully played tunes make these collections worth repeated listenings. There’s also great digital booklets available for each on the artist’s website (here).
Another find from the States are Civil Wars, a sublime country-tinged duo with amazing voices and guitar led tunes that are to die for. They’ve justifiably won some awards this year; they are destined for great things.
The ever reliable and permanently touring (though I can’t get him to the UK!), Bill Mallonnee released a new proper studio album – after a string of works in progress. The Power and the Glory is majestic and muscular, full of wry observations set to electric guitar heavy music and is quite lovely.
Ron Sexsmith, after years of working away in the shadow of lesser song writers, emerged with a mature collection of finely crafted tunes, Long Player Late Bloomer.
Still in the States, the Decemberists followed their epic The Hazards of Love, with an altogether lighter and at first blush rather ordinary record, The King is Dead. Repeated listens, however, reveal it to be a work of great depth with infectiously catchy tunes.
From our side of the pond, Elbow turned out another classic full of songs of aching beauty and wry observation from a writer hitting the heights of his powers. Build a Rocket Boys is full of reflections on growing up, of losing and finding love, of lessons learned along the way that barely misses a beat.
Fold produced an EP with proceeds going to the tax justice campaign. As if that wasn’t reason for buying it, the fact that it’s full of samples of great speeches over a fine electronic wash that provoke thought and conversation certainly is.
This year saw the passing of REM. Athens, Georgia’s finest called it a day seemingly at the height of their powers. Collapse into Now, the last studio record, is full of great tunes and Michael Stipe’s voice sounding wonderful. Then they top it with a career retrospective of 37 of their best songs and three new ones that show they’ve lost none of their magic. If you only buy one REM record, make it Part lies, part heart, part truth, part garbage1982-2011.
And fast becoming a favourite is Bon Iver’s second, self-titled work. I found his first record a trifle twee and annoying with its half-finished songs and chilly arrangements. This more than makes up for it, demonstrating that Justin Vernon is a fine song writer, not afraid to push the boat out on arrangements that range from folk to jazz, gospel to ambient which all fit snugly together in a hugely enjoyable 40 minutes.
And now to the top five.
Find of the year is split between two American Christian-hued artists, Josh Garrels and the Afterlife Parade. Both show a lyrical maturity and questing, evening questioning and imaginative faith that so rare in Christian music. Garrels is giving his album away at Noisetrade but don’t let that put you off. Afterlife Parade’s two EPs meditating on death and life are sonically and lyrically a treat. The stand out track is Simple off the death EP, a song that  captures the longing of the human heart for connection with God like nothing I’ve heard before.
The other new band that I got to see live this year at a gig in St Giles in the Fields church in November is the wonderful Other Lives. Think Fleet Foxes with depth and attitude (and I like Fleet Foxes – Helplessness Blues almost made the cut). Each song on Tamer Animals is musical adventure with the five members of the band playing a cornucopia of instruments to create little pop symphonies. It’s fabulous.
Paul Simon released his best album since… well, maybe his best album ever. With songs reflecting on life well lived and awash with the possibility of God, So Beautiful or so What would have been the hands-down best album of the year, but… It’s full of wonderful turns of phrase and is incredibly funky.
But album of the year is P J Harvey’s Let England Shake. This is an indescribably beautiful and heart-breaking record. It is also fiercely intelligent and serious. It’s a suite of songs that reflect on how England, a land  Polly Jean loves with a passion, has been shaped by war and conflict. She takes words from world war one veterans – especially the Dardanelles campaign – and weaves them with brief, episodic reflections on the shape of English character. It is an album as deep as an ocean, at turns desperately sad and wryly funny, played with panache and skill by a tight circle of musicians. It’s been described as her masterpiece, won the Mercury prize and is, quite simply the best record of the year bar none.

Sunday, December 18, 2011

The weakness of black box Christianity

Two cheers for David Cameron. It is a bold politician who speaks of the centrality of the Christian faith in our culture and calls for Christians to be bold advocates of it. I am grateful to him for the debate it has provoked.

His sharpest insight, as far as I was concerned, was this: 'the tolerance that Christianity demands of our society provides greater space for other religious faiths too'. This is an argument that Vinoth Ramachandra makes about the Christian faith in a world of faiths and is well made.

The problem with the speech, though, is a problem that has beset politicians of all hues for a generation. It is the tendency to treat Christianity as a sort of black box of cultural and moral values. It is as if the nation has crash landed in some moral wilderness and rescuers searching for survivors have come across the black box flight recorder that tells us that prior to the crash we were heading one way, according to one compass setting of rules or values, then we suddenly changed course and hit a mountainside.

It is very appealing to a lot of traditional and conservative Christians (with both a small and a big 'C'). But I think Cameron's comments that he was a 'committed' but 'only vaguely practising' Christian and that he was 'full of doubts' about big theological questions betrays the problem here. The Christian faith is not a black box that can be consulted when we need a bit of moral guidance. 

It is first and foremost a call to discipleship, a call to follow Jesus, to embody his way of living in communities of like-minded disciples. Yes, Christian values are good and should be given a hearing in the public square; they speak to the human condition in a way that other systems do not. But to be Christian is follow Christ, to be caught up in the adventure of discovering who we are in him and to embody his revolution in our lives and communities. This is a radical call to remember the poor, to live for justice, to welcome the stranger and signpost the coming of his Kingdom of peace and equity. 

So, let's hope David  Cameron has begun a conversation. Let's join him in it and sees where it leads us.

Saturday, December 10, 2011

Sniffing out influence

I've been chuckling today because I have appeared on the dessert menu or coffee course of a list of influential baptists. You can check it out here at Neil Brighton's blog (I don't appear until the comments kick in!). It's a good list - the dinner one, that is. But I share Paul Lavender's concern and would want to ask a broader question.

What do we mean by influence and where is that influence best felt? To be fair, Neil's post has come out of conversations about where the Baptist family in England (particularly) is going. We face times of austerity like everyone else and have to make choices about the use of resources. We also face declining numbers - not everywhere, but overall. There are also exciting things happening but these tend to be on the margins, in places where the centre of Baptist life isn't really looking. And they tend to be happenings that defy easy definition and corralling into tidy pigeon holes.

As a movement, we have tended to struggle with pioneers. How do we train them, how do we resource them and how do we give them time to explore and find new maps for our mission? Our current list of ministerial competencies doesn't seem to have much space for anything that doesn't look like church as we've done it for the past century. That clearly won't help us chart a way to mission for the current situation we face, let alone the future.

Our current models are all resource intensive - costly buildings, costly ministers, costly initiatives to attract people, costly technical specs for our outreach. Now, I am one of those costs - a minister who gets paid for it in a church that spends a small third world country's debt on our buildings. But I see the writing on the wall for us and all like us and we have got to find better, more organic ways of engaging with people in our communities; a way that puts the Kingdom before the empire (our empire that is).

So I have a feeling that influence is something that is going to emerge at the margins, probably from those margins that we're not paying any attention to. I have a feeling that what emerges that will be influential will, in the first instance, be very difficult to see or understand. The move of the Spirit and the emergence of the Kingdom tend to be somewhat shadowy and hard to pin down at first. They certainly do not lend themselves to easy measurement or categorisation. A bit like Jesus, really.

So, if I was going to name influential baptists, I'd begin with Peter Dominey and Ivan King and church from scratch precisely because it is so difficult to get a handle on what it is and yet it has the reek of authenticity, the aroma of the Kingdom. That'd be a good place to go an sniff.

Sunday, December 04, 2011

Advent and the coming of the Kingdom

We had a great time on Wednesday. All our girls - daughters and grand-daughters - were with us and we went off into London to visit two sites - the Occupy  London Stock Exchange camp at St Paul's and the Christmas market on the South Bank.

I was hugely impressed with the Occupy LSX site. It's well organised, clean and very friendly. We spent some time at the tent university, chatting about the revised general assembly's economics working statement with a couple of the people who hold things together there.

I was invited to come and do a session on New Testament economics, something I hope to do in the New Year. There was an openness to fresh thinking and debate about ideas that was really refreshing. Here is a group of people looking for a new world. I was reminded of the context into which Jesus came - a world of injustice, dominated by a powerful one per cent, a world at war, a world where the poor are disenfranchised and struggle to make ends meet (sound familiar?).

It seems to me that during Advent we should be asking questions about where our world is going and how it is going to be renewed. Some have pitted the Occupy LSX group with the church on whose doorstep it is camped. But this is a huge mistake.

As I chatted with occupiers, I was reminded of the encounter Jesus had with a teacher of the Law about what really mattered (which is the greatest commandment). The encounter ends with Jesus saying to the man that he's not far from the Kingdom of God (Mark 12:28-34).

What strikes me about this conversation is the sense of the Kingdom's porous borders, of the fact that the Kingdom is looking to sweep into its embrace all who are looking for a new world. I am also struck by the fact that Jesus is open to insights from those who are apparently his enemies or at least those who are challenging his right to interpret the way things are. The teacher of the Law says that love of neighbour is more important than religious rectitude and Jesus says 'you're not far from the Kingdom.' I suspect he would say the same thing to the mixed and energetic group camped around the steps of St Paul's.

At advent we listen for the voice of the Kingdom - wherever it comes from.