I gave my music-savant friend Ryan a challenge the other day, and that in turn led him to a post on fandom. The circle must be unbroken, so these are some musings on his musings inspired by my question. (We have Dramamine available in the lobby.)
The (Not So) Sure Thing
Back before anyone knew who John Cusack and Nicolette Sheridan were, they made a movie called The Sure Thing (how could that possibly be thirty years ago!). In it, Sheridan played the title character (and that title is how she’s credited) who was the object of desire of every boy in school for obvious reasons. Cusack sets off cross-country to get to her, and manages to get shackled with a “cute” girl who needs a ride. It’s a romantic comedy in the vein of It Happened One Night, so the outcome is predictable (and not nearly as much fun as the Grant/Lombard classic). “There”, of course, is that The Sure Thing isn’t all she’s cracked up to be, but it takes a while even after he gets to her for Cusack to figure that out.
That’s our first category — the artist we thought was our Sure Thing, but turned out to be the Why Am I Here? thing. For me, this is probably Third Day. They came on the scene at the same time as a band called “Three Crosses,” and I remember loaning both CD’s to a friend and her preferring the latter, saying about Third Day’s eponymous CD, “all the songs sounded the same.” I thought she was crazy, but it turned out we were both wrong. (Her about Three Cross, me about Third Day.)
When their second album, Conspiracy No. 5, came out, I wore out the CD. I still love that album, in spite of it’s overuse of the heavy whisper at the beginning of what seems like every song on it. It’s an album that begs to be listened to with the amp at 11, and every song is solid gold. It is a true album, not just a collection of songs.
When their next project, Time, hit, it seemed they could do no wrong, and would be Christian music’s first rock(?) super group. And then Offerings sold a bajillion copies, and it was confirmed. With four strong albums behind them, they fell in the “buy it without listening first” category.
And then the bottom fell out. Come Together was tepid, bland, and generally not very good. Oh well, everyone has a bad week. And then came Offerings II, like most sequels a poorly conceived and poorly executed attempt to re-bottle lightning. And then, Bland II, followed by Bland III, and, you guessed it… I’ve been told that their latest is pretty good, but after twice as many not very good albums as they had good ones, I’ve found that I no longer care.
(Honerable mention goes to Elton John, who had a great western concept album, a great album named from one of the songs on the western, two good but not great albums, a spectacular double album that made him a household name, a decent album with a nonsensical song that I can still recite most of the words to, and then twenty-something more albums that no one’s ever heard of, or heard.)
The Ugly Duckling
The number of instances of the plain girl turning into a beauty are too numerous to mention, but I’ll mention Sabrina anyway since they liked it so much they made it twice. This is the artist that doesn’t sound like much to begin with, but it turns out they’re really, really good.
I could put this artist in either this section or the next one, but I have a better choice for the next one, so she goes here. Twenty years ago I stood in a Joshua’s (look them up) and listened to an album from an artist I’d never heard of. I loved the music — great guitar and drum-heavy rock-and-roll, which was as an anomaly in so-called “Christian” music (I hate that term) at the time — but was unsettled by the lyrics. They seemed a little too … worldly. I was too young (or too immature) to understand nuance and honesty, so I put the (demo!) CD back on the shelf and went on my way.
A few months later we were at a Rich Mullins concert, and this woman came out on the stage and almost literally blew the doors off the place with just her acoustic guitar and her voice. She told a story about a man who had written her a scathing letter about the album I listened to, and although I didn’t write it, I could have. She was fantastic, and somehow hearing her live opened my eyes to what I had missed months earlier. (It was the only time I ever left a Rich concert talking about anyone but Rich.) I went out that week and bought Bus Named Desire, searched out a then (and now) out-of-print Big Town from an exchange service (long before eBay), and have never looked back.
I’ve written elsewhere about Ashley Cleveland’s first album
, and I could write volumes about the rest of them. She is the real deal — real rock-and-roll, real gut-wrenching honesty in her lyrics, real guitar-savant husband, and real nuclear power in that voice. I would pay U2 prices to hear her and her husband and the rest of the band live.
I’ve Always Loved You
Childhood sweethearts are another Hollywood staple. I refuse to mention that horrid Reese Witherspoon movie with the Skynyrd title, so let’s go with 13 Going on 30, which, come to think of it, could also have been used for the last section. These are the artists you love from the beginning and stick with through thick and thin.
I heard about Flood before I actually heard it, and it wasn’t even the first song I heard off the album. We were at a friends house, and I walked into their teenage daughter’s room to say hi (she was entertaining my almost teenage daughter). Liquid was in full-chant and I was instantly in love (with the CD, to be clear). I think I stayed for two or three more songs before I finally left, assuredly to two pairs of rolled eyes at my back.
There was an unworldly quality to Jars of Clay’s first album — it was rock and it wasn’t, it was alternative and it wasn’t, it was acoustic and it wasn’t. It defied characterization, which perhaps made it all the better. When the follow-up Much Afraid came out, there was a lot of grumbling because it didn’t sound the same. I loved it. It was different, but Haseltine’s voice was still as clear and unusual, and if anything it rocked a bit more than Jars.
They managed to re-invent themselves on every subsequent album, which is perhaps the most difficult feat in music. They reached their zenith came with Who We Are Instead, a return to the acoustic roots of their first album, but still unlike any Jars album that had gone before. Ten great songs and three spectacular ones, two of which, perhaps not coincidentally, were backed by Ashley Cleveland.
They are a desert island band — I never get tired of hearing their music. Most artists not named Ashley I can only take four or five songs in a row of; I can listen to Jars’ entire catalog in one sitting. Their last two albums have not quite risen to the heights of Jars or WWAI, but they’re still really good, and Inland might be even better than that. (I’ve only had time to listen to it a couple of times through.)
That’s our music, and movie, tour for the day. If Ryan writes a response to my response to his inspiration to my challenge, I’m going to have to get off the merry-go-round.