Sunday, September 14, 2008

What It Doesn't Take

Critics are like eunuchs in a harem; they know how it's done, they've seen it done every day, but they're unable to do it themselves. -Brendan Behan

As a long time Christian, I have sat through many a "concert" designed to build the self esteem of someone in the church. It is important for us to encourage and support our young people at church. ("Young people" is a much broader term now than it used to be.) However, most such concerts and performances leave you thanking God, either that it is over, or that Tylenol can be bought in bulk at Sam's. But you do it because it is the right thing to do.

With that in mind, and after much ado, I purchased the new CD on iTunes from Act of Congress entitled Declaration. Of course, being the great church member that I am, I did so as a sign of support for one of our own, Adam Wright. I've heard Adam sing at church with Stokes and Connie, and seen him lead us in worship while Stoke has been gone. All-in-all, he's got a good voice and a great attitude. So, I thought, what's ten bucks to show the guy some love?

All I can say is, wow, was I wrong. Ten bucks doesn't begin to reward the talent shown by these musicians and vocalists.

As a church, we are blessed with so much musical talent, which starts with Stokes and Connie. And I knew Adam was good, but before this album, I never fully realized the depth of his talent. As a church, we are fortunate to have him with us.

Now, admittedly, I have an affinity for the more philosophical music of Bob Dylan, Roger Waters, John Lennon, Bono and (more recently) Derek Webb, and the pop music of groups like the Eagles, Rolling Stones, and the song writing of artists like Dylan, Kris Kristofferson, Neil Young and Sam Cooke. But if this first album is any indication, that list appears to have grown by one: Adam Wright.

While not perfect, the freshman CD from Act of Congress is better, deeper, and more aesthetically pleasing than 98% of the drivel that passes for music from many more accomplished and acclaimed bands and song writers.

The band as a whole performs the harmonies and melodies on the album with a tightness that showcase their vocal and instrumental talents. The band, an ostensibly acoustical blue grass / rock sound, is at its best when it sticks to its distinctive sound and stays away from the over produced sounds of "Not Crazy" and "In the Middle (Remix)". These songs are catchy, and likable, but the style and sound is overdone by every upstart band that wants to sound "big time." The rest of the album proves AOC can sound "big time" without changing their musical sound so dramatically. These folks are truly talented.

But what really sets this album apart is the song writing talent of Adam Wright. Adam's lyrical and musical writing reveal a musical maturity and Christian doctrinal understanding well beyond his young years. Adam brings a distinctly Christian message without being preachy, and without targeting the WDJC "God squad" audience base.

This is a young man going places. Like the true artist he is, Adam has the ability to paint deep doctrinal truths in pithy lyrics.

Starting with "In the Middle", Adam sets the stage for much of the rest of the album. In it, Adam conveys the idea that when we take an honest look at our own hearts, we really are unlovable .. at least in our own minds. And letting someone in, even Christ, leaves us vulnerable. "What kind of person do you see / when peeking into this heart that is brutally / Beaten down with failures, taunts and insecurities / I'm cynical it seems these days. .. Hearts of stone will never get it / Love will find us if we let it .."

It is the human condition to search for ultimate meaning while pursuing the mundane things of life, or, as Adam says, "I just want peace of mind / and coffee with my cream." (A line, I am sure, that will make Starbucks happy and is somewhat reminiscent of the way Mrs. 4theluv drinks her morning java.)

In "Love Comes for Free," Adam throws you back to the simple sounds of 60s folk music while retaining a distinctly Christian and gospel oriented message. Without a doubt, everyone knows both the "Used car salesman who works around the clock / Selling lies and cashing checks of the people on the block" and the "Wealthy preacher who knows just what to say / and if you give him cash and coin he'll help you find your way". Their "crooked grins" and "hearts of stone" belie their selfish motives. Adam juxtaposes this greed with the selflessness of the man named Jesus "who loved until he died / And after doing nothing wrong took a bullet for his bride."

Ultimately, Adam accurately points out that love is not the response to what others can give you, rather, selfless giving is the response to those you love.

By far, though, the showpiece of Adam's clearly God-given talent is his song "The Well." It is the song of Christ, lovingly calling us to himself. However, it does not typecast Christ in the role of sickeningly sweet but ultimately impotent beggar just hoping we will come to him to solve our problems and make life rosy, but rather as a Parent/Savior to walk with us through the terrors of this world, warning us of its dangers but loving us in our sin. Sung as a ballad, the song tells the story of the fall in the garden, and Christ's redemptive call to his people.

Its richness is evidenced throughout. Consider these words: "I've loved you as long as I've known you / and I've known you as only my own / But you traded my love for watered down wine / And a burden to sleep with alone." Those phrases are so tightly packed with truths that when you contemplate exactly what is being said, you understand the self-imposed isolation of your own sin -- and you can't help but cringe at the truthfulness and isolation it causes.

But Adam doesn't let you off the hook, as he proves he has mastered the one-two punch. He follows those lines, in haunting a cappella, with, "Do not be afraid, your fragile and trembling hand is no burden to hold / For your sins as red as a sea of scarlet, I'll wash 'em whiter than snow." The mental image of holding the hand of my own children as they were scared, crying, and alone, for me was no burden, and for them, a lifeline of safety and comfort. How Adam, a young married man with no children of his own yet, can capture such imagery is beyond me.

From there, Adam moves right into "The Nature of Things." At first blush, the song is about seeking forgiveness for harsh words to his wife, but Adam adeptly understands and conveys that our broken relationships are due to our fallen nature, and they can't be fixed by firm resolve to do better. "Pride has scarred these lips ever since they touched that damned fruit on the tree / and blinded me / Wrong is how my life began / and right is something I have never been".

But once again, Adam does not simply spell out the problem, but leads the listener to the solution, a cry to Christ: "You're telling me that this is normal now / You're silencing fear with your voice in my ear / How can dead men live again? Save me I am yours."

AOC finishes the album with "I Disagree." Though not explicitly Christian, it is a tribute to the value of relationships that are built solely on love. Harkening back to the isolation themes of "In the Middle" and "The Well," Adam writes of longing to let someone in, and the comfort that comes with that action. "Love is something I believe in / 'Cause it makes lonely disappear" is a great statement of what true love does for us.

Now all the accolades on Adam Wright might lead one to believe that the writing of Chris Griffin on the album is somehow deficient. This would not be the case. "Not Crazy" and "When We're Through" are in the pop mindset, and their genre a bit out of step with the rest of the album, but the songs are memorable, well written, well sung, entertaining and fun to sing. Further, "When We're Through" accentuates the bands harmonies and musical abilities, and from a purely audience delight standard, has the "pop" that makes it one of the best songs on the album.

All is not serious on the album. AOC does prove their lighter side with "Five Minutes of Fame", a light hearted look at the popular phenomenon of "American Idol" type shows.

Self-indulgent? Yes.

Fun to listen to? Absolutely.

As I said, these people are talented. The only thing that would have made this album any better would have been to end it with AOC covering Dylan's "I Believe in You" or "You Ain't Goin' Nowhere." They would rock those songs.

Paul said, "Just as each of us has one body with many members, and these members do not all have the same function, so in Christ we who are many form one body, and each member belongs to all the others. We have different gifts, according to the grace given us." Rom. 12:4-6.

In many ways, AOC has pulled off the improbable: blending good music with a good message as freshman band mates. They are nearly everything I am not: talented, smart, and gifted. They are a part of the body I wish I was. And, in the end, AOC took my feeble nod of support and countered it with great music, with a great message.

Take my recommendation (for what its worth): this album is worth owning, and even more than that, worth listening to on a regular basis. It is in now on one of my regular playlists.

Its an easy album to like. And $9.99 on iTunes is all it takes to own such a great album.

But what it doesn't take to like this album is an Act of Congress. And for that, you can thank Adam.


P.S. - Adam, the "good, bad and gross things" is just a little too pithy.