New ground rules for this series: I won’t promise when the next edition will be because, honestly, I haven’t a clue when that would happen! They say adversity builds character, and if that’s the case, I’m Mickey Mouse by now… But nonetheless, this train won’t stop t’il we reach the end of the line, so what’s say we jump right in to Part Four, shall we?
20. Tonio K – Notes From The Lost Civilization (1988) Ladies and gentlemen, Mr. Steven Krikorian, also known as Tonio K. I know what you’re thinking – anyone who has heard Life In The Foodchain knows this guy has smarts, lyrical chops and a wicked sense of humor. How he transitioned into the CCM world is a mystery only to those who still hold to the theory that CCM had no merit.
Problematically, a lot of the CCM magistrates also held to that theory. His first for What? Records, which was distributed to the separate markets by A&M and Word Records, was Romeo Unchained, in itself a pretty fantastic recording. I’ve chosen the follow-up Notes From The Lost Civilization for this list on a purely personal basis – I listen to it more. In regard to quality, the two albums stack up well against each other.
Here’s something else to consider. Anyone picking up these two records, having only known Tonio K’s work prior to his shift toward his faith, wouldn’t have batted an eye. He has always sang about human absurdity, a world on a short fuse, and the power of love. The language wouldn’t have been as pointed, but here was an artist that proved you didn’t have to resort to musical muck to represent a change in beliefs.
Even so, he had to deal with controversy on Notes From The Lost Civilization, specifically on the track, “What Women Want.” The verse goes, “I know what these women want – they want sex, yeah that’s true… but..” This, my friends, is where the steel door got shut. Three little letters which are inextricably part of the human narrative, but too scary for the cloistered or so Word thought. The song didn’t get into the copies at the Christian bookstore; only the ones that went to the secular market. Had someone bothered to listen to the rest of the song, they would have heard “They want love, love, love” and the opinion that this is all that anyone wants, that above the trappings of this life, be it sex, or money, or stuff, what women really want, and men, and all sentient beings, is to be truly loved.
Too scary. You’ll have to cut that song, Mr. K. His follow-up, Ole, didn’t get out until many years later as an independent release, and we’ve heard little from him in a quantitative way. Why it had to be this way, God only knows. How can a talent this big just disappear?
19. Undercover – Balance of Power (1990) One of the most difficult genres the CCM tried to pull off, and most often failed with, was hard rock. It requires an attitude that often runs against what “good Christian folks” are supposed to be projecting. It expects a devil-may-care recklessness that smashes guitars, hotel rooms, half-dies with needles of heroin still stuck in the vein, and doesn’t care what you think about it. Just being loud and angry doesn’t exactly cut it.
Undercover was the first Christian punk band. Their albums God Rules and Boys And Girls Renounce The World already ruffled feathers for being a little too loud, a little too strident, a little too much, but the fans loved ‘em. By the time they got to their Branded album, they were taking in a more goth vibe, a little slower, moodier, heavier. Keyboard/bassist/lyricist Ojo Taylor was digging deeper into texts, not just Biblical but across many faiths and traditions. Branded is considered a high water mark for the band by many, and I won’t disabuse them of that opinion.
But when Balance of Power arrived, with all the despair, passion, anger and fervor of a ‘real’ hard rock entity, all I could do was pump my fist and raise the volume. Vocalist Sim Wilson attacks these songs with full-throated purpose, barking, crooning, climbing a mountain in each song. The build in the track “Time,” coaxed by Gym Nicholson’s insistently upward chords, illustrates the desperation. “Come little baby, don’t you cry, come little baby, dry your eyes… your daddy’s gonna come down from the skies.” It is not sung like a lullaby, but a life sentence. Time is short and easily squandered, and you are only burning up more of it in your insistence that you’ve nothing to fear.
“I Love You So” is a slow burn, mournful, and erupting into a chorale by the end as drums pound, mixing love, pain and confusion into one sentiment, the same way we usually do in our lives. How is it that romance can make you feel ill? How is it that we should feel such sadness when involved with our partner? And what of betrayal?
I played the track “The Eyes of Love” for someone who had never heard Undercover before. This person, while fully aware he hadn’t heard this, recognized the authenticity of it though, that it wasn’t some genre-knockoff or pacified pseudo-rock group with an agenda. It was, in part, one of the reasons why this column began, because he was all aboard the Undercover train while listening, but jumped off for dear life when he found out, gasp, they were Christians. Come on, folks. It’s too late for these silly distinctions. Time is slipping away.
18. Prodigal – Just Like Real Life (1985) The last album from the band Prodigal was as strong and confident as the first. It sounds like the times it came from, with synths more prominent than before, but the band was still just that: a band. It wasn’t that they were just non-denominational, they were a rock band with a worldview of faith, and doubt, and uncertainty.
Songs like “The Big Sleep,” “Future Now,” “Answering Machine” and “Next Big Thing” all searched for meaning in some of our more meaningless pursuits — the desire for fame, stuff, more stuff, and the dehumanization we experience while trying to bear these out. They asked the big questions without battering you around the head with answers because, in many cases, they were looking for answers themselves. The vocals were all spread around with Loyd Boldman (and has there ever been a more frontman-ready name than Boldman?) assuming the mic the most. His frustration on the track “Answering Machine” seeps through and finds commonality with anyone who has felt diminished by the machinery of modernity. “I get no answers, no, I just get busy signals… Can’t seem to make connections in between.” The spirit is willing but nobody wants to pick up on the other end.
Rick Fields and Dave Workman handle vocals too, while Mike Wilson handles the bass. Field and Workman have unique voices that sound perfectly suited to the songs they’re on; “Just Make Up Your Mind” and “Under The Gun” could have been sung by Boldman but they would not have sounded right. Prodigal was a machine itself; a good machine that, when it fired on all cylinders, made music that was not tailored for some, but for everyone, because in a sense it was about everyone too.
For more on the story: I had the great fortune to interview Loyd Boldman a few years ago, and you can read that here. Loyd has had some up-and-down health in the past year, so say a prayer for him, keep a kind thought, and check out the opening track from this album, “Future Now,” in the video below.
17. Mark Heard – Satellite Sky (1992) When people refer to albums, or any example of art, as journeys, I reflexively start to gag. The reason for this is because, most of the time, they’re wrong and they’re trying to affix more meaning and purpose to something that might not deserve it. It is such that, when you are confronted with something that takes you to that emotional well, you’re hard pressed to admit occasionally the tag sticks. Mark Heard’s Satellite Sky is, in fact, a journey.
It is his last studio album and that knowledge has given it a degree of melancholy over time, but that is to forget what remains — a document of humanity struggling to live in a way their physical being seems hell-bent on rejecting. “Knock the scales from my eyes, knock the words from my lungs, I want to cry out, it’s on the tip of my tongue…” is the first chorus on the record. Like “Tip of My Tongue,” we have tales of common struggle like “Freight Train To Nowhere,” “Another Day In Limbo” and “We Know Too Much” and realize that Heard was down here among the listeners, not preaching from the dais, not being anything that he wasn’t, and that commonality was his greatest asset.
He was also the consummate lyricist in this medium. The closing “Treasure of the Broken Land” sings to the promise of grace upon this cracked and graceless place and time. The churning ballad “Orphans of God” is an excellent summation of everything this album is meant to convey, and it all is done so well. Heard has legions of admirers in the music world, some of which wouldn’t dare set foot in a church. It is his commitment to excellence that gets them to make that exception, and the notion that he was never anywhere but eye-level with us. Satellite Sky is a journey, and one worth the time it takes to travel.
For more on the story: It’s impossible to sum up Heard and his music in one post. I tried, and you can find that here…
16. Starflyer 59 – Leave Here A Stranger (2001) SF59 has always been known for throwing their listeners for a loop. This is no exception. Having released thunderous shoegaze rock, synth-perked pop and all stations between, the band dropped Leave Here A Stranger as they always had, and yet it remains one of the most mysterious entries in their discography. It plays like a ’60s pop record that fell through time and landed in the next millennium.
The album is mixed in mono, and the tunes are straight pop, delivered in Jason Martin’s low, sleepy voice, but the disc is filled with hooks, here, there and everywhere. It also seems to chart how a band came to be, rose to some semblance of notoriety and then ended up being trapped there. Opening with “All My Friend Who Play Guitar,” “Can You Play Drums?,” and “When I Learn To Sing,” the narrative arc is one of getting this together, making it happen. Midway through, the ideal becomes less real with “This I Don’t Need” and “I Like Your Photographs,” which has an eerie, marching mood about it and the vaguely threatening tone to the chorus, presumably in the voice of a fan letter written in an almost demanding tone, “I like your photographs… send one.” No please, thank-you or any other courteous language. You are our star now. You better act like it.
The next SF59 album, Old, found them moving toward more of a power-pop and glam groove, making Leave Here A Stranger a sort of anomaly in their career, but as anomalies go, this one is the wrinkle you want to leave in, not iron out.
15. Leslie (Sam) Phillips – The Turning (1987) If I told you I loved Sam Phillips, and Leslie Phillips, don’t get me wrong. How could anyone not? If you were in my shoes in the mid-’80s, you’d understand too. As bad as it was for male artists and bands of that period, it was worse for the female acts. Very often, either by choice or by corporate directive, they maintained a chirpy, submissive demeanor in their music. We have enough hindsight with this to make a determination that, back in that period, Christian Music “gals” had very little opportunity to express big ideas, be assertive, or even just to plain ol’ rock out. I suppose Amy Grant helped shatter that glass ceiling with the Heart In Motion album in 1991, but Phillips paved the way, and in many ways paid for it.
The songs on the album The Turning were slightly psychedelic (“Expectations”), disillusioned (“Down”), sometimes ebullient (“Love Is Not Lost”) and often haunting, as on “Answers Don’t Come Easy.” It marked a major, pardon the pun, turning point for what could be said by an artist in the CCM realm, and a woman no less. Leslie was not submissive, not prone to keeping quiet, not one to swallow the questions she wanted to ask, and the key factor is that it is her voice doing the asking. Nine of the ten songs on the album are written or co-written by her.
For her pioneering spirit, she seemed to be marginalized by her label, so she left. She assumed her nickname “Sam,” embraced the newfound creativity and embarked on a secular career that often had as many ups-and-downs as did the insular CCM world. She had a hit, “Baby, I Can’t Please You,” was a major musical contributor to the TV show Gilmore Girls, and even appeared in the film Die Hard With A Vengeance. These were a long way from the Christian market, but for someone who lives to sing the song they want to sing, and not one a specific culture attaches to you by faith or gender, freedom comes in many forms.
For more on the story: I had the great pleasure of interviewing Sam Phillips, and you can read that here.
14. The Choir – Circle Slide (1990) You can almost hear the conversation right now. The Epic Records liaison sits behind the desk, chomping on a granola bar while flipping through a pile of papers, says, “Epic wants to be in The Choir business.” He looks up and says, “so where are they?”
Steve Hindalong and Derri Daugherty reply, “That’s us, we’re The Choir.”
“Just the two of you?”
“Well no, we also have Dan Michaels on the sax and lyricon. We have two bassists that sort of come in and out, depending on their schedules, Robin Spurs and Tim Chandler.”
“But that’s only four for a choir?,” mumbles the executive.
“It’s all we need, really,” they reply.
“We’ll see about that,” replies the executive, thinking he was getting a huge amount of people for a paltry sum. This four-person thing was no deal at all!
Of course, this is an extreme oversimplification of things. I’ve no doubt that Epic had no influence in the recording of the album, done under the auspices of Word Inc., and that they only facilitated a secular distribution deal. Had they known what was actually there, they might have tried to throw some advertising bucks behind it. Circle Slide reveled in the band’s slightly psychedelic jangle and texture, but also had some of their strongest tracks. The propulsive, almost tribal “Restore My Soul,” the universal “About Love” and “A Sentimental Song” were prime examples of the time. They were the exact types of songs modern rock and college radio were eating up, and had there been someone behind the wheel that was daring enough to give these CCM guys a try, something would have happened.
In a sense, something did. The case of The Choir is a prototype of what happens when new acts get signed to the remnants of the labels. The main pivot point is that the labels want groups with established fan bases that are going to buy on day one, no matter how green said band might be. If you can’t bring heads with you, you’re not really welcome. You’re more liable to see an older band get shifted from one company to another, and another, and another than to see a company try to cultivate a new name. It isn’t about the music, but the bodies that the music drag in through the door.
I’m not certain, but I think my hunch is correct. It isn’t a matter of lack of musical quality that did in The Choir with Epic, but probably that Epic wasn’t really in the Choir business after all.
For more on the story: One of the first things I wrote for Popdose, way back in 2008, was an appreciation of The Choir. You can check that out here.
13. Bill Mallonee and Vigilantes of Love – Audible Sigh (2000) “It’s not what you know, it’s who you know” is a philosophy that only gets so much traction before it stops moving. Case in point: the recent Robert Plant album, Band of Joy of which I will take away none of its accolades, was a roots-informed album that stirred the soul, and was co-produced by Buddy Miller. VOL’s Audible Sigh, from 2000, was a roots-informed album that stirred the soul, and was co-produced by Buddy Miller. There you go.
The album kicks in with the tight “Now As The Train Pulls Away,” and continues the thread later in with “Nothing Like A Train,” both alluding to Mallonee’s life as the itinerant musician trying to make it. He’s still at it to this day, but times have not been easy for any of us. Last year, he announced he was selling some of his guitars just to get by, and the thought of it was painfully striking. He sings on the latter, “My God, where do these days go?” as he sings his songs, long distance, for his children who keep on growing without him.
Mallonee is one of a long line of troubadours. His rock makes the tin roof shake, his balladry makes the eyes water, and in between these two, his words always come from the heart of the man, even at its rawest, right from the gut-bucket. He’s not afraid of reporting the storms ahead, even though it makes others uncomfortable, brings on the charges of being negative, perhaps. Sometimes you have to be negative if that is the truth set on your table. Sometimes the glass is really half-empty, or broken, or there is no glass at all. When he sings, “Some will shake off the sloth of faithlessness, while others simply languish in their sleep — me, I just fight to stay awake, I’ve always had this black cloud over me,” it is the voice of a man clinging to his beliefs even when they don’t seem to be reciprocating. I’m doing what I can, but it is so hard sometimes. Please understand that occasionally the truth doesn’t arrive in pink crepe paper wrapped with ribbons. Sometimes it is in a repurposed cardboard box tied with twine, addressed to the wrong person.
12. Steve Taylor – I Predict 1990 (1987) The most frustrating thing Christian artists had to face was their poetic restrictions. They weren’t allowed to use sarcasm, or to present an argument from the other side to peer through those holes of absurdity. They weren’t allowed to provoke the listener with a message by utilizing an anti-message and, for heaven’s sake, they were never allowed to turn worldly iconography on its ear. With all that in tow, Steve Taylor’s I Predict 1990 was doomed.
The cover, a variation of a tarot card, was in itself a visual pun, a commentary that prediction is futile, but human trends sadly make things more common through probability. “What Is The Measure Of Your Success” is not about selling out to live. “Since I Gave Up Hope I Feel A Lot Better” is about the teaching of fatalism, not the reveling in it. And please, for the children, won’t somebody listen to the lyrics of “I Blew Up The Clinic Real Good”? It is not an advocacy for anti-abortion violence.
Let’s drill down into that one a bit, shall we? First off, the song is sung in the voice of an ice cream man who believes he’s protecting the future of babies that may be aborted. His aims is strictly financial – “I don’t care if it’s a baby or a tissue blob, but if we run out of youngsters, I’ll be out of a job!” Under the guise of being a protector, he assumes the mantle of vigilante and terrorist, but is called out on it. “Preacher on the corner, calling it a crime, says the ends don’t justify the means anytime!”
But in typical reactionary, lunk-headed fashion, the bomber’s response is, “I stood up on my van, I yelled, excuse me sir, ain’t nothin’ wrong with this world a few plastic explosives won’t cure!” If the satire of the song is lost on the listener, I’m sorry, but that’s the fault of the listener, not the material. It didn’t really matter. This was Taylor’s first, and last, for Word Inc. Taylor was considered a hot property then, but too hot to retain for long.
Let it not be said that the disc is straight up reactionary. There are still the rocking “Jim Morrison’s Grave,” the thought-provoking short story of “Innocence Lost” and the gorgeous “Harder To Believe Than Not To,” which implores that the difficult road is also worth the trials.
Fun Fact: Comedian Fred Travelena guests on the track, “Jung And The Restless” as the Doctor. Also, on “Since I Gave Up Hope…” you have fiddle-master Papa John Creach laying a smackdown toward the end.
11. L.S.U. – Shaded Pain (1987) Of all the things that Michael Knott and his various musical outlets have done through the years, I don’t think any could surpass 1987′s Shaded Pain. There’s no doubt that he’s tried, and in cases come close, but in terms of plain old raw emotion, this album stands as a pinnacle of what can be accomplished in the medium.
The thing kicks off with “Jordan River,” which is actually one of the poppier tunes on the album. The seeds of this are found on the previous Lifesavers disc, Kiss of Life, which was completely a pop album aside from one track: “Free Her.” It was dire and haunted, and in contrast to the rest of the album stood out like a sore thumb, but clearly that was the frame of mind Knott was heading toward. “Jordan River” is audibly a cousin, if not in tempo then in mood.
Then there are tracks that are just bone-chilling, like the dire, gothic “Bye Bye Colour” wherein Knott sings, “The old man kept knocking, knocking, and when she let him come in, she surely died.” The more punky, rambunctious “Die Baby Die” reads, “You have been forgiven of all your tyrant ways, now you must be livin’ for the price has been paid, die, baby die.” I will sympathize with any youth pastor that has to justify why parents should let their kids indulge in what sounds so dark. I’ve no doubt they wouldn’t take the time to actually dissect what’s being said, which is a call to die to former ways of being, to not be tempted by the old self, or old man, to actually move forward and not backward to those ancient traps.
It also is problematic that the record rocks like nobody’s business. The psychotic breakdown of “Plague of Flies,” running headlong into “More To Life” which dares to insinuate that some in ministry are as selfish as any other, sounds angry, terrifying, challenging. In short, it sounds like rock ‘n roll. The disc closes with the tender, sad balled “Shaded Pain” with Knott and a piano bathed in a reverb-soaked room, sounding as lost as the lyrics intend. “What about the human, the human I’m inside? How can we be forgiven if we don’t live our lives?’
The album was seen as a rough patch in its original reception, nowhere near Kiss of Life‘s can-do sunniness, and yet it has received cult status since. Those who have heard it have been marked by it, and those who haven’t, while that may mean many, just wouldn’t understand.
When next we meet, whenever that shall be, it’s game on!