Justin Branam – Words Worth Mentioning (2006)
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It’s February 1996, and I’ve got the hots for this girl who happens to be a big Jars of Clay fan. As it happened, the Jars were passing through our area that month, I swung tickets for us, and that’s how I ended up in the audience for what was to become the strangest concert experience of my entire life. (Note: This includes seeing Jackyl open for Damn Yankees.)
Everything seemed okay at first. I wasn’t overly excited about the show, but my only real experience with contemporary Christian music to that point had been my mother’s Amy Grant cassettes, so I was actually sort of impressed with the fact that Jars of Clay tended to make songs ambiguous enough to leave room for personal, non-hallelujah interpretation. I was willing to keep an open mind.
And then the show started.
The opening act was innocuous enough that I can’t remember the band’s name anymore, but here’s what I do remember: Toward the end of the set, during the breakdown in a song, the lead singer started some kind of chant in the audience by shouting “Let’s show the world that Christians can rock too!” It was only a mixture of shock, disbelief, and the sweater my date was wearing that kept me in my seat.
But after the opening act left the stage and the intermission started, I knew I was not long for this concert. A big screen went up, some sad music started to play, and a bespectacled douchebag said “Hi, I’m Michael W. Smith.”
But wait, there’s more.
The sad music I mentioned before? It was playing behind scenes of unhappy, clearly impoverished children — the sort of footage you used to see on Sally Struthers’ commercials for whatever pennies-a-day charity she worked for. But these kids weren’t starving, or if they were, that wasn’t Michael W. Smith’s main concern. What Mike was worked up about was the fact that every so often — I don’t remember the exact interval, but let’s call it eight seconds, just for fun — a child is born into a non-Christian home.
Long story short, I did not see Jars of Clay perform that night, nor have I ever listened to a note of any of their subsequent albums, which is why I got a little queasy when I read that Justin Branam’s Words Worth Mentioning features members of that band, and was produced by a member of Caedmon’s Call.
I’m happy to report that nowhere in this album does Branam attempt to explicitly convince the listener that Christians are capable of rocking, nor does he sing about the global surplus of heathen babies. Mostly what he does is sing, rather gently, about love, which may not sound very interesting (and in fact often isn’t) but is altogether preferable to the alternative.
All joking aside, it’s really pretty nice. Think of Branam as sort of like John Mayer with a crucifix half-hidden in the front pocket of his jeans — not that they’re all that similar musically or lyrically, but they both exude the same sort of artfully rumpled Abercrombie-soul vibe, and they both have a way with an unassuming, instantly memorable hook. Words Worth Mentioning goes down exceedingly easy; it’s solidly crafted, tightly arranged, and long on the shaggy, bashful charm that drives the girls wild.
Where Branam falls down is on the lyrical front. Though he earns major points for keeping things low-key and refraining from the tired soul-burning theatrics that tend to typify even the mellowest CCM, on future outings, he’d do well to dig a little deeper; the record is shot through with lines like “The clock on the wall tells more than time/It lets off a warning with a chime” and “I wish that you could see through my eyes/Maybe then you’d soon realize.” It’s nothing that will even register on probably 80% of his target audience, but he’s surely capable of more, especially if tunes like “I Am Dear to You” (download) and “Canvas” (download) are any indication. Call it a quietly auspicious beginning.