Wednesday, December 27, 2006

Vermonster Will Enjoy This . . .

Describe yourself using one band and song titles from that band
Choose a band/artist and answer only in song TITLES by that band::Carolyn Arends
Are you male or female::You Make Me Feel (Like a Natural Woman) (WBWFY)
Describe yourself::Happy (TMIU)
How do some people feel about you::It's Out of My Hands (T)
How do you feel about yourself::Even the Wallflowers (TMIU)
Describe your ex-boyfriend::Just Pretending (PA)
Describe your current love::Good Thing Going (FF)
Describe where you want to be::(I Wanna) Go Somewhere With You (T)
Describe what you want to be::Getting Ready for Glory (UTG)
Describe how you live::Seize the Day (ICHY)
Describe how you love::They Will Know We Are Christians (By Our Love) (STDAOS)
Share a few words of wisdom:Dance Like No One's Watching (T)
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Wednesday, November 22, 2006

One-Syllable Words

To listen to us talk you'd think
Twenty-dollar words are cheap
But answers can't be bought for any tender

Constantly we complicate
Pointlessly pontificate
'Til things are getting worse instead of better

Look at how far we've come
Maybe we could learn some

One-syllable words
Faith, hope, and love
Truth, peace, and trust
One-syllable words
That's what we need
That's what we need
(Carolyn Arends, "One-Syllable Words," from This Much I Understand, Reunion Records 1999)

It's really quite fun to come across a Carolyn Arends inspiration in my day-to-day reading. Finding the ideas behind my favorite song, "Do We Dare?" in Madeleine L'Engle's book, Walking on Water: Reflections on Faith and Art was a delightful surprise. Of course, recognizing the influence of C.S. Lewis on such songs as "Surprised By Joy" and "Not a Tame Lion" is rather a no-brainer, but it still brings that smile of a shared reference to the lips of the listener.

Now, I cannot say with certainty that one of my husband's all-time favorite Carolyn Arends songs, "One-Syllable Words," was definitely inspired by G.K. Chesterton, but I do believe that she was most likely reading or re-reading Orthodoxy sometime in the late 1990's. In Chapter VIII, "The Romance of Orthodoxy," when reading his assertion that what is considered the bustle and strenuousness of the modern age is really a profound laziness and fatigue that disguises as busy-ness a dearth of real activity and productivity (1908 sounds -- in this regard and in many others discussed throughout Orthodoxy -- quite a bit like 2006) I found these surprisingly familiar ideas:

And this which is true of the apparent physical bustle is true also of the apparent bustle of the intellect. Most of the machinery of modern language is labour-saving machinery; and it saves mental labour very much more than it ought. Scientific phrases are used like scientific wheels and piston-rods to make swifter and smoother yet the path of the comfortable. Long words go rattling by us like long railway trains. We know they are carrying thousands who are too tired or too indolent to walk and think for themselves. It is good exercise to try for once in a way to express any opinion one holds in words of one syllable. . . . The long words are not the hard words, it is the short words that are hard. There is much more metaphysical subtlety in the word "damn" than in the word "degeneration." (Image Books Edition, 2001; p. 129-130) (Emphasis mine)

I'll never forget Jason's reaction when he first heard, "One-Syllable Words." He was at UCLA at the time, and he was taking a particularly annoying English course. He heard Carolyn sing, "Psycho-babble, legal-ese/People earning Ph.D.s in/Post-modern paranoid confusion/Self-indulgent rhetoric/Talk and talk until we're sick/Our arguments end with no conclusion/Can't we make the point clear/Maybe what we need here/Are one-syllable words . . ." I think a lot of his frustration with certain classes and professors at school came into clear focus then. My husband is a plain-spoken man. His degree is in Economics. He hates verbal gobblety-gook. That was the day, I think, that he really gave Carolyn a chance and stopped laughing at the "lie-dee-die-dee-dies" in "Seize the Day." And as I type the lyrics out, I am again astounded and humbled by Carolyn's magnificent wordplay. She is indeed a master craftsman of words, whether multi-syllabic or not.

This is almost entirely unrelated, but "One-Syllable Words" always reminds me of an incident in the Amy Grant video, Building the House of Love. One of her smarmy producers is complimenting her excessively after a recording take, while at the same time trying to weasel in that he needed another take with a few changes made. Amy Grant kind of cut through his crap when she sighed and said, "Just tell me what you want me to sing." I always liked that moment of non-diva-ness from Ms. Grant. "Just tell me what you want me to sing." Just say what you want to say. Let's get it out there and not dance around in an elaborate deception of trying to manipulate with words.

I think the ending of Carolyn's song is the best philosophy of living ever written. And it is all in one-syllable words:

Faith and hope and love
Truth and peace and trust
Dream and play and watch and pray
Learn and live and laugh and give
Reach and fly and seek and try
With all your heart and soul and mind
Oh yeah.

Monday, November 06, 2006

Christmas: An Irrational Season

Christmas: An Irrational Season by Carolyn Arends, 2004

2004 was a stellar year to be a Carolyn Arends fan. Not only did we get an all-new-material regular album, Under the Gaze, we also got the long-awaited, eagerly-anticipated Christmas release, Christmas: An Irrational Season. Sometimes, when you wait a long time for something and it finally comes, your expectations have overwhelmed the possibilities of the awaited thing, and bitter disappointment ensues. Well, I am happy to report that this album bucks that trend. Christmas: An Irrational Season is a glorious tribute, as only Carolyn Arends could create, to that miraculous moment when eternity crashed headlong into time and produced such an awe-inspiring symphonic note that it has reverberated for more than two thousand years through the minds and souls of men. How fortunate we are that Carolyn does not hide her light under a bushel!

For the past ten years, Carolyn's church has asked her to write a song for their Christmas service. As Carolyn wryly notes, this sounded like a great idea the first couple of years. But if Carolyn's tongue-in-cheek observation speaks of a weariness of culling the ancient story for new inspiration, you would never know it by listening to the original songs she includes on this album. The album's unusual title was taken from a Madeleine L'Engle poem, "After Anunciation," and both the prelude and postlude tracks echo its beautiful refrain: This is the irrational season/When love blooms bright and wild/For if Mary had been filled with reason/There'd have been no room for the Child/There'd have been no room for the Child. Carolyn's sotto voice suits so well this poem turned lyric, and Spencer Capier comes in with a haunting violin solo of "What Child is This." And the mood is set for a truly unique Christmas experience.

The first of the original offerings follows the prelude. "Come and See" (Christmas 2003) is a spirited song that conveys the excitement of shepherds who have been heralded by angels and are now abuzz -- passing the glorious news onto friends and family as they make their way to the stable: Have you heard, have you heard/All the rumors are true/Spread the word, spread the word/This is such good news/The dream is not a dream anymore/Nothing is the same as before/Come and see, come and see/He is lying in the straw/He's a new baby boy who's the hope of us all/Come and hear, come and hear/It's a sound both sweet and strange/It's the great love of God in the cry of babe/It's the great love of God in the cry of a babe.

Next in line is another original, "Do Not Be Afraid" (Christmas 1995). While reminding the listener of the exhortation every angel who appears to man begins with -- Do not be afraid! -- Carolyn ties that idea into our modern celebration of the Incarnation: Half believing, half afraid/We celebrate the story/Our lives seem about a world away/From angels and their glory/Open our eyes to see what Mary saw somehow/Open our hearts to hear those angels even now/They're singing: Do not be afraid/Oh do not be afraid/Love has found its way to you/So do not be afraid.

Next comes the first cover of a classic on the album, "Angels We Have Heard on High." This rollicking rendition is the best I've ever heard of this song -- lots of jamming drums and guitars. It's always fun when Carolyn jumps into rock star mode and goes crazy. Sweet.

The next track is another cover, this time of a more modern song, "Christmas Must Be Tonight," by Robbie Robertson. This is probably my least favorite track on the album. Carolyn's smooth soft voice seems suited to this subdued, folksy carol, but I find the lyrics particularly unlikable. First of all, I have very little patience with songs that pretend that Jesus was born in the winter. Yes, I know that we celebrate His birth in the winter (or the summer in Australia and other lands south of the Equator), but most Biblical scholars agree that the Birth most likely occured in the spring. I love Christmas carols that have a wintry theme, so long as they do not intimate that the actual Event was in winter. But that is a small quarrel. My great disagreement is with the complete want of sense that the lyrics make when put together in the song. Individual lines may be good, but they are very disjointed when put next to each other. What do you think? Saw it with my own eyes/Written up in the sky/But why a lowly herdsman such as I/But then it came to pass/He was born at last/Right below the star that shines on high/How a little baby boy/Could bring the people so much joy/Son of a carpenter/Mary carried the light/This must be Christmas, must be tonight. Yeah, whatever.

The next song on the list, "Is Bethlehem Too Far Away" (Christmas 2002), brings us back to the superior song-writing of Carolyn Arends. A lovely, quiet song, asking whether we can Find our way to the baby King/Can we worship Him now in the hay/And can we believe He can change everything/Or is Bethlehem too far away?

The next track is one of my very favorites, and proof, if proof were needed, that Carolyn has not worn out the theme of Christmas when it comes to songwriting. "Now in Flesh Appearing" (Christmas 2004) never fails to bring tears to my eyes. Fast forward the Christmas Story 2000 years, and you find the stories of those who do not find Bethlehem far away at all. We learn of Joshua, who volunteers at the Union Gospel Mission, sharing soup and conversation with some strangers/And all his friends just can't believe/How he spends his Christmas Eve/He says it brings him closer to the manger. Next, we learn of Lisa who is a missionary abroad, working with orphans, hugging all those kids/Teaching them what Christmas is/And though her family misses her they know/That this is Christmas/A hand upon a shoulder/Christmas/...a little peace on earth/This is Christmas/The sweet love of Jesus/Now in flesh appearing, yeah. This is, I believe I can state with confidence, the only Christmas song in the world to include a rhyming line with "Kazakhstan." My favorite lines from the song: We celebrate the Baby King/And everything He came to bring/Every time we give goodwill to men/So on December 25/Or in the middle of July/Any time we do what pleases Him/Then it's Christmas/Merry Christmas/This is Christmas/Now in flesh appearing ... Amen.

Another tear-jerker follows on the heels of the above. "My First Christmas" (Christmas 2000) is the story of a woman's life, and all of the first Christmases she experiences. She is a baby in 1923, whose parents snap a photo and write on the back, "This is my first Christmas." Next she is a young woman who experiences a holy transformation on Christmas Eve in 1944, her first Christmas as a believer. Lastly, this "November past," she slips into the next world, and though The great-grandchildren miss her so/But if she could she would let them know/This is my first Christmas ... I first heard this song a couple years after I had lost my mother (in November) and this ministered to my hurting heart. I like to think of my mother's 1998 Christmas: First time to hear the angels sing/Glory, hallelujah to the Risen King/And a holy night is what this is/For this is [her] first Christmas.

Next up is that soulful perennial, "Go Tell It On the Mountain." You have not heard anything until you've heard a bunch of white Canadians getting funky on an African-American classic. It works, because they are having a lot of fun, and they are working it. Aw yeah!

The next track is one dear to my heart. Too often, Joseph's role in the Christmas story is diminished. Take, for instance, the modern classic "Breath of Heaven: Mary's Song" written by Amy Grant and Chris Eaton. It is a beautiful song, but it has one annoying line: In a world as cold as stone/Must I walk this path alone? Well, Mary was not alone, the Lord gave her a wonderful husband, a faithful man whose obedience is as important as Mary's in the Story, for if she had not had Joseph to stand by her and protect her, she would have been an outcast indeed. Carolyn's song, "The Lord's Servant" (Christmas 2001), gives the often-overlooked Joseph's part of the story due consideration. We must not forget that he, too, was the Lord's servant. And, with the way she has, Carolyn draws out the Story's relevance for today: It's been 2000 years/And yet you play a part/The Messiah still comes/If there's room in your heart/And if you are willing/Then our God is able/He sent His salvation/Down to a stable/So love can be born/And peace can be yours/If you'll be the Lord's servant/Oh will you be the Lord's servant?

The next song is a cover of a classic Christmas hymn. "Come Thou Long-Expected Jesus," written by Charles Wesley and Rowland H. Prichard, is given the most simple of arrangements by Carolyn, which emphasizes the gorgeous structure of language in the lyrics, the perfect balance of the melody, and Carolyn's own gentle voice. Israel's strength and consolation/Hope of all the earth Thou art/Dear desire of every nation/Joy of ev'ry longing heart. Pure lovliness -- you would want this sung as a solo at midnight service on Christmas Eve.

The last full-length song on the album is also an original Arends tune. "A Christmas Blessing" (Christmas 1999) is Carolyn's benediction to her listeners across the miles and the years. May the One who has come guide you and keep you/May you seek His face as all wise men still do/And may Bethlehem's road rise up to meet you/'Til you find Him and see that God is with you/May you find Him and see that God is with you. Words to ring throughout the Christmas season and in your heart the whole year through.

The delicate yet rich strains that echo out of the strings of Spencer Capier's violin begin the last track in a reprise of "What Child is This," and Carolyn repeats the lines with which she began this amazing album: This is the irrational season/When love blooms bright and wild/For if Mary had been filled with reason/There'd have been no room for the Child/There'd have been no room for the Child. What a journey this recording invites you to join! My no-holds-barred, absolute favorite Christmas album -- there is nothing else like it in all the CD bins at any music store anywhere.

**The bulk of this review appeared in The Musings of Justine, last December.**

Tuesday, October 31, 2006

The Best Cover and Possible Future Covers

Carolyn hasn't done too many covers. The ones that I can think of are as follows:

"Jacob and 2 Women" by Rich Mullins, on Awesome God: A Tribute to Rich Mullins
"River of Love" by T-Bone Burnett, on Travelers
"Love is So Blind" by Mark Heard, on Orphans of God: A Tribute to Mark Heard
"To See Your Face" by Mark Heard, on Pollyanna's Attic
"I've Got a Hope" by Eric Fiedor and Pierce Pettis, on Pollyanna's Attic
"(You Make Me Feel Like A) Natural Woman" by Carole King, on We've Been Waiting For You
"Forever Young" by Bob Dylan, on We've Been Waiting for You
"Christmas Must Be Tonight" by Robbie Robertson, on Christmas: An Irrational Season

I do not think that you could classify some of the songs she has recorded that were written by others as "covers." There are the hymns "They Will Know We Are Christians" and "Leaning on the Everlasting Arms" which would not be called "covers," since they are widely done in churches. The same goes for "Go Tell It On The Mountain" and "Angels We Have Heard on High." "You Bring Me Joy," on Sing Me To Sleep, Mommy, was an original song by another songwriter, but I do not know if it's ever been recorded elsewhere.

Anyway, my vote for the best cover is "Love is So Blind." I just love everything about that song. She sings it so well with so much energy in her voice, and the arrangement is fabulous. I've never heard the original recording by Mark Heard, but it's hard to imagine that it is better than Carolyn's interpretation. It's a cool song. Go and buy it from iTunes -- well worth the 99¢!

As for possible future covers, I'd love to see her do some more interpretations of Rich Mullins's songs, since she was so close to him and probably has a head full of fresh ideas for those beloved songs. I'd especially love to hear her reinvent "Let Mercy Lead" or "Alrightokuhhuhamen." I would also get a kick out of what she might do with any of Keith Green's tunes. Far out!

Thursday, October 26, 2006

Just Pretending -- Take Two

I just re-read my post about "Just Pretending" from Pollyanna's Attic, and I've re-thought or expounded on a couple different things.

The first is that we cannot hide from God. Too often, we think that the outward things are keeping God from seeing our true selves. In this context, the ideas of not being who we are and "just pretending" are pitiful self-delusion.

I try to close my eyes like a child, playing at a game of hide-and-seek
If I cannot see the Lord, then truly Lord, You cannot see me.
--Jennifer Knapp, "Romans"

To this end, "Just Pretending" makes sense. We cannot get our lives right before we come to the Lord. We can only get ourselves honest enough to admit we need Him, and then come to Him with humilty and gratitude. When it comes to our Heavenly Father, we are just prolonging our pain unless we can "just be who we are."

The second thing is that life is indeed a potent concoction of "mess and mystery." I think my quarrel with "Just Pretending" is that so often today, people see the inherent messiness of it all as an excuse to unload their entire self-destructive ethos upon society at large. That is a denial of the Spirit of self-control, and it troubles me greatly. I am pretty certain that Carolyn no more thinks the object of "being real" consists of "vomiting our wretchedness" upon the general public any more than I. I just differ from her in thinking that people today need very little encouragement to "get real" and need far more encouragement to exhibit propriety.

A third thing that comes to mind is the statistics that show that if people in an unhappy marriage are able to grit their teeth and stick with it for five more years, most couples find that their marriage will undergo a transformation into a positive and happy union. In essence, a determination to "just pretend" -- to go through the motions without the feeling behind them -- can be an amazingly beneficial one for the "pretenders" and society as a whole. A more prosaic example is the wrestling that I have every few weeks or so, wherein I have no desire to attend church services. (A heathenistic lifestyle dies hard.) I grit my teeth and "pretend" to like it, and the Holy Spirit never fails to make that charade a reality.

Anyway, those are three things I wanted to add to my post about "Just Pretending." Never have any other writer's songs stuck in my craw the way, for better or worse, that so many of Carolyn Arends's have. What a testament to her songwriting abilities!

Just Pretending

I think that one of the reasons that I wanted to start this fan blog was the song "Just Pretending" from Pollyanna's Attic. For those of you who stumbled unwittingly onto this Carolyn Arends blog, Pollyanna's Attic (PA) was released this past May (on time, too!) and is a collection of songs that Carolyn had held "close to [her] heart but had never recorded." The songs are a little bit darker and "grumpier" than her usual fare, but they are nonetheless masterful expressions of certain ideas that contribute to her Weltanschauung. PA is not one of my favorite albums, but I would be a fool not to see and appreciate the lyrical and musical artistry therein. But, this post is not a review of PA. This post is an argument against the ideas of "Just Pretending."

I was reading an editorial in the Wall Street Journal from September 1, 2006, entitled "Survivor Strategy." This article, about the current season of Survivor's dividing teams along racial lines, was not signed by any particular author, but it was a wise article, indeed. When I read the following sentence, my jaw dropped, because I had never before read someone so succinctly state an idea that had festered in my mind for years: "The therapeutic ethos of recent years has encouraged each of us to get every thought off our chest, lest we suffer from the ordeal of civility." That gave me a jumping off point to articulate why Carolyn's song, "Just Pretending," has really bugged me these past few months.

First of all, the song is brilliant. The lyrics are funny and pointed and very economical. The music is catchy and memorable. She sings it, of course, wonderfully. But, I think, at least in my experience, the point of the song is off-base, off-kilter, misguided. Here are the lyrics:

Just Pretending
Carolyn Arends and Spencer Capier
Nice shirt, and khaki chinos
Dessert and cappuccinos
SUV, he looks good in it
Driving past his credit limit
She's climbing that Stairmaster
Up to Happy Ever After
Though she never seems to get there
She can't stop
No she can't stop
Why do we try so hard?
Life's not some greeting card
Models and movie stars
They're just pretending
They're just pretending
Family full of achievers
Beat the Jones and be the Cleavers
Give the lawn a manicure
No rough edges, that's for sure
Sunday the whole congregation
Doesn't seem to need salvation
Everybody's just terrific
All the time
All the time
Why do we try so hard?
Life's not some greeting card
Models and movie stars
They're just pretending
They're just pretending
Everybody's under pressure
Got to get our acts together
Living out these scripted roles
Tidy and predictable
What if we just all agreed
To wear our hearts on wrinkled sleeves
And live the mess and mystery
Of a real life
Live real life
Why do we try so hard?
Life's not some greeting card
If we're not who we are
We're just pretending
Why do we try so hard?
Life's not some greeting card
Models and all those movie stars
They're just pretending
They're just pretending
© Songs of Peer, LTD./Mr. Marley's Music (ASCAP)/ Spencer Capier Music (SOCAN)

Two different themes of this song are mistaken, I believe. The first is the idea that everyone has this deeper self that they hide from the world in order to conform with society. I think that, for a majority of people, their fancy car, their lovely house, their chisled bodies really are the things that are foremost in their minds -- not masks of conventionality, but faces of such. It is not for everyone to contemplate the mysteries of the universe. Many people are happy in the shallow waters and would drown in the deep. It is easy to forgive Carolyn and Spencer this point, though. They are artists and are, therefore, more likely to think that everyone wrestles with the whys and ways of the world as much as they.

The second idea is that we have this great obligation to "be who we are" to the world at large. I think that this is one of the more selfish notions of recent years -- that everyone we meet must become burdened with the burdens under which we labor. Call me a throwback to Jane Austen's time, but I think that it is uncivilized merely to grouse to strangers and prostrate ourselves weeping in the presence of casual acquaintances. I have always been more sense than sensibility, I suppose. Nobody wanted to smack Marianne Dashwood more than I throughout that whole novel.

I need to remind myself that Carolyn is from Canada, and maybe in Canada people live these stifled lives of quiet desperation. If so, I might have to move up there, because they certainly do not here in America. Every little pecadillo, every dirty thought or sinful action, is not only brought out to the public in the harsh light of day, but often it is celebrated. I think of that former governor of New Jersey, Jim McGreevey, whose disgusting personal debaucheries are making the circuit of talk shows on his tour promoting the book wherein he lovingly detailed them. Or that vile Mark Foley who circumvented as best he could accepting responsibility for being a degenerate by revealing that he'd been, a) molested by a priest and b) was an alcoholic, anyway. Or those more than five thousand women who just had to let the world know in petition form that, heck yes, they murdered their babies in the womb, and heck yes, they sure were so proud of that fact that they had to shout it out. Here are nasty people who did nasty things either ducking responsibility by revealing intensely personal things to the world or celebrating their nastiness by reveling in the intensely personal things. They do not take the form of "confessions," which are good for the soul and necessary, I believe, but rather are shameless declarations of moral relativism that, frankly, make me wish to puke.

Civility is conscientious self-control, and self-control is the earmark of civilization. You simply cannot have a functioning society wherein people vomit their wretchedness upon the world at large. We have seen, here in America, our culture devolve into a cesspool wherein vice is treated as disease, i.e. without fault attached, and those things which ought to be hidden away deep within for the Holy Spirit to work on are flaunted as quirky eccentricities. Indeed, this country has been a place where people feel, unfortunately, very comfortable "just be[ing] who [they] are." And no one is shamed into suffering the ordeal of civility.

That is not to say that each person ought not to have a safe network of family and friends in which they can be who they are. Jane Austen confided everything to her older sister, Cassandra; and Cassandra prudently destroyed the more personal aspects of those letters upon Jane's death. Now, to scholars and fans of Miss Austen, this loss of the completely unreserved Jane is painful and frustrating; but, I cannot help but believe in my heart that Cassandra was justified in protecting the personal parts of Jane from the world, and, indeed, the world from the more personal side of Jane. It was, in a way, an act of grace, because, within grace, the unclean parts are made clean and wholeness is revealed where fractured shambles were formerly assembled. Jane was allowed wholeness in her relationship with Cassandra, and Cassandra made the Jane of history cleansed in return.

This grace cannot be found, though, in a defiant display of our sin to the greater world, because, instead of cleansing the sinner and restoring the good, it rips apart the moral fabric of society and draws the culture further into the murky morass of relativism and unaccountability. How much worse off American culture is today after generations of people who not only wore their hearts on wrinkled sleeves, but on filthy, shredded, bloodied sleeves! We are not only worse off, we are on the edge of decay.

Maybe I'm reading too much into the lyrics of "Just Pretending." It is, after all, merely a song -- a good song at that. My wish is that more people felt obligated to try a little harder. To live their lives in a more tidy and predictable fashion. To keep their lawns mowed and their bodies reasonably in shape (especially if they insist on wearing spandex). To save their deeper, darker secrets and desires for their best friends and their families, and not to unleash those burdens on the world at large. To feel more pressure to get their acts together and be better citizens and not make society and others pay the price for their bad decisions and hurtful actions. A little pretending is not a bad thing, it can keep a person doing what is right instead of what he feels. That is one of the cornerstones of a righteous society, and it is one that we need to reclaim.

Monday, October 09, 2006

Confessions of a Groupie

Oh dear. I looked it up in the dictionary, and I AM a groupie. I've joked for years that I am a Carolyn Arends groupie, but I never really thought that I was. I mean, groupie. Sheesh, that just sounds sort of pitiful and weird. But, today, Webster's has confirmed my fears.

groupie \'grĂ¼-pee\ n (1967) 1: a fan of a rock group who usu. follows the group around on concert tours 2: an admirer of a celebrity who attends as many of his or her public appearances as possible 3: ENTHUSIAST, AFICIONADO

I'll take definition number three, thank you very much. Unfortunately, the first two apply equally well.

A light will shine through, though. I found some groupie justification from the unlikely source of this past weekend's Seattle Times. The staff writer, Patrick MacDonald, was writing of Bob Dylan (whose concert tour is hitting Seattle on Friday), but he captured a bit of my own admiration for Carolyn when he wrote:

But Dylan is different. He's showing how great rock stars should age -- by reinventing the past and moving toward the future. Dylan performs his classics from the '60s and '70s, but he short-circuits your expectations by doing them differently every single time. I've seen him perform the same song two nights in a row in two entirely different ways. He doesn't give fans what they want, but rather what he wants. He remains true to himself, and, in so doing, remains a creative force that fans young and old can relate to. (Emphasis mine)

Now, Bob Dylan is about one hundred and twenty years old and not an artist in whom I am particularly interested, but what MacDonald wrote about him is transferable to any truly gifted musical artist -- that ability to keep constantly in touch with their creative center, whether that creativity is fueling new songs or keeping older songs fresh and vibrant. You will never see the same concert twice -- even if the same songs are played.

And that, my friends, is why I never pass up a chance to see Carolyn Arends and Spencer Capier performing live in any venue. There is always something new and unexpected to be heard when those two geniuses get together and jam. It is exciting and breathtaking to see them feed off of each other's immense talent. You feel like you're experiencing some of the echoes of eternity, when that overwhelming Creative force flows out through those human instruments, and you're swept up into something that transcends the roles of players and audience and becomes measured in cupfuls of sublimity. Occasionally, I have seen Carolyn Arends perform with someone other than Spencer Capier, and that, too, is an amazing experience (a particular 2002 concert at Pepperdine in Malibu, CA with a young rock-star-genius-boy -- Adrian? -- who added a definite hardcore edge to the set is one that always comes to mind).

So, I suppose I am a groupie, but no one deserves a groupie more than Carolyn Arends, because she never gives of her talent with a half-heart or simply goes through the motions. At one point, I was seeing her in concert every other month or so, and I never saw the same show twice. The jokes? Well, the jokes are often the same (still good, mind you, but she tends to find a shtick and stick with it). But the MUSIC! The music keeps growing and growing and growing. And I will never cease to wonder at that and be grateful for it.

Sunday, October 01, 2006


I can only imagine what was going through the LDS missionaries' minds when I accepted their information card and then asked, "May I give you something in return?"

I am certain that they thought I was off to get a tract of some kind that would show them (maybe in Chick cartoon form) how they were bound for hell. This is a favorite Christian outreach that avoids having serious discussions about the nature of salvation and the truth of the Living God.

I don't much like tracts, can you tell?

I do like Mormons quite a bit.

Anyway, I got a spare copy of Carolyn Arends's Pollyanna's Attic from the office and handed it to them.

"I'd like you to have this, " I said. "She's a Christian singer/songwriter who lives up north in British Columbia, and I think her music is fantastic. Please give it a listen, and if it isn't quite your style, please pass it along to someone you know who may like it."

Need I say that they looked relieved? They accepted my offering with gratitude and warmth. I'm sure that was the first time someone wanted simply to give them music without any hellfire strings attached. I told them that I would pray for their safety as they fulfilled their missions obligation. And, indeed, I have.

Long has the therapeutic administration of the latest Carolyn Arends CD been my particular "ministry." I have a list of about eight friends who automatically get sent a new album when one is released. I have also given CDs to the entire ministry staff at our church (not without an ulterior motive, I confess -- I wanted them to book a concert with her). This is the first time I have given one of her albums to a stranger, and certainly the first time I have given one as a response to another religion's missionaries. I think that this is a good approach. I really respect the fact the the LDS church fully prepares and funds missionaries, and I have no desire to provoke these fine, young men. But, who wouldn't benefit from listening to the honey-tinged voice and soul-searing lyrics of the singular Mrs. A.?

I think I shall have to keep more spare copies of her albums around the house. This could start a revolution!

Saturday, September 09, 2006

Best Album: The Case for Feel Free (1997)

So, Carolyn Arends has released nine albums over eleven years. That's a pretty impressive output of creativity. And, since it is Carolyn Arends we're talking about, the product has always been of the highest caliber. How does one then decide which album is her best?

The easy and weasely way out of this quandary is to demure that all of the albums are the best. This may be true when compared with the offerings of any other musical artist, but surely, among the best in the world, there is the best of the best. The first album I would like to offer up for consideration of that honor is 1997's Feel Free.

The first time I put Feel Free into the computer and the vibrant electric guitar of "Do What You Do" blared out of the speakers, I had to turn the volume down. What was this? I wondered at the complete divergence from the laid-back folksy feel of Carolyn's debut album, I Can Hear You. Even though I was taken aback, I kept listening and started grooving, and then I realized, "Hey! I'm really digging this!"

And it's continued that way for the past seven years.

There is no collection of songs anywhere that fills me with more unadulterated joy than Feel Free. Just look at the cover, first of all. The bright, splashy reds and oranges, the free-hand font of the title letters, the open birdcage, and Carolyn herself, staring out with a hard-core rock star gaze. You just know, by taking all these elements in, that you are in for a world of fun. And the album is, over all, LOUD. It's electric, not only in that it uses more electric guitar riffs than any other Arends album I can think of, but just in the feel of the songs. Here's a warning: If you listen to this in your automobile, you will car-dance. You cannot keep from twisting your body in clumsy obedience to the pulsating beat of the songs.

This is an album, as the title suggests, about liberation.

So, it starts with "Do What You Do." If you are a working girl in the thrilling avenue of retail, as was I, you will feel kinship with the subject of this song. "She's on the clock, but she doesn't seem to mind. Whatever matters, she always finds the time. She laughs out loud when it's funny, and when it's not she sighs." Of course, the priceless nuggets in Carolyn Arends's creations are so often found in the middle bridge section. In this case it is:
"She's not afraid to live this life, she says it's not like rolling dice. It's in the hands of God so why not do what you do like you know what you're doing . . ."

Then comes the now-classic, "New Year's Day." Who cannot relate to the idea of filling up diaries with all of the New Year resolutions that are kept until January 2? How much more freeing to remember that the Lord's mercies are new every morning, and "every day is New Year's Day -- hey, hey!" Here's your magic bridge moment: "Every day is one more chance to start all over; one more chance to change and grow; one more chance to grab a hold of grace and never let it go." Every Carolyn Arends fan who read that is now improvising the driving guitar that comes in after those lines -- dun-da-da-dun-da-da-dun-da-da-da-da-da-da-dun . . .

I really like the title track of the album, "Feel Free." Everyone should have a friend with whom they "feel free to laugh or cry . . . to wonder why . . . to dance or grieve . . . " and who lets them know that "you are safe when you're with me." Carolyn does some unusual vocal stuff with this song, especially at the end.

The first break from the rocking sound comes with the ballad, "There You Are." If you've ever felt disappointed that you've never had a burning bush come and talk to you, only to realize that in the quiet times you can hear a still small voice, then you will relate to this song. My favorite line is, "I was waiting for a miracle and hoping for a sign, as if each breath I take is not a gift." This idea of the intrinsic mystery of breath appears again later in the album.

"This I Know" has a rather heavy arrangement for such a light-heartedly simple premise of a song. She re-recorded it later for a "best of" album with a lighter sound. But, since this is the rock star album, it's fun to hear the original incarnation. My husband really appreciates the stripped down message of the song, as expressed in the chorus: "Hope and love make a life worth living. Lack thereof makes a man grow old. God is good, yeah, and Jesus loves me. This I know." When you get down to the bare bones of living, it so often comes down to a purity like this one, doesn't it? Why do we make life more complicated than it should be?

"Big Deal" is one of those songs that has actually helped me break mental paralysis when facing a daunting task. I tend to be one of those people who takes everything to heart and beats myself up when I do not live up to my own (unrealistic) expectations. This song, which is gently humorous, reminds me that no, "I won't be the first to mess things up," and I'll indeed "get it right someday."

I think that "Last Thursday" is one of the more initially under-appreciated songs on the album. At least it was for me. I enjoyed the song on a listening level before I really stopped to think about the lyrics. Then, one day at the bookstore (the "retail job" previously mentioned) I was shelving in the "Self Improvement" section. The lyrics of "Last Thursday" came flooding into my mind: "You see, I've read a thousand pages of how to help myself to a thousand different ways to perfect mental health. And I swear I've done them all and I'm still needing something else, and I think you are, too." Aha! Looking at row upon row of books intended to improve the human condition when there is no way that we can save ourselves filled me with a new and profound admiration for the courage it took for Carolyn to write this song. We so want to believe that there is a way we can do it without Jesus, but we cannot. And admitting that weakness is the first step to His strength. Again, there is a beautiful bridge that sums up the song: "And further more I still believe in what I cannot see or touch. Crazy things like dreams and prayer and faith and hope and love. And I know a life without these things is not a life at all. So you can call it sanity, but then you'll have to call me crazy." We want to divorce these necessary elements of the human experience from our Creator and attempt to find that wholeness within ourselves -- to be "spiritual" without the Holy Spirit -- but we just cannot save ourselves.

Even if every other song on this album were crap (which, clearly, they are not), I might still think Feel Free the best album in the world for this next song on the tracks list, "Do We Dare." I am never shy in saying that I think this is the best song ever written. The ideas in this song are so big and breath-taking, and yet the song is accessible and deceptively simple. You could write a book about the ideas in this song -- they could be extrapolated into a doctoral thesis -- and yet the wordcraft is so eloquent that Carolyn wrote everything that really needs to be said into a song barely over four minutes in length. It is difficult for me even to write about this song, because it is so meaningful to me. I start to tear up simply typing about it. I think that that is because it touches some foundational yearning of the human spirit -- something that was breathed into the clay at the beginning of time from the very mouth of God and has never left us. Carolyn Arends borrowed the initial idea from Madeleine L'Engle's book, Walking on Water, and turned a soul-stinging suggestion into, what I've come to believe is, a revelation of Spirit. L'Engle wrote: "In art we are once again able to do all the things we have forgotten; we are able to walk on water; we speak to the angels who call us; we move, unfettered, amongst the stars" (p. 57). "Do We Dare" is a song about being healed from this corruption of the soul, about regaining that which we have lost so long ago that we've forgotten we ever had it. It is about how much courage it takes, how much of an act of daring it is, to regain that ground -- to free ourselves to react to the world with the innocence and imagination of children while being the broken-hearted adults we are. It is so many amazing whispers of the Divine spilling into our ears through lovely melody and charming voice -- the song is one of those little love letters from God that He sent to the world through the human instrument. I know I am not doing the song justice by these confused babblings of admiration. Hear it yourself. Seek it out and let it seep into your soul. If you've heard it before, listen to it again. It can not be heard too often. It is a work of deepest art and deepest truth. Here is Carolyn's trademark piercing bridge: "We are battered and torn from the day we are born in a world that has blinded and bound us. Is it any surprise we don't open our eyes to the truth that's disguised all around us?"

After listening to "Do We Dare," it is heartening to wipe away your tears and smile at the love song that next greets you. "Good Thing Going" is a sweet ode to Carolyn's husband of more than fifteen years (seven, when this album was released -- "Seven years, no itch," according to the liner notes). "How could anybody turn my head when my heart's forever lost to you? How could I fall into another's arms when I've fallen so deep into a love so true?" This is song will reverberate with anyone who's had the privilege and blessing of marrying his or her best friend.

The last song is a prayer. "Father, Thy Will Be Done" is about surrender to God, in times both good and bad -- "when I'm walking in the light; when my heart is black as night; when You give what I desire; when You take me through the fire." There is freedom to live in letting go and trusting in the Lord's will. Feel Free is an album whose over-riding theme is that of liberty. Not political liberty, but that deeper liberty -- the freedom of Christ, the freedom of love, the freedom of friendship.

Rarely has an artist achieved such a balance of meaningful lyrics and uplifting melody. Feel Free will delight beyond the thousandth spin in your CD player. Carolyn is so good at writing out the essence of questions, mysteries, yearnings, and the unchangeable truths that, ultimately, bring hope. This album, though, goes even a step beyond the amazing songwriting and musical artistry to reveal a freshness and fun that makes your soul soar. My first nomination for best album, then, is 1997's Feel Free -- you'll feel free, indeed.

Thursday, September 07, 2006

Why This New Blog?

Okay, I'm just going to say it: The message board forum at Carolyn Arends's website just isn't doing it for me anymore. It is very awkward to attempt to go "deeper" in discussing her work there because of three reasons.

The first is that the format of a message board is conducive to quick posts, not long meanderings. Unless you are Carolyn herself, no one wants to read your ponderous ponderings on a page meant for quick "howdya-dos?" and occasional congratulatory exclamations.

The second is that Carolyn Arends keeps tabs on her message board and reads everything and remembers what she's read. Although this blog will never be defamatory (it is a fan blog, after all), it might be a little easier to be perfectly honest in a new format -- both more honest in compliments as well as any critiques. It is very difficult to wax effusive about the merits of a Canadian in her presence, as part of that national character seems to be an almost pathological modesty. My belief is that Carolyn Arends is one of the most important songwriters of our time, and she deserves a forum for in-depth examination of her creative work and the thought behind it.

The third reason for this blog is that its originator wants to be able to invite a select group of fellow fans in for discussion. This is "Carolyn Arends 202," and it is a place for folks who want to explore her music in a more academic manner, worthy of coursework for a junior or senior scholar. I love the freshmen, too. I remember well the excitement and awe of discovering Carolyn Arends's music. Freshmen, you are welcome to comment on anything you see here. But it is juniors and seniors for whom this blog was created.

Anyway, here's a start to it all. I hope it yields fruit. Even if no one else joins in and I remain a voice crying in the wilderness, this will be a good outlet for the nagging thoughts that run through my head when I listen to any album of Mrs. A.