by Paul Landkamer
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Wow, it's been way too long since I'd last written. Lately, I've been dabbling in southern gospel music more than usual. I ran across a radio station while it was playing a fairly up-beat line-up of southern gospel and bluegrass. I was impressed, so I found the station's contact info and let 'em know. It ended up that I'm finding music to help expand the station's playlist, and styles they cover. It's fun, but I was totally ignorant of country-style Christian genres.
I asked some friends, "What artists do you want to hear on your favorite Gospel music station?" I got one recommendation that became one of my favorites, too. I gave JJ Heller a listen on MySpace, then went to her website to buy a CD. They were running a three-for special, so on my first shot at JJ Heller, I bought three CDs. For me, that's quite a risk, but JJ's music turned out to be quite good!
Rather than calling Heller's music southern gospel, I'll call it acoustic folk/art rock. She's really close in style and sound to Ginny Owens. Instrumentation includes guitar, banjo, cello, mandolin, and accordion. One album was a Christmas CD of original and classic songs in a very approachable warm style. It was just typical enough of a Christmas album that I'll let my commentary go at that.
Only Love Remains is JJ Heller's 2006 album. It's quite introspective and laced with tear-jerker songs about the abused, abandoned, neglected and misunderstood. The overall theme is one of hope in Jesus despite living through hard times. The mood of the album is rather sad and depressed, but JJ Heller's clear, no-gimmicks vocals blend perfectly with the acoustic and sometimes ethereal instrumentation to make it one that'll hold a listener's interest and make them want to hear the rest of the story. Another neat thing about JJ Heller is that her husband also works with her, contributing production, co-writing, back-up vocal and guitar work. I smile when I hear about family teams in music.
The Pretty and the Plain (2007) is beautiful music again, but noticeably lighter in mood. The songs are more prayerful and in praise without being the soft and mushy typical adult contemporary. She did a couple variations on the classic "I'll Fly Away" and "Jesus Loves Me". The song that I found most memorable is "The Little Things" where JJ Heller starts off singing about how overwhelmed she is, and how she can't fix the whole world, so why should she bother trying? The song progresses to say that it's the little things that make the difference. Give that cup of water. Give a needy person a meal. We're not expected to fix the whole world, but we're expected to help.
These are CDs I listen to over and over. They don't get old.
I wish I could remember how I ran across this next family team. I think I first found Eva Holbrook's MySpace site while browsing the friend-list of another friend. Then while listening to her music on MySpace, I found a band called SHEL, which turned out to be Eva, her three sisters and her dad. Wow! What a neat combo. I always thought it fun to just go to concerts with my kids. It's gotta be fun, although work at times, to be the concert with family.
I won't necessarily call it "Christian" music, but they're a band of Christian musicians making beautiful music for any audience. I'm a happy owner of SHEL's EP, The Edge. Just when you might think the album is serious and moody or psychedelic folk, the third track kicks in with light instrumentation and the girls' delightfully fun vocal harmonies. I grin as I think of that third song, "The Latest and Greatest Blueberry Rubberband". I can't call it typical of their sound, but no single song is typical. To me, eclectic acoustic with lots of ethereal and psychedelic flavor is as pinpointed as I can get in sound. They've even got their songs balanced between instrumentals and those with vocals. They've really got to be experienced to have justice done to their music.
Similar in style to SHEL is Eva Holbrook's solo album, The Very Last Dream. Six of the ten tracks on the album are instrumentals. I'd never really been into instrumentals, but Eva's mandolin work is wonderful! Whenever I play songs from the album for friends, which I do quite regularly, I always play "Tuscany". It's definitely got an Italian flavor to it, and it's impressive to hear. The tracks with vocals seem to have living lyrics since I get something different each time I hear them. They're really thinker's songs. There's the title song, "The Very Last Dream" as well as the last song on the album called "The Very Last Dream II". Even that keeps me thinking.
I've got the family's whole discography on my buy-list. It's relaxing stuff, but you could still operate heavy machinery while listening.
I know I shouldn't be dwelling on the future, but as I write this in March, I anxiously –no, wait, I'm to be anxious for nothing— I "eagerly await" June sixth when SHEL comes to Lee's Summit, Missouri (www.az-u-r.com link to Club D-Mask-Us) and I can get to see them in concert.
Now you might be thinking, "Has this guy forgotten about that classic rock sound he started off hunting for?" Here's a band with a sound very close to classic Black Sabbath but with a purely Christian message. I introduce you now to Slaves Wage.
Slaves Wage doesn't have a CD out yet, but they've got four songs available in mp3 format. Slaves Wage is pure, Christian heavy rock. "Show Me the Way" sings of how we sometimes can't hear God's voice, but to be patient and ask that He reveal Himself clearly. "I Feel You" tells of that feeling of awe when we realize we can actually talk to God and He actually talks to us. "Insurrection Injection" says we're constantly bombarded by worldliness, but as long as we have choice, we can make that life-change for Jesus. "Still Got A Lot" says we might feel low, but we're made in God's image and when we start living in Christ, He will reveal untapped abilities in us we'd never realize without Him.
All these messages come in clear vocals with that heavy plodding crunching guitar and percussion backing of early classic metal. It's not speed metal with the whining high-pitched guitar. It's not thrash metal with its noise-instrumentals. And it's not modern hardcore with its Cookie Monster growled or screamed vocals. Slaves Wage is pure classic metal.
Check out these links, and see how close my opinions align with yours:
www.sonicbids.com/shel or www.myspace.com/coloradoshel
As always, let your music help keep your focus on Jesus!
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Since writing this, I've had the sheer pleasure of hosting a SHEL concert in my back yard, and I now own all the SHEL/Eva/Hanna/Andrew Holbrook albums I can find. If you get a chance, see and interact with this wonderful family! Hey, when are Sarah and Liza going to put out some albums?