2013 – The Year in Review

West Coast Trip 2013

As has become my tradition, it’s time to sit down and take an honest look at how the year turned out.  2013 started with a good bit of uncertainty and wavered numerous times before ending with roughly the same amount of uncertainty.  There were high points such as exciting travels, and low points such as necessarily ending longstanding chapters in my life.  Here’s a detailed rundown of what I did on this trip around the sun.

  • Visited Costa Rica for the first time in January with my parents to meet up with my sister’s family who was living in Honduras at the time.  It’s one of the more developed Central American countries.
  • Tried online dating.  (No shame.)  Actually, it can be quite fun at times.
  • Got hooked on my first TV show in a long time:  The Walking Dead.
  • Plugged in to a great community of guys, primarily through weekly trivia at a local pub.  Though we grew tired of that activity, many of the friendships remain.
  • Attempted training for a full marathon and failed.  But really what motivation could I have had except pride?
  • Took my third annual trip to Honduras in June to help distribute water filters to those in need.
  • Put an offer on a house.  Of course, it wasn’t accepted…
  • Took a trip to the West Coast in July!  I visited Seattle, Portland, Petaluma, Los Angeles, and San Diego, traveling primarily by train.  I’m so glad I finally got to see that part of the country, hang out with some friends, and make new ones along the way.
  • Crashed and burned at container gardening.  Again.
  • Began writing for Indie Vision Music in July.  It’s great to be able to contribute to a community that has meant a lot to me the past few years.
  • Forever relinquished hope on a long-running chapter of my life.
  • Connected with my house church community more than any other I’ve been a part of.  We began our second year together, even as new faces joined us.
  • Saw my first show (City and Colour) at The Ryman in September.
  • More dating…
  • Lived in the same place for more than a year!  (It’s the first time that has happened since college.)
  • Joe and I finally released Map and Compass, our second full-length Hilltops and Coffeeshops album.  It was quite therapeutic to have it done.
  • At the advice of a friend, I ditched my college hairstyle in November… and instantly looked fifteen years older.  As much as I’ve tried to cling to youth, it’s the one thing I hadn’t tried.
  • Read the following great books, among others:
    • The Ethics of Paul by Morton Scott Enslin
    • Church Zero by Peyton Jones
    • Just Do Something by Kevin DeYoung
    • The Four Loves by C.S. Lewis
    • A large chunk of Signature in the Cell by Stephen C. Meyer
  • Discovered the following great albums, among others:
    • Rescue and Restore by August Burns Red
    • The Glory EP by Animal Giant
    • The Hurry and The Harm by City and Colour
    • Change Will Come by Least of These
    • Odd New Celebrity by Keep Quiet
    • World Without End by The Monarch

Overall, nothing fundamentally changed in my life, and it really hasn’t for about five years.  I’m not sure what it could look like even if it did.  As usual, I have some vague ideas about what I want to accomplish in the year to come, but nothing to which I have such commitment that I’m not open to new or better ideas should they arise.  I guess we’ll see what happens.  Happy New Year.  Christ makes all things new.

Why so quiet on the blog?

Map and Compass by Hilltops and Coffeeshops

I apologize for the virtual silence on the blog in recent months. The reason is that two major project and social engagements have taken up the majority of my time.

The first is that Joe and I are finally finishing Map and Compass, and it will release on our Noisetrade November 5th.  Follow us on Facebook or Tumblr, or download some of our music on Noisetrade to be notified the moment it’s released. We’ll be so pleased to deliver the product of months of hard work, and even close a chapter in our lives in some way.

Secondly, I’m working on some major updates to Stoneoakbuilders.com, my brother-in-law’s site. I’m excited for how things are turning out, and before too long the site will be fully mobile-optimized.

So that’s why there haven’t been posts recently. Once those two things are out the door, expect more regular posting to resume.

Throwback Thursday – “Dawn Escapes” by Falling Up

Dawn Escapes by Falling Up

As the oppressive heat of summer in the South shows no signs of relenting, I long for crisp and cool autumn nights.  This album takes me back not only to that glorious season, but also to a year in my life which began a personal renaissance.

I guess I can start by saying that this album isn’t actually among my favorites.  I would probably only rank it three out of five stars.  But as with much music, it’s about the memories and feelings it evokes, not necessarily the material itself.  Dawn Escapes was originally released on October 25, 2005.  This landed it squarely in the fall of my sophomore year of college, one of the first times I felt free to explore and express myself.  For various reasons, my freshman year of college was somewhat of a throw-away year, particularly when it came to personal growth.  So, freshly returned from summer break and unencumbered by the anchors of the past, I dove headlong into college life that semester.

I remember driving over to Rocketown with some friends to see Falling Up perform some of the new material.  This was perhaps a couple of weeks before the record dropped.  Upon hearing the new songs, the ethereal tones and guitar parts didn’t surprise me, but what did catch me off guard was the amount of piano and keys that were featured.  While their debut offering had scant keyboards and programming, this release leaned on them heavily.  Front-man Jesse Ribordy even mentioned from stage that they had tried to make a more pop-accessible record, which was disappointing to me as a blooming emo-kid.  To this day I wonder if label pressure was the reason for the shift.  Still, I enjoyed the show and looked forward to the album, even pre-ordering it, if my memory serves me correctly.

Despite the changes from its predecessor, Dawn Escapes is by no means a bad album.  It contains all the core elements from Crashings, and there is nothing simplistic about the songs or composition.  Despite the electronic base, there is also a bit of edge; it’s a far cry from The Postal Service.  Ribordy’s clear voice delivers cryptic lyrics over distorted guitars, synthesizers, and crashing cymbals, as well as pianos and percussion loops.  Best of all, they didn’t include any rap vocal cameos this time around.  Despite their young age, I still believe that Falling Up was writing mature music compared to their peers, even if they did borrow some elements from well-known mainstream acts.

Uncharacteristically, I don’t have a connection with many of the words on this album.  Instead, it is the spacey atmosphere that takes me back to driving around Nashville with the windows down, cool and crisp air flooding into the car to match the ethereal sounds.  I savor the memories of that season, which was in many ways a time of rebirth and renewal for me.

You can find the electronic and keyboard-infused rock of Dawn Escapes on Spotify or Amazon.

Throwback Thursday – “()” by Sigur Ros

() by Sigur Ros

Sorry for the long delay between posts.  First I was off traveling for a couple of weeks, then getting back into the swing of things.  Finally, entries resume.

This week instead of reminiscing about summers past, I’m remembering an album that calls to mind freezing temperatures and short days.  It’s not that I’m ready for the dead of winter by any means, but a song from this album came up on shuffle for me recently, and I recalled that it was the album that first made me fall in love with epic, instrumental post-rock.

I’ve never talked to anyone who knows what the title of this album is.  Some pronounce () simpy as “Untitled.”  This makes it very hard to search for, but naming an album with empty parentheses is likely an artistic statement which Sigur Ros intended to make.  What that statement is, I’m not sure.  I do know that this is one of their darkest albums, sonically speaking.  Some have posited that it represents the emptiness felt by members of the band during that period of their lives, a hypothesis which I believe has merit.  All but a select few moments on the album are brooding, ethereal, and even ominous.

While the album was released in 2002, I first came across it as winter approached in late 2009.  Early nightfall was perfectly accompanied by the ambient, yet deeply emotional sounds of this album.  As with other seasons of my life, mistakes and relational situations weighed heavy on my heart.  The shortening days didn’t help my mood, but this album connected on a level deeper than words could describe.

As with most of Sigur Ros’s work, the vocals are not the feature.  Or they are, but no one can understand them.  In fact, on this album, they’re mostly indiscernible noise, but in a beautiful way.  Some have said that front-man Jonsi is singing in a made-up language.  While that may be, track after track, his haunting falsetto captures as much emotion as could be expected from words which can’t be understood.  In this regard, it’s odd that I love this album as much as I do.  Typically, lyrics are a huge part of what makes a song click for me.  In this case, the music is so good that it happens not to matter.  Discernible or not, the intent is clearly conveyed in the vocals.  Part of me wishes there were profound lines to accompany the instrumentation, but I realize that in this case, that isn’t necessary.

As is common in the genre, tracks routinely reach the ten-minute mark.  In fact, not a single song is under six minutes.  This is music that needs to be mulled and digested, not tossed on the radio for a quick hit and a few bucks.  Still, this particular album is dynamic enough that I wouldn’t consider it background music.  The final track (affectionately labeled as “Untitled 8″) builds from somber vocals punctuated with toms to a furious, aggressive finish, including the most powerful drumming of the album.  I remember lying on the floor at my duplex on Battery Lane, listening to the track through the 1970s stereo my dad gave me as the darkness outside quietly fell around the house.

The album would go on to typify that freezing and lonely winter with its somber and atmospheric sounds.  Today it reminds me of the power of music in and of itself, apart from lyrical content.

You can find the layered and emotional post-rock of () on Spotify and Amazon.

Throwback Thursday – “In Shallow Seas We Sail” by Emery

In Shallow Seas We Sail by Emery

Seeing as today is July the 4th, I thought I would reminisce on an album that reminds me of summer.  There are a few, to be sure, but this one reminds me of one of my favorite summers, the summer of 2009.  Though it was my first summer having a full-time job, it was epically fun, and this album provided much of the windows-down headbanging soundtrack.

I don’t exaggerate when I say this album is in my top ten favorites.  Each song is a veritable masterpiece in its own right, but the best ones are simply breathtaking.  After experimenting a bit with their sound in 2007, Emery returned to their roots with the artful juxtaposition they were known for.  Intricate dueling vocals, fascinating drum backing, and dynamic guitar playing all anchor the album, no pun intended.  I was impressed enough to write a full review right after its release.  My opinions still hold up years later.

Lyrically, the songs speak much of broken hearts and the perpetrators which have caused them.  Still healing from a break-up around the beginning of that year, it was quite cathartic to sing along at the top of my lungs while driving down the interstate.  There’s nothing quite like the delicate harmonies of Toby Morrell and Devin Shelton transitioning into a full-on screamo breakdown.  The style may have seen its day come and go, but the creativity behind it is undeniable, in my opinion.  Songs such as “Curbside Goodbye” and “In Shallow Seas We Sail” capture the full gamut of emotion, from sullen reflection to aggressive release, in a way that doesn’t seem possible with other genres.

The album carried me through the hot summer months before eventually waning in my rotation.  I now pull it out every now and then when I need to be reminded of what is possible when musicianship and raw passion collide.

You can find the complex, dynamic masterpiece that is In Shallow Seas We Sail on Spotify or Amazon.

Thoughts on Honduras 2013

Distributing water filters at the Baxter Institute in Tegucigalpa, Honduras

I recently got back from a mission trip to Honduras, my third time in as many years.  The group I go with has decided to distribute as many water filters as possible in the country where many lack access to safe drinking water.  This approach has proven very effective to restoring the health of whole households, and even neighborhoods, as those who receive the systems share the blessing of pure water.  It vastly reduces illness and malnutrition caused by bacteria, viruses, and parasites.  We partner with a clinic in Tegucigalpa and an excellent team of local Hondurans who help us find places and people to serve.

If there is any such thing as a routine trip, this one felt like it in some ways.  Our team of locals did such an amazing job of organizing and planning that virtually everything went off without a hitch.  With so many moving pieces trying to come together from thousands of miles away, there are usually bound to be a few snags.  This time there were no miscommunications, everyone showed up when and where they were supposed to, and even the weather cooperated perfectly.  It was almost strange, but it led to some more time for reflection.

Early on in our trip, as we were preparing filters at the clinic, I noted a large map of Honduras with some dots on it.  They were marking the locations of churches planted by Ambassadors for Christ, the organization which runs the clinic.  I had always assumed when we took two or three hour car rides outside the city that we were traveling to far reaches of the country, but the dots denoting the impact of the program spanned only a few inches on the enormous map, probably five feet across.  My ignorance of Honduras geography suddenly hit me like a punch in the gut.  The diligent efforts of the local AFC team and numerous American brigades had probably reached only a hundred or so miles into the rough countryside terrain, where living conditions are often the worst.  I felt so small.  Our work felt so small.  I imagined deep reaches of mountainous jungles unreachable by vehicles, children chronically sick when a simple $60 filter could change their life.  And that’s just Honduras.  There’s the rest of Central and South America.  And Africa.  And much of Asia.  We’ll never fix this, I thought.

As we traveled about the country during the week, I noted numerous large-scale projects that seemed a bit out of place in the developing nation.  There was a huge dam, electricity-generating windmills, and other civil engineering feats.  Each one bore the flag of another country or government.  Italy had assisted with the dam.  We were told Germany installed the windmills.  The European Union had chipped in on infrastructure projects.  To me, this made the reality of the situation even more overwhelming.  The largest and most powerful governments in the world have poured resources into the country on a scale that common man, and even the global church could not match.  Still, the poverty persists.  I’m glad for the way those governments have aided the people of Honduras, but it seems their projects stand as testaments to the failure of the secular humanist worldview.  Powerful governments with seemingly unlimited resources cannot fix their plight or the human condition.  I was reminded of these lyrics from “All the World Is Mad” by Thrice:

We can’t medicate man to perfection again
We can’t legislate peace in our hearts
We can’t educate sin from our souls
It’s been there from the start
But the blind lead the blind into bottomless pits
Still we smile and deny that we’re cursed
But of all our iniquities
Ignorance may be the worst

I understand that suffering in the world is far from a new thing.  My generation may even be poised better than any other in history to eradicate it, but without a coherent worldview, without Christ, there is no hope.  The human heart is broken, selfish, and corrupt.  We see this in the life of every person.  Christ showed us how to truly be human, how to properly bear the image of God.  “If anyone wants to sue you and take your shirt, hand over your coat as well. If anyone forces you to go one mile, go with them two miles. Give to the one who asks you, and do not turn away from the one who wants to borrow from you” (Matthew 5:40 – 42).  The way of Jesus is the only hope for humanity, and I am more convinced of this now than ever before, even as I admit my woeful shortcomings.  Only in a world where everyone strives to live as Jesus would true redemption be possible.  Throwing money at problems does not eradicate corrupt government, economic exploitation, and evil intent.  The grace of Jesus in transforming the human heart, however, can and will bring Heaven to earth.

In conclusion, I’m certainly glad to have gone and spent time in Honduras.  Nothing I did personally scratched the surface of the issues gripping the country, but God’s church in action brings small slices of the Kingdom to the lives of people.  Yes, there are 135 more long-lasting water filters in use, but it is my hope that they are more than buckets, tubes, and better health.  I hope they are a glimpse of God’s love to the people and communities who received them, and that love begins healing Honduras and our world.

News – posting reviews for IndieVisionMusic.com

Indie Vision Music

 

There’s a bit of news.  I’ve been accepted as a contributor over at Indie Vision Music, a site that just happens to cover many of the bands I dearly love.  There I will be posting album reviews, news, and potentially interviews covering a variety of alternative Christian artists.  I’ve been following closely since early 2010, and I have discovered a ton of great music that I otherwise never would have heard of.  It’s an honor to  have the opportunity to give back something to a community that has enriched my life so much.

That being said, most of my future album reviews will appear there, though I will still continue to do Throwback Thursdays, book reviews, deep thoughts, and other typical fare for the blog.  I may occasionally post links to reviews I’ve done there, but I’ll keep that to a minimum.

Anyway, I just wanted to share the news.  I’ve been out of the country on a mission trip, but regular posts will continue soon.