Despite historical confusions, the spirit of the music shines through
by Arsenio Orteza
Given that black Christianity in America is often presented as something narrowly political instead of something eternally rich, any media event that closes the gap, so to speak, is welcome. It's in such a spirit that Christians of any background should welcome Testify! The Gospel Box, Rhino Records' latest multi-disc compilation of 20th-century, black-gospel highlights. Having welcomed it, though, let's note its shortcomings. Gospel fans will note that nine of the set's 50 recordings are already included on volumes one and two of Rhino's Jubilation! series, a 1992 black-gospel collection that's still in print. Testify!'s other shortcoming is its attempt to demonstrate gospel music's development through chronology alone, an attempt that results in Andrae Crouch's "My Tribute," the last track on Disc Two, serving as a link to Disc Three's exclusively contemporary lineup. Andrae Crouch, however, isn't a musical link so much as a cultural link, and the cultures that he links aren't those of older black Christians and younger black Christians but those of black Christians and white. Does such infidelity to history rob Testify! of its entertainment value, which is considerable, or its devotional value, which is more considerable still? No, but it does obscure the big picture: No matter how celebrity-driven and splashy some forms of black gospel have become (Whitney Houston closes Disc Three), its older and simpler styles still thrive with a vigor that implies, among other things, that the Source of its inspiration is infinite. No collection captures the vigor of the old styles better than Cello's Music Maker Series, a group of new recordings by poor, elderly southern folk-blues musicians who, despite the seminally influential nature of their work, have never reaped its worth in lucre. Of particular interest is Honey Babe by Algia Mae Hinton, a 69-year-old North Carolina native whose weather-beaten voice and acoustic guitar are the authentic version of the rural blues that Bob Dylan affectionately mimicked on his debut album 37 years ago. Except for "If You Want to Go to Heaven" and "I Want Jesus to Walk with Me," Honey Babe's 16 selections are secular, but they reflect the strength and compassion that Mrs. Hinton evinced while single-handedly rearing her seven children after her husband's death in 1965. And as the songs "When You Kill the Chicken Save Me the Head," "Cook Cornbread for Your Husband," and "Lima Beans" prove, nothing gets one through the hard times like a well-rounded diet and a sense of humor.
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Music: Keeping the faith?
Van Morrison's contradictions and Maria Muldaur's paradoxes
by Arsenio Orteza
With 1979's Into the Music, Van Morrison made a musical profession of faith so eloquent that echoes of it still resound in his music. Hearing them can sometimes be difficult, mainly because Mr. Morrison himself is difficult. He is something like Walt Whitman, who answered the question "Do I contradict myself?" with "Very well then I contradict myself, / I am large, I contain multitudes." Mr. Morrison's work is both large (Back on Top is his 31st album) and self-contradictory: He is by turns a joyful Christian, a superstitious pagan, and a bitter misanthrope. And just as Whitman's poetry unites multitudes by speaking for them with one mouth, Mr. Morrison's singing, instrumentation, and lyrics unite jazz and blues, gospel and soul, wise man and fool. Back on Top is a typical, and typically enjoyable, Van Morrison album, the latest version of the one he's been making obsessively for years now. His ability to celebrate William Blake, silence, falling leaves, and gardens wet with rain seems endless, as does his zeal for medieval archetypes (Holy Grail, Philosopher's Stone, Ideal Lady) that symbolize the otherworldly source of man's deepest desires. Ironically, what saves him from predictability is also what makes him an enigma for Christians-namely, that he settles for width when depth eludes him. The problem on Back on Top isn't "Precious Time," with its casual, Ecclesiastes-lite pessimism, but "High Summer," which says something about Lucifer, but exactly what remains unclear. Perhaps the most one can conclude about Back on Top is that it presents a figure in transition, a reckless romantic for whom the most perplexing questions and serpentine paths pose irresistible challenges. That Mr. Morrison has long cut such a figure doesn't present his audience with a problem of esthetics or theology so much as with a problem of patience, as he's obviously in no hurry to draw a more definite conclusion himself. Like Van Morrison, Maria Muldaur also marked a turning point in her career with a gospel album (1980's excellent Gospel Nights). Unlike Mr. Morrison, Miss Muldaur has since proceeded with a most definite if two-fold purpose: first, to rescue love's legitimately sensual elements from abuse at the hands of perpetually adolescent rock 'n' rollers; second, to restore those elements to their rightfully dignified place in the mature timbres of late-night jazz and blues. Meet Me Where They Play the Blues demonstrates her voice to be the perfect instrument for this delicate operation. By singing sublimely about the earthy ("Soothe Me") and earthily about the sublime ("The Promised Land"), she creates a metaphor for the union of body and soul that makes close listening a pleasure.
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Music: Too cool for God
Mission accomplished: King's X most recent work confirms it's no "Christian band"
by Arsenio Orteza
Christian musicians tend to mistake mainstream acceptance for divine confirmation that they're on the right path. As a result, they often engage in questionable behavior in order to appear "cool," the better to keep those mainstream rewards coming. Few acts have descended this slippery slope like the heavy-metal trio King's X. Since being featured in Rolling Stone eight years ago, the group has wasted considerable energy and credibility insisting that it's a band of Christians and not a "Christian band." Now, in interviews and on record, the group's frontman, Doug Pinnick, has redefined "Christian cool" by renouncing his faith altogether. "A new religion called my own," he sings on "Darker." "It helps relieve the strain. / Yesterday a light blew out. / I've had a change of pain." The song appears on Massive Grooves from the Electric Church of Psychofunkadelic Grungelism Rock Music, Mr. Pinnick's solo debut. Recorded under the name Poundhound in King's X trademark arty heavy-metal style, the album includes contributions from King's X's other members and sounds a lot like King's X latest group effort, Tape Head. Together, the two LPs find the band sending mixed messages. Tape Head's "Groove Machine" begins with the spiritually resonant line, "Lay down your burdens by the riverside," but instead of inviting the listener to repent, the song merely invites him to enjoy the band. "Music, oh music, such a funky thing," sings Mr. Pinnick. "The closer you get, the deeper it means." The idea of music as salvation recurs in Massive Grooves's "Jangle" ("Let the funky music take you higher ... something to believe in") and "Music" ("Let your soul come taste the music"). Ironically, Tape Head's "World" finds God himself-from whom all good gifts, including music, come-insufficient to the task of saving either the soul or the day: "Religion, fascism, Armageddon time / Doomsdayin', God savin', everybody dies." That lyrics this sodden and simplistic should accompany music that's crisp and complex is, in a sense, almost as sad as Mr. Pinnick's apostasy. Hope surfaces briefly in Tape Head's "Ocean." Sung by Ty Tabor, the group's guitarist and least publicly disgruntled Christian, the song ends with the image of a flower "standing alone ... in the desert" and Mr. Tabor believing that "faith, hope, and love will carry [him] home." Perhaps it's no surprise that when moonlighting as the singer, guitarist, and lyricist of Platypus--a quartet composed of members of Dixie Dregs, Winger, and Dream Theater-- Mr. Tabor sounds like a child at play. Free of King's X gloom, he performs with a virtuosic abandon that characterizes the group's music as a whole. Platypus's debut album bears a bad title-visually, the "platypus" pun of When Pus Comes to Shove falls flat-but is still an entertaining, well-played example of that most unjustly vilified of genres: progressive rock. Significantly, it's in Platypus's liner notes and not in King's X's that Mr. Tabor thanks God.