Caught in Bon Iver’s Web… 22, A Million

Album Releases, Artist Focus

There’s a pretty good chance my feelings about Bon Iver’s new album are a bit tainted. Certainly, I’ve enjoyed Justin Vernon’s music for a while, whether it’s Bon Iver, Shouting Matches, Volcano Choir, or any other of his projects. However, in August of this year, I truly became a fan when I experienced Bon Iver live at Eaux Claires. Not only was it my first time seeing him perform live, but it was the debut of all the songs that make up his new record, 22, A Million. And, admittedly, every time I listen to the first track on the album, 22 (Over Soon), I am immediately emotionally transported to that moment, to that amazing experience. So, I bring some baggage into first impressions of Vernon’s most recent creation.

Those considerations aside, the most definitive thing I can say about the album is that it moves me deeply. I resonate with the words of one of my favorite artists, Derek Webb, who when describing 22, A Million, simply stated, “mind/heart blown.” Yep. I get that. Me too, brother. Me too, brother.

Frankly, in a vacuum, it would be surprising to me that I am so drawn to this music. Vernon employs so much Autotune and constantly manipulates everything electronically. There are times when it seems like I’m listening to a warped cassette tape. I’ve gathered that’s what he was trying to create, but that kind of stuff usually grates on me. For instance, one of my favorite tracks on the album is 29 #Strafford Apts. It builds a little and offers a high-note crescendo, with emotive movements throughout. But, just as we’re getting to the main crescendo, the payoff is muddled by that warped tape sound. Again, this would normally turn me off… and yet I continue to be drawn in. And then there’s the whole principle of using current technology to make sounds reminiscent of older technology, and specifically it’s failings. Yeah, usually, that’s not for me… and yet I can’t walk away.

There is something magnetic and provocative about 22, A Million that I can’t even really describe. Certainly, Vernon and his team have worked hard to build some mystique and intrigue around its release. When he debuted the album at Eaux Claires, each song was accompanied by vivid, yet distorted video imagery. And as each song began, the official Eaux Claires app would inform us of the name of the song. Throughout the first day of the festival, Sam Amidon and his Guitarkestra walked the grounds, teaching everyone the words and melody of the album’s finale, 1000000 Million, “where the days have no numbers…” so we could all sing along later that night. Then, there were the “unique” listening parties a couple of days before the release in which hundreds of people would show up to catch an audible glimpse of the album as it was played on a small boombox (a fairly fruitless venture, from my personal experience). Certainly, the cryptic artwork on the cover/liner notes add to the mystique as well.

Another element contributing to this mystique is the utter unpredictability of the album. I mean, seriously, the first few times I listened, I had little idea what was coming next, not only between songs, but in the middle of each individual track. It is all over the place in the most precise, intentional manner. It leverages unique samples, traditional rock/pop instrumentation, incredible creativity, and Vernon’s signature falsetto to create a meandering, yet purposeful work of art.

I don’t know what the lyrics are really about, other than to say it certainly seems as though Vernon is tackling some deep and heady subjects. There’s God, the Devil, numerology, hope, and despair, among other such issues. All of this seems to come together in a central message. I’m not sure what that message is yet…but it seems to be something powerful. Something meaningful. Maybe I’m wrong, but I don’t think so.

As an Eau Clairian, it is incumbent upon me to be at least interested in Bon Iver. I’ve gone from being interested, to liking, to being an all-out fan. My 22, A Million experience has solidified that. And even now, as I listen to the emotive closing anthem of the album, 1000000 Million, my heart is captured and held in suspense. The emotional tension and grip is almost palpable. I expect that captivity, suspense, tension, and grip to hang on for a while to come.


Latifah Phillips’ Moda Spira: An Emotional Journey

Album Releases, Artist Focus



From Moda Spira’s Facebook page

I first became aware of Latifah Phillips a few years ago when I began listening to her project, The Autumn Film. I fell in love with that music. It was heart-on-the-sleeve, emotive stuff. The lyrical content, which spoke of deep issues like experiencing abuse, hiding from the world, and overall brokenness, was matched beautifully by emotive, driving, and building melodies. One of the essential pieces of what drew me into The Autumn Film was Phillips’ voice. Her tone and style consistently seemed to capture and authenticate the emotionality in those songs. My fandom was solidified in 2012 when she collaborated with Derek Webb on the SOLA-MI project’s Nexus record, a concept album in which Phillips’ voice represents a machine that has been brought to life with AI. Again, she was able to sing and project the character in such a way that you can sense this being’s struggle to process what’s happening and to respond, even emotionally, to all the new stimuli. So, yeah, I love Latifah Phillips’ voice.

Therefore, I have highly anticipated her new solo project, Moda Spira, and recently released self-titled album. And it has not disappointed me in the least.  I expected a melancholic, emotional record and that’s what she has made. But, let me be clear: Moda Spira is not The Autumn Film or SOLA-MI. And it’s definitely not Page CXVI (her hymns-based project). This is something new, even though it distinctively sounds like Phillips.

There is a deeper level of soulfulness in this record. That’s not to say her previous work has been devoid of soul… not at all. But there is a different soulful quality to this music that’s difficult to qualify. Certainly, the song What You Need is a great example of this. It is easily the most overt example in its deep emotional pull as the lyrics offer aid to someone in desperate need. But this “soul” is not limited to that song. No, I feel it throughout the record. It is a part of the connective tissue that binds the record together. The songwriting, melodies, and instrumentation all carry that soul, but the dominant soul-conveyer is once again Phillips’ vocals. In my opinion, they are more captivating and emotionally evocative in this project than any I’ve heard before.

Combined with this strain of soul is an ethereal feel to the album. At various times, the songs have an otherworldly dynamic. I don’t understand the technical aspects of music well enough to speak to how Phillips makes that happen, but I think it has to do with instrumentation (beautiful use of synthesizer/keyboard) and mixing. At times, certain instruments are muted or sound like they are a little further back in the background of a song. This dynamic adds a depth to the record and certainly plays an elemental role in that ethereal feel.

One thing I hear on this record which fits with Phillips’ patterns in her previous music is her penchant for songs to build slowly into a crescendo. She is, in my opinion, a master of meaningful repetition. And that repetition will build gradually, adding different instruments or other elements with each repetition. Eventually, it all leads to a satisfying climax. I hear some of that on this record as well, and I still love it. It never gets old for me. Whenever I listen to one of Phillips’ songs containing that specific dynamic/movement, and I let myself engage with it, it takes me somewhere emotionally, usually somewhere I need to go.

Moda Spira is a beautiful record. It holds onto the elements of Phillips’ previous work while establishing new ground. This record has been a long time in the works for this gifted artist, and the time has been well invested. It is an emotional journey worth taking.

Courage and Risk

Music and Healing

Is it worth the risk?

Am I willing to be hurt?

Am I willing to be judged?

These, my friends, are important questions. And these self-reflective inquiries relate directly to artists and the creative process. In fact, I would say, the fact that my artist friends are willing to wade through these questions, make their art, and have the courage to put it out there is part of why I admire them so much. Sharing your creative expression involves risk. It just does, especially if that expression is personal and honest.

Why is this case? Why does sharing art put the artist at risk? It’s pretty simple actually. Honest artistic expression is the artist putting an element of themselves out on display. It is revealing a piece of their hearts for other folks to see… and perhaps judge or scrutinize. Yeah, creating honest art is risky business.

I think of Derek Webb, an artist and entrepreneur that has had an incredible impact on me personally. While he would tell you he has certainly made his share of mistakes, he has been willing to take risk after risk musically, lyrically, career-wise, and more. He pushed the boundaries of “Christian music” and sang about things that other “Christian” artists wouldn’t touch, even though he knew it would impact his bottom line and the breadth of his fan base. Courage.

I think of Field Report’s Chris Porterfield and his raw, soul-bearing songwriting. You can hear the brokenness, the personal folly, and the pain throughout Field Report’s self-titled debut album. Porterfield was willing to put all of that out there in a permanent record for anyone’s perusal and/or scrutiny. Courage.

I think of Sayth, the preeminent locally-rooted rapper here in the Valley. He has used his immense talent to share his story of struggle and pain. He has been explicit about his homosexuality and the grief and sorrow he has experienced at the hands of folks who have hated him for it. Courage.

I am not an artist, at least not in the classical sense. But, I can relate to that risk. In fact, in various ways, I’m sure you can too. Any time you choose to speak up, you take the risk. Whenever you cultivate a new idea and choose to share it, you take the risk. That time you’re called on to present information, yes, that can involve the same risk. And, in each of those circumstances, it takes courage to step up to the plate, meet the challenge, and take the risk.

I am a risk taker by nature. It’s just part of who I am. But, I’ve been burnt enough times to know the risk really well… intimately, painfully well. And yet, when I am faced with taking the risk, oftentimes it is the artist than inspires me to move forward. It is the self-revelatory bravery from artists like Field Report, Derek Webb, and Sayth that push me to “screw my courage to the sticking place,” buck up, and do what I need to do… what I am built to do… what my heart longs to do.

Courage and Freedom: Derek Webb’s She Must and Shall Go Free

Gateway Record, Music and Healing


In the early 2000s, I discovered that our local library had music you could check out, just like books. I went on a borrowing spree, trying to find new music and artists. One of the albums I checked out was Derek Webb’s She Must and Shall Go Free. I didn’t know who Derek Webb was and I had never heard his music, at least I thought I hadn’t. Webb had been a member of the Contemporary Christian Music (CCM) group, Caedmon’s Call, which had garnered some commercial success amongst the Christian radio and bookstore culture. I never cared much for what I heard from them, but to be honest, I had a bias against them because they fell into the CCM category (more on that in a bit).

Webb’s first solo album, the one mentioned above, was a broad departure from Caedmon’s Call and from CCM overall. It was downright salty, to be honest, using language (like “whore”, “damn”, “bastard”, and such) that was not welcome on Christian radio or in most Christian bookstores. But, the real departure had less to do with the words used and with the substance within. Before I dive deeper into that, it’s important that I provide some personal context.

I grew up in church. In 1985, when I was 14, my church brought in a new youth pastor. He was a great guy, a good friend, and his influence helped me develop a deeper faith. One of his early influences on me had to do with music. We spent several weeks, during youth group meetings, watching popular music videos and talking about what we were seeing in the videos and hearing in the lyrics. Then, he exposed us to some music made by Christian artists. The ones that stood out to me were Stryper and Rez Band. And I started gravitating toward what we called “Christian music” or CCM

Eventually, I became convinced that I should only listen to CCM. Specifically, I should only purchase music that I could get at our local Christian bookstore. Yes, I know, it was a very narrow way of thinking. And, I became very legalistic about it, looking down on others that didn’t do the same. I was quite the teenaged Pharisee. Along with Rez and Stryper, I started listening to other classic CCM bands like Petra, Michael W. Smith, and Amy Grant. My musical world was a sheltered one, housing only artists within that culture (other than U2, who refused… and rightfully so… to be categorized that way).

My devotion to CCM was at an all-time high in the early 90s, when I attended a Christian college. One night, as I was returning to my dorm from some kind of activity, I could hear Extreme’s More Than Words playing all the way through the hallway. I was immediately disgusted. When I got to my room, I discovered that it was my roommate listening to it on my stereo! I was incensed and proceeded to berate him mercilessly. That was who I was in those days.

I also remember going to see a show at the New Union in Minneapolis, back when it was on Hennepin Avenue. This was likely in late 1992. The New Union regularly had CCM bands, especially harder CCM bands, play on their stage. I don’t remember who was I going to see that night (I think it was a punk band called One Bad Pig). While we were waiting for the show to start, they were playing King’s X’s new self-titled album through the sound system. King’s X was one of my favorites back then (even though they didn’t really fit in the CCM world) and I didn’t yet have the new album. As I listened, I wasn’t listening for creativity or emotionality; I was listening to hear them say “Jesus” or “God” in their lyrics. That’s how entrenched I was in this way of thinking.

I can’t pinpoint the reason, but in 1993 I opened my mind to music from outside CCM. I started listening to the Black Crowes, Arrested Development, and Extreme, among others. Something was breaking in me… In August of that year, I left home for a long internship in south India. That was one of the hardest periods in my life. Music was already a source of comfort for me way before I left for India. But as I wandered aimlessly through my time there, homesick and stricken with deep culture shock, my musical comfort came from Arrested Development’s 3 Years, 5 Months and 2 Days in the Life Of…, Seal’s self-titled album from 1991, and Extreme’s III Sides to Every Story… not the CCM artists that I used to lean on.

As the years have passed, I have come to understand why my personal departure from CCM began to take root. When I was in India, I was dealing with an immense amount of emotional pain. I was struggling in ways I had never before struggled. And, I was not emotionally mature enough to healthily walk through all that stuff. I longed for truth and for emotional resonance. And, when it comes to music, the truth was that I got more of these from Arrested Development, Extreme, and Seal than I ever did from much of the CCM stuff I’d listened to before. There was an authenticity and emotionality in this music that was simply absent or lacking in much of what I had been listening to. And, my heart was longing for those things. I didn’t need Christian axioms and clichés. I didn’t need to hear Jesus’ name over and over again in every song. I didn’t need regurgitated Bible verses. I needed something more real than all that.

Don’t get me wrong, not every artist categorized as CCM is fake or shallow. There have been, through the years, many Christian musicians/bands that have created important art that has contained genuine expression, social activism, and/or the power of faith and truth applied to real life issues in meaningful ways. But, there have been plenty of CCM acts that have really offered nothing or very little of themselves or of any real substance in their music. What’s sad is how CCM, as it became more popular in the 90’s, grew into a successful business, and much of the lyrical drivel that had become popular got reworked and made into new songs by new CCM bands. The meaninglessness and seeming lack of authenticity got perpetuated.

Enter Derek Webb’s She Must and Shall Go Free. It rocked my world. It also sent tremors throughout the CCM world. One of their own had gone off the reservation. Not only was he using taboo words, he was being uncomfortably honest in his lyrics. Consider the following:

I am a whore I do confess

But I put You on just like a wedding dress

And I run down the aisle

I’m a prodigal with no way home

But I put You on just like a ring of gold

And I run down the aisle to you

-From Wedding Dress

And it doesn’t get better once you see the light

You wake to find that the fight has just begun

I used to be a damn mess but now I look just fine

Cause you dressed me up and we drank the finest wine

-From Saint and Sinner

This is a rawness and self-revelation that had largely been absent from the CCM world. And, it was a little too raw for many Christian music outlets, as more than a few of them refused to sell the album.

Aside from how this album challenged the CCM establishment, it also deeply challenged me. I certainly loved the rebellious aspects of it. Yeah, please cuss, Mr. Webb! I cuss too! But aside from that superficial resonance, there was something much deeper that affected me. It wasn’t the “naughty” words. It was what they said. Webb had created the most genuine artistic expression I had personally heard from a CCM artist (although he pretty much officially stepped out of that world with the release of this album). I heard heart, anger, pain, sorrow, and deep, deep passion.

I became a raving fan of Derek Webb from that point. I followed his music closely, and have collected all of his solo work. Some of his other albums have affected me deeply as well, especially Mockingbird and Stockholm Syndrome. I’ve also followed his other projects such as SOLA-MI and the launch of one of my favorite websites, Noisetrade, which itself has been revolutionary in my personal musical world.

She Must and Shall Go Free changed me in a couple of important ways. First of all, it re-opened my mind to Christian artists once again. I am thankful for that, because even though there is still plenty of meaningless drivel out there in the CCM world, there are also some incredibly talented Christian folks out there creating significant art, such as Josh Garrels , John Mark McMillan, and Gungor. I would have missed out on some important and influential (on me) music had my mind remained closed.

More importantly, I was inspired by Webb’s courage in recording and releasing such a record. There was no assurance that there would be an audience for it. By including the themes and languages found in it, he took the risk of alienating much of his established fan base. As an artist from a CCM background, there was no guarantee that people who hated CCM or were unaware of it would listen to this music. He continued walking courageously through the next few albums and in the launch of Noisetrade, seemingly convinced that the CCM world had settled for so much less than it was capable of artistically and creatively. He seemed determined to challenge the CCM status quo and help people discover the power of genuine self-expression.

Obviously, such courage and its aims are near and dear to my heart. And the place in my heart for these things became deeper, clearer, and stronger because of She Must and Shall Go Free. If you would like to experience this album for yourself, you can stream it on the Gateway Record page until January 29. You can also download the album for free (plus tip if you so desire) from Noisetrade.

Sharing the Gift of Noisetrade



In 2006, my fandom of Derek Webb was at an all-time high. His album “Mockingbird” had rocked my world emotionally and spiritually. I was given the album as a gift and was hooked from the beginning. Sometime later, Webb literally gave the album away as a digital download. Over 80,000 downloads later, Webb was playing sold out shows and even saw a spike in sales of that very album.

On the heels of that experiment, Webb and a team of other folks launched a site called Noisetrade. The basic premise is that artists upload music and prospective listeners can download that music in exchange for their email addresses and zip codes (with the option to leave a “tip” for the artist). I was intrigued by the idea, but I found very few downloads I was really all that interested in at the beginning. That’s because the artists using Noisetrade were mostly independent artists, many with only a local following in their home areas.

A few years later, I decided to start giving some of these artists, that were unknown by me, a listen. Everything started to change for me at that point. One of the first albums I downloaded was Josh Garrels‘ “Love & War & The Sea in Between,” which remains one of my favorite albums to this day. In the coming months, I downloaded music from such great artists as The Civil Wars and Andrew Bird.

It was as if I had walked into a whole new world. My musical boundaries were being challenged all over the place, and I was discovering for myself some intensely talented musicians creating some intensely meaningful music. In the years since, I have experienced music from so many great artists because of Noisetrade, including:

Aoife O’Donovan Haley Bonar Matisyahu
The Autumn Film Heath McNease Matthew Perryman Jones
Beautiful Eulogy Humming House NEEDTOBREATHE
Brooke Waggoner Hurray for the Riff Raff PHOX
Butterfly Boucher Ingrid Michaelson Polica
Caroline Rose Jessica Lea Mayfield Propaganda
The Civil Wars Josh Garrels Rubblebucket
Cody ChesnuTT Judah & The Lion Sara Groves
Derek Webb Justin Townes Earle Sufjan Stevens
Dispatch Katie Herzig Trampled By Turtles
Duologue The Local Strangers The 77’s
Gungor Lord Huron

So, if you are unfamiliar with Noisetrade, I’d love to help you change that. First of all, here is the link to their site: Second, on the Noisetrade page (click here) is a sample of the kind of music you can download from that site. These are all songs that have been available (or are currently available) on their site. Enjoy this playlist and go download some music!! (And if you are so inclined, tip the artists generously!)

Captivated by J.E. Sunde’s “Shapes That Kiss the Lips of God”

Album Releases, Poignant Songs

Ever since I started listening to music as a teenager, there have been those albums that have just grabbed a hold of me, seemingly not wanting to let go. U2‘s Joshua Tree and The Unforgettable Fire were a couple of those. Kalispell’s Westbound was another. Derek Webb‘s Mockingbird was yet another. I immersed myself into these albums, feeling every twist and turn. They sucked me in and I was captivated. I have wandered into another of these traps, J.E. Sunde’s Shapes That Kiss the Lips of God, released recently by Cartouche Records.

One of my favorite albums of the last few years is The Nature of Things by The Daredevil Christopher Wright. It was so delightfully unpredictable and the band tackled really deep philosophical, theological, and relational issues with grace and depth. This work of art stimulated me intellectually, emotionally, and spiritually. I was really bummed when I heard that the band was on hiatus and that Jonathan Sunde was working on his own solo material. Now, that’s no knock on Sunde. It’s just that there was something special about what The Daredevil had created together. Surely, there would be no way that Sunde would be able to create something comparable in terms of the unpredictability, craftsmanship, philosophical wanderings and simple beauty of The Nature of Things.

Well, I was utterly and completely wrong. Shapes That Kiss the Lips of God, is, in a word, wonderful. I can’t stop listening to it. Earlier today, I was listening to iTunes in “Random” mode. Easy Kid (the second track on the album) came up. Within ten seconds, I turned off the “Random” mode, selected the first track of the album, and was compelled to listen to it in its entirety. Again, it’s like a magnet… it draws me in and I seemingly can’t escape.

Now, don’t get me wrong… this is not another Daredevil album. It is J.E. Sunde. It is his voice, both literally and essentially. Other than his incredible vocals, it doesn’t sound like the Daredevil to me. Sunde has his own thing going here, and it is compelling and deep. The music and instrumentation are eclectic, to say the least. And, the emotional mood moves around throughout the album. There’s playfulness, passion, anger, sorrow… just so much to feel here.

One element that has drawn me in are the deep theological/philosophical themes in the album. It’s one thing to write about deep stuff. It’s another to make such thoughts compelling, both lyrically and musically. Sunde is obviously adept in doing just that. A Blinding Flash of Light describes Sunde’s apparent struggle with believing in God in the midst of people who don’t share that belief. The song seems like a journal entry in which he is weighing the views of the atheistic influences around him. He struggles with feeling “foolish for talking to Jesus.” These are heavy matters, and the melody, instrumentation, and lyrics accurately portray that heaviness.

Another song that grabs a hold of me every time I listen is I’m Gonna Disappoint You. It is a soulful ballad that sounds like part of a conversation between two folks on the verge of a romantic relationship. Sunde’s heart here is to ensure that the other person comes into this relationship with eyes wide open… “What if I don’t kiss you the way you want to be kissed?” “What if you don’t like the books I suggest?” This song is full of nitty-gritty thoughts about ways that Sunde could disappoint this potential partner. The trepidation he feels as he shares these thoughts is palpable. You feel it throughout the song. It’s as if he is saying, “I want to be with you, but I’m a little scared.” For so many, if not all, of us, these are thoughts and feelings that are very familiar, and he paints them clearly and emotively.

And then there’s the pain and anger of You Can’t Unring a Bell. It starts out with the sorrow-filled statement that you can’t, in fact, unring a bell. As the song continues, the listener learns that Sunde’s heart was broken and his trust betrayed by someone special. As the tempo picks up and the song intensifies, it’s almost as if you can feel Sunde himself shifting from sorrow to anger. Again, Sunde is masterful at portraying these emotions and the tensions surrounding them. When I listen to this song, I can’t help but enter the emotional world Sunde invites the listener into. I feel, to the extent possible, what he feels. There is no art that speaks to me as deeply as art that makes me feel like that.

While I once was disappointed that the Daredevil Christopher Wright was on a hiatus, I am now so glad that they took a break. J.E. Sunde has created something beautiful with Shapes That Kiss the Lips of God. The precise craftsmanship, eclectic instrumentation, incredible vocals, and masterful songwriting provide a portal into deep connection and emotion. I cannot recommend this album enough.