Alien in a Strange Land

Spectrum

What I am about to share may be news to some of my friends, but will be no new revelation to a great many others. I now know at the age of 30 what I have suspected for a number of years. It is time for me to emerge from the feigned comfort of a figurative closet, despite my deep longing to seek refuge, and to share with my family, both my biological family and my sociological family, that I live with autism spectrum disorder.

I’ve been reluctant to share this because I believe it will be perceived as me making a mountain out of a molehill. For some, the first thought might be, ‘No you don’t.’ Despite my desire for the opposite, these folk are wrong. Others might think, ‘Well, we’re all on the spectrum somewhere, aren’t we?’ And whilst the latter may be true to some extent, I have been diagnosed as ‘severely impaired’. This is not a ‘weekend’ autism. This is a full-blown disorder. I know that it might not appear that way at first glance. Unbeknownst to me, I have been struggling with this disorder throughout my life. I have learned a lot about what is and is not acceptable in society. Some might think, ‘Well, don’t we all have to learn that?’ Once again, I would agree to some extent. But part of what makes an autistic person different is that we lack the social intuition that makes this happen naturally. A bicycle with a flat tyre might roll, but it won’t soon be carrying the winner of the Tour de France. I am grateful for the resources I have discovered to help me get by whilst seeming relatively ‘normal’. But because this is learned—something ‘put on’ like a jumper—I make mistakes. Sometimes my head ends up in a sleeve or I’ve put it on back-to-front.

My sisters and brothers (and those in between and outwith that dichotomy) who inhabit this strange world whilst living with ASD – though we represent a broad spectrum of ability, we are united in the extraordinary challenges we face and the extraordinary beauty that we embody. For myself, I’m not sure how much of that statement I believe with all of my heart, but I can say that we see the world in a very different way. Sometimes this world is frightening. Sometimes it is a world full of wonder. But it is always an alien world, perceived through a degree of social ineptitude and oversensitivity to external stimuli that sets us apart from our neurotypical sisters and brothers.

In both the past and the present we have been social outcasts, but this strange world is our world too. We have a voice, whether that is one spoken aloud, through a speech device, or even uttered within our own minds. We are an invaluable part of the fabric of society – without us something essential would be missing.

I’m no way making myself out to be the spokesperson for all people living with ASD. I can only speak from my experience. But who am I? That’s a difficult question for me to answer. It’s made especially difficult because of what I ‘do’ as I am a parish minister in the Church of Scotland. People often ask me about my calling and I grant that it’s rather unusual as there are fewer than a thousand of us in post at the moment. I often describe it, in brutally honest terms, as miserable, but the best thing in the world. I have the great and humbling honour of serving a wonderful and accepting congregation, full of energy, compassion and diversity. In addition to my ‘church family’, I have an extended family of one of the largest parishes in Scotland. The parish of Queen’s Park and Govanhill doesn’t cover an especially large geographic area, but it is home to, in my estimate, more than 20,000 individuals, nearly half of which, like me, were not born in this country.

As part of my calling, I have the opportunity to work with what seems like countless community organisations and faith groups in our area. I have the opportunity to build relationships with so many different kinds of people, networking between organisations, playing my very modest part in the incredible work that goes on in this wee patch of Glasgow. In addition to community work I also have the opportunity to serve on different bodies within Glasgow Presbytery and the Church of Scotland. And last, but not least, I have the opportunity and privilege of building relationships with my aforementioned church family. This includes visiting folk at home and in hospital, leading several services on Sundays and attending prayer groups. Additionally, I also have the opportunity to take part in special events, such as fundraisers and social meals. I’ve probably left out a fair bit of what being a parish minister entails, but I hope you get the gist.

As someone living with ASD, none of this is natural for me. In fact, it’s highly unnatural. That is part of why the question ‘Who am I?’ is so difficult to answer. I’ve got the person who needs to fulfil the responsibilities of being a parish minister with the added layer of the need to fulfil the responsibilities of a ‘normal person’. I’ve spent my entire life learning to put on ‘normal’. I feel that I must do this because of the negative responses I have received for not behaving a certain way. So very much of what many people take for granted as natural practice within social interactions are things that I have had to learn. It takes a massive amount of cognitive energy to maintain even just one of these two layers of ‘normality’. And I’m still learning. When a behaviour is not natural, I make some embarrassing—or even worse—hurtful mistakes. All too often I misinterpret what I am told. When I see someone has a new haircut—stop everything—I must tell them that I’ve noticed, even if they are midsentence. The same goes for other aspects of physical appearance – it’s not okay to point out every feature, especially when someone has a lazy eye or a new plook. When is it my turn to speak? When should I stop talking? Phone calls are a waking nightmare. These things are just the very tip of my autistic iceberg.

Maybe you’re reading this and thinking, ‘There’s nothing unusual there.’ Thank you. Please spend a few hours with me and tell me that I’ve not made any social errors – it’s a rarity. And when we meet, please don’t touch me unless I tell you that it’s okay.

So who am I? To be honest, I don’t really know. Maybe none of us can answer that question. For me, I don’t know how to disentangle fully the learned behaviour from the kernel of ‘Elijah’. When presented with of all of the opportunities set before me, it’s very easy to overwork, a vice if ever there was one. There’s a great temptation to overfill my schedule, to take on any opportunity presented to me. For even the most hardy neurotypical person, this is a sure recipe for burnout. In the face of this errant busyness, there is a great need to refocus, to remember who I am as Elijah; not the parish minister, but the person, the disciple of Jesus. ‘Know thyself’, ‘γνῶθι σεαυτόν’, a pre-Socratic maxim featured in Western thought for several thousand years. It is not an unusual challenge. I’m working on it.

I’m not sure if sharing all of this is yet another faux pas, but I’m grasping at straws. I’m trying to make sense of it all. I need to figure out what resources there are to help me on this journey. And if you’d like to help, thank you. I need it. We need it. We need patience and understanding. We need respect and equality. We need love, even if we’re not the best at expressing it.

Best Albums of 2016

best-albums-of-2016

Remember us? Neither do we. On with the show.

Love,
Greg & Elijah

Elijah’s Top 10 Albums of 2016

nattesferd

10. Nattesferd  Kvelertak — Listening to Nattesferd, Kvelertak’s third full length album, is something like travelling back in time. The album is a marked departure from aural onslaught of their previous record (2013’s Meir, produced by one of my all-time favies, Converge’s Kurt Ballou). Don’t get me wrong, Nattesferd is an onslaught, but of a much different nature. Fears that Kvelertak might be headed toward a more mainstream rock sound are allayed continually throughout this 47-minute masterclass in capturing the familiar energy, precision and fun of the American heavy metal sound of the early eighties and the aggression and fullness of the Norwegian black metal sound of the 21st century without losing any of their respective charms.

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9. Puberty 2  Mitski — There are two distinctive threads running through Puberty 2. Firstly, there is innovation and a refusal to adopt a singular form of songwriting. Mitski demonstrates that she can write high quality and accessible pop tunes (see ‘Your Best American Girl’) whilst verging on proto-grungey post-punk (see ‘My Body’s Made of Crushed Little Stars’) and occupying more familiar, yet refreshing indie territory in between. The second thread demonstrates that Puberty 2‘s variety is not the result of simply compiling tracks from across a repertoire — this is Mitski’s fourth album. Looking past the fact that she’s only 25 (what have we done with our lives?), Mitski is demonstrating that she is a seasoned and consummate artist.

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8. Next Thing  Frankie Cosmos — Next Thing is the epitome of ‘big things in small packages’. This album lasts under a half an hour, with the longest of its fifteen tracks lasting only 164 seconds (that’s 2:44). But the listener will not feel cheated. Somehow, Frankie Cosmos (22-year-old Greta Kline) is able to capture complete, common, yet complicated thoughts with each track. In fact, the album is summed up quite well by the cover. As you can see, the perspective of the image is from that of a passenger in a car, doodling in a notebook. At the same time, the passenger is revealed to be using a mobile to take a photograph – captured as the cover image itself. The car is veering left, perhaps making a turn to the ‘Next Thing’. We also observe typical things – a fallen tree branch, a littered plastic bag, paw prints, a car driving off in the distance. It’s a brilliantly simple yet interesting composition, much like the record.

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7. Skeleton Tree  Nick Cave & the Bad Seeds — This album, as so many albums on my list this year, caught me by surprise. I first heard ‘Jesus Alone’ on 6 Music on 2 September and I knew Skeleton Tree was going to be special. The production was sparse and moving. Cave had moved from his typical narrative formula (in the accompanying documentary, One More Time with Feeling, Cave claims that he has lost his faith in narrative-based songs). The rest of the album reflects these shifts. With both the stirring words and ambient musical tone, Cave is reflecting on a profound sense of loss (having lost his young son Arthur in the summer of 2015) and engaging in some serious existential inquiries. So really, Skeleton Tree is not so atypical of Nick Cave & the Bad Seeds after all.

teens-of-denial

6. Teens of Denial  Car Seat Headrest — There’s been a slight tendency toward slacker rock in my listening this past year. It’s probably a hangover from 2014’s GARAGE ROCK BONANZA. When Car Seat Headrest’s Teens of Denial first appeared on my radar, I despised the names of both the band and the album. But as with a lot of things in life, those become invisible or at least inconsequential to an individual once a relationship is solidified. I could write a lot about this record, but Greg expresses it so well that I’ll cede the floor to him for this one (see Greg’s comment on Teens of Denial below).

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6. Painting of a Panic Attack  Frightened Rabbit — A familiar face. I’m going to be honest here: when I first heard this record I was convinced that I would consider it nearly, if not the weakest Frightened Rabbit album to date. Something about it fell flat for me. So I put it away for a few months. Maybe six months. Then I picked it up again – I knew there had to be something I was missing. Even upon the first re-listen I asked myself, ‘Was I even paying attention?’ It was as if I had never heard these songs. And they were actually quite good! Maybe you share my initial impression. If you have not got back to Painting of a Panic Attack, I implore you to give it another shot. I admit that there are times when it feels less adventurous/emotionally porous than FR’s other material, but there is a quality to the songwriting (thanks to the ever insightful pen of Scott Hutchison) and production (thanks in part to the National’s Aaron Dessner) that keeps me listening.

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4. Emotions and Math Margaret Glaspy — Margaret Glaspy’s debut album makes one wonder, what comes next? Emotions and Math is as competent and complete as a veteran release. That’s not say that Glaspy has gone stale – far from it! She touches on Aimee Mann and Elliott Smith in equal measure and brings her own sophisticated musical sensibilities to the table in well packaged yet positively aggressive and unpolished pop rock tunes. Emotions and Math improves upon subsequent listens and leaves us thirsty for what Glaspy will do next.

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3. A Moon Shaped Pool  Radiohead — I’ve done the maths and have discovered that the period between The King of Limbs and A Moon Shaped Pool is the longest gap between Radiohead albums since their first release, way back in 1993. That’s five years, two months and 20 days between KoL and AMSP! I know it might not seem like much, but perhaps you will remember that long gap between Hail to the Thief and In Rainbows – a mere four years, four months and one day. Okay, maybe it’s not so much about the quantity of time between records as it is the quality of material on each record that leaves us thirsting for more. The King of Limbs has its charms, including the special edition packaging, featuring the world’s first (and probably last) ‘newspaper edition’. But it fails to reach the bar set by previous releases, especially since In Rainbows seems to have become so loved amongst the Radiohead intelligentsia. But A Moon Shaped Pool proves to be not so much a simple return to form as it is a uniquely profound yet thoroughly ‘Radiohead’ collection of haunting and atmospheric orchestrations. It is unassuming, gritty, yet polished. It is all the things for which we admire Radiohead and with an added expanse of lyrical coherence.

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2. My Woman  Angel Olsen — Angel Olsen is another familiar face among my end-of-the-year picks. Her previous record, Burn Your Fire for No Witness, was my third favourite album of 2014. When an artist produces something as good as Olsen’s previous outing, it’s difficult to know how to approach subsequent releases. Should one set high standards only to be disappointed or should one go in expecting the worst? I was still weighing out this question when I first heard My Woman. According to Olsen, the album’s themes revolve around ‘the complicated mess of being a woman’. As one who does not self-identify as a woman, I believe this album also has plenty of energy to contribute to ‘the complicated mess of being a human’. Olsen’s lyrical, vocal and musical presence is stronger than ever and the record seems to hold together more fully than her earlier releases. In complete self-awarness, she addresses themes of despair, broken expectations and ultimately, hope, all borne with her trademark wit and defiant boldness.

masterpiece

1. Masterpiece  Big Thief — It’s been a while since I’ve been so completely surprised by an album. There are great albums from great artists that I can see coming from miles away (such as Sufjan Stevens’ masterful Carrie & Lowell from 2015) and there are the general surprises that make me a new fan (such as Emotions and Math and Teens of Denial above). But then there’s something like Big Thief’s Masterpiece. I had already heard the album before I realised it was released on Omaha-based Saddle Creek Records, which might have coloured my first listen with Midwestern angst. But the Midwestern angst found me over the course of that first listen. I grant that this is all becoming a wee bit self-indulgent for an Angeleño-Glaswegian commenting on an album from a Brooklyn-based band that reminds him of the American Midwest. (To give me some tenuous credit, singer/guitarist Adrianne Lenker is from Minneapolis.) But there are serious, though probably unintentional musical and vocal hints of the Anniversary (1997-2004) among others, which is enough to send me spiraling into an adolescence-fueled hunt for a [misplaced] sense of ‘authenticity’. Because of these fleeting emotions, I feel some sort of shame that I can’t help but make this album my top pick of 2016. Beyond these fleeting emotions, Masterpiece is an album with superior breadth and depth, musically and thematically, driven by Lenker and Buck Meek’s vocals and guitars, completely deserving of any scanty honour that I may offer. It will haunt me well into 2017, which, unlike UK and American politics, is no bad thing.

Honourable Mentions

  • Love  Muscle and Marrow
  • You Want it Darker  Leonard Cohen (1934-2016)
  • Slow Forever  Cobalt
  • Blackstar  David Bowie (1947-2016)
  • Air  Astronoid

Greg’s Top 10 Albums of 2016

everything-at-once

10. Everything At Once  Travis — Elijah may be holding his nose with this choice, but I felt like these Scottish lads (who’ve been together for 26 years!) finally found their way back to the simple, lovely tunefulness of their turn of the century apex (The Man Who, The Invisible Band) with this strong release. I’m a sucker for the gentle melancholic hopefulness of Fran Healy’s voice (check out 2:03 on this video) and shimmering indie instrumentation of the band.

winter-lives

9. Winter Lives  Matt Pond PA — I have a weak spot for this chamber-pop troubadour. He once again demonstrates a songwriting brilliance that has made me love his poppy, life-affirming tunesmithery over the years. His voice has such a perfect sincerity and tone, the lyrical nostalgia of songs like ‘The Glow’ and ‘Whoa (Thirteen and Sledding with Kerry in Northern New Hampshire)’ warmed my sentimental heart, and the arrangements are solid and masterful.

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8. Light Upon the Lake  Whitney — You listen to this album and you wonder, what time-machine did these guys fall out of with their perfect falsetto over tight bass/drum combo and 60’s & 70’s guitar sounds. They may be aching for those ‘golden days’ but for my money, they’ve captured them quite perfectly here.

arranging-time

7. Arranging Time  Pete Yorn — Ah Pete Yorn, yet another brilliant songwriting flame from the early 2k’s that had somewhat flickered out over the years (a la Travis). But he found that former fuel somewhere and picked up right where musicforthemorningafter left off with this new release. Check out tracks 1-3, ‘Shopping Mall’ and ‘Walking Up” for shambling, big-hearted, melodic indie goodness.

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6. Not To Disappear  Daughter — Oh her voice just slays me from the first word to the last: like smoke hitting a rain-covered window. Her elegant lyrical delivery taps into the deepest sadness you could imagine, but then soars into the sun over a cascade of guitars and throttling drums (check this video out, as well as this one and fail to be impressed).

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5. A Moon Shaped Pool  Radiohead — This collection of songs (arranged alphabetically it seems) took a bit to grow on me. Initially, I thought it was just some stray songs they’d never really finalized that they’d figured they would finally put on a record, but as I listened more carefully, it opened itself up to me—a staggering heartbreak woven through with gorgeous orchestration and unexpected turns of phrase and melody. They are back at the heights of their powers after the floundering The King of Limbs.

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4. The Birds Outside Sang  Florist — This is just a gentle, artless, and moving reckoning of dealing with the aftermath of a serious accident. The singer’s voice is fragile, child-like, but full of wonder and hard won wisdom…remembering the light coming into the room where she lay recovering, re-imagining the moment of the accident, but also whimsically meditating on the beauty and capriciousness of life. The instrumentation is lo-fi guitar strumming, Casio keyboard humming, and some droning organs, with the occasional full-band kicking in to make a point.  It’s just so sweet and tender—the mending of a confused soul.  (You can sample the record here. I particularly love the title track.)

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3. Painting of a Panic Attack  Frightened Rabbit — Ok, earlier I had told Elijah this wouldn’t probably be on the upper half of my top 10, but as I’ve gone through and listened again to the 12 tracks, it really is strong (I was basing my early sense of the album on the deluxe edition with 3 extra b-side worthy tunes). I think I was initially turned off by some of the ‘radio-friendly’ tendencies I was picking up (‘Get Out’, ‘An Otherwise Disappointing Life’) and though it loses it’s way a bit on the second half, man, when you listen to ‘Death Dream’ and ‘I Wish I was Sober’ and ‘Still Want To Be Here’ and ‘400 Bones’, it’s clearly the same undeniable genius we’ve celebrated on their last 3 albums.

are-you-serious

2. Are You Serious  Andrew Bird — I’ve always been a fan of the Birdman, but sometimes his meandering obscurity (addressed here on the title track: ‘Used to be so willfully obtuse / or is the word abstruse? / Semantics like a noose / get out your dictionaries’) and multi-layered loop tracks could sometimes become a bit tiresome. Here, he is the TIGHTEST he’s ever been with a strong backing band, streamlined songwriting, and his most straightforward reflections (‘this is all non-fiction’) delivered sincerely alongside delicious whistled melodies. It’s an almost perfect album (save the two-chord gruelling groove ‘Truth Lies Low’).

teens-of-denial

1. Teens of Denial  Car Seat Headrest — I resisted listening to this album for a long time, despite (or because of?) the accolades coming in from various quarters of musicdom. I can’t remember what made me give in, but I’m so glad I did not hold out one moment longer. This is a concept album about a troubled teen exploring some deep universal themes (mortality, depression, anxiety) and others more teen angst-y (experimenting with drugs, drunk driving, relationship drama). The vocalist sounds (and reads) like two parts Ray Davies (Kinks), one part Beck, one part Stephen Malkmus (Pavement) with a dash of Black Francis (Pixies) to taste. The sound of the record is a blend of 90’s alternative rock (open chords through chunky overdrive pedal; double-tracked vocals) mixed with kind of a classic rock aesthetic (hello cowbell!), but as with all of the artists on this list, the song is king (the only number I’m not crazy about is the nearly 8 minute jam ‘Vincent’). This kid is only in his early 20’s but, to my ears, he has already been writing songs for years that hold their own with the greatest ever written.

Honourable Mentions

  • 22, A Million  Bon Iver — I actually like this experimental collection from the falsetto king, but it just didn’t seem substantial enough to qualify as a full-length LP—it’s only like 22 minutes and 22 seconds long (hey wait a second, that was on purpose!!).
  • Young Mood  Colt — It really is a great collection of songs—I just couldn’t get over the singer’s grating, narcoleptic baritone voice.
  • I also didn’t find the time to listen more carefully to a few records from artists I admire (Remember Us to Life Regina Spektor and Ruminations Conor Oberst, so they perhaps would have ended up on this list had I given their albums some attention).  I also want to keep my ears tuned to the Spanish alt/indie band Mourn, who had a so-so album come out, but have potential to be a great band in the days ahead.

Dishonourable Mentions

  • Painting With  Animal Collective — Not as bad as 2012’s Centipede Hz, this album still failed to make much of a dent in the AC canon, which is so disappointing as I love this band so much.
  • Mangy Love  Cass McCombs — I swing back and forth on this guy from album to album, but I almost felt like he was pranking his audience with this collection of his usual esoteric lyricism put to “easy listening” accompaniment.  It won many fans in a wide range of music critics, but I’m calling the Emperor’s New Clothes on this one.
  • Here  Teenage Fanclub — Oh how I love these Scottish indie gods, but this album, their 10th LP, bored me to tears.

Best Albums of 2015

Best of 2015

Not a single Lost in the Cloud post in 2015. We could give excuses, but we don’t think anyone is suffering without our ramblings (Greg and I have an audience weekly in our respective congregations…). We won’t insult our readers with elaborate promises of innumerable posts to follow in 2016. All we can do is offer you our modest annual delight, albeit a wee bit late. This being 6 January, for your Epiphanic pleasure, we hope you find some winners amongst our favourites.

Love,
Greg & Elijah

Elijah’s Top 10 Albums of 2015

10. Brace the Wave  Lou Barlow — Former and present Dinosaur Jr. bassist, a songwriter so dear to the hearts of both of your Losers in the Cloud, has returned for his first studio album since 2009’s Goodnight Unknown. Admittedly, there are a few tracks that don’t stand up as well as others, but in Aristotelian fashion, the whole is greater than the sum of its parts. Several tracks might even be considered some of Barlow’s finest.

deerhunter_all_the_same

9. Fading Frontier  Deerhunter — Gently, Bradford Cox pulls us into Fading Frontier. Those accustomed to the sometimes jarring brokenness of Deerhunter’s previous albums will find familiar hints in softer packages. Whilst not the greatest Deerhunter effort to date, Fading Frontier is full of excellent material, showcasing Cox’s ever-improving songwriting.

8. Weirdo Shrine  La Luz — Vague references to an erotic sci-fi-horror comic? No problem. Surf rock? Even better. La Luz’ second album, Weirdo Shrine, is full of instrumental, vocal and lyrical precision, wrapped tastefully in reverb and harmony. There’s a paradoxical playfulness and seriousness to singer Shana Cleveland’s lead, which, accompanied by equally paradoxical arrangements, makes Weirdo Shrine a supremely satisfying listen and causes me to long for those autumnal twilights along the Californian coast of my youth.

7. Asunder, Sweet and Other Distress  Godspeed You! Black Emperor — Neither ones for a short band name, nor short album titles nor short songs, Godspeed You! Black Emperor demonstrate once again that they’re not for settling down. The soundscapes of Asunder, Sweet and Other Distress are especially suited to a drookit trek through a Hebridean peat bog, but other contexts, such as sitting in your front room, having a shower, walking your dog or driving to work, are also suitable. Sometimes heartbreaking, sometimes distressing, sometimes triumphant and always moving, GY!BE deliver the goods.

6. Vulnicura  Björk — I wouldn’t say that as of late Björk has fallen out of favour in my listening patterns, but her last two records, Volta (2007) and Biophilia (2011), left me feeling less engaged than the previous three. This may well be due more in part of my own shortcomings than those of Björk. But Vulnicura has left me with something I cannot put down. As with most, though not all of my favourite records this year, this album is a grower. Upon every listen, I discover more to love. It is a complex sonic tapestry that demands attention. Unlike so many artists, Vulnicura proves that even as she approaches 51, Björk is brimming with creativity still. She also demonstrates her willingness to engage with fresh talent, collaborating with the Haxan Cloak and Arca, among others. Oh, and check this madness out:

5. I Love You, Honeybear  Father John Misty — FJM returns with a new record, but as Greg observes astutely, so returns J. Tillman’s ‘self-obsessed cynicism’. Surely there’s only so much one can take of a disaffected man, hellbent on constructing a new world around himself. But there’s another side to I Love You, Honeybear that stands out to this listener. The apocalyptic Americana bard could content himself with repeating the same winning formula with which we fell in love from Fear Fun (Greg’s top pick of 2012 and one of my honourable mentions). But he ventures elsewhere on Honeybear, bringing a fuller, heavier and more convicted sound to the record, earning him a mid-table slot on my list.

4. Viet Cong  Viet Cong — This debut release from the Canadian post-punkers is most definitely a grower. The onslaught of energy is apparent from the onset, but the finesse is the wee bit that reveals itself to you upon repeated listens. In what seems like a time when so many post-punk-labelled bands churn out album upon album of the same song, Viet Cong has done something extraordinary. The ground covered in Viet Cong far exceeds its seven-tracks over 37-minutes. The third track alone gives the listener six minutes and twenty seconds of breadth – a repetitive electronic introduction lulls the listener into head swaying territory, waiting for the floor to drop from beneath you with the oncoming deconstructed harmonies that build into relative despair before the return of a dance beat. It’s really something to hear for yourself: ‘March of Progress‘.

3. Depression Cherry  Beach House — Whilst finishing my doctoral dissertation this past autumn I was spending a lot of time listening to Cocteau Twins (engagement with shoegaze and dream pop formed a significant part of the third chapter). I have always sensed a kinship between Cocteau Twins and Beach House. A lad and a lass. Dreamy, simple arrangements. Idiosyncratic female vocals accompanied by reverberating and chorus-laden guitars. And although I would argue that Depression Cherry isn’t as easily consumed as Beach House’s previous albums, Cocteau Twins reminded me to be patient with their dream pop heirs. When one makes the time to absorb Depression Cherry, they will find some of Beach House’s strongest material. For example, I think that the sixth track, ‘PPP‘, is their best to date. I would encourage you to give this record a go — it’s worth every penny and every second.

2. Currents  Tame Impala — The Perth-based psychedelic rockers have been a favourite of us here at Lost in the Cloud since we first heard Innerspeaker in 2010. Their follow-up, Lonerism (2012), also impressed (though not as much for Greg as for me). But Currents is most assuredly ‘next level’. The persistence of the phased beat remains, as do Kevin Parker’s George Harrison-esque vocals. But the band is forging new boundaries. They are demonstrating what it means to evolve as musicians and doing so with expert precision and maturity. Tame Impala have not lost their psychedelic, trance-inducing edge — they’ve just sharpened it.

1. Carrie & Lowell  Sufjan Stevens — It comes as no surprise to me that both Greg and I have chosen Carrie & Lowell for this top slot. It’s hard to believe that Illinois was released over a decade ago. Many of us Sufjan-obsessed lot wondered where he would go after that album. We saw him through his early songwriting, a mixture of delicate pop folk and low-fi noise (A Sun Came, 2000), through his electronic odyssey (Enjoy Your Rabbit, 2001), through his intensely personal meditations on life in the Midwest (Greetings from Michigan, 2003), joyous folk theodicy (Seven Swans, 2004) and outright indie pop. In danger of professing what may be blasphemy to many, I was never as sold on Illinois as a whole as I had been with his previous efforts. I feared that Sufjan wouldn’t find new territory as he had during the first five years of his career. He lay silent for a while (2006’s Avalanche is composed of songs from his 2004 Illinois sessions). We who heard ‘Majesty Snowbird’ performed live braced ourselves for something extraordinary. But we were made to wait. In 2007, Stevens showed his film The B.Q.E., which was accompanied by a live orchestra. Its soundtrack was released in 2009. By his own admission, Stevens had lost his faith in the form of ‘song’. Then we heard news of an album proper to be released in 2010, which was preceded, without warning, by the All Delighted People EP. We had heard the new sound and it was glorious. Two months later we entered into the Age of Adz. Both Greg and I knew from very early on that it was our shared favourite album of 2010. Then he fell silent again. We wondered where he could go from the satisfying chaos and vulnerability of Age of Adz. Finally, nearly five years later, we got our answer. Much has been, can and should be said and written of Carrie & Lowell. A masterpiece. A revelation. A portrait of serene torture. There’s a sense of despair and hopelessness that carries throughout Carrie & Lowell, but with it is a natural sense of hope and the affirmation of life. In his essay ‘The Experience of God and the Axiology of the Impossible’, American philosopher John Caputo posits:

Hope is only hope when one hopes against hope, only when the situation is hopeless. Hope has the full force of hope only when we have first been led to the point where it is impossible to hope – and then we hope against hope, even as faith is faith in the face of the incredible. Hope is only hope when all I can do is to try to keep hope alive even though there is no hope. There is no hope, I know that and I am convinced of that, but I still hope.

In this way, I must extend my gratitude: Thank you, Sufjan, for giving us hope.

Honourable Mentions

  • Escape from Evil  Lower Dens
  • Natalie Prass  Natalie Prass
  • Sometimes I Sit and Think, and Sometimes I Just Sit  Courtney Barnett
  • New Bermuda  Deafheaven
  • Return to the Moon  EL VY
  • The Agent Intellect  Protomartyr
  • Have You in My Wilderness  Julia Holter

Greg’s Top 10 Albums of 2015

It was lovely to find a few more albums than last year that I knew would be on this list as soon as I heard them—and I’m gratified that my and Elijah’s lists converged more this year than some. I always find myself having to catch up with some of his more esoteric choices and I hope that I am able to help any of our dear readers catch a scent of some new sonic pleasures as well. Bon appétit (wow, a muddle of metaphors if there ever was one)!

10. Times Infinity Vol. One  The Dears — I do love this Canadian indie band quite a bit, even though they don’t always live up to their potential. This album feels a bit slight (supposedly there is a Vol. Two forthcoming), but honestly it’s nice to see a band not fill out an album with padding of middling material or playing a song to death with endlessly-repeated choruses at the end of a song (ok, The Dears are sometimes guilty of this). They ask in their almost funky lead single, ‘I Used to Wait for the Heavens to Fall‘:  ‘Whose side are you on?’  I am on your side, Dears.

9. Return to the Moon  EL VY — Part of me wanted to love this album (more Matt Berninger from The National!), part of me wanted to ignore it (don’t be unfaithful to your bandmates with some poppy, multi-instrumentalist from Oregon!). I gave it a number of focused listens & I just can’t help but get taken in by it–his lyrics, his low melodic rumblings, they are just too brilliant to neglect & the arrangements have grown on me (I wasn’t a huge fan of the title cut at first, but it’s all really quite good), even the ‘haunted house’ feel of ‘Silent Ivy Hotel‘ (love the faux-Elvira/Beetlejuice video…such a great sense of humor!!).

8. Sprinter  Torres — Her 2013 self-titled album would have come close to making my list that year if I’d heard it in time (that was such an AMAZING year of music!!), this album is a wholly other turn. When I heard it (on Amazon Prime Music no less), I immediately thought of the early PJ Harvey (it turns out she has a member of Harvey’s old band playing & producing!) and even the primal punk power of the young Sinead O’Connor. Supposedly, the album is about her rejection of Christian faith/upbringing (I need to listen more carefully to the lyrics to sort it all out), but she is IN CONTROL HERE—tight arrangements, in-your-face snarls & howls, layers of harmony on top of crunchy guitars…check out ‘Sprinter.’

brother

7. Brother  The Brilliance — This is a Christian group and we use a number of their songs in worship services at my church, so it may seem strange a bit odd here. But honestly, this band, more than any other Christian worship group ever, makes it eminently beautiful at every level—haunting melodies on cello & piano laid down beneath a voice filled with tenderness and longing (there’s a good deal of the spare instrumentation reminiscent of Sufjan Stevens here, so that’s probably part of my affection…though the Age of Adz-y synth bleep-bloops on ‘Love Remains’ is a bit much). Exhibit A: ‘Does Your Heart Break?‘ (note the Elliott Smith shout-out near the end of the song—which is only instrumental on the YouTube video link there, but they actually sing ‘everything means nothing to me’ on the album). The lyrics are poignant &   filled with questions of God such as ‘Are you watching as your children die?’ (some of which I take theological issue with, but still think are legitimate forms of lamenting confusion). So many amazing songs here—their whole catalog is filled with this level of quality.

6. Depression Cherry  Beach House — Just listen to it. The opening Phillip Glass by way of Mazzy Star track is only the beginning. There’s part of me that realizes that this is just a guy & girl in a studio with a drum machine & a bunch of keyboards & some guitars, but it comes out so transcendent, so ethereal…it’s musical alchemy. Don’t know what else to say. (I would allow you to skip the second song with its shoegazy sort of distorted acoustic guitar, but that would be the one exception).

5. Dear Wormwood  The Oh Hellos — Discovered this band through a free download of their album Through the Deep, Dark Valley on NoiseTrade (which sadly usually has more misses than hits for me) a couple years back and felt like I’d been given a bag of gold. I ordered this album sight unseen (and I suppose more importantly, sound unheard) and here it is, right at the top. It’s an immediate masterpiece, not an album of songs per se, but an ALBUM’s album. You should listen to the whole thing to understand it. I found myself choking up on the title track—’I know who I am know and all that you made of me / I know who you are now, and I name you my enemy’—the triumph of pursuing the good over giving in to the evil that can worm its way into our lives.

4. Bashed Out  This Is the Kit — Matt Berninger wasn’t the only one playing around outside of The National this year. The Dessner bros are producing & playing on this album. This album came out of nowhere for me. I saw somewhere that Elbow’s Guy Garvey had recommended this album, so I downloaded it. Then fell in love with this album. It is like being inside the head of someone who is so true and kind and lovely; such a captivating vocalist, with layers of sounds and lovely tunes surrounding it. This is an intuitive recommendation—my affection for this album may translate for you. No worries. I’m just so glad I found this band. A good entry point might be ‘Silver John,’ but it’s not really representative of the whole album.

björk_vulnicura

3. Vulnicura  Björk — While I followed Björk pretty faithfully through the Sugar Cubes and early solo years, her albums got a bit too out there for me (conventional sort that I am). But this, while wildly experimental at times, is undoubtedly a work of genius. It’s a cathartically painful account of a relational break-up, but it is a masterpiece of exploring the loss with perfectly apt musical accompaniment & vocalization. I feel so terrible for her, but as often happens, hard lives make great art. You have to make the time to listen to the whole album in one sitting—it’s profound, heartbreaking, and epic.

2. Currents Tame Impala — Another break-up album, but this time from the one who left (I think!) rather than the one who was left (a la Björk). I secretly think that the one-man band that is Kevin Parker challenged himself to take a bunch of non-cool musical materials (the most cheesy 80’s synth sounds conceivable—think Spandau Ballet, handclaps, falsettos) and make the most awesome album imaginable. Beggaring belief, he succeeded. A few little filler tracks aside, this is a record of the highest level of song-writing ability and musicianship possible.

1. Carrie & Lowell  Sufjan Stevens — So much has been said and written about this album. I don’t think I can even describe what this album means to me. Loss, longing, despair, regret captured by God’s own bard.

Honourable Mentions

  • Brace the Wave  Lou Barlow (I love Lou and was so delighted to see him live this year, but this album didn’t measure up to his previous solo work for me)
  • I Love You, Honeybear  Father John Misty (it’s quite a good album, I’m just so sick of his self-obsessed cynicism)
  • The Waterfall  My Morning Jacket (really good, I just didn’t listen to it enough to evaluate)
  • Love Songs for Robots  Patrick Watson (always worth listening to)
  • Star Wars  Wilco (I only started listening to this last week. It’s REALLY good. Too late to include, but may have made the cut)

Best Albums of 2014

Best Albums of 2014

Oh, hi, remember us?  Never fear, it’s that time of year again!  The time to buy into consumerism, to plunge ourselves into debt for the sake of acquiring all the latest things in order to prove to our loved ones that they really are worth that object made by underpaid underagers on the other side of the world.  But we need not be cynical!  During this festive time, when the nights are still drawing in, when we wrap up warm and share in Christmas carols, hugs and kisses, mulled wine and mince pies, we at Lost in the Cloud are very pleased to share with our favourite albums in order to see us all through the winter.  And, in typical LITC fashion, not a minute too soon.  So do read, listen and enjoy in full frequency stereophonic sound!

Love,
Greg & Elijah

Elijah’s Top 10 Albums of 2014

WYR0514tubejktnoguidlines10. Sunbathing Animal Parquet Courts — 2014 has been a good year for the revival of garage and punk rock.  Parquet Courts’ Sunbathing Animal is just one of many great fruits of this harvest.  With a barrage of home-made-feeling stripped down rock tunes, Sunbathing Animal explores the constant tension between, what vocalist/guitarist Andrew Savage describes as ‘a duality between freedom and captivity; that balance between the freedom that you find in being in a band—or just being a creative person in the world, that’s trying to leave their mark—and then the captivity that goes along with the constraints that you come up against … and a lot of the time having it fail.’  Like that poor diced up tiger on the album cover, Parquet Courts examine that tension in glorious fashion, with persistent drumbeats and sloppy guitars from a bygone era, rediscovered and executed with a shrewdness and confidence so lacking in this present age.  And with track durations ranging from one minute to seven (each very satisfying in length) Parquet Courts further demonstrate that they are well aware of what they’re doing.

Crunch9. Crunch Eureka California — Also among the great garage and punk rock records released this year, Eureka California’s Crunch distinguishes itself with a shelling of persistently energetic, witty and hook-laden gems.  As singer/guitarist Jake Ward confesses in the track of the same name, ‘You put your hand to the pencil and the pencil to the pad, never has anything so sharp ended up so dull and bland … because art is hard‘, good art is indeed difficult.  But I’m pleased to report that Crunch is anything but dull and bland.  Sadly, it seems many reviewers, to their own loss, have largely overlooked this record.  Here at Lost in the Cloud, we [and by ‘we’ I mean ‘I, Elijah’] encourage you not to let this one pass you by as it has so many others!

Loom8. Loom Fear of Men — As said by that great modern sage Tila Tequila, ‘I think every person has their own identity and beauty.  Everyone being different is what is really beautiful.  If we were all the same, it would be boring.’  I think there’s a real kernel of wisdom in that.  I once heard a university professor express gratitude for his differences from his partner because, ‘If we were both the same person, there’d be no need for the other — I might as well kill myself.’  A wee bit harsh, but the point I am making is that although Greg and I are kindred spirits in so many ways (such as our love for Sufjan Stevens, Elliott Smith and Irn-Bru), our differences make us a better platonic pairing in many ways.  Take Fear of Men’s Loom, for instance.  I don’t intend to speak for Greg, from what I’ve gathered, Loom was a ‘like’ not ‘love’ album for him.  Me, on the other hand — as you can see, it’s nestled right here between nine and eight.  Their first full-length release, Loom is a great foray into dream pop/indie rock.  Jess Weiss’ vulnerable vocals, teamed with Daniel Falvey’s watery, guitar-driven soundscapes wash over the listener like waves (and there are many aquatic references on Loom).  It’s a beautiful piece of work and, at the very least, a beautiful debut.

Some Blue Morning7. Some Blue Morning Adrian Crowley — Maltese-born Irish singer-songwriter Adrian Crowley was described as ‘the best songwriter that no one’s heard of’ by Ryan Adams in 2005. I’m inclined to agree with Ryan.  Although he has been active for fifteen years, during which he has released six albums, I was only made aware of Crowley’s existence in before Some Blue Morning.  Crowley’s voice and style remind me of veterans like Leonard Cohen and Scott Walker and of more recent master Bill Callahan.  With great skill and precision, Some Blue Morning is produced and executed very conscientiously, and it’s no exaggeration to claim that there is a maturity to Crowley’s songwriting that lands him among such greats.

Too Bright6. Too Bright Perfume Genius — This record is most definitely what I would consider ‘a grower’.  Too Bright is singer-songwriter Mike Hadreas’ third release.  His first two, Learning (2010) and Put Your Back N 2 It (2012), eluded the major English-speaking charts, gaining momentum only in Belgium (and the latter in Ireland), for some reason.  But Too Bright has found its way into the US and UK charts, riding on the success of the lead single ‘Queen’.  Upon my first listen to ‘Queen’ I was impressed with the Perfume Genius himself, Mike Hadreas’ raw lyrics coupled with his cutting delivery.  The rest of the album requires more patience, but the payoff is tenfold.  There’s a primal aggression paired with serene meekness, which only grows more satisfying with each listen.  Throughout the whole of Too Bright, one can hear Hadreas push himself to his limits, relying more upon vocal tone than words (of which there are relatively few).

Nobody Wants to be Here and Nobody Wants to Leave5. Nobody Wants to Be Here & Nobody Wants to Leave The Twilight Sad — I usually ignore Pitchfork, but I was curious to see if any critics were loving Nobody Wants to Be Here and Nobody Wants to Leave (for the sake of brevity, referred to as Nobody from here on out) as much as I have been.  So I went and read Ian Cohen’s scathing review.  He opens with these words:

‘Mainstream success has mostly eluded the Twilight Sad, which is somewhat disappointing and even more surprising—their compatriots We Were Promised Jetpacks and Frightened Rabbit still fill rooms in the States despite being only slightly more ‘pop,’ proof that a certain kind of Scottish miserablism will always play well overseas, especially when delivered with a whiskeyed brogue.  Consequently, when you’re the most successful and long-running band with the word ‘sad’ in its name, the obvious question is, at what point does such a staunch commitment to misery become, well, kinda miserable?  In the case of the Twilight Sad, it takes about a decade, as everything from the title of Nobody Wants to Be Here and Nobody Wants to Leave to its uncertain sonic direction tells of a band feeling trapped within their own reputation.’

‘Scottish miserablism’ and ‘whiskeyed brogue’?  Sounds like Mr Cohen is just being ‘patronising’ and ‘lazy’.  He goes on to contrast Nobody with each of The Twilight Sad’s previous three albums and comes to the conclusion that Nobody lacks ‘palplable passion’.  I assume he means ‘palpable’, but who hasn’t made typrografrical errors?  Aside from his patronising tone and his minor slip of the keys, I’m left wondering if Mr Cohen and I have actually been listening to the same record.  On the whole, I consider this record to be their strongest and most complete to date.  I’ll grant Ian Cohen the fact that Nobody isn’t always as loud or aggressive as The Twilight Sad’s previous releases, but there’s no lack of conviction to be found.  The music is more compelling and listenable than ever (though I’ll admit that, unfortunately, James Graham’s vocals on the sixth track of the album, ‘In Nowheres’ remind me of Eddie Vedder), warranting a stop in my top five albums of the year.

St Vincent4. St Vincent St Vincent — One of my greatest anxieties in my attempt to be taken seriously as a student of pop music comes when I hear a record from a familiar and belovéd artist; an artist who has, in past, been part of my ‘Top 10 Albums’ rankings.  It’s happened plenty of times in recent history—with great artists like Arcade Fire, Beach House, Deerhunter/Atlas Sound, Frightened Rabbit, Girls, Grizzly Bear/Department of Eagles, The National, The Pains of Being Pure at Heart, Tame Impala and Youth Lagoon, to name quite a few—and I fear that it makes me a lazy pupil.  Have I just convinced you that I’m a hack?  Well, let this year’s list convince you that I do resist the temptation as best I can.  It is my intention to present you with ten albums that I believe truly are the best from the year.  Two of my favourite contemporary artists (Owl John [Scott Hutcheson, singer of Frightened Rabbit] and Beck) are honourable mentions, whilst others (like My Brightest Diamond, The War on Drugs and We Were Promised Jetpacks) didn’t even make the honourable cut.  But the one repeat artist I couldn’t resist was Annie Clark.  St Vincent’s newest record demonstrates more than Clark’s typical-yet-excellent craft.  It gives us something novel, something more adventurous as a whole.  It depends yet more heavily on digital programming than any of Clark’s previous records and doesn’t give the impression of a one trick pony that even 2011’s masterpiece, Strange Mercy does at times.  It’s probably helped that Clark has been exploring broader avenues of musical expression (see Love This Giant).  She courts minor controversy with the prudes (with at least one explicit reference to masturbation[!]) and with the devout (with the expression of a preference for the love of another over Jesus), but she’s got this devout prude convinced that St Vincent is an excellent cut.

Burn Your Fire for No Witness3. Burn Your Fire for No Witness Angel Olsen — Oscillating wildly between her country and rock sentiments, Angel Olsen delivers with her latest album.  I was first drawn in by the garage-infused ballads, ‘Forgiven/Forgotten’, ‘High & Wild’ and ‘Stars’, but that is not all that this record has to offer.  Burn Your Fire for No Witness is largely more energetic than her previous effort (2012’s Half Way Home), whilst the latter third of the record demands more of the listener.  But make no mistake, great rewards are to be reaped upon repeated listenings.  With these dramatic swings from more aggressive tracks to more spacious, reflective and tranquil ones, Olsen draws the listener into an intimate experience and makes us thirsty for the next note, the next word.  Her vocal tones are mesmerising and her pace tells the listener that she is in no hurry — but we don’t complain because we have no good reason to do so.

pom pom2. pom pom Ariel Pink — I never expected to be made a believer in Ariel Pink. The first record of his (with the addition of his band, The Haunted Grafitti) I ever heard was 2007’s Scared Famous, which never quite convinced me he was as good as ‘everyone’ was saying.  Then he seemed to disappear for a few years, proving, in my own mind, that my suspicions were true.  When he released his next two records, Before Today (2010) and Mature Themes (2012), I didn’t pay them any attention.  But for some reason I felt as if I needed to give Mr Pink a fresh listen.  I must admit that when I first sampled pom pom (as is now my custom prior to any purchase in this digital age) my expectations were quite low.  I expected it to be too avant-garde for its own or anyone else’s good.  But upon that first listen there was something that made me think twice about pom pom.  Maybe it was actually worth buying after all.  pom pom is a pop odyssey, deriving low-fi influence from 1980s indie and new wave, combining these sensibilities with a heavily Kim Fowley-influenced 1960s feel, all in a crafty and novel way.  It descends into adolescent sex-scapades and a wee bit of nonsense in its third quarter with ‘Sexual Athletics’, ‘Jell-o’ and ‘Black Ballerina’, which rubbed me the wrong way at first (not least due to my abstinence from gelatine), but the quality and strength of Pink’s songwriting prevails.  The skilful eclecticism of pom pom has something for everyone and has made me a believer in Ariel Pink.

Brothers and Sisters of the Eternal Son1. Brothers and Sisters of the Eternal Son Damien Jurado — I’ve always appreciated Damien Jurado’s determination and his commitment to doing things his own way, but if I’m honest, I’ve resisted many of his records for two silly and interelated reasons.  The first reason is the fact that Jurado’s music is often littered with religious under and overtones.  (As the title of this record reveals, Jurado hasn’t pruned away his biblical references for this record.)  It’s not that religious artists are inevitably bad, but the remarkability of artists like Sufjan Stevens and Daniel Smith—artists who, however overtly religious their music may be, due to their innovation could be better classified as ‘artists who happen to be Christians’ as opposed to ‘Christian artists’ with all of the derivative trappings of American Evangelical culture—is hard to come by.  And whilst I don’t think that Jurado has ever been as explicit as any ‘Christian artist’ on the Billboard ‘Christian Albums’ chart (it offends me that such a category even exists!), I’ve resisted any great investment in his music because of what I perceived to be its overall unremarkability.  That being said, his recent partnership with producer Richard Swift (once keyboardist for Starflyer 59 and current member of The Shins) has proven to be a great success.  Brothers and Sisters of the Eternal Son is Jurado’s third record with Swift and his 11th overall, and despite his lack of commercial success, this perpetual underdog has finally captured this Loser in the Cloud’s proverbial heart.  In a video published prior to the release of the album, Jurado stated, ‘This new record is sort of a sequel to [the 2012 album] Maraqopa … and it is about a guy who disappears on a search, if you will, for himself and never goes home.’  With a stunning spectrum of aural depth and stylistic breadth, Jurado tells an intricately [scientifically] fictitious story with which I’m still learning to cope after innumerable listens — and it’s wonderful!

Honourable Mentions

  • Rooms with Walls and Windows Julie Byrne
  • Salad Days Mac Demarco
  • Rave Tapes Mogwai
  • Everyday Robots Damon Albarn
  • Owl John Owl John
  • Piano Ombre Fránçois And The Atlas Mountains
  • La Isla Bonita Deerhoof
  • Morning Phase Beck
  • Are We There Sharon Van Etten
  • Singles Future Islands

Greg’s Top 10 Albums of 2014

To my listening ears, 2014 has not been a great year in music–a good year, sure. But great? Hardly. 2013–now THERE was a year! So many of those albums have STILL been the ones I’ve turned to this year when I wanted to hear something amazing, deep, moving, clever, heartfelt, and beautiful. My last year’s top 10 albums included masterpieces from Neko Case, Frightened Rabbit, The National, The Leisure Society, and Laura Marling, which I believe will hold up for eons. Now, granted, I have only encountered ONE of the albums on Elijah’s list (which is unusual & a bit sad), so I should hold my tongue until I’ve heard all that he has put on the sonic table, but for my part, it’s been a rather impoverished year of the kind of music I am drawn to (melodic, melancholic, lyrically astute without becoming too rarefied, mid-fi to lo-fi production, sincere, organic, etc.). Still there were enough examples to put a list of 10 albums together, and apart from #10, #4, and #2, all of these albums have a kind of REAL sound where you can really tell that people were sitting in a room playing a particular instrument to make the sounds that you are hearing, and that they had refined that sound as a craft, requiring the discipline to really hear everything that the others in the group were doing, and that they had achieved a mastery in their particular genre. Enjoy!

10. Songs of Innocence  U2 — Elijah, forgive me, but here it is.  I suppose this will be a sure sign of having moved permanently into middle-agedom and sentimentality, but I truly enjoyed this album, particularly the latter half.  ‘Raised by Wolves’ married a lilting poignancy with a razor sharp intensity to produce a sound I haven’t heard from U2 in many years.  Song after song, from the poppy production of early tracks (esp. ‘Every Breaking Wave’) to the darkly disconcerting, yet hauntingly lovely closers ‘Sleep Like a Baby Tonight’ and ‘The Troubles,’ I found it quite listenable, and indeed I did listen to it again and again, which is more than I can say about any album of theirs in the last 15 years, or many other albums that came out this year.

9. Phox  Phox — This is a good album from a potentially GREAT band.  All the pieces are there.  Gorgeously idiosyncratic lead vocals of thick velvet & smoke with mysterious lyrics that suggest a wide narrative berth of times and places; brilliantly arranged dynamics with a variety of classical and folk instrumentation (I’m a sucker for a tasteful clarinet line); a vast, yet incredibly tight band that really seems to love playing together; and from what I’ve discerned from a live session, an amazing stage presence and performance.  I’m anticipating great things from these phoxy kids!

8. Are We There  Sharon Van Etten — There is a beautiful languour in her songwriting and voice that evinces a sense of longing and melancholy so deep it’s like someone avoiding eye contact with an ex-lover while they wade in a slow moving river at dusk under a purple sky, and then, suddenly, one finds the will to meet the other’s gaze and stares intensely with a flush of deep sincerity, painful uncertainty, and yet raw, emotional power.  Something like that.  If you want to feel that ‘that,’ listen to ‘Afraid of Nothing,’ ‘Your Love is Killing Me,’ and ‘Break Me.’

7. My Favourite Faded Fantasy  Damien Rice — When I heard this record was coming out, I was surprised that Rice was even still at it musically.  His break through album O had been a mainstay of my mid-2000’s playlists, but I only begrudgingly picked up his second album through some Russian website at $.05 a song and still felt like I’d been jipped.  So when my friend Wade said this LP might be his favourite album of the year, I was a bit incredulous.  Then I listened to it and knew he was onto something. Rice’s lyrics can be cliched (i.e. the idea not fitting in someone’s box) and bizarrely overwrought (exhibit A: ‘I just came across a manger / Out among the danger / Somewhere in a stranger’s eye’ which is utterly ridiculous), but he knows how to craft and perform a song, this one does.  The music rolls along and suddenly slows, like held breath; it’s spare and then suddenly full, an empty stage becoming a filled hall; his voice is rich then falling apart, with emotion that feels unmistakably real.  This Irish lad is back, in my book.

6. The Take Off and Landing of Everything  Elbow — These fellows have mastered the art of lying a spare, haunting arrangement beneath the weathered sagacity of Guy Garvey’s Manchester melodic tales recounting the joy of simple lives, getting older, looking for some kind of meaning great or small. It’s best to not pick songs off this album — just allow it all to wash over you as a whole.

5. Upside Down Mountain  Conor Oberst — I was so deeply disappointed after Oberst’s last outing, the ill-begotten final Bright Eyes album, that I had little hope that he’d return to the powerful lyrical storytelling and hook-filled songwriting I’d loved for so many years.  But this album has it in spades.  I was actually startled by how much I liked song after song on this record–while some are stronger than others, all are quite good.  Such a relief to have the kid genius back in fighting shape!

4. Stay Gold  First Aid Kit — This was another album that I didn’t want to like.  The lead song ‘Silver Lining’ was obviously hooky and rich in harmonies, but it initially felt like some kind of schtick, as if these Swedish teenager sisters were playing at creating some throwback, middle American folk-pop (whilst cramming a bunch of syllables into a kind of talk-singing that I detest) as an experiment in musical slumming.  But oh my gosh as I kept listening (and there was that clarinet line again!), I totally fell for these young women and their tragic stories sung so beautifully, having choruses that pull one into a vortex of loveliness.  (Sadly, our American version of the harmonizing, tragic songwriting teenage sister band, Lily & Madeleine, had only a pretty mediocre LP come out this year after a strong start with an EP & album last year.  Take your time ladies, there’s no rush!)

3. Familiars  The Antlers — Imagine if a resurrected Jeff Buckley decided to become some kind of ass-kicking torch singer and got a really tight band together to lay down solid grooves that stealthily built up (with the help of a horn section) passionate suffering into crescendos like a tidal waves beneath the sound of gorgeous melodic whispers and soaring laments.  Just listen to ‘Palace,’ ‘Hotel,’ or ‘Parade.’  NSFW language BTW.

2. Brill Bruisers  The New Pornographers — I’m pretty much in love with Neko Case’s voice, so I was halfway there with this album as soon as I heard her tiger’s growl.  In the past, I’ve loved the songs that she sung or A.C. Newman wrote/performed & that remained true for this album (title track, ‘Champions of Red Wine,’ ‘Marching Orders,’ ‘Another Drug Deal of the Heart,’ and ‘Wide Eyes’); I have no idea what they are ever singing about, but it is emotionally impressionistic enough that I know when to chuckle or sigh (for example, from ‘Wide Eyes’: ‘Overlooking the canyon / Right from where I’m standing / I swear I can see my former glory still burning / It had every intent of returning // There’s years to planning and landing / To prepare for jumping the canyon / It’s not the death-defying, or cheering / It’s the thrill of clearing, barely clearing’).  However, on this record, I found myself actually enjoying the cuts from the other principle songwriter (Dan Bejar of Destroyer) — which then makes this an all-around delight.  When tunes can become polished to this level of perfection, one cannot begrudge the super-group stacking of the deck!

1. Heart Murmurs  Jeremy Messersmith — This is the one, undeniable masterpiece on this list.  And to my horror, it looks like it’s going largely unrecognized on various Best Albums of the Year lists. I was introduced to the songsmithery of Messersmith by officemates who played his 2010 album The Reluctant Graveyard on repeat to the point that it should have been glass shards in my ears, and yet I found myself unendingly pleased each time I heard the familiar opening notes.  (You may also recognize him from his brilliant Star Wars homage song & video ‘Tatooine.’)  So of course I was excited when this album came out, but I couldn’t believe how deeply I came to love it the more and more I listened to song after song about relational heartache (which should be the most tired of lyrical subject matter, but isn’t here).  His voice is the apotheosis of impeccably smooth tone.  The arrangements are the finest lot of indie pop, skipping around in familiar genres (chamber pop, middle-period Beatles, Radiohead-esque alternative rock, etc.) with genius ease.  The lyrics are clever, full of warmth and compassion for named folks like Steve and Heidi, earnest, hopeful, sweetly profane, and unimprovable.  He was one of Time Magazine’s 14 Artists to Watch in 2014… but I don’t think most of the world was looking carefully enough.  Please don’t miss him too.

Honourable Mentions

  • Bones + Longing  Gemma Hayes (strong start, with guest guitar wall of sound from My Bloody Valentine’s Kevin Shields, but didn’t live up to it in the end)
  • In Roses  Gem Club (amazing chamber pop album)
  • Seeds  TV on the Radio (mixed bag of some brilliance in back-to-back ‘Love Stained’ and ‘Ride’ but otherwise I couldn’t see what they were broadcasting)
  • Loose Ends  Francisco the Man! — I hate to be contentious, Francisco, but I believe that Portugal was actually ‘the Man’ long before you came around. I couldn’t, in good conscience, put an album with this lyric on my top 10 albums list: ‘But every time that I get high / I close my eyes and I ask “Why?” / And then the world, she disappears / And I look for another beer.’  But the MUSIC on this album is often so propulsive and tuneful and thickly layered, feeling like a drive on the open road on a stormy day (for example, ‘You & I,’ ‘Loaded,’ and ‘I Am Not’).  Reminds me of a more distorted instrumentation of Telekenisis + the vocals of The Helio Sequence.

Dishonourable Mentions

  • I was so sadly bored by Morrissey’s new album; Beck’s LP had one genius cut ‘Wave’ but otherwise felt like an attempt to cash in on a Sea Change reincarnation; and I was absolutely left cold by Lana Del Rey’s sophomore record.  (I should have listened to Thom Yorke’s release a BitTorrent more, but it felt like bleeps and bloops for the most part.  We’ll see if it’s a grower like his The Eraser was for me.)

Six Thoughts, Post-Referendum

Several short thoughts, nothing more.  Due to lack of sleep and general exhaustion, this won’t be my finest bit of writing ever, but here goes…

1. MANY VOTES WERE FRAUDULENT – Don’t worry, this isn’t what it seems to be.  I’ve not got some conspiracy theory floating around in my head about mass instances of voter fraud.  I suppose I mean ‘misguided’, but that didn’t seem strong enough.

I would like to look at the simple language of the Referendum ballot: ‘Should Scotland be an independent country?’  In all honesty, I think both sides of the debate have obscured the question, whether intentionally or unintentionally.  I think when most people look at that question they aren’t reading ‘Should Scotland be an independent country?’ at all.  It could be any number of things:

‘Should we sack the Tories?’
‘Should Alex Salmond and the SNP run Scotland?’
‘Should Scotland be an independent country on 19 September 2014?’
‘Do you want to lose your pension?’
‘Do you want to lose Coronation Street?’
‘Do you appreciate the monarchy?’
et cetera

The heart-breaking thing is that whilst some of those suggestions are legitimate or even debatable knock-on effects of union or independence, none of them are really an answer to the bigger question and the first two (and variations of them) are particularly deceiving as they involve conflating party politics and national sovereignty.  I think that the Better Together folk were wise in having a Labour politician lead them (although they couldn’t find someone who sounded more Scottish than Alistair Darling?), indicating a cross-party effort to maintain the Union.  Although Alex Salmond is an incredibly talented politician, he is also the First Minister and the leader of the SNP.  Granted, the Referendum is a direct by-product of the SNP’s election to Scottish Parliament in 2011, but it could’ve been more effective to see less divisive faces leading the Yes campaign.

This all adds up to a wee bit of confusion when it comes to answering the question, ‘Should Scotland be an independent country?’  In defence of the Yes campaign, I would argue that it is likely that many people were not thinking about the future of Scotland with a fully devolved and independent Scottish Parliament made up of all Scottish political persuasions.  We wouldn’t need to ship our best and brightest to Westminster.  They could stay here in Scotland where they have the opportunity to represent the interests of the people living in Scotland — because that would be the entire purpose of an independent Scottish Government.  Instead, folk were thinking about a decade of Alex Salmond.

I also think a lot of folk have been using language to imply that had Scotland voted ‘Yes’ on 18 September, we would be an independent country on 19 September.  Had we voted ‘Yes’, the new government would not have been established until 24 March 2016.  This would allow a year and a half of consultation and negotiation; and to play into the previous point, a democratic vote for all eligible voters in Scotland.  I’m seeing a lot of ‘still in the UK’-type language on social media this morning — no matter the outcome of yesterday’s Referendum, today we would still be in the UK.

2. SCOTLAND IS NOT THE SOCIALIST HAVEN SOME OF US HAVE BELIEVED IT TO BE — Results this morning indicate that areas of a higher working class and unemployed population came out overwhelmingly in favour of independence.  In many of our minds (me included), we’ve harboured this delusion that the vast majority of Scots are like the working class folk in Glasgow and Dundee.  But the reality is that Scotland is not as different from the rest of the United Kingdom as we thought.  Of course, a Conservative politician in Scotland is most likely much further to the left than a Conservative politician in England. See Ruth Davidson, the leader of the Scottish Conservatives.  She’s a woman and a lesbian at that — two qualities that would have many of the English Tory gentry up in arms.  But overall, it’s only common sense to acknowledge that not all Scots are socialists and up until only a few decades ago, Scotland had a long spell of complicity in the electing of Unionist/Conservative Governments in Westminster.

3. THIS IS NOT A TORY VICTORY / THIS IS NOT AN SNP DEFEAT — One great frustration among many I have with the result of this Referendum is that many folk are seeing this as either a Tory victory of an SNP defeat.  It is neither of those things.  At most, it is a Better Together victory and a Yes campaign defeat.  Make no mistake — this vote does not indicate Scotland’s approval of Westminster or the UK Government.  Likewise, it does not indicate Scotland’s disapproval of Holyrood and the Scottish Government.  Instead, a slim majority of Scottish voters decided that our best option at this point is not full independence.  Not only that, but in the midst of their grief, the SNP and the Yes campaign should take some consolation in the fact that over the length of this campaign the support of Scottish independence is at a record high.  It seems clear that the majority Scottish people want more power devolved to Scotland (a clarity that could have manifested itself in a result today had David Cameron not very sneakily traded a second, devo-max Referendum question for allowing 16 and 17-year-olds to vote back in the Edinburgh Agreement).  If Westminster politicians stick to their promises, we will be seeing further devolution in future.

As far as the future of the SNP goes, I believe that a large number of Scots think that the SNP has done well for the Scottish people, hence 2011’s election of a majority SNP Scottish Government in a parliament designed to avoid majority governments.  The SNP isn’t going anywhere any time soon.  If anything, a ‘Yes’ vote would’ve been the best way to ensure that the SNP would eventually dissolve.

4. AT A CERTAIN POINT, A ‘YES’ WOULD MEAN THE SAME THING AS A WESTMINSTER GOVERNMENT — As one might expect, the first results that came in early this morning were the smallest council areas. When a majority of councils had reported (most of them ‘No’ votes) it became clear to me that had the bigger councils voted ‘Yes’ overwhelmingly, this would create the same lopsided democracy as we find at Westminster.  Sure, in this hypothetical situation where ‘Yes’ won as a result of only a handful of large council areas, in numbers the ‘Yes’ would have it.  As is already felt by the smaller councils, particularly in the Western and Northern Islands, they would be governed by the will of places like Glasgow, Edinburgh and Dundee.  Folk have used this as an argument against independence, saying things like ‘Well, the Highlands and Islands have a different culture from the Lowlands, so we should have the opportunity to be independent countries too!’ I think that’s nonsense and you don’t need to think too long to realise that the Western and Northern Islands would be more closely managed and find greater clout in a smaller, more local Scottish Parliament (as opposed to Westminster).  But what I really want to express is that, should Scotland one day decide to be an independent country, I would hope that would be the will of the vast majority of Scots, with support from the further flung parts of our beautiful country.

5. THE UK IS BECOMING INCREASINGLY INHOSPITABLE TO THE OUTSIDER — A major part of why I supported a ‘Yes’ vote is because I am noticing a trend of hostility and inhospitality to outsiders in the United Kingdom.  (Given the results of the last European Parliamentary election, some might even argue that this is a European trend.)  As an Angeliño-Glaswegian, I have a particular interest in the rights of immigrants, although my native language, skin colour and accent put me at a great advantage among non-native residents of Scotland.  The cancer that is British fascism and isolationism is spreading beyond the confines of the political fringes.  Many BNP voters have been making their way to UKIP, a seemingly more politically viable party these days.  I thought that political separation from the UK would enable Scotland to become more intimately associated with the rest of Europe (and the rest of the world).  Unfortunately, no amount of devolution will allow for that in a United Kingdom.  I suppose that is one of my biggest fears in the wake of the Referendum results — that Scotland would become yet more xenophobic.  And here’s a wee reminder to those who think that the SNP’s brand of nationalism is the same as Nazi nationalism — the SNP has never stood for ethnic nationalism, that’s the job of the SDL.

6. WE CANNOT LOSE MOMENTUM — In the wake of this morning’s result, it would be easy to become discouraged or complacent.  Those who supported ‘Yes’ might feel downtrodden and exhausted with nothing to show for it.  This isn’t the result of a simple football match.  This was bigger than any General Election.  And now the opportunity seems lost.  It might be difficult to face the day today.

Those who supported ‘No’ might feel as if their work here is done, dusting off their hands, accompanied by a large sigh of relief.  After the overwhelming nature of this very long and divisive campaign, we might feel too tired to continue.  But there is much work to be done.  I believe that many ‘No’ voters are not entirely convinced about this current system in the UK.  Perhaps they believe that the best way for change is to remain part of the UK and renew it from the inside out.  I can appreciate that.

Today we find ourselves in the midst of a nation divided.  But we are still Scotland and despite the fact that we are not the socialist haven many have envisaged, we have many shared ideals, ideals that are not represented by many of the folk at Westminster.  We cannot give in.  We cannot feel defeated and we cannot feel as if our task is finished.  We must unite as Scotland with love for one another in order to press for the change we need.  We must hold those who made promises accountable to those promises.  We must fight for a fairer and more just society.  We must fight against the special breaks given to large financial institutions.  We must fight for the rights of the most vulnerable and marginalised in our society.  We must fight to do our part to demonstrate care and respect for nature and the precious natural resources so exploited by UK.  And if it be our united will, we must fight to rid the UK of our hypocritical and immoral nuclear arsenal.

These are just some of the things we value.  Let’s write a longer to-do list together.

Hearts

God & the Dentist

Courtesy of jesus-withyoualways.com

Courtesy of jesus-withyoualways.com

Below is, as it is with all opinion posts, an outline of my opinion on a particular topic.  Please feel free to disagree or to challenge my views, but please also take the care to read all of what I have written.  It is my sincere intention to be a loving, gracious, humble and devout follower of Jesus.  Please forgive me when I fail at this.

Today a couple of minister friends of mine shared the same link on Facebook with the heading, ‘Dentist Says God Doesn’t Exist – Watch What His Patient Says…’  Normally I tend away from these sort of links (my criticisms in this post will probably reveal why that is the case), but for some reason today I decided to click.  Here’s the clip:

I’m not sure how long this ‘God & the Dentist’ idea has been circulating (after a limited amount of research I’ve discovered several videos presenting the same argument), but this one was produced by a group called ‘cvcnow’ who on their YouTube account give this description:

cvcnow produce creative short films, designed to entertain and challenge your thinking about real life.

In amongst all the negativity we face online, we want to be that much needed positive presence online and bring a fresh new perspective on real life struggles – from forgiveness to suicide; we don’t shy away from the big issues.

They’ve got this written in their ‘about’ section on the cvcnow.com website:

All we want is to help you explore those unavoidable questions about life, the universe and everything in it.

After a wee bit of research I’ve discovered that cvcnow is a ‘brand’ under the umbrella of Christian Vision, ‘a UK-based international charity founded by Lord Edmiston in 1988.’  I have yet to watch all of the videos that they’ve produced (and I don’t see myself doing that any time soon), but from viewing this dentist video alone, something tells me that none of their videos will sit right with me.  But why?

Before I explain why I see this sort of thinking as more of a foe than a friend, I want to say that this is no attack on any individuals who find this video inspirational.  Please know that I am in no way doubting the faith, goodness or sincerity of anyone involved in cvcnow or Christian Vision, or even anyone who has enjoyed the video above or has passed it on to friends.  I believe that the folk who produced this video are using their skills, passions and energies to do what they think is the most effective way to follow what they believe God wants for them.  But with that being said, I think that most people (even people who commit acts of great evil) do the same.  For example, I’m convinced that the Tories believe that society will best flourish under their policies whilst Labour politicians believe the same of their own policies (though, some might argue that New Labour’s policies are more Tory than Labour, but I digress…).  I also want to express that I believe that God can use any means to reveal theological truth and convey religious experience (my PhD thesis approaches a small facet of that very belief), as in the old story in the Torah of the diviner Balaam who was intent on cursing the God of the Jews, but this very God corrected him via the mouth of a donkey.  So yes, according to our mythology and tradition, God can speak through various means, but I’d rather be the prophet than the ass.

So what about this video do I find particularly offensive?  Aside from the poor writing, poor acting, poor music, poor production and implausibility of the conversation?  Let’s walk through the ‘script’:

Dentist [after working on a patient’s teeth]: OK, we’re done.
Patient: Yes, thank God for that.
D: God?
P: What do you mean?
D: Who in this day and age still believes in God?

At this point it’s important to point out that I don’t know of any dentist, even a staunchly atheistic dentist, who would take issue with someone saying ‘Thank God’ in a situation like that.  Many of my atheist friends say ‘Thank God’ as often as they say ‘Thank fuck’.  The ‘God’ bit of ‘Thank God’ doesn’t necessarily carry much meaning.  ‘Thank God’ is simply a colloquialism.  But the writers of this piece needed to find a way to put God into a ‘real life’ situation, so we end up with a very rude dentist who decides to challenge his patient on a passing comment.  And to answer this elitist dentist’s silly question, Who in this day and age still believes in God?apparently some 5.8 billion of the 6.9 billion people in the world, or 84% of people.  That in no way proves the legitimacy or truthfulness of belief in God, but at least demonstrates that, even ‘in this day and age’, belief in God isn’t exactly uncommon.  So the patient decides to respond:

P: Well, I do.  Why’s that?
D: Well, you obviously missed all the wars, uh, the devastation, the poverty…everything that goes wrong in this world.
P: Well, I don’t believe in dentists.  If there are so many dentists in the world, then why do so many people have broken, infected and missing teeth?

Oh dear.  Now, despite his unpleasant personality, I’m starting to side with the dentist.  Whether or not a Christian will admit it, there is no simple answer to the problem of evil (expressed so eloquently by the dentist in his condescension: ‘Well, you obviously missed all the wars, uh, the devastation, the poverty…everything that goes wrong in this world.’).  I have some views on how I might approach the problem of evil, but I don’t want to go there with this post.  It’s also important to note that God has been used to justify a great many wars throughout history (even Bush and Blair claim to have prayed to God before the [misleading] war in Iraq).  But that at which I want to get is what the patient has used to argue against non-belief – she has decided that she doesn’t believe in dentists.  There are two major problems I have with her decision.

1) She has decided that she doesn’t believe in dentists That’s a very difficult position to maintain when you’re sitting in the chair of a dentist‘s office after your dentist appointment and a dentist is standing right in front of you, speaking with you.  If the Christian God was always so readily tangible the argument might stand up a wee bit better.  But dentists do exist and her assertion that the lack of dental care in the world proves that dentist’s don’t exist is somehow akin to this dentist’s argument against the existence of God by way of the problem of evil is complete and utter nonsense.  In the spirit of this unlikely exchange, this patient’s thanking of God after her dental procedure reveals that she believes that God was somehow present and responsible for the ending of the procedure.  This can be seen as implying that God is capable of being present in many places at one time (omnipresence) and that is powerful enough to bring her through this dental challenge (omnipotence).  The dentist argues that an ever present and all powerful God (who is also a good God [omnibenevolence]) cannot exist in light of the brokenness in the world.  And whilst there are many different conceptions of God, these three things—presence, power and goodness—form part of the general understanding of the concept of ‘God’ in Western society.  ‘Dentist’, on the other hand, does not carry the same weight.  No one in their right mind believes dentists are omnipresent.  No one in their right mind believes dentists are omnipotent.  Some people believe that dentists are actually evil.  So to argue that dentists, because of their lack of omnipresence and omnipotence (and to some people, their lack of omnibenevolence), do not exist, is quite silly.

2) She has decided that she doesn’t believe in dentists.  I have argued against the concept that we ‘choose’ what we believe in other posts (particularly here in ‘Agnosticism in the Kingdom of God’, from 23 September 2011 and here in ‘Some thoughts on religion and its place in my life’, 9 May 2012), but I’ll attempt to reiterate and expand some of that argument here.  In short, I don’t believe any of us choose what we believe and instead—based upon the information we store in our heads from our experiences—we ‘reason’ to what makes the most sense to us.  It’s not Logic with a capital ‘L’, but it’s some type of existential logic.

For a friend of mine, Christianity made sense until something else—whether that is new information he learned or a new experience or series of experiences—led him to see his Christian belief system as illogical.  I do think that we can cultivate a particular belief via manipulation (like any gay men who cultivate the unfortunate belief that their sexuality is a choice), but ultimately, I think belief is something that happens to us.  This makes most sense in Christianity (as opposed to this idea that we choose our beliefs) because, alongside the broader Christian tradition, the Bible seems to express that faith/belief is a gift:

Now when Jesus came into the district of Caesarea Philippi, he asked his disciples, ‘Who do people say that the Son of Man is?’ And they said, ‘Some say John the Baptist, but others Elijah, and still others Jeremiah or one of the prophets.’ He said to them, ‘But who do you say that I am?’ Simon Peter answered, ‘You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God.’ And Jesus answered him, ‘Blessed are you, Simon son of Jonah! For flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my Father in heaven.’  Matthew 16:13-17, NRSV

For by grace you have been saved through faith, and this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God—not the result of works, so that no one may boast.  Ephesians 2:8-9, NRSV

Even the account of St Paul’s conversion implies that faith is something that happened to Saul, not something he chose (see Acts 9).  If the element of choice is ever involved in the Scripture, I believe it’s a matter of choosing between that which is in line with the values of the kingdom of God and that which is out of line with the values of the kingdom of God.  As a result of acting upon belief, some people are commended by Christ:

As he approached Jericho, a blind man was sitting by the roadside begging. When he heard a crowd going by, he asked what was happening. They told him, ‘Jesus of Nazareth is passing by.’ Then he shouted, ‘Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me!’ Those who were in front sternly ordered him to be quiet; but he shouted even more loudly, ‘Son of David, have mercy on me!’ Jesus stood still and ordered the man to be brought to him; and when he came near, he asked him, ‘What do you want me to do for you?’ He said, ‘Lord, let me see again.’ Jesus said to him, ‘Receive your sight; your faith has saved you.’ Immediately he regained his sight and followed him, glorifying God; and all the people, when they saw it, praised God.  Luke 18:35-43, NRSV

There are many other similar passages in the Gospels (such as Matthew 9:22, Mark 5:34, Luke 7:50), but as is expressed in the Epistle of St James, faith/belief is a gift from God:

Listen, my beloved brothers and sisters. Has not God chosen the poor in the world to be rich in faith and to be heirs of the kingdom that he has promised to those who love him?  James 2:5, NRSV

I didn’t choose to become a Christian.  Perhaps every day I have the choice to follow either that which I conceive of as following Christ or that which I conceive of as not, but the conception of following Christ, being a Christian, believing in God — those things are part of my faith, and my faith is a free gift from God.

This is a good place to look at the concluding lines of the dialogue, which reveal what is perhaps the most important reason why I cannot stand by this video:

D: I can’t help people that don’t come to me to have their teeth fixed.
P: Exactly.  It’s the same way with God.  It’s a bit rich of us to expect God to help people who don’t come to him and instead insist on doing things their own way.
D: And how am I meant to come to God?
P: Just talk to him – he’s listening.

Here the patient tells the dentist that it’s unreasonable for us to expect God to help people who don’t come to him.  Why would I have any problem with that?  Being that we’ve just celebrated the Epiphany a few days ago, the doctrine of the incarnation weighs very heavily upon me.  At the very heart of the Christian faith is the belief that God became human in Jesus.  This divine mystery plants God in the midst of human existence, as a human.  As quoted in the Gospel of St Matthew,

‘Look, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and they shall name him Emmanuel,’ which means ‘God is with us.’  Matthew 1:23 (cf. Isaiah 7:14), NRSV

Christianity rests on the belief that God is the one who comes to us: ‘But God proves his love for us in that while we still were sinners Christ died for us.’ (Romans 5:8), ‘We love because he first loved us.’ (1 John 4:19).  It is God’s initiative, God’s move that makes this happen.  God is not sitting, twiddling her divine thumbs, waiting for us to turn up.  God is here, in our midst.  And yet, whilst I believe that this is true, the patient’s response to the dentist’s final question, ‘And how am I meant to come to God?’ poses some other difficulties.

I do believe that God listens.  I do believe that God cares.  But as I have written in a previous post,

I don’t know why some people believe they’ve had a religious experience when they didn’t want one, whilst some people really want a religious experience and have yet to receive it.  I don’t know why the universe is chaotic.  I don’t know why such lovely people die of cancer.  I don’t know why millions of people die of starvation and disease each year.  I don’t know why, if a God exists, that God doesn’t just sort all this out this instant.  These are difficult questions; questions that make the writing of some blog post seem absolutely meaningless.  But even though I cannot give someone a life-changing religious experience, even though I cannot stop a tsunami, even though I cannot feed all who hunger and even though I cannot answer these questions in a neatly-packaged way, I know that this world and the people therein are beautiful and God has called me to give of myself for others in love, despite my lack of love and my lack of ability.

I know that this is not a resolution to the logical challenges facing Christians who maintain that God is omnipresent, omnipotent and omnibenevolent, but in light of the reality of suffering in our world, I believe that those who have faith should tread very lightly when arguing for God’s existence to those who—without us even being aware—have tried very hard to call out and listen for God.  The video above seems to imply that God is just a phone call away, but it does not balance that belief out with the reality that billions of suffering people who have cried out for the aid of a higher power have not received the answer that we of faith so take for granted.  For this reason, someone might see this video and be unnecessarily hurt.  This is why this video rubs me the wrong way.

A life of belief in God is not always cushy.  It’s never easy.  The only concrete thing I believe with this regard is that, through Jesus, God empathises with human suffering and wants people who call themselves followers of Christ to help ease it.  One way we can do that is to train up more dentists in order that they might ‘show the love of Christ by offering dental relief to those in need around the world.’

Best Albums of 2013

BAo13

We finished this list with but a single day left in the year.  We did not forget about you, dear readers, for we know that you would be lost in a musical netherworld without us to guide you out like Orpheus leading Eurydice by the hand (shout out to Arcade Fire!).  We’ve scoured the globe (quite literally) for the finest tunes in 2013.  There were some outstanding albums this year, about which you shall soon read, but the year was not without its disappointments (for us, this would be albums from Atoms for Peace, John Vanderslice, Josh Ritter, and to some extent, Sigur Rós).  And you won’t soon find Kanye West’s Yeezus anywhere near our list (have we poisoned the well for some readers?).  Still, it was a solid year, a year that the annals of music will look back on with a double thumbs up, if not quite a leaping in the air high-five.  So without further ado, we give you Lost in the Cloud’s Best Albums of 2013.

Love,

Greg & Elijah

Elijah’s Top 10 Albums of 2013

guessing the others10. guessing the others  swimming in speakers — I was first made aware of swimming in speakers by our resident Band Evangelist, Greg, back in April.  Duo Christopher Clarke and Meadow Elizabeth Erskine present a fine collection of both timeless and timely tunes, hearkening back to yesteryear’s American and Western European folk traditions whilst also venturing into the freak-folk electronica wave (and doing it oh, so well!).  Erskine is also behind the design of the very delicate album art.  They’ve not received an awful lot of press, but hear you me, keep an eye and an ear out for swimming in speakers.

Phosphorescent  Muchacho9. Muchacho  Phosphorescent — 2013 was a great year for the advancement of the freak-folk movement.  Combining Eno-esque production with Brian Wilson-esque harmonies and the country charm of Willie Nelson, singer-songwriter Matthew Houck has struck gold.  With Muchacho, Houck produces aural sweetness on every level, highlighted by his wavering voice.  Every second of the expertly produced 46:28 minutes wash over the listener like a warm Southern breeze.  And it’s not short of hoots and hollers neither!

Love's Crushing Diamond8. Love’s Crushing Diamond  Mutual Benefit — I must be on a desperate singer-songwriter bent this year.  Although Jordan Lee has been producing through his project Mutual Benefit for more than four years, this is his first LP, and although it’s running time is hardly over a half hour, it is well worth the four year wait.  This album caught me out of nowhere.  As with my number nine and ten albums, there’s a sweetness and maturity to the production of Love’s Crushing Diamond that keeps the listener eager for more.

Trouble Will Find Me7. Trouble Will Find Me  The National — As Greg pointed out, singer Matt Berninger’s voice might not be for everyone.  But like Greg, it’s for me.  And it might be for you.  Now, when I first heard 2007’s Boxer, I was unconvinced.  I found the music rather, dare I say, boring.  I’ll admit that Boxer has not yet become for me what it is for so many of my esteemed colleagues (one of Greg’s Top 50 Albums, for instance), but The National’s previous record, 2010’s High Violet, changed my opinion.  Trouble Will Find Me has only encouraged this continued trend of admiration, with more of the same of what The National always does, but somehow through those obscure lyrics and linear songwriting, they bring you through the mire and give you hope.

Monomania6. Monomania  Deerhunter — I wasn’t ashamed to admit that I wasn’t taken with Bradford Cox’s previous release (as Atlas Sound).  2011’s Parallax was my biggest disappointment that year.  It has a few gems, but by and large I found it boring.  It lacked the magic that flowed forth from all of Deerhunter and Atlas Sound’s previous releases.  So I approached Monomania with caution.  I almost let it slip past me this year, but I must thank my lucky stars that it didn’t.  It’s a departure from Deerhunter’s previous release, 2010’s Halcyon Digest (my third favourite record that year), but definitely a departure in a brilliant direction.  The album starts with a growl and persists with some heavy garage rock. Cox’s vocals oscillate between their typical dulcet tones to heavy distortion, reminiscent of The Stooges.  The guitars seldom let up.  All in all, I think I can sum up this album in one word: exquisite!

Secret Soundz, vol. 25. Secret Soundz, Vol. 2  The Pictish Trail — 2013 has been an eventful year for Johnny Lynch (aka The Pictish Trail), most notably when he announced (seemingly prematurely) that the King Creosote (Kenny Anderson)-founded, Johnny Lynch-run label, Fence Records, was to cease operations (the link to this announcement is now dead).  Since then, Kenny has announced that Fence is still alive and kicking and Johnny has launched Lost Map, taking with him several Fence regulars.  In the midst of this reshuffle, The Pictish Trail has released his first record since 2010’s In Rooms (which isn’t exactly your typical LP, consisting of 50 30-second songs).  For those of us eager to get our hands on The Pictish Trail’s newest tunes, which have speckled Johnny’s live sets for the last few years, Secret Soundz, Vol. 2 comes as a great relief, and if The Pictish Trail hasn’t exactly on your radar over the last decade, you should change that right now.  With his typical fine balance of earnestness and levity, something reminiscent of David Bazan (and not just because of the beard), The Pictish Trail acts as something of a spiritual intercession for us, a prophet who guides us through the banality and pain of life, but with a bold sense of hope on the horizon.

Partygoing4. Partygoing  Future Bible Heroes — I’ve been a fan of Stephin Meritt and Claudia Gonson’s band The Magnetic Fields for some time now, but I wasn’t completely sold on last year’s Love at the Bottom of the Sea.  Upon hearing that their electronica-based project Future Bible Heroes was to release their first record in over a decade, I had mixed expectations, but decided to give it a go anyway.  (*I wish to emphasize that the presence of Futura typeface and a kilt on the album cover had nothing to do with my willingness to listen to this record.)  Partygoing proved to be one of my biggest surprises of the year – and to think that it nearly passed me by!  Ever present are Meritt’s reflections on love, death and darkness, sprinkled with irony and humour, simple songs that prove incredibly touching without resorting to sentimental kitsch.  Chris Ewen’s accompaniment provides the perfect backdrop for Meritt and Gonson’s vocals and as a whole, the record shines.

Wandrous Bughouse3. Wondrous Bughouse  Youth Lagoon — Youth Lagoon’s first record, The Year of Hibernation, came as a great surprise to me back in 2011, especially considering it was the produce of then 22-year-old Trevor Powers in some shack in Idaho.  It came in fourth that year, just behind PJ Harvey’s Mercury-prize winning Let England ShakeThe Year of Hibernation was an inspired record and what it lacked in orchestration (which was very little) it made up for in innocence and artistic purity.  Any orchestral and production gap has been closed on Wondrous Bughouse.  The maturity of Powers’ songwriting and production is staggering, offering echoes of the later output of The Beatles and Elliott Smith.  Still present is Trevor Powers’ unique voice (both literally and figuratively), but with more confidence and tact than his debut release.

Pedestrian Verse2. Pedestrian Verse  Frightened Rabbit — It should come as no surprise that Frightened Rabbit’s Pedestrian Verse is featured near the top of this list.  Their last full length, 2010’s The Winter of Mixed Drinks, ranked very high on both my (number 3) and Greg’s (number 2) Top 10 Lists that year and their 2008 record The Midnight Organ Fight is one of the shared entries from both my and Greg’s Top 50 Albums of all time.  Needless to say, we love us some Frightened Rabbit.  With the release of two EPs since The Winter of Mixed Drinks, 2011’s A Frightened Rabbit EP and last year’s State Hospital, our inflated sense anticipation could only amount to disappointment with Pedestrian Verse, right?  WRONG.  With instant classics such as ‘Acts Of Man’, ‘Backyard Skulls’, ‘Holy’, ‘The Woodpile’, ‘Late March, Death March’, ‘December’s Traditions’, ‘Housing (in)’, ‘Dead Now’, ‘State Hospital’, ‘Nitrous Gas’, ‘Housing (out)’, ‘The Oil Slick’ (yes, that’s the whole album…), Pedestrian Verse somehow proves even more accessible (and perhaps even more complete) than any of their previous releases.  There’s a great sense of honesty in all of Frightened Rabbit’s music, and here with Pedestrian Verse, singer Scott Hutchison further exposes his own tendency toward immature sentimentality and gives us something more upon which we might latch in order to keep our heads above the waves.

Reflektor1. Reflektor  Arcade Fire — When I first heard this record I knew it was going to be on this list, but I didn’t expect it to be number one.  But as with most of the music I find worth listening to, Reflektor is a grower.  Being the silly man that I am, I wasn’t a fan of Arcade Fire’s first record.  When Greg and I decided to share duties when reviewing our shared Top 10 Albums entries in 2010 I dodged this confession by having Greg do The Suburbs writeup.  These days I find Funeral far more listenable, but you still won’t find it anywhere near the top of my favourite albums list.  The same goes for their second release, Neon Bible.  I found certain songs on both records very strong, but it wasn’t until The Suburbs that I found myself completely enamoured with an entire Arcade Fire record.  This might put a foul taste in the mouths of some of our LITC readers and maybe for ‘Arcade Fire purists’ the placement of Reflektor here at the number one spot—in light of my mixed feelings regarding Funeral, in particular—is seen as sad and weak.  But for these things, I am unapologetic.  Early Arcade Fire’s unsteady musical footing and maudlin lyrical content was wasted on me.  But with Reflektor the band has reached musical nirvana.  Conceptually, intellectually, musically, lyrically – it’s all there, stripping back contemporary pop sensibilities and gifting us with an organic piece of pop genius.  And as I said before, Reflektor is a grower.  The tracks I once considered weaker, the last five, are now the ones I to which I cannot stop listening.  They hammer home some of the conceptual genius of Reflektor, this play between Eurydice and Orpheus (see the Rodin sculpture which features prominently the cover of the album) and the paradoxical insanity of the ‘Present Age’ (see Kierkegaard’s Two Ages).  In the midst of the convergence of these themes, Reflector also proves highly listenable, echoing the bodily and rhythmic sensibilities of a Haitian carnival.  So if you’ve not already, find yourself a comfy seat this New Year’s Day and Reflekt.

Honourable Mentions

  • Once I Was an Eagle  Laura Marling
  • Sub Verses  Akron/Family
  • Desire Lines  Camera Obscura
  • Tomorrow’s Harvest  Boards of Canada
  • Everyday I Get Closer to the Light from Which I Came  Jesu
  • Country Sleep  Night Beds
  • {Awayland}  Villagers

Greg’s Top 10 Albums of 2013

The Weight of the Globelily_and_madeleine_cover110. Lily & Madeleine/The Weight of the Globe EP  Lily & Madeleine — Based on their EP alone (buy the deluxe version of it, for the heavenly spare acoustic versions), these teenage sisters belong on this list, but their autumnal (both chronologically and stylistically) LP had a number of outstanding tracks as well (though didn’t completely live up to the trajectory their earlier work had promised). They are best when outside production & instrumentation is minimal and the simplicity of their voices intertwining with timeless lyrics over rudimentary piano or guitar are left to enchant the listener.  Listen to EP tracks “In the Middle” and “Back to the River” and album cuts “Disappearing Heart” and “Paradise.”

We're Not Lost9. We’re Not Lost  The Show Ponies — I chipped in a bit for this local LA band’s fundraising campaign to make this album, so hopefully it’s not a conflict of interest to place it on the list. First of all, they are a kick in the pants to see live (they’ve played twice at my church this year–pretty amazing to have such a talented band come to your door). But though their energy is infectious and exhilarating, I think they’re actually at their finest when they let the soulful, Appalachian-tinged violin of Phil Glenn (really the finest calibre of musician imaginable, though all of the musicians in this band are profoundly talented) wander among the rich harmonies of the two lead vocals in their slower numbers. Check out “Gone,” “We’re Not Lost,” “Pieces of the Past,” and “The River”–keep an eye and an ear open for these kids, cause they’re going places (I just read Elijah’s review of swimming in speakers’ album and saw that he had written something exactly like what I just wrote–only he wrote his review last week. Me and this guy are twinsies, for realz).

Us Alone8. Us Alone  Hayden — His last two albums have also been on my top 10 lists in 2007 & 2009…there’s just something about Hayden’s idiosyncratic songwriting style; his moody, introspective lyrics; and his naturally gifted musicianship (he’s playing all the instruments on this album) that resonates with me at a pretty deep level—but I always give the caveat that Hayden is not for everyone.  What some find morose, I find beautifully melancholy.  I’m in line with one of the fans he sings about, for whom music was once “Almost Everything,” a song which is a profound & bittersweet capsule of his career. I love the lyrical fast one he pulls on “Motel”—parents of young children will appreciate his escapist fantasy. “Blurry Nights” is a lovely duet with his sister-in-law, Lou Canon, whose self-titled album from 2011 Hayden produced. And “Instructions” is a haunting, yet sweet song about what to do with his remains once he’s died. Only Hayden…

Lives7. The Lives Inside The Lines In Your Hand/Threep  Matt Pond — This kind of smooth-throated, melodic pop is where Elijah and I part ways (he’s more of a raw-throated, energetic punk enthusiast). But Matt Pond makes songs that I love listening to. His album (The Lives…) is solid, confident, and catchy, but especially great on “Love to Get Used” (a favorite song from this year) and “Human Beings;” the EP (a combination of Three EP’s, I presume, that I got off NoiseTrade) has some great instrumentals (which I’m not usually fond of in any genre) and outstanding tracks in “Starting” and “Remains.”

Modern Vampires of the City6. Modern Vampires of the City  Vampire Weekend — I really enjoyed this album so much & this despite my own reticence (being that VW are over-hyped, schticky, pretentious origins, etc.). Yet from start to finish, it is a polished, captivating album, asking questions that go so much deeper than the value of an Oxford comma. Listening to this record, I found myself moved to ponder, enchanted to pick through the layers of instrumentation, and I even chuckled more than a few times at the brilliant/dense lyrics and their delivery. They’ve won me over with this one…”Step” was a song of the year, and “Don’t Lie” and “Hudson” are highlights among the many great tracks on this album.

Once I Was an Eagle5. Once I Was an Eagle  Laura Marling — This is one of those records that has to be listened to (and appreciated) as a whole album.  It’s hard to pull a track out of this organic work, which feels like a poetic self-declaration of independence (I don’t know from whom or what) whilst simultaneously a homage to musical dependance upon a host of singer-songwriters, so I can only recommend that you take an hour, put this on, and lose yourself in this roaming, searching acoustic masterpiece that exists somewhere between Joni Mitchell and PJ Harvey.

Alone Aboard the Ark4. Alone Aboard the Ark  The Leisure Society — The work of British musical gadabout Nick Hemming, the songs on this album borrow from a wide variety of genres, yet Hemming’s wry and knowing voice, along with his timelessly assured songsmithery, literary wordplay, and the band’s orchestral accompaniment bear the indelible stamp of a band in the tradition of late 1960’s Kinks, yet one which also adds multiple other layers of complexity.  There’s not a bad track on the album, but from “The Sober Scent of Paper” on, it just gets unbelievably good (especially “Everyone Understands” and “We Go Together”). Shout out to my mate Wade for hooking me up with this band, whom I’ve never heard from outside of his recommendation.

Trouble Will Find Me3. Trouble Will Find Me  The National  — This is one of the best bands around today; heaps and heaps of talent and style; truly distinctive: musically, vocally, & lyrically. That all being said, about half of this album—the more upbeat half—somehow feels a bit like they are on autopilot, which is to say, just cruising at a high altitude, but not really soaring. As to the other half? Genius unparalleled. “Demons” was simply one of my favorite songs of the year and there are three songs at the end of the album that stand among the cleverest and loveliest songs I’ve EVER heard: “Slipped,” “Pink Rabbits,” and “Hard to Find.” I could listen to them on infinite desert islands.

Pedestrian Verse2. Pedestrian Verse  Frightened Rabbit — For those of you who know how much Elijah and I profoundly admire these Scots, it might seem inevitable that their new album would rank so highly. To which, I say, “Nae!” These guys have earned this place (though I’m sad to see this album has not ranked as high on many end of year lists), producing their third masterpiece in a row—albeit one that has fewer of the anthemic odes to the suicidal, desperate, or simply screwed up (though they have achieved a near apotheosis of this genre in “State Hospital”).  Even though they’re digging the knife in at religious folk like myself in a number of tracks, their masterful songcraft, propulsive and perfectly complimentary musicianship, and esprit de sadcore leads me to absolve them of this pettiness (though I have to say, the criticisms of religious hypocritical condemners feels pretty tired–we get it, there are mean, small-minded people in the church…and everywhere else too).  They are one of the few groups that consistently make important music nowadays (or “Music Now” as they might say).  Tracks to check out: EVERY ONE, except “December’s Traditions,” but especially the first five tracks, climaxing with the epic anti-social love song “The Woodpile.” And make sure to get the Bonus Tracks too. (Got to see them play live this year—they are unbelievably amazing. Don’t ever miss an opportunity to see them play. Just, don’t, ok?)

neko-case-13776170351. The Worse Things Get, The Harder I Fight, The Harder I Fight, The More I Love You  Neko Case — The first time I played this album, I knew it would get under my skin and did it ever. It’s funny that the first single, “Man,” is the one song I actually can’t stand. But every other song on here has Case’s Queen Midas songwriting touch all over them. She is tender, intimidating, self-deprecating, illuminating, sometimes shining like the only star in the night sky, other times whispering through the crack of a closet door. At one point, she sings, “I wanted so badly not to be me”—but how could anyone listen to this album and not feel exquisitely grateful that she is exactly who she is? Her “Nearly Midnight, Honolulu” is poignant to a breaking poi(g)nt. There is some powerful musical experimentation happening here too; the music walks a tight rope, careening & almost losing balance, but ultimately it only makes you unable to take your eyes (and ears) off of what is happening. All of the fighting in the title was worth it. You rule, Ms. Case.

Honorable Mentions

  • Reflektor  Arcade Fire — I’ll just be honest and say that I haven’t actually listened to this album enough times to really justify NOT including it on the top ten. My first few listens were not that gratifying, sensing a bit of unredeemed pretension (which AF always have, but which they most often transcend) and visible effort, so I put the album on hold. But there were enough tracks on the double album that really did have some of the old magic and made me think when I really settle down and sink my teeth into this, it will be rewarding. Favorite tracks thus far include: “Here Comes the Night Time,” “Joan of Arc,” and “Afterlife.”
  • Regions Of Light And Sound Of God  Jim James — There was something strangely magnetic about this album to me. I found James to be some kind of hillbilly mystic wunderkind. I don’t know why it’s compelling to listen to a man chant vowels & nursery rhymes (as he does on “State of the Art (A.E.I.O.U)” but the more I listened to this, the more fascinated I became. Also listen to “Dear One” and “All Is Forgiven.” (Don’t hate me, Wade!)
  • Defend Yourself  Sebadoh — In some sense, this is a return to old-school Sebadoh of 1994’s Bakesale, but all that really means to me is that there are some amazing Lou Barlow tracks (though nothing quite up to his best material) like “I Will,” “Calves of Champions,” and “Let It Out,” mixed in with some interesting, noisy, but lesser tracks from the other two band members.
  • Bigfoot  Cayucas — I really liked the first four tracks off this album; the main shortcoming is that it feels like Vampire Weekend’s first album a few too many years late (and a bit of a Pet Sounds rip-off at times too–Brian Wilson could sue over “A Summer Thing.”)  The lyrics often get to be a bit too much. But worth a good listen…
  • Somewhere Else Indians
  • Love Cloud Cult
  • Stiches Califone

Albums I Never Got to REALLY Listen to Which I Wish I Would Have

Big Wheel and Others  Cass McCombs; We Are the 21st Century Ambassadors of Peace & Magic  Foxyygen; Hummingbird  Local Natives; White Lighter  Typhoon; and nearly everything on Elijah’s list.