Monday, September 28, 2015

Cover Girls: New Music by Shawn Colvin and Natalie Imbruglia

The music I've gotten the most excited about this year has been inherently and unashamedly unoriginal. Two albums were released that featured great singers covering songs by great songwriters. The songwriters are almost exclusively men; the singers are both women. I find it impossible to not compare the singers to each other, which I suppose is one of the many burdens of womanhood.

The singers are both blasts from the past: Natalie Imbruglia, who came rushing out of Australian television in the mid 1990s with her devastating single "Torn," released her collection of interpretations of songs by male songwriters (Male) mid summer. It was followed in late September by Uncovered, the second collection of cover songs (third if you include her Christmas album) released by Shawn Colvin, best known for her mid-90s single "Sunny Came Home." I used to have a thing for both of them, if I'm being honest.

These two singers could hardly be more different. Imbruglia had all the marks of a pop sensation when she broke. She had cut her teeth as a soap opera actress, and she looked the part. There was great drama in "Torn"; you could imagine her feeling "all out of faith ... lying broken on the floor." She sold the story of the song with her voice, and the video only drove it home for her.

Meanwhile, Shawn Colvin had come from the ground; paying her dues in the heartland before taking a risk on New York, "walking these streets forlorn" (maybe the least impressive phrase in her brilliant song "Polaroids") until she won a Grammy for her first record and again years later for "Sunny." Imbruglia was a pop princess; Colvin was a folk goddess. I used to have a thing for both of them, if I'm being honest.

The heyday for both singers was a millennium ago, of course. But they have not gone away, and this year they both had great ideas for albums. Imbruglia's Male was a kind of thought experiment: These guys wrote these great songs; how would their meaning, their resonance, change if the voice behind them were a woman's rather than a man's? What emerges from the songs when their arrangements come from the heart of a woman?

Some of these experiments fare better than others, honestly. Her song selections are ambitious and somewhat eclectic, ranging from the urgent "Instant Crush" to the spartan "Only Love Can Break Your Heart" and the done-to-death "Melt with You." I knew nine of these twelve songs in their original versions, which suggests to me that Imbruglia didn't waste a lot of time researching her playlist. I can see the sense in that, actually: The point of the project is comparison, so the shorter the path to recognition, the better.

Some of her interpretations, unfortunately, suffer from comparison. There was nothing whatsoever wrong with "I'll Follow You into the Dark" by Death Cab for Cutie, and Imbruglia's modest lullaby version just makes the inherent fatalism in the song seem misplaced and confused. Why would you subject a baby to such sadness? When I hear "Let My Love Open the Door" these days, I don't think of Pete Townshend, as great as his original is; I think of Steve Carell's heartfelt performance in the film Dan in Real Life; Imbruglia's cover is certainly different and nicely feminine (again, I could picture singing this to a child, something that never occurred to me with other versions of the song), but it's still an odd comparison. She's at her best when she's less maternal and more sad and/or desperate: with "Instant Crush," "Naked As We Came," "Summer," and covering Neil Young, of all people.

The big weakness of Male, I think, is in the production: The recording sometimes sounds like it was started in Imbruglia's home studio in Australia and then finished off at a music factory in an LA suburb. Her voice is way out in front on every track, and aspects of some arrangements seem to be afterthoughts (for example, the hoots and hollers in "I Melt with You" and "Friday I'm in Love") .I think she would have benefited from collaborating with someone a little further removed from the pop charts, like Damien Rice (she covers his "Cannonball") or Duncan Sheik (another 90s standout). I'm reminded of the excellent collaborations of Bangles singer Susannah Hoffs and Matthew Sweet, for example. Still, I love the concept of the album, and I find myself cheering her with each new listen.

Meanwhile, back at the ranch, nobody interprets a song like Shawn Colvin. Her previous collection (Cover Girl) features some of my favorite songs of my early adulthood, and it seems to me she puts a cover single out whenever she needs a little money. (Exhibit A: "Crazy" by Gnarls Barkley.) I only recognized half of the songs on Colvin's "Uncovered," and most of those songs are either deep tracks or decades removed from cultural memory. Here the song itself is the point, not the space between interpretations or the role of gender in making meaning. If Imbruglia is a singer interpreting other singers; Colvin is a songwriter paying tribute to fellow songwriters.

In a smart, smart move, Colvin released a few of these tracks early, including the Creedence Clearwater Revival song "Lodi" and "Hold On," a song I was sure came from Emmylou Harris but actually came from Tom Waits. Either way, every time I hear it I come thisclose to crying, and then I listen to it again. Likewise, Bruce Springsteen's "Tougher Than the Rest" cuts through your defenses and puts you in touch with the vulnerability of love and the urgency of commitment. Even the poppy "Give Me a Little Sign" (featuring Marc Cohn, whose cover album 1970 is a favorite) picks up some edge and pathos in Colvin's capable hands. Best tracks: "Tougher Than the Rest," "American Tune," "Private Universe" and, of course, "Hold On."

Colvin's Uncovered released just in time for me to listen to it on a flight to Oklahoma City, but as with much of her catalog, it's ideally suited to a road trip. Male, in contrast, is meant to be heard in spurts; listening straight through the album requires too many gear shifts. But I'm glad I have it, and I expect I'll dip into it now and then, just as I'll regularly return to Colvin's disc. If I'm being honest, I used to have a thing for both of them.

Monday, September 21, 2015

Best Books of the Year: As Put Forward by Book Editors

For the past several years I've been part of an association of book editors who are Christian, known as the Association of Christian Editors (ACE). You would think, being part of such an organization, that I could write a better opening sentence than that. But I can't. Deal with it.

Every year ACE puts on a retreat, rotating from Chicago to Colorado Springs to Nashville to Chicago again, based on where our membership tends to live, along with proximity to airports. This year's retreat was put on in Colorado Springs, where I live, which made it easy to attend. The retreat is always good and particularly so this year, with an emphasis on soul care and wellness, along with the typical commiseration and idea sharing about industry-specific concerns. A highlight of every retreat is Friday evening, when we circle up and share with one another our favorite book of the past year.

There are few rules regarding this time of sharing. The book may or may not be new. You may, although most don't, share a book you edited. You may, although most don't, share a book that someone else has already shared. You may not, although most do, exceed the allotted time for sharing, nor may you (though you likely will) mention more than one book. This year's list follows. I've removed editor's names to protect their privacy, but I'm thankful to the member who took the following (lightly revised) notes, and I'm thankful to each member for taking the time to share. (I believe the notes are themselves adapted from sales copy on the website of some online bookseller.)

So many books are written haphazardly or edited sloppily, and these unfortunate variables don't necessarily factor in to a book's success. Editors' work is in this way thankless - a book succeeds or fails largely irrespective of the quality of editing - but as we slouch our way to Bulwer-Litton, help save Western civilization by adding these books to your wish-list.

All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr
From the highly acclaimed, multiple award-winning Anthony Doerr, the beautiful, stunningly ambitious instant New York Times bestseller (and Pulitzer Prize winner) about a blind French girl and a German boy whose paths collide in occupied France as both try to survive the devastation of World War II.

Code Name Verity by Elizabeth Wein
Oct. 11th, 1943. A British spy plane crashes in Nazi-occupied France. Its pilot and passenger are best friends. One of the girls has a chance at survival. The other has lost the game before it's barely begun. A Michael L. Printz Award Honor book that was called "a fiendishly-plotted mind game of a novel" in The New York Times.

A Man Called Ove by Fredrik Backman
In this bestselling and “charming debut” (People) from one of Sweden’s most successful authors, a grumpy yet loveable man finds his solitary world turned on its head when a boisterous young family moves in next door. (Honorable mention: Something Must Be Done about Prince Edward County by Kristen Green.)

The Boys in the Boat by Daniel James Brown
The #1 New York Times bestselling story about American Olympic triumph in Nazi Germany.

Small Victories by Anne Lamott
Anne Lamott writes about faith, family, and community in essays that are both wise and irreverent. It’s an approach that has become her trademark. Now in Small Victories, Lamott offers a new message of hope that celebrates the triumph of light over the darkness in our lives.

The Invention of Wings by Sue Monk Kidd
Writing at the height of her narrative and imaginative gifts, Sue Monk Kidd presents a masterpiece of hope, daring, the quest for freedom, and the desire to have a voice in the world. This exquisitely written novel is a triumph of storytelling that looks with unswerving eyes at a devastating wound in American history, through women whose struggles for liberation, empowerment, and expression will leave no reader unmoved.

Vango: Between Earth and Sky by Timothee de Fombelle
In a world between wars, a young man on the cusp of taking priestly vows is suddenly made a fugitive. Fleeing the accusations of police who blame him for a murder, as well as more sinister forces with darker intentions, Vango attempts to trace the secrets of his shrouded past and prove his innocence before all is lost. (Also check out book two: A Prince Without a Kingdom.)

Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel
Kirsten Raymonde will never forget the night Arthur Leander, the famous Hollywood actor, had a heart attack on stage during a production of King Lear. That was the night when a devastating flu pandemic arrived in the city, and within weeks, civilization as we know it came to an end. Twenty years later, Kirsten moves between the settlements of the altered world with a small troupe of actors and musicians. They call themselves The Traveling Symphony, and they have dedicated themselves to keeping the remnants of art and humanity alive.

Benediction by Kent Haruf
From the beloved and best-selling author of Plainsong and Eventide comes a story of life and death, and the ties that bind, once again set out on the High Plains in Holt, Colorado. Bracing, sad and deeply illuminating, Benediction captures the fullness of life by representing every stage of it, including its extinction, as well as the hopes and dreams that sustain us along the way. (Honorable mention: Flight Behavior by Barbara Kingsolver.)

Gutenberg’s Apprentice by Alix Christie
An enthralling literary debut that evokes one of the most momentous events in history, the birth of printing in medieval Germany.

Deep Down Dark by Hector Tobar
When the San José mine collapsed outside of Copiapó, Chile, in August 2010, it trapped thirty-three miners beneath thousands of feet of rock for a record-breaking sixty-nine days. After the disaster, Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Héctor Tobar received exclusive access to the miners and their tales.

The Wright Brothers by David McCullough
Two-time winner of the Pulitzer Prize David McCullough tells the dramatic story-behind-the-story about the courageous brothers who taught the world how to fly.

Out of My Life by V. Raymond Edman
Vignettes and spiritual takeaway by the fourth president of Wheaton College, published by Zondervan in 1960/61. (Honorable mention: Lila by Marilynne Robinson.)

The Road to Character by David Brooks
With the wisdom, humor, curiosity, and sharp insights that have brought millions of readers to his New York Times column and his previous bestsellers, David Brooks has consistently illuminated our daily lives in surprising and original ways. Now, in The Road to Character, he focuses on the deeper values that should inform our lives.

Conscious Capitalism by John Mackey and Rajendra Sisodia
Whole Foods Market cofounder John Mackey and professor and Conscious Capitalism, Inc. cofounder Raj Sisodia argue that both business and capitalism are inherently good, and they use some of today’s best-known and most successful companies to illustrate their point.

The Churchill Factor by Boris Johnson
From London’s inimitable mayor, Boris Johnson, the story of how Churchill’s eccentric genius shaped not only his world but our own. On the fiftieth anniversary of Churchill’s death, Boris Johnson celebrates the singular brilliance of one of the most important leaders of the twentieth century.

The South and the Southerner by Ralph McGill
A wide-ranging blend of autobiography and history, The South and the Southerner is one prominent newspaperman's statement on his region, its heritage, its future, and his own place within it.

In other media, one editor couldn't recall a book that rose to the top this year. Instead she recommended the British spy series MI5 (ten seasons, all on Hulu and Netflix).

Monday, September 14, 2015

The Power of a Slow Burn: Staying Is the New Going

I recently attended a celebration, hosted by one of my authors, on the eve of the release of his book. Alan Briggs is a pastor in Colorado Springs; his book Staying Is the New Going is a rallying cry to reject the wanderlust that fuels so much of our consumer-tourism (even missions and charity tourism), and instead to commit ourselves to the places we live. It's a good, brisk, energizing book, and I hope a lot of people pick it up and reimagine how they relate to their communities.

It struck me, as Alan was thanking his guests, what a spectrum he had at the table, from recent relocates (some who left the more exotic mission field to settle in the Springs) to people whose families helped found the town nearly two centuries prior. This notion of staying isn’t just about where you find yourself; it’s about your posture toward your place. We can stay and consume a place, or we can go and consume a place. When you get down to it, tourism isn’t all that different from the home-as-castle/city-as-fiefdom consumer mentality of most people. There’s nothing magic about staying or going in and of themselves. The magic is in the attitude: Missionary isn’t something you do; it’s something you are, and that’s irrespective of where you find yourself. Alan and his friends are exemplars of cultural participation and missionary concern, and it came through brilliantly at that dinner party.

TWEET THIS: Missionary isn’t something you do. It’s something you are, irrespective of where you find yourself.

I once heard Andy Crouch talk about institutions, and I was pretty conflicted by his presentation. On the one hand, it seemed like I was being chided for being too self-centered, for failing to appreciate the institutions I had been born into and grafted into — this despite all the clear failings of any number of institutions, from the church to the government to corporations to employers. Why should I just shut up and take what these big behemoths dished out?

As I thought about it, however, I thought about our mortality, and our simultaneous impulse for eternity. How does that play out on this temporal plane, in this physical space? I may want to live forever — in Christ, I may in fact live forever — but what meaning does that have for where I work or where I live? These things predated me, and they will, in all likelihood, outlive me. If I’m to have meaning in the material world — if I’m to find meaning in the material world — I have to look to these institutions that I find myself in symbiotic relationship with.

The secret value of Alan's book, I think — the value that only emerges as someone puts the book down and picks the vision up — is the rediscovery that place doesn’t matter as merely a place but as a partner in our work in the world. Where we are informs what we do, and by extension, who we become. And who we become shapes where we are. And so on and so forth.

TWEET THIS: Where we are informs what we do and who we become. And who we become shapes where we are. And so on and so forth.

I think this book will have a slow burn, both as a seller and as a conversation generator. I think that’s a good thing; the kinds of conversations it will generate should take time, because participants move slower than consumers, and institutions such as neighborhoods and cities are not going anywhere. The space this dinner party created — for people to celebrate the culmination of a year of hard work while simultaneously reflecting on their own life decisions, life patterns and missionary postures — is a great example of the power of a slow burn, and the change it can ultimately ignite.

Monday, September 07, 2015

A People's Commentary on the New Testament: Matthew 4

I've been slowly but surely (but mostly slowly) building what I'm calling a people's commentary on the New Testament. So far only one other person, to my knowledge, has joined me in this task. The gist of it? The Scriptures are, by and large, set in a context of oppression and marginalization. Sometimes the audience is the oppressed; sometimes it's the oppressors. Sometimes both audiences are, for all intents and purposes, one and the same. We overlook stuff when we forget that those of us who are comfortable are not necessarily the ones to whom God is speaking words of comfort.

In this project I attempt to notice in the Scriptures a running theme of "striving" (in the words of people's historian Howard Zinn) "against corporate robber barons and war makers, to make ideals [professed in public] a reality — and all of us, of whatever age, can find immense satisfaction in becoming part of that." Here's how it works:

  1. Pick a chapter of the New Testament and interpret it online.
  2. As you write, think about people you know (or see, or imagine) who are not sitting in the halls of power.
  3. Think of the author of your particular scripture text not as someone with an advance on royalties in the bank and a Macbook Pro on their lap but as someone with no place to lay their head.
  4. Use the hashtag #PeoplesCommentary so the rest of us can find it, and so eventually we can sync the whole thing together.
I'm up to Matthew 4. (You can read Matthew 1 - 3 here.) Here we go.


Next Jesus was taken into the wild by the Spirit for the Test. The Devil was ready to give it. This is a test; it is only a test. But the stakes are high. Jesus, we have come to learn, is the Son of God, the Word of God made flesh, an unprecedented experiment: How fleshy is flesh? Would common, even primal temptations, so enticing to people made in the image of God, prove to be enticing to one who was not merely the image of God but God himself? The results were never in doubt - this is God we're talking about, after all - but the test was no less a trial, no less a sacrifice, as is evident in his preparation for it: "fasting forty days and forty nights [which] left him, of course, in a state of extreme hunger."

We are meant, of course, to recall the exodus of the Jews from their enslavement in Egypt. That was less a moment of liberation than a change of allegiance, both because technically the Jews were not slaves in Egypt (they had their own property and representation before the government) and because God was in fact inviting them into a new kind of enslavement to God. When the devil challenged Jesus, “Since you are God’s Son, speak the word that will turn these stones into loaves of bread,” he was enticing Jesus with his own agency, with the temptation to flourish by any means necessary. Jesus responded with God's instructions to the Jews on exodus: “It takes more than bread to stay alive. It takes a steady stream of words from God’s mouth.” We owe our lives, our livelihood, to God, not to our own self-sufficiency or even, as the exodus proved, the provision of those who would declare themselves our overseers. This recognition that no one controls us without our complicity is an act of liberation at a high level.

For the second test the Devil took him to the Holy City. Here we see how our sacred structures, even the Words of God, can be used maliciously, to serve an evil purpose: We are ushered to the Temple of Jerusalem, where the devil dares Jesus to jump by quoting Psalm 91: “He has placed you in the care of angels. They will catch you.” But Jesus is still thinking not of his power but his people's liberation, so he again quotes the texts of the exodus: “Don’t you dare test the Lord your God.” Obviously, then, we can test the Devil, and as Jesus will surely show in the chapters that come, we can test those who would assert control over us. Only God is above us.

The Devil [pointed] out all the earth’s kingdoms. . . . “Just go down on your knees and worship me, and they’re yours.” From basic provision to absolute power, the Devil has run the gamut of temptation. At our most benign, we want to feed ourselves, and to hell with everything/one else. At our most brazen, we want to rule the world. Neither of these is appropriate because neither is necessary: The world already has a ruler, and that ruler provides for our needs, and the needs of everyone around us. Jesus tells the devil to “Beat it!” and reiterates his vocation of liberation by once again quoting Deuteronomy: “Worship the Lord your God, and only him. Serve him with absolute single-heartedness.”

So ended the test. Exit the devil; enter the angels, who "took care of Jesus' needs" as he prepared to move from Test to Work.

When Jesus got word that John had been arrested, he returned to Galilee. He had been raised in Nazareth, but now his work would take him to Galilee, "crossroads for the nations," according to Isaiah. Jesus' work would be the shedding of light - good news for people "sitting out their lives in the dark." We are told that Jesus "picked up where John left off" - John, whose harsh words for those in power were balanced with words of comfort for the afflicted. John's ministry was important: heralding the coming kingdom. In Jesus, the kingdom had come.

“Come with me. I’ll make a new kind of fisherman out of you." For whatever reasons, these new, first disciples asked no questions and surrendered life as they knew it without a word. The work God calls us to is not so different from the work we take on for ourselves. A lot is made of this statement from Jesus, but in fact "Jesus made the same offer" to the next two disciples he recruited, and Matthew didn't see the need to repeat it. "they were just as quick to follow, abandoning boat and father." Instead of giving our focus to the exploitation of resources for our sole benefit, we are to give our focus to the people around us, made in God's image, sitting out their lives in the dark, waiting for light.

God’s kingdom was his theme. Beginning right now, God was their sovereign authority - not the Romans, not the high priest, not their parents, not their own will to power. God proved worthy of the responsibility, as Jesus "healed them, one and all" of whatever they were plagued by. This new kingdom was self-sufficient in a way that no prior kingdom had been. It was all to the good, an absence of suppression and oppression. The people Jesus met were finding themselves released from bondage and invited into a bondage that looked and felt exactly like liberation.

Both Inspiration and Cautionary Tale: Excerpts from Middling

What follows is an excerpt from the Winter 2021 edition of Middling, my quarterly newsletter on music, books, work, and getting older. I'...