Believing in the Beach Boys

The_Beach_Boys_(1965)The first church I attended as a teenaged new believer swiftly taught me two doctrines:

  1. There won’t be any Democrats in heaven.
  2. Secular music is tantamount to heresy.

The first one was easy enough to get. Reagan had saved us from the devil Jimmy Carter, and now Jesus had the go-ahead to return whenever he wanted. The second proved a little more complicated. What was I supposed to listen to?

The youth pastor’s wife took me to a Christian bookstore so I could tell the musically redeemed clerk about my favorite bands and find equivalencies worthy of the kingdom of God. My ears turned pink as I told the twenty-something, crisp-collared man about the Beatles, Erasure, and Siouxsie and the Banshees cassettes rattling around in the passenger seat of my car. He raised his eyebrows, then grabbed a copy of Maranatha Praise, Volume 6, the closest match. I put it in my tape deck on the way to school the next morning, a first step in my journey of spiritual transformation. [Read more…]

To Illuminate a Small Field: 15 Songs for 2015

By Joel Heng Hartse

Sufjan_Stevens_-_Carrie_&_LowellAt the end of each year, I compile a list of “songs of the year” that I email to my friends (and send to Image) on December 31. These songs are probably not the best of the year, but I don’t know how I would be able to figure those out anyway (Jessica Hopper has a piece on this in her 2015 book The First Collection of Criticism by a Living Female Rock Critic).

Instead, these songs are all songs that were released (and I heard and liked, for whatever reason) in 2015. A lot of times it was because they were among the only songs I heard—2015 was a busy year for me. I went to precisely one concert (an utterly stunning one, by Sufjan Stevens) and purchased about five albums. I still care about music, but I don’t obsess over the surface details—band members, release dates, guest lists, record labels—like I used to. What can I say? I’m a grown-up.

I do think these songs are worth listening to, though. Here they are, in four loosely arranged parts. I hope you find something new that you like.

Sad Songs (Let’s Get This Over With)

  1. Bjork: “Stonemilker”
  2. Death Cab: “No Room in Frame”
  3. Sufjan Stevens: “Blue Bucket of Gold” (Remix)

I’ve been listening to Bjork and Death Cab for about fifteen years apiece, and both made their best records in a decade this year. They’re both divorce albums—Bjork’s is clear-eyed and visceral, Death Cab’s subtle and understated. Stevens’ is a record about his estranged mother’s death, and this remix comes close to getting at the grandeur of the tour in which the acoustic songs of Carrie & Lowell became shimmering, cascading bursts of transcendence.

Shouting at God (or, Faith)

  1. mewithoutYou: “D-Minor”
  2. Refused: “Dawkins Christ”
  3. Emery: “Thrash”

I like the way this group of three songs works together. mewithoutYou’s Aaron Weiss wrestles with personal and theological demons; Refused does a crude, hot-blooded, post-hardcore/metal indictment of all religious ideologies (including pop atheism); and Emery’s “Thrash” is a brutal track that depicts the stoning of Stephen, ending in a gospelly beatific vision.

A Somewhat Confused and Surprisingly Long Dance Party

  1. Mates of State: “Staring Contest”
  2. Breakmaster Cylinder: “Reply All Theme”
  3. Roman GianArthur feat. Janelle Monae: “No Surprises”
  4. Erica Campbell: “I Luh God”
  5. DC Talk: “Love Feels Like”
  6. We Are the City: “Keep on Dancing”

A cute love song by my favorite neo-prog-pop duo, the theme song of a great podcast about the Internet, an R&B Radiohead cover, a trap gospel track, a reunion of one of the biggest Christian rock groups of the 90s, and a religiously-minded, dancey, indie-rock group from British Columbia: I just DJed your next post-evangelical hipster dance party! You’re welcome.

Faith (Part II)

  1. Torres: “Sprinter”
  2. Lauryn Hill: “Feeling Good”
  3. Revolutionary Army of the Infant Jesus: “The Bright Field”

These songs are commendable and their stories interesting, but somehow I feel like to “explain” them in the conventional music journalist way would be to cheapen them. (I’m slowly trying to write a book about the purpose of music criticism, so perhaps you’ll see what I mean, eventually.) Instead, I will reproduce “The Bright Field,” a poem by R. S. Thomas, which is spoken in the final song, in its entirety below. I think this sums up these songs, and, in fact, a lot of songs.

I have seen the sun break through
to illuminate a small field
for a while, and gone my way
and forgotten it. But that was the
pearl of great price, the one field that had
treasure in it. I realize now
that I must give all that I have
to possess it. Life is not hurrying

on to a receding future, nor hankering after
an imagined past. It is the turning
aside like Moses to the miracle
of the lit bush, to a brightness
that seemed as transitory as your youth
once, but is the eternity that awaits you.

To Illuminate a Small Field: 15 Songs for 2015 from jthh on 8tracks Radio.

Joel Heng Hartse writes about music. You can read his previous Good Letters playlists for 2008, 2009, 201020112012, 2013, and 2014, buy his book Sects, Love, and Rock & Roll, and visit his website at www.joelhenghartse.com.

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Listening to a Stranger’s Story

Airplane WindowI am boarding a plane to Detroit, and so is she, her thick coat falling onto my lap from the center aisle, the smell of smoke thick enough to make my head swim. She shoves the coat under her seat, her thick gray hair brushing my arm as she sits.

“I’m Dianne,” she tells me, wiping the hair from her eyes. “Boy, am I not looking forward to this flight.”

I agree with her, my voice surprisingly loud. Maybe it’s the migraine I’m fighting, or the nausea that accompanies me with every flight I take. Maybe something inside me recognizes Dianne’s movements, the way she mumbles and laughs to herself, the instability of motion that somehow demands my response. [Read more…]

Life-Saving Moments of Art

Drawing of a nesting hen In August, the musical duo Alright Alright, composed of husband and wife Seth and China Kent, performed in our living room for their last house concert in a series of a dozen across the country.

As the musicians (described as “piano-based folk Americana with a healthy measure of art-song/cabaret”) set up their lighting and cigar-box guitars, a number of children played outside in a tree house garlanded with flowers. Cicadas electrified the maples. Adults drank cheap pinot and dipped pretzels in hummus. For many, the next day would be the first day of attending or teaching school. Already, it was a bittersweet, beauty-haunted evening.

And then the couple sang.

With her rich, soulful voice and his tender harmonies, China and Seth filled our small space with songs about quirky lovers, a dying father, child soldiers, and Mary, mother of Jesus. Our usually empty living room couch and chairs radiated with an unlikely assortment of friends and neighbors who just minutes before had been strangers. The immediate, shared intimacy of participating in this music together was palpable: communion, healing, and worship.

[Read more…]

How To Begin a Book

4270156619_bb2e54ca50_zI’m a bit Type A for a poet—or for what people perceive as one. I like to know when and where I’m going with my writing, and why. This is no apology. Without specific goals, I wouldn’t have written a thing since becoming a parent twelve years ago. I make the time and space to write, even perching atop an ottoman in the corner of a stairway to scratch out drafts in the early, nauseated hours of my pregnancies.

My projects are clearly defined. Explore Paul the Apostle with fifty poems. Grapple with the book of Revelation from Patmos to the Great White Throne. Write at least one poem week, unless it’s Christmas or something, until the project is “done.” Then revise with intense, almost physical focus, as if scrubbing a yellow ring from the bathtub. Inspiration? Who has time to wait around for that when the elementary school is requiring five start-of-the-year events?

However, when I flew to Image’s Glen Workshop earlier this month, opting to spend most of the week on retreat, I had no such plan. I knew it was time to start a new collection of poems focusing on the violin, one of my lifelong loves. But I had no idea how to approach it, how to even figure out how to approach it, or how long any of these undefined tasks would take. I just knew I was about to spend a week in Santa Fe with artists, writers, mountains, chocolate, and wine. At least a couple of those are daily necessities. [Read more…]


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