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Redemption Songs
Artist: Jars of Clay
Label: Essential Records (2005)
Length: 13 Tracks (53:43 minutes)

While the task of instigating a musical revolution is hardly a trivial undertaking, following in the steps of one’s own renaissance is often an even more daunting task.  All too frequently, artists who turn in a genre-defining debut wind up either filling out the remainder of their catalog with successively less impressive replicas of the freshman release or turning their backs on the inaugural outing altogether only to flounder outside of its stylistic confines.

An infectious blend of folk, pop, art rock and dance music, the JoC lads' imposing self-titled first record is widely credited with introducing Christian alternative music into the mainstream.  Much Afraid was a slightly darker, more subdued permutation its predecessor, while the loose, free-spirited If I Left the Zoo tendered convincing proof that alt-pop could be simultaneously buoyant and deep.  The Eleventh Hour was heralded by many as a return to the group’s characteristic sound, a la REM’s Reveal or U2’s All That You Can’t Leave Behind.  2003's Who We Are Instead, by comparison, offered the quartet’s most pronounced detour with its exploration of country, bluegrass and blues.

Listening to Redemption Songs, one can almost hear the sound of a band pausing to reflect on that which has already transpired.  Indeed, those who listen discerningly to this collection of venerable hymn texts set to modern music will find more than a few allusions to the group's previous work.  The soaring pop/rock of the first radio single, "God Will Lift Up Your Head," calls to mind the equally insistent "Sunny Days" from Who We Are Instead.  "Jesus, I Lift My Eyes," with its delightfully carnival-like lilt, sounds like a first cousin to "Goodbye, Good Night" from the Zoo effort.  "I Need Thee Every Hour" recalls the haunting, ambient textures of "Frail" from Much Afraid.  And the stripped-back folk aesthetic of "Hiding Place" would have fit in nicely alongside the songs on the inaugural outing.

Not to say that there aren't at least a few new arrows in the musical quiver.  "It Is Well With My Soul" sets the song's somber lyrics to an unlikely combination of jangle pop, bubblegum and early '70s lite psychedelia (think the Partridge Family with Rickenbacker guitars in a blues club) that, against all odds, actually works.  "Nothing but the Blood" is a similarly winning fusion of contrasting styles – its rollicking background vocals (courtesy of the Blind Boys of Alabama) and shuffling rhythm landing it somewhere between a backwoods revival service and Jane's Addiction's "Been Caught Stealing."  And the smoldering, slightly ominous "They'll Know We Are Christians by Our Love" is a thoroughly engaging foil to the upbeat and optimistic original penned during the '60s folk revival. 

In fairness, there are one or two missteps among the bright spots.  The enervated “God Be Merciful to Me” is particularly ill-suited for the leadoff slot, where it kicks things off on a decidedly nondescript note.  “O Come and Mourn With Me Awhile” is similarly lackluster.  The soul-tinged "I'll Fly Away," while pleasant enough, nonetheless pales in comparison to the 2004 WoW Worship version whose loping tempo and heart-rendingly lonesome steel guitar take the foursome's ongoing dalliance with country music to the proverbial next level.  And some may contend that the surplus of cover material (“God Be Merciful to Me” and “On Jordan’s Stormy Banks I Stand” are both from Christopher Miner’s The Calm of Paradise release, while "Let Us Love and Sing and Wonder" appears on the Indelible Grace III project) takes away from the album's cohesiveness.

Those who came into the JoC fold by way of mainstream-friendly singles like "Flood" and "Five Candles" may balk at Songs' unmistakably Christian themes.  And even listeners in the Christian camp may find its hymn-based language at times a bit impenetrable.  That said, for those willing to dig beneath the surface, the lyrics of the new album constitute a veritable treasure trove of spiritual truth and encouragement – alone worth the price of admission.  And hats off to the Jars collective, who by this point have little left to prove, for ostensibly choosing artistic integrity over potential sales.  While Songs isn't nearly as strong as the debut or even, say, Much Afraid or The Eleventh Hour, it nonetheless holds up well against the last record in terms of both songwriting and overall consistency, making it an experiment well worth investigating, particularly for existing fans.

Bert Gangl  5/1/2005

Jars of Clay is one of the most creative groups in CCM.  They have never been known for doing things the simple, easy way.  Fans were clamoring for a live CD as well as a best of CD to which many groups would respond by releasing two projects.  Jars decided to do a double CD project that offered both live content and some of their best hits.  Now, in light of their creativity, its not much of a surprise that they did not go with the typical praise and worship project, featuring them covering some of the most popular praise and worship songs of the past few years. Jars of Clay decided instead to focus on hymns. 

Jars has to be given credit for taking such a creative approach. They also did new arrangements of many of the songs, and created arrangements for some songs that did not have them before.  For example, they put "God Will Lift Up Your Head" and "Hiding Place" to music for the first time. These are not the funeral dirges that you remember singing when you sang hymns in church. Jars has done a good job of keeping close to the original songs, and yet also managing to make them sound contemporary. Some songs have a bit of a bluegrass feel while others may are reminiscent of those old gospel choirs or even those small local gospel groups. Jars makes familiar hymns like "It is Well With My Soul" and "I'll Fly Away" sound as contemporary as anything on the radio today. None of the songs on this project sound out of date, which is a complaint that many have of hymns.

Guest vocals by Sarah Kelly and The Blind Boys of Alabama help to add another level of depth to some of the tracks. Kelly guests on "I'll Fly Away" with some great vocals. The Blind Boys of Alabama join in on "Nothing But the Blood" and "On Jordan's Stormy Banks I Stand" adding a great gospel feel to the two tracks.

More and more groups are starting to release hymns projects. But Jars of Clay has managed to release a hymns project that can not only hold its own against their other releases, but is also one of the best albums of the year. Even if you aren't a fan of hymns, this is a must-have album.

Burton Wray 9/10/2005



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