The Phantom Tollbooth
                    November '98 Pick of the Month

Anybody Out There?
Artist:  Burlap to Cashmere
Label: Squint Entertainment (www.squinterland.com)
Time: 47:29 / 12 tracks

Is this a familiar story? Your unbelieving friends are embarrassed for you because your so-called Christian bands are of such dubious musical and lyrical quality that they find it hard to believe you enjoy such poorly made schlock. Burlap to Cashmere is the perfect answer to this dreadful dilemma. Their music is of the highest quality both in overall musicianship and in sheer song craftsmanship, plus the lyrics are unabashedly Christian in their world-view and message, without being of the easily dismissed Sunday School variety. Best of all, Burlap to Cashmere have a unique sound with great multi-generational and cross-cultural appeal, be you brown, black, white, yellow, red, young, younger, old or almost dead. The sum of these impressive parts equals something even your friends might call the World's Greatest Christian Band!

If only it were that easy. You see, not all the members of Burlap to Cashmere would be truly comfortable with the Christian band moniker. Nor should they be. Such labeling is regrettably limiting. No, this band is just one of the World's Greatest Bands, period. And it just so happens that the principal song-writer, Steven Delopoulous, is a Christian with both great conviction and poetic lyrical gifts—fronting a band of mostly fellow New Yorkers that is just too good to be cornered into some dismissible musical ghetto. There's plenty worth sharing with everyone here, especially when the medium bears universally needed messages such as:

         Basic instructions before leaving earth...
         For God so much loved the world
         That he gave his one and only son
         That whoever believeth in him
         Shall not die, but live on.
         Living on through the Son
         Living on to the Lord...Hey!
        Yes, the road is narrow
        Yes, the road is tough
        But whoever remaineth in him
        Shall not die but lift up."
         (Insert incredible percussion solo here)
                     (from "Basic Instructions")

Using your imagination and supposing that we believed in a form of reincarnation, (we don't of course but we're using our imagination, okay?), picture Cat Stevens born again in the form of a gutsy songwriter to a Greek immigrant family in New York City (okay, officially Cat Stevens isn't really dead, but we're still using our imagination). Now picture this young New Yorker strapping on a guitar, moving up to the mic, and convincing seven other immensely talented musicians to back him. Are you starting to get the picture? Now the band is playing an immediate, accessible blend of classic singer-songwriter songs with Greek, Middle-Eastern and other Mediterranean musical flavorings. Can you hear an army of percussion pounding out snappy rhythms? The spicy mind-blowing Mediterranean acoustic guitar solos?  The atmospheric keyboards wafting in and around the hardy mix? The warm, catchy vocals that leave melodies hovering on your lips for days? Intricate harmonies like a busload of playful angels? The messages of hope, freedom, love and
reconciliation with a Holy God? Are you excited yet?

More substantially, the Burlap to Cashmere sound is reminiscent of Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young's early work combined with Cat Stevens and Harry Chapin and others of their ilk passed through a whole host of world music filters. The resulting album is an urgent blend of accessible hits (after hits after hits) that recalls Rusted Root, Santana, Sting, Toad the Wet Sprocket, Bruce Springsteen, and even Pink Floyd from time to time, while also remaining decidedly unique. The result is powerful and leaves no wonder why audiences are giving standing O's wherever they go.

Earlier contributions to the phenomenon this band has become in so short a time--the five songs from their initial EP, Live at the Bitter End--are all gratefully back. Although still effectively well played, the studio production has rendered them a wee bit less dramatic than the live versions, as if the producer played it safe by curbing the world music elements a tad. The flamenco guitar licks, for example, are sometimes farther back in the mix. Regardless, those five great songs are among the best of the album as expected.

The seven new songs nearly live up to the previous high standards set by the EP. "Digee Dime" opens the album in a swirl of snappy sing-along energy. Like "Chop Chop" or "Anybody Out There," you'll be singing along with full lung-power by your second listen. Providing the most CCMish--yet still  non-embarrassing--moments, "Treasures in Heaven" and "Good Man" are closer to the more relaxed tempo of "Eileen's Song" and the balladry of Toad the Wet Sprocket. "Skin is Burning" and "Scenes" are more in keeping with the aggressive Burlap sound, and both build to the same kind of excitingly dramatic crescendos you expect from their considerable live performances. The album ends with two upbeat folk rockers, "Ancient Man" and "Mansions," two worthy stopping spots before hitting the repeat button.

Because the live EP was so amazingly and consistently strong, I personally feared this studio album would offer little more than those songs retread. That fear has proven to be woefully unfounded. Instead, Anybody Out There? satisfies like Edmund's lust for Turkish Delight. There are only twelve delights now; barely enough to hold us until next time.

By Steven Stuart Baldwin (10/29/98)