Jars20 90pick-of-the-monthTwo decades of music are celebrated on this bumper-crop of newly recorded fan-chosen classics by Jars of Clay...

Artist: Jars of Clay
Label: Gray Matters records
20 tracks / 89:33

Marking their 20 year anniversary as a recording entity, Jars of Clay - Dan Haseltine, Charlie Lowell, Steve Mason, and Matt Odmark – have done new recordings of a fan-selected collection of favorites. There are eighteen songs from Jars Of Clay studio projects and two brand-new compositions. Taking a cue from Noah, the band collected suggestions for two from every created (studio) album and dressed them in fresh, new, mostly-acoustic arrangements. It seems trendy these days for bands to re-record their classic material but it's mostly done to retain copyrights, and the music doesn't stray far from the originals - n this case, though, there's no laboring to mimic the versions we've heard in the past, which makes 20 more than just another 'greatest hits' compilation.

The songs on 20 are being touted as 'live acoustic' performances but don't think that this is a concert album or even that it sounds particularly 'acoustic' stylistically – in other words, don't think strummed guitars, lightly brushed drums and a vocal. The songs sound full and polished, with acoustic guitars, bass, drums, keyboards, lead and backing vocals, and effectively-used string ensembles. To my ears there are also non-acoustic moments of electric guitar and certainly an occasional synth.

The self-produced album also features some special friends of the band – in particular, Ashley Cleveland (whose distinctive vocals appear on "Jealous Kind") and Mancy Pendergrass on "World's Apart," - Pendergrass reprising her role, since she also guested on the Jars of Clay's self-titled debut project a couple of decades past. Jake Goss does an excellent job on drums and Matt Nelson fills in the low end on bass and cello. String arrangements are variously done by Nelson, Ross Christopher, and frequent MuteMath collaborator Jeremy Larson.

As previously mentioned, the sound is very clean, with often Beatle-esque use of strings and harmony. The songs – which span 20 years – actually work nicely as a whole in their new sound-scape without anything sounding dated or tied to a distinct era of music production. If, in fact, this is a totally 'live'-in-studio recording it's a remarkable set of songs indeed. Every performance is spot-on and the new songs will no-doubt please the most particular Jars fan – especially the haunting and bluesy "Ghost in The Moon," with its low-key vocal, stinging guitar break and ethereal keyboard. It's a strangely-textured and wonderful song (and one that makes me question the over-dub issue – but that's not really so important – it's a good song, and that's what matters).

Biggest surprise? "Flood" is not included. Go figure – does the Noah movie really carry such powerfully bad Karma?

At almost an hour and a-half this is a bumper-crop of good stuff for any serious Jars of Clay fan -- if you're looking for some grade-A Jars of Clay, this is the one to get ASAP.

-Bert Saraco