Jars20 90pick-of-the-monthFurthermore further on? This fine set freshens up the fans' favourites from two decades of superb output – and the best track is possibly the newest. So they're not finished yet...

Label: Gray Matters
Time: 20 Tracks / 90 minutes

It's a sign of confidence that Jars of Clay can let their fans organise the celebration of their 20 years of remarkable success – although, if you are crowd-funding a project, it is only courteous to give the pledgers a say.

When the band played Greenbelt a few years back, promoting The Shelter, I was struck by how great their electric songs sounded when played acoustically – and vice versa. It proved the quality of the songs themselves. The fans have chosen two favourites from each Jars of Clay studio album (excluding Christmas Songs and collaboration disc Shelter) and the band re-recorded the winners live with the accompaniment of small string ensembles and a few friends.

These songs are not the easy, throwaway type that some go for; they are thoughtful works that survive repeated pondering and were often born from difficult situations that their friends have gone through. So it makes sense that they are deep enough to resonate with their listeners. (It also makes it more frustrating that singer Dan Haseltine had to endure some knee-jerk reaction recently when wondering aloud about current issues).

So what works from these renovations and what doesn't?

Most are neither better nor worse; just different. So "Love Song for a Savior" is still acoustic, but feels richer, now that they can afford a bigger string section. Of a similar vintage, "Worlds Apart" – a track that has seen many versions over the decades – may be at its best here, if only slightly so. They play around more with tempos and volumes on "God Will Lift Up your Head," making it a more interesting piece.

"Something Beautiful" manages to be both better and worse. Generally, it feels a little tinnier than the original, but they have inserted a fantastic little instrumental section that features some tasty guitar. That is a change worth making. Likewise, "Collide" is quite different. One of the few fast tracks, it has lost that colourful, vivacious, poppy feel that marked the whole Zoo album. Helped by some cello links, it has matured a bit and become its own Dad. But it has a solid guitar solo from Stephen Mason, and while Matt Odmark's guitar has otherwise receded in the mix, Charlie Lowell has some bright piano notes that stand out from the quietness, making a strong mark on the song. "Trouble Is" also works nicely on this version.

Being fan-curated has thrown up the odd out-of-whack moment, such as the inclusion of "Silence," about when God seems distant, but without "The Eleventh Hour," which balances it on the original album by God breaking in at the last minute.

There really are very few clunkers, and maybe just "Dead Man (Carry Me)," which loses its oomph in an acoustic setting and leaves you pining for the original.

There are more successes. "Boys (Lesson One)" is a wonderful father-to-son song with gut-tingling lyrics. Equally visceral is "Safe to Land," which is deeply poignant in its vulnerability. You can almost see skin peeled back to reveal raw flesh. It's that sensitive.

But quite possibly the best – although maybe just because it is more electric and so more striking – is the haunting "Ghost in the Moon." Apparently, it was slated for Inland, but did not fit. Suddenly, colour floods the sound as a bluesy, twilight hue wakes the album up. Everything is more intense, including Mason's solo, and it has the intoxicating, slightly left field, richness of Achtung Baby. If this is the sound of Jars' future, bring it on.

I feel a bit short-changed by the process. Some albums are more important than others. The striking acoustic soundscape of the début and the bright elecro-pop of The Long Fall have been my standout albums, because they are filled with riches, whereas the Redemption Songs collection was somewhat underwhelming (and I'd have chosen "Thou Lovely Source of True Delight" from that set over "I Need Thee Every Hour"). So for each album to be limited to two songs feels a bit unfair.

That said, the overall impact is cohesive and this system gives the stage over to some tracks that may have suffered from being in their more extrovert siblings' shadow.

The result is deeply stripped back, letting the lyrics pour through without distraction. It feels like a new Furthermore, but with the band further on. And, whatever the pros and cons of individual tracks, these songs are so strong that, after up to twenty years, we are ready for some fresh versions to take us into the next couple of decades

Derek Walker

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