30 January 2015

Gonna recommend you to the spirit in the sky

At work earlier this week we were discussing the effect of songs that take the listener by surprise by injecting a dose of religion when you least expect it. Normally, that's a signal to run a mile - there's nothing like a dose of God fervour to kill the mood when it comes to pop music. But that got me thinking about a few of my favourite artists, both of whom have worked extensively in Christian song-writing, yet whose work remains interesting and appealing even to those without the requisite faith.

First up, there's Al Green, or to give him his full title, the Reverend Al Green. The legendary soul performer, famed for his secular love songs like Let's Stay Together and I'm Still in Love With You, makes no secret of his religious calling, yet on a track as compellingly exuberant and sprightly as All 'n' All he can make a love-song addressed to Jesus seem to a hardened cynic like the most perfectly natural thing in the world. There's no cloaking the message either, pretending that he's singing about a woman when in fact it's actually the aforementioned deity; no, Green is perfectly up-front when he sings 'Jesus is my all, he's my all in all, people hear my call, never ever let me fall' around the taut brass and sparse handclaps, and it's a special musical moment. Of course it helps that Green has one of the most remarkable soul voices in existence (witness 3:01, 3:12 and 3:29 in the clip below) and is backed by a splendid band and vocalists. Rolling Stone's Greil Marcus was, naturally, charmed, writing of the song, 'All 'n' All is the number that not even a reprobate could deny ... it carries a sense of liberation and purpose deep enough to make the sinner envy the saved'.
All 'n' All is from Green's 1977 release The Belle Album, and I first heard it on a Under The Influence compilation by soul aficionado Paul Heaton of The Beautiful South, which is a marvellous listen from end to end.

Another artist whose relationship with God is a great deal more complex and who is gifted with a nimble command of the songwriter's art is Sam Phillips, who in her earlier years was an '80s Christian recording artist performing under her given name, Leslie Phillips. Tired of the conservative ethos of the Christian music industry, she changed her name and honed her skill at writing the sort of intelligent, angular art-pop that is right up my alley - fantastically imaginative and inventive lyrics, an obvious deep love of the Beatles, and with an intense, precise voice. Moving to Virgin Records and pairing up with producer T-Bone Burnett, to whom she was married for a time, Phillips produced albums to be treasured through the '90s, including the Grammy-nominated Martinis & Bikinis (1994), and my personal favourite, the brisk, invigorating Cruel Inventions (1991). In the 2000s she went on to record for Nonesuch and also writing music for and scoring the TV shows 'Gilmore Girls' and 'Bunheads'. Here she is talking to the LA Times about the state of the music business for artists like her, back in 2010, and below is a four-song performance of an NPR Tiny Desk Concert from 2008, the songs all extracted from her album of that year, Don't Do Anything (tracks performed: Sister Rosetta Goes Before Us, No Explanations, Signal, Little Plastic Life):

And finally, who can fail to be impressed by the gospel virtuosity of the Swan Silvertones performing Amazing Grace? This version is rather crackly, but the sumptuous acapella magic is still plain to hear. The group got its name from their sponsor, Swan Bakeries.
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