Wednesday, March 10, 2010

Reverend's Reviews: Soul Music

One doesn't often hear the terms "cabaret" and "rocker" used together as a description, so I was intrigued when I saw them applied concurrently to San Francisco-based singer and musician Mark Growden. Growden's new album, the provocatively titled Saint Judas, is set for release on March 16.

Saint Judas is Growden's ninth CD, but his first full-length recording of primarily his own songs in eight years. During the interval, Growden grappled with a drug addiction that he, fortunately, overcame. Now sober for two years, the talented singer-songwriter has created a set of lyrically well-crafted tunes with titles that reflect lessons learned during his recovery, among them "Been in the Storm So Long," "Faith in My Pocket" and "Everybody Holds a Piece of the Sun." And as Growden movingly — and truthfully — declares of God's love in "The Gates/Take Me to the Water": "Every soul is welcome, be you a virgin, a whore, a sinner or a saint."

The delightfully jaunty title track sings the praises of Jesus' betrayer, which will no doubt raise hackles in conservative Christian circles if it should receive wide play. But Growden isn't writing for the holier-than-thou, thankfully. Rather, he seems to write and sing here on behalf of those who have endured persecution, either of their own making or at the hands of others. His offbeat employment of accordions, banjos, flugelhorns and coyote howls (!) only seems to reinforce Growden's musical commitment to the marginalized.

While intrigued, I was hesitant at first to listen to Saint Judas and give Growden's music a chance based on comparisons I'd read of his style to the growling and sometimes nihilistic likes of Tom Waits and Leonard Cohen. They actually have little in common vocally or in terms of the general optimism of Growden's lyrics here. Being released during Lent and just prior to Palm Sunday and Passover, Saint Judas can serve as a great soundtrack to one's personal, spiritual journey.

I don't know anyone in my circle of gay friends who is a fan of the late "Man in Black" Johnny Cash. That being said, there can be no denying the spiritual power of his final recordings, just released on CD under the title American VI: Ain't No Grave, by anyone — gay, straight or otherwise.

Just four months prior to his death in 2003, Cash and a small band of musicians gathered at the behest of producer Rick Rubin. Cash was mindful of his declining health and his beloved wife, June Carter, passed away unexpectedly while recording the songs included on Ain't No Grave.

Don't let the smiling picture of Cash as a child on the CD's cover deceive you: Ain't No Grave is the musical reflection of Cash's preparations for the end of his own life. His voice is weaker here, but it is suffused with conviction and a clear-eyed, even hopeful anticipation.

Most of the songs are covers, and they include heartfelt renditions of Sheryl Crow's "Redemption Day" and Kris Kristofferson's classic "For the Good Times." Cash and Co.'s performances of the traditional title hymn, "Can't Help But Wonder Where I'm Bound" and "I Don't Hurt Anymore" are particularly satisfying. There is one song penned by Cash especially for this recording, a simple musical setting of 1 Corinthians 15:55 which asks "O Death, where is thy sting? O grave, where is thy victory?" The CD ends on a wistful note, with the traditional Hawaiian song "Aloha Oe" serving as Cash's formal good-bye.

I wasn't a fan of Cash while he was alive, but Ain't No Grave confirms for me the man's honesty as a songwriter and soulfulness as a singer as well as his deep faith. Now I'm a believer. Better late than never, I suppose!

Reviews by Rev. Chris Carpenter, resident film critic of Movie Dearest and the Orange County and Long Beach Blade.

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