Monday, April 02, 2007

A crack in the dome

A Ransom - Winterpills

I Bear Witness
- Winterpills

I liked the Winterpills' album The Light Divides (Amazon, eMusic) immediately. I mean, sure, most of it is mixtape-for-mom material, very Innocence Mission in its earnest loveliness (or lovely earnestness?). But it would take an especially tiresome snob or committed ascetic to refuse the pleasure of Winterpills. The slow, more meditative songs are deep, heartfelt sighs woven with rousing choruses. When the record picks up its feet -- with
"Broken Arm," "Shameful" and "A Ransom" -- it does so with suncatcher melodies that seem to refract onto wide green lawns and with generous details, like the xylophone in "A Ransom" that plinks out a tinkertoy tune in delicate counterpart to the guitar's crunchy power chords. And then there are the boy-girl harmonies, rarely done better.

Listening to the album a couple times without knowing a thing about the band, and noting the lyrics (which I rarely do with music unless I think I might write about it) I thought I knew something about this record -- beyond how it sounds. And was baffled when promo copy and press reviews I subsequently dug up failed to confirm my assumptions. The Light Divides is a landscape that's lousy with Christian iconography, both implied and overt. Words like "savior" and "baptism" and "angels" casually grace the lyrics and there's talk of the end of the world.
In the middle of the record, a tense, unmistakably Low-like composition, "I Bear Witness," creaks and squeals its way in a crawling processional to a cathartic crescendo. And I don't know if my textual interpretation skills are just really rusty, but from the first time I heard "Broken Arm," with lines like I think I finally understand the way a broken arm can hate the hand, I took it to be an extended riff on the New Testament injunction to pluck out the offending eye. (And if I'm picking up on this -- I, who despite a smattering of Sunday school acquired most of my scant Good-Book-learnin' in art history lectures -- it must be fairly obtrusive.)

And yet nothing I've unearthed about Winterpills says anything about God or faith or being born again. So maybe I read it wrong. And if so, here's an interesting question: Why would a secular band assume the idiom, and even in some cases, cadence, of Christianity? Is it a instance of cultural osmosis (after all, there's a lot of this kind of talk circulating in the U.S. these days)? Or a more conscious choice -- adopting a lexicon that conveys moral authority, that says "we're really serious about this stuff"? And if I didn't read the record wrong, is this another case of a Christian band that would prefer not to name itself as such while indie rock fans meet the issue with ambivalence, even cognitive dissonance?


Blogger jon manyjars said...

"Mixtape for Mom material" is a phrase that will stick in my mind.

12:58 PM  
Blogger Charlie said...

Really interesting stuff. Religion in indie music (overt v. covert and such) is a topic that deserves more discussion, as it's potentially just as pitfall-heavy as politics.

1:06 PM  
Blogger Amy said...

I actually mean that literally, Jon! My mom's a consultant and spends a good amount of time tooling around in her SUV listening to music on the way to appointments, so I make a lot of mix CDs for her. She likes catchy pop and male-female harmonies (and nothing too noisy or weird), so when I hear stuff like that I mentally file it for the next mix.

I agree, Charlie. It's a complex issue the touches on everything from production, marketing and distribution to listener response. I think a lot of these musicians (and again, not saying this has anything to do with the Winterpills -- probably doesn't!) are between a rock and a hard place. They shouldn't have to choose between being true to their faith and effectively marketing their art and yet they do. Probably the first step in addressing it is for secular music fans to admit that they're sorta uncomfortable with the religious content (I admit I am sometimes) and then try to understand why that might be.

People are starting to engage some of these kinds of questions -- there are docs Why Should the Devil Have All the Good Music and Danielson: A Family Movie and John Jeremiah Sullivan's excellent essay on the Creation Festival.

3:45 PM  
Blogger Freudian Slip said...

I love the Winterpills! I think their album is good stuff :)

12:11 AM  
Blogger Jad said...

I love the Winterpills, and you're a fantastic writer.

Thank you. :)

9:00 PM  

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