How Can We Be Silent
The first time I heard â€œNever Alone,â€ the bleak piano weep that put the sister-trio BarlowGirl on the map, I was convinced I was listening to Evanescence. Nestling some near-hopelessness in a wispy, ethereal melody that was both fitting and memorable, it wasnâ€™t a bad song. My interest grew when I recently learned that they are indeed a bandâ€”three girls with remarkably pretty voices who also rock with electric guitars, bass, and even drums. And among the heavily-produced, studio-band-backed girl-rock icons like Michelle Branch, Avril Lavigne, and now Kelly Clarkson, thatâ€™s a pretty respectable feat. But all in all, two albums after â€œNever Alone,â€ BarlowGirl doesnâ€™t measure far beyond my initial impression of that song: theyâ€™re still not bad (but just not bad) and still they conjure Amy Leeâ€™s crew with impressive consistency. As a matter of fact, they cover all of the prominent girl rockersâ€™ respective territories before the show is over.
Movie-soundtrack strings open the record, leading into the minor harmonies and meaty rock chorus of â€œSong for the Broken.â€ Either in spite of or because of its astonishing resemblance to Evanescenceâ€™s â€œImaginaryâ€ (not sure which), the song is one of the stronger tracks on the record. Perhaps also because it comes first and, unlike the case of the next four tracks, we havenâ€™t heard the formula yet. Tight harmony, soaring lead vocals, thundering rock chords, thick orchestrationâ€”itâ€™s delightfully indulgent, and so intensely melodic that no one will think about the fact that three girls could never sound like this on stage.
I am trying to keep in mind that this record was likely made for Christian teenage girls and perhaps a few of their momsâ€”hardly a demographic that is going to mind too much vocal harmony or weepy string arrangements. But just like Kelly Clarksonâ€™s parade of angsty rock jams grows quite tiresome long before the conclusion of My December, so does the sickeningly sweet production dripping all over these songs. No one can endure an unvaried ruckus sustained for 50 minutes, even if itâ€™s a gloriously pretty ruckus. Apparently, no one told the melody-indulgent Barlow girls the one thing that Hookless Rocker Clarkson got right: heavy production, despite the mass appeal it can generate and technical weakness it can hide, sucks your musical credibility dry. Fast. Not to mention that it produces a lineup of songs so overwhelming that fans will have to pause the thing to take breaks.
And this little speech will do for most of the recordâ€”as in, itâ€™s hard to pick out any single tracks to discuss. â€œMillion Voicesâ€ finally breaks up the gloomy majesty of the first act, with some brash punk strumming, lots of cymbal crashing, and more of the girlsâ€™ vocals doing some of their better work on the album. Theyâ€™re multiplied for approximate effect of Amy Leeâ€™s choirsâ€”an army of singers joining a hokey but fun solidarity anthem. Itâ€™s all very Evanescency, but Iâ€™ve got a weakness for that sort of thing. â€œOne More Roundâ€ also departeth from the template, ushering in an almost Jon Brion feelâ€”quirky horns, quirky band interaction, and a sliding, quirky lead vocals. If you can imagine Michelle Branch singing over the I Heart Huckabees soundtrack, thatâ€™s what this sounds like, and itâ€™s easily the best song on the record.
As one tends to gather from the albumâ€™s title, explicit lyrical spirituality is where the Barlows let Amy Lee go sleep in her dark place. Theyâ€™re bucking trend, defining themselves as Christian artists with an almost defiant stance. And for the most part, itâ€™s not too bad: the lyrics arenâ€™t good, but they are generally unimportant under all of the trioâ€™s pleasant noise. They address basic Christian-life concepts in basic Christian ways, but avoid the mind-numbing artlessness of many of their contemporaries. So there wonâ€™t be any theological depth or profound insights here, but the truths they reiterate might brighten a bad day.
My primary lyrical gripe, other than their tendency to be altogether too wordy, is â€œKeep Quiet.â€ Itâ€™s the thesis statement of the album, and continues the very peculiar evangelical obsession with the speaking of Jesusâ€™ name. The lyric objects to the concept of influencing the world through relationships and instead pushes for explicit (which often inherently amounts to ungrounded proselytizing), name-dropping evangelism. And the central premise (â€œJesus, Jesus whyâ€™s your name offensive/Why are we so scared to tell the world that youâ€™ve save us?â€), in the age of blossoming Christian pop culture and mainstream acceptance, rings rather hollow. Itâ€™s now fashionable to be an evangelical, and, while Iâ€™ve nothing against evangelism in general, â€œKeep Quietâ€ seems oddly stuck back in the â€œwe need to bring Christ out of the closetâ€ mindset of early anthems like â€œJesus Freak.â€
But for an album so titled, BarlowGirl generally steers clear of some of the more obvious blunders that make Christian music what it is. _Be Silent_ is ear candy that no one with any good taste has any good reason to listen to, but confessional girl rock can be far less pleasing
David Sessions is the editor of The CCM Patrol.
David Sessions is the founding editor of Patrol. He covers religion for Newsweek and The Daily Beast, and is a graduate student in the Draper Program for Humanities and Social Thought at New York University. He can be reached at hdavidsessions at gmail dot com.
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