Tuesday, March 13, 2007

The Innocence Mission – What's So Funny 'Bout Peace, Love and Understanding?

I can say with a great degree of certainty that years ago I never would have predicted that a band who started as a group of friends who met during a catholic high school production of Godspell would go on to make music that stands as some of my favorite in my collection.

But thankfully musical taste doesn't have to be predictable and is probably best if it isn't. I suppose in my younger years I would have found the albums of the Innocence Mission a bit too precious and perhaps even been turned off by the devotional aspects of their songwriting before even hearing it. Which is odd because for a long time I've listened to plenty of spiritually-based music from gospel to country to classical – Bach is a long standing staple at our house – it's just that I don't have much in the way of ... well, Christian rock. So why is this? I suppose it goes back to a single artist in the mid 80s – namely Amy Grant – whose music, packaging and promotion of a Christian message through rock music could never sit right with me. Obviously millions of people would disagree with me and based on her huge and continued success, I could be the one missing something here. So this is again I believe a case where labels probably do more harm than good – at least for me anyway.

But husband-and-wife songwriting team Don and Karen Peris, who along with bassist Mike Bitts make up the current line-up of The Innocence Mission, create distinctive music that could almost be described at times sounding like Astrud Gilberto singing with Simon and Garfunkel. Their music has gone through a transformation over the years since beginning in 1989 and has become more sparse, starting with the stripped down sound of 1999’s Birds of my Neighborhood (which had been sadly out-of-print on RCA but was re-released last year). Now working as a trio, having little to no percussion and a foundation based largely on acoustic instrumentation, their sound became more focused and intimate. And at the same time their songwriting began to explore strongly contrasting themes of melancholy, hope, personal loss and faith. However as great as Birds of My Neighborhood is, and it’s a favorite of mine, I believe they are currently making some of the best music of their careers.

Today marks the release date of their ninth full-length LP We Walked in Song, which is gratefully being released on vinyl, as was Befriended, through Badman Records. Being the vinylphile that I am, my LP copy is on order and hopefully will be arriving shortly. But if the track "Into Brooklyn" which features harmonium and nylon string guitar along with some beautiful lyrical imagery is representative of the album as a whole, it's going to be another quietly understated masterpiece.


Pete Bilderback said...

Pete, this is a very interesting post, and deserves some serious thought...I'll post more later.

A few random thoughts first: Like many alt-music fans I have always looked down my nose at so-called "Christian Rock." I won't deny that, although I have to admit that I always kind of liked Amy Grant's big hit "Heart In Motion." I just thought it was a catchy song--certainly better than a lot of the other stuff on the charts at the time.

Also, I am frankly not a very spiritual person. But as a fan of music, and as a person who is interested in all aspects of the human experience, that hasn't kept me away from many forms of spiritual music (gospel, Bach, Handel, etc.).

So why do I have a problem with so-called Christian rock? I think it is partly political. Christian rock music rose to prominence during the 80s, the Reagan presidency and the age of the "Moral Majority." It wouldn't be fair to make one-to-one correlation between all Christian rock and right-wing Christianist politics, but at the same time the institutional overlap is impossible to ignore.

I had a co-worker who used to blast Christian rock, and other contemporary Christian devotional music at work as he prayed John Kerry would not be elected President. That kind of thing would have been easier to overlook if the music wasn't also horrible.

Of course none of that should be used to discount the music of any particular performers, and it would be a shame if people wrote off the Innocence Mission out of "guilt by association."

On a side note, I remember reading that none of the labels that would normally be interested in issuing music by Brian McLean would touch his "Christian" music, so his Mom released it on her own. I find that kind of sad.

Pete Bilderback said...

BTW, I agree that the song you linked to "Into Brooklyn" is very good. I remember the Innocence Mission from my college radio days, and I would tend to agree that their more recent material is stronger.

Peter Hennig said...

Hey Pete -- I do think it's an interesting topic for discussion and it's good to hear your thoughts.

If I've taken anything from this small self-evaluation regarding Christian rock, it's that some musical opinions are formed at a young age and are sometimes hard to change, and in this case based on a single artist(Grant). No, I didn’t like her music. But there was more here that turned me off and these things are hard to quantify but I will say, at the risk of sounding fundamentalist, that the ambiguity of Grant’s music struck me as less than sincere. Is it really necessary to ‘cloak’ the message? My impression at the time was that of a carefully constructed and marketed product that was less about ‘testifying’ than selling records. And was she singing about love and devotion to the Lord, or to a lover, or was this a case where it ends up so ambiguous that it just doesn’t succeed in terms of either secular or spiritual music? Some weird hybrid that would be better off not created? Maybe. Of course it did succeed commercially, so again my opinion may well be in the small minority and not amount to much.

The secular vs. Spiritual in popular music covers a large area for sure and there is plenty of subject matter from Amy Grant to Sam Cooke, Al Green and Little Richard to name a few. The Brian McLean connection is interesting too–

Pete Bilderback said...

So I never thought I would be defending Amy Grant on my blog (or anywhere else), but I would tend not to agree with your criticisms of her. Mind you, I am not a fan of her music, and have actually heard very little of it. But as far as her message being too ambiguous, I wouldn't criticize her for that. Obviously a lot of great music is open to multiple interpretations ("Yummy, Yummy, Yummy" for example).

But in terms of making religious, and particularly Christian, music I think that it is an easily justifiable artistic choice. Writing a song that is ambiguous enough that it could be addressed to either a lover or Jesus goes to the heart of the central mystery of Christianity--that Jesus was both a God and a Man (with the same desires and temptations as all other creatures of the flesh).
Christianity in its texts, in its music, and in its rituals is always about both the spirit and the flesh--that is in fact what taking the sacrament is supposed to represent. So having Christian music that is open to a secular, even sexual, interpretation is I think perfectly justifiable. And Grant was hardly the first to try it. Of course you may be right that her music simply doesn't succeed on either level, but I think that is a separate issue from the accusation that it is too ambiguous and not enough about "testifying."

Anyway, I don't think it's entirely fair to say that Grant simply "cloaked" her message to sell more records. That may be the case, but I think it is too uncharitable an interpretation. I’d be inclined to give her the benefit of the doubt. She was very upfront about the fact that she was making religious music, which was not the path of least resistance commercially. And the fact that she was so successful might have brought her message to a more people. I don't know.

And while I don't doubt that Grant's image was carefully crafted to sell records, that is a criticism that could be leveled at nearly any successful recording artist, whether their music is secular, sacred or profane. You could say that Camper Van Beethoven's image was carefully crafted to sell records (just not a lot of them). But what’s the point?

Mind you, I don't much care for Amy Grant's music either, but not for those reasons. Mostly it always just struck me as kind of bland, and it seemed to suffer from many of the same annoying flaws as much of the popular music at the time.

Peter Hennig said...

Pete -- You have to remember I'm talking about twenty years ago here, so much of my perspective was quite different. I think we both can agree that the main reason for not buying her records was because of the music.

What I was trying to get at is that some cynicism had been created for me surrounding this particular artist way back when, which I think affected my view of other artists in this genre. This was unfortunate. It's hard exactly to pinpoint what was so off putting, but in many ways I think my perceptions were correct.

Also I really hate having to single out an artist, which seems like an attack -- but I felt I should be honest.

And I'd be willing to say that possibly some of the factors that turned me off had little to do with Grant herself. That's just the way it is when you're sixteen. I do believe that folks who do positive work that affects so many should be commended not criticized.

All of this of course really has very little to do with the music of The Innocence Mission and was more or less just a personal reflection on how bias can be created from such small exposure and knowledge, esp. in those years. And that there’s nothing wrong with re-evaluation of certain opinions.

BTW I would have had no problem back in '86 buying an Alex Chilton record of spirituals (hey, that might be interesting)

Pete Bilderback said...

Hey buddy, I give you credit for having given the issue more thought than I had at that age. If asked about it back then I would have just said something like: "Christian Rock blows! The Stooges rule!" Actually, most days that's what I'd say now.

As a genre, I still think Christian Rock blows. Certainly there are plenty of bands that address spiritual or Christian concerns that I like, and The Innocence Mission is one of them. But in terms of marketing, promotion and most importantly, institutional alliances, I don't really think of the Innocence Mission as Christian Rock.

Maybe I'm wrong, but I don't think The Innocence Mission are playing at mega-churches in Colorado, and proselytizing about the importance of remaining celebent until marriage and voting Republican between songs at their shows. In my mind, Christian Rock and right-wing Christian politics are closely allied. Maybe that isn't a totally fair assumption either, but I think it's reasonably fair.

Tim said...

Just a quick comment:

I don't think the Innocence Mission thinks of themselves as "Christian Music". They've always been on mainstream labels, consciously distancing themselves from the "Christian Music" industry.

They are simply a band singing about what is in their heads and their hearts, like most good artists do. When we listen to their music, we hear stories of a complete person who experiences loss, hope, faith, doubt, pain, and love. And all those things are experienced with a Christ who is an active part of the whole experience.

I don't know much about current Christian music, but from what little I've heard I would say that The Innocence Mission's music is more reflective of what a true Christian experience should be, when compared to the crowd-pleasing stuff I've heard by artists that go out of their way to call their music "Christian Music".

I don't know if that came out like I intended - I hope you get what I'm saying.

I like your blog - your hard work is paying off!

Pete Bilderback said...

Hi Tim,

I don't know if that came out like you intended either, but I understand what you are saying. In fact, I think you are making a very deep and profound point. I totally agree with you. I've never really thought of The Innocence Mission as "Christian Rock" and you perfectly articulated why.

Thanks for your kind words about the blog.