Album recommendation

Isn’t this an inviting album cover?

The album is Precious Remedies Against Satan’s Devices, by the Welcome Wagon. Although I expected to admire it, I did not think I would like it very much. But it did a masterful job of winning me over, and now sits on my short list of favorite recordings of the past ten or so years. I’ll elaborate below, but you might be better off just listening for yourself. It’s available on Spotify, and as a CD or download in various locations.

A few weeks ago I happened to be looking at Noisetrade, a site where bands provide free music downloads in exchange for being added to their mailing list. One of the featured albums was entitled “Purity of Heart is to Will One Thing.” Wow! Anyone who quotes Kirkegaard for their album title gets a second look from me, so I went ahead and downloaded the 4-song EP.

In addition to the title track, I saw that two of the other songs were new settings for old hymns, “I am not Skilled to Understand” and “There is a Fountain Filled With Blood.” The idea intrigued me, but a quick listen to the music didn’t grab me. Still, I did the usual poking around to find out more about these folks, the Welcome Wagon.

They are husband and wife, Vito and Monique Aiuto. Vito is the pastor of Resurrection Presbyterian Church in Brooklyn, NY, but (important to me) the Welcome Wagon project is not connected with the church, and in particular their songs are not used as worship music at Resurrection. That fact stuck with me, being steeped myself in Christian music not intended for use in worship.

From my quick listen I could tell that the Welcome Wagon was working a niche where I understand far less about the music than the cultural trappings. To be blunt, this kind of music appeals to a certain demographic, and I’m not sure why—but I know for sure that it does appeal to them, honestly and without pandering. So I wasn’t sure I wanted to put in the work of deepening my own  understanding, but I was definitely curious whether the Aiutos would find a musical path to moving their listeners spiritually as profoundly as mountain gospel music has moved me.

A few days ago I received an email from the Aiutos announcing the new Welcome Wagon album. Again, the title grabbed me, “Precious Remedies Against Satan’s Devices”, also the title of a book by the Puritan writer Thomas Brooks. I checked Spotify and there it was. No title song, but two classic hymns with new settings, “I Know That My Redeemer Lives” and “Lo He Comes With Clouds Descending”, some other intriguingly churchy titles—“Draw Nigh”, “The Strife is O’er”, “God Be With You Til We Meet Again”—mixed together with intriguingly non-churchy titles like “Rice and Beans (But No Beans)”, “Would You Come and See Me in New York,” and “High.” (Could that last one be a cover of the 1992 Cure song? Yes it could!)

So I went ahead and downloaded the album to my iPod, not knowing if or when I’d ever find time to listen. But I definitely planned to listen, at least to further my education. Here’s how the email describes it:

It’s a record about God’s love, faith in Jesus, and the difficulty of faith in Jesus, marriage, friendship, loneliness, grace and hope.

There are precious few musicians I’m aware of who are committed to making Christian music that is not merely music for Christians, and hardly any who would go so far as to use old hymns in new settings to speak about Jesus to an unbelieving world. Meanwhile, I think one of the most important things Chris and I do as the Ridgewood Boys is to play gospel music week after week in secular settings, without apology but also genuinely intending to speak to and even touch listeners whose spiritual state is completely unknown to us. So I wanted to at least study what the Aiutos are doing, and perhaps discuss it with Chris.

Yesterday I needed to shop at a store in Lexington, 30 minutes away, the perfect opportunity to hear the new album. I’d like to ruminate on it here track by track, but the short version is best prefaced by something Vito Aiuto said about it:

This album has a somewhat liturgical structure, ordered loosely like a worship service.

Quite so, although I didn’t realize it at the time. As the album unfolded I listened and analyzed, identified the influences and structures and techniques and instrumentation, thought about the lyrics. I could see what was being done, appreciate and even admire it—still, I wasn’t really persuaded it might be for me. But the liturgy was doing its work, as I arrived in Lexington “Lo He Comes with Clouds Descending” began, and something in me surrendered. The music played on until I stopped to do my shopping. When I was done, I got back in the car, backed up the iPod to play “Lo He Comes with Clouds Descending” again, and listened for another 30 minutes with—finally—ears to hear.

The tracks, heard anew:

I’m Not Fine. This opener is still the least interesting of the tracks to me, but only because it’s a kind of power-pop I don’t listen to much. Well done, though. The instrumental bed is lush and thick–I really like the harmonium, which is used throughout the songs—and the guitar “solo” is short and uncomplicated, there more for the sound than the notes. The second half goes acoustic, when Monique coming in with a “Lamb of God, you take away the sin” refrain over the lyricn, and then builds back up for the ending.

All in all the words don’t measure up in meaning (for me) to the power of the music, or to the song’s position as an opener. But as a sound it does set the stage well for what is yet to come.

My God, My God, Parts 1 and 2.  A striking shift to a slow tempo, opening with a simple acoustic guitar figure and a fat upright bass—plus a very spooky sound in the background, like rusty metal screeching.

This is a new setting for an old hymn, author apparently unknown, a rewording of Psalm 22. Monique’s vocal is little-girlish and recorded as if through a telephone, flat with no resonance, a small and timid take on Jesus’ cry from the cross—“My God, my god, I cry to thee, O why have you forsaken me?”—which conveys a very plain, very human despair. The orchestration continues to build through part 1, layer upon layer, piano, horns, voices, even a Motown girl-group choir that fits surprisingly well, venturing into “You Can’t Always Get What You Want” territory—but always that little-girl telephone vocal out front, singing profound words in a naïve and unaffected manner.

Then a bridge to part 2 (steel guitar!), at which point everything drops out but the acoustic guitar, and Vito begins with more comforting words—“My trust on you I I learned to rest when I was on my mother’s breast. From birth you are my God alone, your care my life has ever known.” The singing is direct and unaffected, with a detached sing-songy phrasing that fits the archaic words, letting them carry the emotional weight by themselves. The melody is short but moving, circling around and around as other instruments are gradually layered in (acoustic bass, guitar, steel guitar, piano, organ, voices …). Finally everything drops out but Vito and the voices. The hymn ends. And then …

I Know That My Redeemer Lives. Perfect seque, both message and music. Gorgeous melody, backed by simple but full piano, guitar, and tremelo electric guitar. Strange harmonica interlude, then a genius bridge, at “To see upon the earth your friend … to see upon the earth your friend … upon the earth.” This is a beautiful song, and I can’t believe it didn’t penetrate my consciousness the first time around. But it must have softened me up.

Rice and Beans (But No Beans). Lighthearted, upbeat, almost silly song about rough times and the value of a friend. Redeemed by the delight the musicians bring to it, and some pretty good words:

Miserable soup, slotted spoon
Faded stars, big mean moon
Heart may break, blood run blue
At the end of the day, I’m glad to have a friend like you.

High. This is a song from the Cure, first recorded in 1992. Vito shuffles the words, changes the approach, and finds something very different in it. I love the dead-simple piano figure mixed right in your face, and the childlike sound when Vito and Monique sing the harmony sections. And the little bit of Cure-sounding electric guitar towards the end.

Remedy. Another cover, with words that stray into self-absorbed praise chorus territory. But the arrangement redeems it,

Would You Come and See Me in New York. This is just a great song, nothing overtly Christian about it. To me it is a fine example of how a simple, heartfelt approach to lyrics and performance can be far more powerful than clever words and passionate singing. When you sing, you are faced with a choice: get in front of the song, or get behind the song. The song can be a vehicle for you, or you can be a vehicle for the song. For the Welcome Wagon, it’s all about the song. I think I started to give in at this point.

My Best Days, Parts 1 and 2. Words by John Donne’s “Holy Sonnet 19”, starts out with a retro arrangement using harmonium, autoharp (?), and banjo, then adds a soprano sax. The words of Part 1 as sung are close to impenetrable on first listen, but perhaps just meant to wash over you.

Part 2 switches to a guitar-bass-drum accompaniment, and the words are plain enough:

In prayers and flattering speeches I court God:
Tomorrow I quake with true fear of his rod.
So my devout fits come and go away
Those are my best days, when I shake with feare.

Vito goes on to repeat the last line, “Those are my best days, when I shake with fear,” sixteen times, bringing in a chorus on the 7th time, not varying his vocal until the 13th time, both hypnotizing the listener and driving the point home. (Sorry to be tediously analytic here, but I want to know what he is doing and how he does it.)

Lo, He Comes With Clouds Descending. This is the jewel of the album. It starts with a swirly guitar figure, adds organ and vibes for lushness, drops everything for a simple melody over guitar for the first four lines, richens up the accompaniment for the second four lines using a musical trick I recognize but can’t describe, then changes the melody for the last two lines (“Deeply wailing, deeply wailing/Shall the true Messiah see”) in a way that sends chills.

The song continues to swirl its way around this loop, building on every circuit, not with volume but with added layers of instruments and voices. Then comes one delightful verse where everything drops out except Vito and Monique, a tiny bit of guitar and a glockenspiel, ending with “O come quickly, o come quickly, everlasting God come down” repeated three times. Stunning.

Draw Nigh. A communion hymn, done as a country song of sorts—banjo, electric guitar, acoustic guitar, clarinet (?). Simple, lovely.

Draw nigh and take the body of the Lord
And drink the holy blood for you outpoured
Offered was He for greatest and for least
Himself the Victim, and Himself the Priest

He, that His saints in this world rules and shields
To all believers life eternal yields
With heavenly bread makes them that hunger whole
Gives living waters to the thirsting soul

Approach ye then with faithful hearts sincere
And take the pleasures of salvation here
O Judge of all, our only Savior Thou
In this Thy feast of love be with us now

The Strife is O’er. Full rock accompaniment, slow but relentless and triumphant, white-girl unison chorus, glockenspiel sprinkled in, touching girlish vocal by Monique on a couple of verses. Lots of alleluias!

The strife is o’er, the battle done
The victory of life is won
The song of triumph has begun: Alleluia! Alleluia!

The powers of death have done their worst
But Christ their legions hath dispersed
Let shouts of holy joy outburst: Alleluia! Alleluia!

God Be With You Til We Meet Again. A benediction that will make you laugh with delight, full of chiming jangly guitars and a cheesy organ straight out of a 60s pop tune, a song that Elvis Costello might want to cover. A fitting end to this record’s liturgy.

Nature’s Goodnight. A bonus lullaby, guitar and harmonium and unison singing by Vito and Monique. Something pretty and gentle to ease you out of what has so far been an intense experience.

Here endeth the appreciation of this fine record. I recommend listening to it straight through at least once before reaching your own conclusions, but if that won’t happen go ahead and look up some of their videos on YouTube, or download “Would You Come and See Me in New York” here.

And as a bonus for reading this far, here is a list of my favorite recordings made over the past ten years or so. The ones I can think of offhand, anyway.

  • What the … by Pete Wernick and Flexigrass
  • Legacy by the Peter Rowan Bluegrass Band
  • Letters From My Father by Ginny Hawker
  • Draw Closer by Ginny Hawker and Tracy Schwarz
  • Waiting for the Break of Day by Dan Gellert
  • Up18North and Choices by the Kruger Brothers
  • Blue Country Heart by Jorma Kaukonen
  • Cornbread Nation and Fiddler’s Green by Tim O’Brien
  • Living Reeltime Thinking Old-time by the Reeltime Travelers
  • Ants in Your Pants by the Carpenter Ants
  • Broken Moon by John Lilly
  • One cup of coffee

    I started drinking coffee as a college freshman, and gradually learned to enjoy it. By the time I was in graduate school I had begun experimenting with what passed for exotic coffees in 1970s America—Medaglia D’Oro, Café Bustelo, French Market. After college I discovered things like espresso, fresh-roasted whole beans (first at Diedrich’s in Silicon Valley, then at the wonderful Andersons in Austin), varietals, home grinders, and even home roasters.

    By 2000 I was roasting my own beans, usually Guatemala Antigua or Sumatra Mandheling, first with a specialized small-batch roaster and then with a stovetop popcorn popper. But then I began to back off. It took me close to an hour to roast enough beans for a few days use. And when we moved to Bristol the only decent source of fresh-roasted beans was the Acoustic Coffeehouse in Johnson City, a 40-minute drive.

    At the same time I was starting to question my foodie habits—was it really anything more than indulgence to invest so much time and expense seeking after pleasant experiences, and even more on tweaking them in small ways in hopes of something exquisite? Were the experiences truly exquisite, or was I inclined to con myself that they were in order to justify the cost? Was it more about snobbery than pleasure?

    That shift in attitude changed my view of food quite a bit. For coffee, I was glad to avail myself of fine brews when the opportunity arose, but I now gave plenty of weight to the expense and trouble. There was a time when I might have driven a long way and paid a premium price for a cup brewed by the Clover coffee machine. These days I might try it if I was in the vicinity of one—or maybe not, if the cup was too expensive. (Starbucks seems to sell them for about $3 per 12oz cup, something I might pay for once.)

    For many years my coffee routine has been fairly stable. I use Starbucks House Blend beans, because I could buy them on my monthly trip to Sams Club for $8 per pound. Some don’t care for Starbucks extra-dark roasting (I’ve heard it called “Starburnts”), but I like it fine and it’s far above the threshold of drinkable. I’m always on the lookout for a local source of good freshly roasted beans, but I will no longer pay a high premium or go to great lengths for them. I have also occasionally tried cheaper beans, house brands and no-name stuff, but I disliked them enough that I’m willing to pay Starbucks prices.

    To grind the beans I use the Solis burr grinder I bought 12 years ago for $100. Sounds expensive, and I’m not sure I would spend the money again. A burr grinder beats a $25 blade grinder in two ways: it doesn’t heat the coffee (not all that important to me) and it produces an even grind (possibly important to me). When the Solis started making funny noises a year ago I bought a blade grinder just in case, but the noises stopped and I haven’t needed it. If it turns out that the uneven grind of a blade grinder causes brewing problems I would consider another Solis—after all, I figure it’s made me 10,000 cups of coffee over its lifetime, and a better brew is worth one cent per cup. But I’d be sure to spend some time using the blade grinder first.

    To brew the coffee, until yesterday I used a 2-cent paper filter and a one-cup Melitta filter cone ($3 or so) that sits atop the 16oz mug I’m using. I use an electric kettle to heat the water, then pour it over the coffee, which then takes a minute or so to drip through into the cup. Simple enough, and the coffee is fresher and better tasting than any higher-tech method I can afford would produce.

    However, I have just bought an Aeropress coffeemaker (above right), a simple gizmo that produces a brew somewhere between drip and french press. You put a filter into the bottom of the column, spoon coffee into it, then pour hot water (about half a cup) over that. Wait ten seconds, stir, wait another ten seconds, then use the plunger to push the coffee through the filter into the cup. Cleanup is surprisingly simple—pop a nearly dry disc of coffee grounds out of the column into the trash, then rinse the parts.

    The resulting coffee is high strength, having used half the water. To make it normal strength, just add the rest of the water. Or drink it strong! One thing I learned very early on in my coffee drinking (from Consumer Reports, of all places) is that there is no strength threshold above which coffee turns acidic or bitter or otherwise undrinkable; it just gets stronger. You may not like it so strong—but then again you might, and it is worth trying. I drink mine very strong, using maybe twice as much grounds as folks would use for a “strong” cup. I like the taste, and I like that I can drink half as much liquid. I make one cup in the morning and one cup after lunch.

    After only two cups, I am ready to declare the Aeropress a significant and worthwhile improvement. The brew is much richer than comes out of the filter cone, and much, much smoother. I didn’t think I’d care a lot about the smoothness, but so far I am majorly enjoying the lack of bite. (Not that I don’t appreciate bite, and I may come to miss it in time.) Making the coffee is not any more complicated than with a cone, it takes about the same time, and cleanup is as easy if not easier. Highly recommended, even at $25.

    (Here’s a good video demonstrating the use of the Aeropress, which points out that its properties make it an ideal travel coffee-maker.)