Thursday, June 7, 2012

Online buzz/10 Christian Songs That Don't Suck

Wow!!!!! What a whirlwind this particular season of my life has been! In addition to graduating from Fuller Theological Seminary tomorrow with a master of arts in worship and music ministry this weekend (FINALLY!), applying for jobs and trying to rekindle something akin to a social life with Phoenix-based friends who I've scarcely seen over the past year-and-a-half, online critical reception of my latest album, The Whole Spirit: Redemption Songs, was surprisingly abundant and favorable last week! Here are a few examples, for all of which I profusely thank the triune God:

1. Fame Factor -- a pretty cool multimedia website that is free to use for musicians of any genre and conviction -- chose me as one of its "featured artists" on Tuesday, May 29.

2. The Worship Community -- a great online resource for those involved in music ministry -- included The Whole Spirit: Redemption Songs among its "great music available this week" on the aforementioned date.

3. Christian Originals Radio -- an online station that focuses exclusively on unsigned artists -- officially added an edited version of my song "Weaklings" to its playlist. Please go listen and, if you feel so compelled, "like" my song whenever it plays -- doing so will increase its airplay and lengthen its stay on this particular station!

4. Faronheit -- a Chicago-based indie music blog that, as far as I know, doesn't feature spiritually informed music all that often -- shared my song "If You're the Same God" in the same breath as other "gems" from indie artists like Balam Acab, Friends, Parakeet and Ty Segall Band. I have always tried to write music that could appeal just as much to so-called "secular" listeners as it would to overt disciples of Christ, so inclusion on a blog of this nature is very exciting indeed. And for the record, I never in my life thought I would see one of my song titles coupled with a dubstep track called "A#! Pop." Go figure.

5. Worship leader, songwriter and blogger Zac Hicks described me as one of "a growing number of young church musicians ... embracing different values as compared to the industry (speaking both musically and theologically, and perhaps even financially) for the songs they write and produce." More specifically, he commended The Whole Spirit: Redemption Songs as a suite of "(t)asteful, musical, liturgically-oriented, congregation-friendly songs, thoughtfully wedding old worship forms and songs with new settings," while also categorizing it as "(f)olk-indie, while more classically-oriented in singing and some instrumentation" (well, THAT makes marketing significantly easier). I've come to discover that Hicks is a fervent advocate for what he calls the Rehymn Movement, identifying numerous artists and organizations who are recognizing "contemporary worship" as an increasingly old-hat phenomenon and consequently delving into the rich yet oft-overlooked abundance of musically powerful, theologically informed hymnody that Christendom has accumulated over the past two millennia. Though I cannot claim to have written The Whole Spirit: Redemption Songs with any explicit hopes to revive hymnody -- or any particular style, for that matter -- I definitely composed this liturgy with long-simmering intentions of circumventing the biblical vapidness, aesthetic gloss and utter lack of risk-taking that contaminates the vast majority of today's worship music. I am deeply honored that Hicks took the time to not only listen to my album, but also to identify me as an inadvertent participant in what sounds like an absolutely necessary music ministry initiative.

With this in mind, I've decided to share some of my latest liturgical discoveries with you. This may or may not become a regular feature on this here blog -- assuming that the former situation will be the case, I'm going to call this section 10 Christian Songs That Don't Suck:

1. The Sing Band, "Satisfied in You (Psalm 42)"

2. Edbrooke Collective, "Risen Today"

3. Bruce Benedict, "Jesus, My All to Heav'n Has Come"

4. Kristen Gilles, "Bold Before God's Throne"

5. Flo Paris, "God Saved Daniel"

6. Daniel Zott, "How Great Thou Art"

7. Dunn & Wilt, "Hear Oh Hear" (the link will take you to this artist's entire album, which available for free download from Noisetrade)

8. Todd Berger, "Here in Earth" (ditto for this one)

9. David Wimbish and the Collection, "Stones"

10. At the Snow, "Fool to Try"

HONORABLE MENTION: Beta Radio, "Darden Road" (OK, perhaps this one's not as explicitly spiritual, but several Christian music fans seem to enjoy this group for reasons that I have yet to adequately investigate and -- in my perpetually humble opinion -- the sheer melodic force of this thing is nothing short of Godly)

ATTN. ARTISTS: In the event that you are reading this blog post and want me to remove any of these streaming links for whatever reason, please e-mail me at tohoover(at)gmail(dot)com and I will gladly, immediately do so.

And with that, I'm off to bed, as it's very late in Phoenix, Ariz. and I have to leave early tomorrow for graduation and such in Pasadena, Calif. ... thank you and the One who created you for all of your past, present and future love and support. Please be good and stay faithful within your respective corners.

-- Todd

Tuesday, May 22, 2012

My first blogger review!

An emphatic "thank you" goes out to Derek John Jordan, a blogger who downloaded The Whole Spirit: Redemption Songs whilst the entire album was available for free on Noisetrade (I've since whittled it down to a three-song sampler, just FYI) and briefly reviewed it at Just Being Here: A Blog of Derkyness. This guy posts about 15 to 20 reviews a week, focusing specifically on underground Christian music that is freely downloadable from Noisetrade. Describing The Whole Spirit as a collection of "modern day hymns," Derek had particularly nice things to say about the vocal sound and explicitly biblical, Christ-centered lyrics. He identified "Turn Our Anger Into Praise" as a highlight -- complimenting its drum beats (way to go, Ryan Poling!) and gradual surge in volume, instrumentation, and tempo over nearly three minutes -- and also seemed to resonate with the words of thanksgiving/petition and eight-piece choir sound on "Prayer and Doxology." I know I've already expressed my gratitude on Facebook, Twitter, and Google Plus, but seriously, Derek ... thank you, thank you, THANK YOU for taking the time to not only listen to my music, but also to give it a positive (yet honest) review on your blog. Please keep doing what you do for underground Christian artists everywhere!

In other news ... I now possess some physical copies of The Whole Spirit: Redemption Songs in compact disc form. If you would like a copy -- either through snail mail or a face-to-face exchange -- I will very gladly sell one to you for $7; just hit me up at tohoover(at)gmail(dot)com and inform me about the most optimal way of getting it to you. For those of you who donated toward the audio mastering and album artwork for this nine-movement indie/choral/folk/rock liturgy on Kickstarter, expect your consequently free copy sooner than later ...

Thank you (yes, YOU) so much for your support through my entire journey. I still can't believe that any of this is happening. Loving neighbors as oneself is never an easy task, but when I continue to see the Lord's grace move so abundantly in those I'm privileged enough to call brothers and sisters in Christ, I cannot respond with anything but the utmost humility and gratitude. Every single one of you is a superstar -- you know who you are (hey, that rhymes ... anyway), and if you don't, God definitely does.

I hope you're all doing wonderfully in your respective corners!

Many thanks and blessings,

Friday, May 11, 2012

"The Whole Spirit: Redemption Songs" now available at Bandcamp

Hello! How are you doing?

Well, since this is an online thing, I don't suppose you can tell me how you're doing in any exceptionally convenient manner. So until we can converse in a more immediate setting, allow me to introduce myself ...

My name's Todd Hoover. I'm a native of Phoenix, Arizona (so yes, anything below 70 degrees Fahrenheit is consummate jacket weather). As of today -- May 11, 2012 -- I'm 28 years old. I'm a musician and a Christian, but don't particularly like to think of myself as a "Christian musician." I've spent the vast majority of my cognizant life searching for increasingly creative ways to offer my musical gifts back the triune God from whom I received them, both as a worship leader in the sanctuary and as a singer/songwriter in the coffeehouse. This journey has led me to regularly volunteer at seven different churches, planning, leading, and composing worship; rehearsing various musical ensembles; organizing charity events; hosting theological discussions; preaching sermons; and otherwise ministering in various capacities. In more "worldly" contexts (hooray for biblical buzzwords!), I've performed as a semi-professional musician at various West Coast venues since 2003, both as a solo artist and in five different bands (The Invisible Teal, Uggamugga, Mutual Friends, The Nature of Things, The Matrishka House).

After wrestling with inclinations toward ministry for roughly five years, I entered Fuller Theological Seminary’s worship and music ministry program in early 2009 and will be graduating in June 2012. I've been heavily involved in the activities of student groups such as Fuller Arts Collective and The Fuller Company (presiding over the former group during the seminary's 2011-12 school year), and I hope to continue encouraging people toward sacrifices of good works and generosity (Heb. 13:16, NRSV) in whatever capacity and locale God decides to lead me.

So enough about me. Let's get straight to why I started this blog -- The Whole Spirit: Redemption Songs.

This full-length album/master’s thesis project is a roughly 40-minute worship piece that I wrote as an exploration of music’s relatedness to metanoia (the Koine Greek noun for “repentance”). I realized toward the end of my seminary education that, with such zealous advocacy for theologically orthodox worship music proliferating throughout the Church, it doesn't seem like a whole lot of prominent Christian figures are actively recognizing music as a remarkably effective form of pastoral counseling. Sure, Jesus was a great preacher and teacher, but that's not what made him the Son of God -- the only reason anyone recognized him as fully human, fully divine is because he was a healer. I strongly believe that worship should not be abused a platform for entertainment, but too often, people who share my opinion end up bogging worship music down with so many lofty expressions of "proper doctrine" that they might as well serve the same purpose as an academic lecture. Every single "sign" that the Messiah offered to those who repented toward the news of His Father's Kingdom can be construed as an emotional journey in miniature, through which inevitably sinful human beings of all ethnicities, ages, sexes, and socioeconomic statuses learned how vital it is to love the Lord with heart and soul, not just mind and strength (Mark 12:29-30, NRSV). Additionally, the Son of David's healing presence in these people's lives was often immediately recognized by those who knew that living by faith requires an openness to the unexpected, but those with specific, "educated," and often self-aggrandizing notions of how the Messiah would redeem Israel from worldly corruption failed or refused to acknowledge Jesus' radical words and actions as anything more than the tricks of a blasphemer.

Countless contemporary worship musicians (mostly of the young, Caucasian "hipster" variety) are tapping into music's ability to facilitate a thrilling emotional journey, bombarding their congregations with sweeping crescendo after sweeping crescendo, earnest octave jump after earnest octave jump. Not to say that those sweeping crescendos and earnest octave jumps are inherently bad -- heck, if it can be argued that contemporary worship music has done little more than rip off U2's "With or Without You" over and over again, I can certainly think of worse foundations. More importantly, if people genuinely feel inspired toward metanoia when listening to music of that ilk, I'm in absolutely no place to judge the legitimacy of their experiences. Nevertheless, considering the sheer lack of creativity and singability that I hear in most contemporary worship music anymore, I cannot help but fear that some of Jesus' hypermodern disciples are starting to unwittingly revere sweeping crescendos and performance-oriented tenor acrobatics as the only musical techniques through which God bothers to address His people in today's post-Christian society. What's even more offensive to me is that the unavoidably challenging message of Christ's birth, ministry, persecution, death, resurrection, and return is consistently being wed to mind-numbingly predictable music, not to mention watered down with innocuous, Hallmark-worthy lyrical sentiments that purposefully dilute the blood of Jesus so that it tastes more like Kool-Aid (Jim Jones connotations and all).

Inspired by a recommendation made to me by Fuller adjunct professor Michelle Baker-Wright (as well as her "Music and Theology" class, in which she explained why it is helpful for all music ministers to know the basics of neuroscience), I asked certified psychologist and Fuller faculty professor Alexis Abernethy to serve as the mentor for my master's thesis project in the spring of 2011. The eventual result was The Whole Spirit: Redemption Songs -- consisting of nine distinct movements, this Advent-themed indie folk-rock liturgy examines the multifaceted potential for music to redirect humanity’s affective, cognitive, and behavioral loyalty toward He whose redemptive grace and truth is infinitely more powerful than history’s most poignant tunes (cf. Mark 1:1-8, NRSV). With the musical and conceptual support of an eight-piece ensemble, I debuted The Whole Spirit: Redemption Songs during a Feb. 25, 2012 worship service at Trinity Lutheran Church in Pasadena, Calif., and recruited most of those same musicians to professionally record this liturgy on April 7 of that same year at Groovin' on MusicThe mixed and mastered recording of The Whole Spirit: Redemption Songs is now available for stream and download at Bandcamp.

While writing, arranging, and rehearsing this liturgy, I purposefully drew upon a wide variety of musical styles and techniques that tend to have very specific physical, mental, and emotional impacts upon their listeners, all the while incorporating into my own distinctive indie folk-rock style and using a handful of Advent-appropriate Bible verses as lyrical and compositional guidelines. I also made it a point to incorporate consistent elements of surprise into this piece, especially in comparison to the formulaic, industry-tainted abyss that comprises the vast majority of contemporary arena rock ... er, sorry ... worship music. Here is a brief rundown of the nine movements:

1. If You're the Same God (based on Ps. 85:1-6; inspired by doom metal)

Considering that numerous gathering songs used in Christian worship are of an upbeat, determined, and major-key nature, I thought that opening with a slow, minor-key, borderline agnostic dirge would not only be jarring, but also appropriate for worshippers who may be struggling to feel enthused about the gospel in a depressing age.  

2. Turn Our Anger Into Praise (based on Ps. 85:7-10; inspired by reggae and ska)

This section’s lyrics plainly summarize metanoia, admitting personal misfortune and desperation without God while gradually transitioning from the first-person singular to the first-person plural: “Please show me Your love, Lord/Are You not the God who saves?/Please sing me Your peace, Lord/Are we not renewed by faith?/Help us carry the yoke, Lord/Turn our anger into praise.” 

3. Jubilant Noise (based on Ps. 85:11-13; inspired by rockabilly and jangle pop)

Given the expressions of anger and repentance that precede it, I intended for this forceful section to test worship theologian Don Saliers’ thesis that the most redemptive music emerges from juxtapositions of “beauty, injustice and human suffering” (Music and Theology, 2007, p. x).

4. Weaklings (based on Isaiah 40; inspired by post-rock)

Of course, the task of baptizing all nations in the Name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit and teaching them to obey Jesus’ commands (Matt. 28:19-20, NRSV) will always result in suffering and death before resurrection, and I arranged for the relentless faith of “Jubilant Noise” to segue into a more apprehensive variation on that same emotion in “Weaklings” to instill the unavoidability of hardship in any Christian’s life.

5. Death (inspired by ambient music)

This delicate piano-based interlude was used as The Whole Spirit’s midsection for somewhat experimental purposes — though I disagree with Edgar Allan Poe’s insinuation that aesthetic pleasure is the only criterion by which art’s worth can be legitimately measured (The Works of Edgar Allan Poe, 1884, p. 238), I wanted to see if purely beautiful, pensive music can help worshippers “discern what is the will of God — what is good and acceptable and perfect” (Romans 12:2, NRSV).

6. Resurrection (based on Ps. 147:10-11; inspired by post-bop) 

Partially inspired by nursing researcher Christine Jonas-Simpson’s study of stroke survivors — several of whom indicated that the soundtrack to their experiences of being listened to would be soft and pleasant (Nursing Science Quarterly, 2003, pp. 234-235) — I wanted to try reaffirming the oft-dismissed virtue of repentance with a jazzy cadence, simple major-key chord progression, and whimsical piano-and-violin melody, building up toward one repeated phrase at the movement’s end: “You take no delight in strength or in speed/But You deliver all who wait on their knees.”

7. After the Dragon Dies (based on 2 Pet. 3:1-10; inspired by Irish jigs and Mauritian sega)

I crafted this sprightly, wordy 6/8 tune as an antithesis of sorts to “If You’re the Same God,” betraying unruffled, eschatological tenacity against the world’s contempt for Jesus’ followers.

8. Working/Waiting (based on 2 Pet. 3:11-13, Mark 13:24-37, and Ps. 85:13; inspired by children's folk and musical theater)

This section's primary refrain -- "To see Your face, we work and wait" -- was designed to epitomize the Christian life itself in direct, uncompromising and exuberant language, and in a way, the rhythmic simplicity and constancy with which it is sung throughout “Working/Waiting” represents my research-driven attempt to match the urgent, cathartic bliss stimulated by various styles of repetitive dance music (Daniel J. Levitin, This is Your Brain on Music, 2006, p. 169; H. Strasser, M. Chiu, H. Irle & A. Wagener, Theoretical Issues in Ergonomics Science2008, p. 411; Thomas Turino, Music as Social Life, 2008, p. 88). During the rests interspersed throughout this chant, I interjected with a sung adaptation of Jesus’ fig tree parable, mentioning “the valley oak tree of California” and the fact that “what Jesus said to the 12 disciples has stayed around for 2,000 years”; these geographically, historically unique references were made so that the first “sheep” who heard and witnessed The Whole Spirit in Pasadena, Calif. would recognize that they, too, are grazing the God of Israel’s ancient “pasture” (Psalm 100:3). The chord progression and closing refrain from "Jubilant Noise" reappears at the end of "Working/Waiting," to enhance the grandness of The Whole Spirit’s practical finale and — more importantly — to signify that, despite every contextual variation, the universal Church’s melody of metanoia must remain the same within all local churches. 

9. Prayer and Doxology (prayer based on James 2:24; hymn written by Thomas Ken in 1674)

Music therapist Rolando Benenzon observed that even young children react more strongly toward music they already know (in Corbett, 1996, p. 15), and so after eight movements’ worth of unfamiliar songs, I considered it pertinent to end with a popular hymn.

The five intense, occasionally infuriating, but ultimately inspiring months of prayer, study, planning, writing, recruiting, rehearsing, revising, performing, recording, mixing, mastering, promoting, other activities that cost a lot of money, etc. behind The Whole Spirit: Redemption Songs have taught me three very important lessons about artistic creativity: Minor details do matter, it is OK to occasionally have bad ideas and suffer the consequences, and hard work pays off (though almost never on people's own impatient schedules). I'm not going to be so presumptuous as to claim that God gave me any of this music directly -- I'll ultimately let Him have the final Word on that -- but everything about my journey with The Whole Spirit: Redemption Songs thus far has been profoundly life-giving and nothing short of surreal.

As I mentioned earlier in this essay, the mixed and mastered recording of The Whole Spirit: Redemption Songs is now available for download at Bandcamp. You can also stream the whole thing at GroovesharkLast.fmSoundcloud, Vimeo, and YouTube.

The Holy Spirit is obviously the one who is ultimately responsible for any and all things redemptive in this world; at my best, all I can ever hope to be is a faithful conduit. That said, I pray that as you listen to The Whole Spirit: Redemption Songs, the triune God will be able to bestow His healing wisdom and grace upon you in some way, shape, or form.

Thank you for reading and listening. May God bless you abundantly in all you do.

In Him,