Great Comfort Records is an indie label that has been releasing organic indie projects since 2009. Founder and singer/songwriter Lenny Smith spoke with us recently (interview below) and shared seven releases with us from Great Comfort Records catalog (starting with two compilations from 2009), as well as a solo release from Smith from 2000.
Looking over the collection of records, we'll start with Lenny Smith’s Deep Calls To Deep; the album is an independent release (pre-Great Comfort days) that has a southern, folk sound. Lenny captures a bit of the essence of Johnny Cash in his work, while resembling a hint of Burl Ives, vocally.
The first Great Comfort releases--the two compilations from 2009, Come O Spirit! Anthology of Hymns and Spiritual Songs: Volume 1and Salvation Is Created: A Christmas Record from Bifrost Arts--are a nice mix of indie artists and even some well-known names. There’s a quirkiness to most of the music that Great Comfort Records offers (which isn’t surprising, considering their affiliation with the eccentric Danielson Family) and there’s a little here that’s carried over into both of these collections. My favorite of the two is the hymns collection, Come O Spirit!, which even opens with a track that features Leigh Nash of Sixpence None The Richer fame. Other notable performances include songs from Kate York, Denison Witmer and The Welcome Wagon. Salvation is Created is a Christmas compilation that is more melodic than most of the Great Comfort projects, but still has a very unique presentation that’s outside of the norm or what’s expected for Christmas music. Derek Webb even makes an appearance on this collection.
Next we have Glen Galaxy’s 2011 album, Thankyou. This may be one of the more out-of-the-ordinary worship albums you’ll lend an ear to. All of the songs came together in worship at the Abiding Place Church in San Diego (as the liner notes detail), and the album offers a folky acoustic styling with layered vocals by Glen and unusual sound effects and instruments adding texture throughout the album. The multiple layers of gritty vocals aren’t intended to harmonize, so it sounds a little dissonant at times (and there’s a surprising amount of lyrical water references that may rival Dan Haseltine and Jon Foreman), but overall the album remains refreshingly unique.
In 2012, Lenny Smith released a new worship album, Who Was and Is and Is to Come, which incorporates female accompaniment into the mix on much of the album. It’s a higher quality recording overall than his 2000 release, and offers a nice mix of folk, rock, a little rockabilly, and even a softer approach, like in “Arise My Love,” which is one of the album’s best.
Possibly the oddest of the albums is Frog In The Reeds’ 2013 album, Walking Tour of Spiders in the Woods. Quirky may be the best way to describe this one, which features female fronted vocals from Mary Brewer in an often dissonant manner. However, songs like “Driving and Smiling” are more tame and melodic. The lyrics are also rather dreamy and strange, as evidenced in the song “Fish Tank Dream,” where Brewer sings, “You are keeping my cat alive / In a cellar closet / Must have gone through 40 lives.” But most of the lyrics are quite worshipful, like this line in “Melt Like Wax,” “He is a light to expose all, see and tremble / Praise Him who keeps the soul of those / Who bow before Him… The mountains melt like wax before the Lord of all the earth.”
Finally, we have 2015’s Sing To Your Mountain by Rachel. Rachel Galloway is a mult-instrumentalist who performs guitar, ukulele, keyboard, flute and bells on her album. Stylistically and vocally, Rachel reminds me of Bon Voyage meets Dakoda Motor Co. There’s some surfer rock (“Oil of Joy”), but most of it is acoustic based and rather dreamy. Lyrically, the album is very reverent and worshipful.
If you’re looking for music out of the norm for Christian music, you need look no further than Great Comfort Records and their eclectic array of music makers. For more details on all of these artists and for the latest on what the label is up to, visit www.greatcomfortrecords.com
I also spoke to Lenny Smith about the label and his own music career...
John DiBiase (JFH): Why did you start Great Comfort Records (and how long ago)? Lenny Smith (GCR): Years ago, Daniel (Smith) and I used to have monthly meetings at a local barn-like structure. We called the meetings, Great Comfort Evenings. When we decided to start a worship label, Great Comfort Records seemed like the right name. We started the label in 2009, initially to be able to offer the Bifrost Arts albums to the wider church. We later added titles and continue to add titles.
John (JFH): How long have you personally been making music? Lenny (GCR): I started writing worship songs and leading worship with my guitar in 1965 while in Mt. St. Mary's Seminary, Emmitsburg, Md. My son, Daniel, started his music career in high school and college bands, eventually starting the Danielson Famile band with his siblings. He now owns Sounds Familyre Records and Familyre Studios.
John (JFH): What inspires you the most when making music? Lenny (GCR): Most of the time, I am first moved by lyrics, which I later try to put to melody. Occasionally, a rhythm will grab me first, but usually inspired words move me to write a song.
John (JFH): Do you have a process for working with artists for Great Comfort Records? Also, What have you learned about music-making from your experiences with the label and other artists on it? Lenny (GCR): We are not actively looking for artists, but we are open to signing artists. We find that few nowadays know how to write real melodies that actually go somewhere and even fewer can add to that inspired, poetic lyrics. However, when we find them, we want them. I personally think songwriters need to read poetry on almost a daily basis. Worship songwriters need to also read theology and spend lots of time in the Bible. I am really done with shallow praise and worship songs. My heart now is all about songs TO God, ABOUT God. I don't want to sing about me very much anymore.
John (JFH): Are there any new releases on the horizon for Great Comfort Records? Or any other exciting happenings? Lenny (GCR): My own new album of original songs will be released around June, followed by a new album from Rachel in September of this year. We will also be releasing a compilation album of 16 songs by 16 different writers/artists.
John (JFH): What are your thoughts on the current state of Christian music - or music in general? Lenny (GCR): Christian worship music has become entertainment because the leaders are choosing a bad paradigm. God is not sitting on a throne, watching and enjoying us as we sing to Him and dance about and raise our hands in adoration. That would put us on the stage and God in the audience....as an Audience Of One. Reality is just the opposite. We Are The Audience, watching God performing his cosmic show of provision, guidance, healing, restoration, creation, evolution, adaptation, recovery, inspiration, and on and on, wonder after wonder. WHEN we see His deeds and His nature, we rise spontaneously to our feet and applaud and cry-out "Wow!" We could call our response "worship." True worship is not an action, it is a reaction.
John (JFH): Any other comments? Lenny (GCR): We here on earth are just imitating what has been and is going on in the heavenlies, singing and praising and worshiping our Maker. Even here the birds and the whales and the elephants, puppies and babies are worshiping their Maker. The church is actually late coming to the party. In fact, most of the church doesn't even know the party has already begun. They are waiting for the rapture or death before they join the banquet. I blame the teachers, not the people. Our teachers are mostly self-taught and have embraced a pop-Christianity, or are stuck in traditional structures that will not allow the Holy Spirit to improve and refine their thinking. Yet, we progress steadily :)
Last year, Falling Up released possibly their best album to date, Your Sparkling Death Cometh. Earlier this year, the band threw a bone to fans in the form of the hit and miss remix project Mnemos. Now, Falling Up is using their independence to release their newsiest endeavor in a unique way. Their Machine De Ella Project is broken up into two releases: Hours and Midnight to Earthship. Fans can subscribe to either one or both of the projects and acquire the songs as they are released (which are about three a month or so for each developing album). Each album is vastly different so I'm going to focus on Hours here.
Hours is one half an audiobook written and read by Jessy Ribordy and one half the soundtrack to the novella. Although the cryptic lyrics didn't appear to have much in the way of correlation with the chapters of the audio book, some of the lyrics are just starting to make sense.
The tone of the music draws from Your Sparkling Death Cometh, and there have been hints of an influence from Fangs as well. "The Contract" features much of the foundation that has defined Falling Up's recent music, and it works as a good experimental rock song. However, "The Climb" is a little dry by comparison, and the solid bridge isn't enough to overcome its largely uninspired tune. Your Sparkling… and Fangs meet in the electric guitar driven "Finn Hatches A Plan," and its high-energy chorus is great. Ribordy's vocals are more emotional in "The Rest Will Soon Follow," and the dreamy, softer music offers a welcomed change of pace. So far, "Aeva And The Waving World" is clearly the best offering on Hours. The haunting bass and vocals are heavily layered in synth, and the ominous atmosphere is among the best Falling Up has ever established.
From the album's first five songs, it's clear that the elongated endings that have defined much of the group's recent work are still very much alive. While I'm usually in favor of longer songs (especially when it comes to one of my favorite artists, like Falling Up), there are times when I wish they'd cut the programming and just end the song so we can move on. Also, with the exception of "Aeva And The Waving World," I feel like we've heard this before from Falling Up. I'm all in favor of a band remaining in their natural element, but the band has proven they have no natural element. Each project from Falling Up has been different, ranging from hard rock, alternative rock, to, now, experimental rock. All those genres have massive frontiers, and the band has done an incredible job carving out the genre wherever they go (sans Crashing which was a bit generic, and some of Dawn Escapes which was a bit repetitive). I'd like to see the seven remaining songs branch out a little more and stand more on their own feet.
Those interested in the paranormal novella will discover a world populated by children in an orphanage. Seth, the child prodigy and leader of the (very mature) six graders, is the protagonist who is chosen to lead his classmates into the mysterious north quarter of the orphanage. For a whole year, every year, the sixth grade class is allowed to do whatever they want in an empty gym for an hour without supervision. Each class before Seth has developed a dangerous game to pass the time, and now it's Seth's turn to come up with something. Although he forms the boldest, most daring plan yet, his game has a good chance of twisting out of control with the deadliest of consequences.
I've been a Falling Up enthusiast from the beginning, and I bought the subscription to Hours for the music. The audiobook was an afterthought, but each subsequent chapter has made me want to dive into the story first. So far, Jessy hasn't tried to develop the characters all that much, but they are interesting enough that we care about them whenever they encounter dubious situations. The writing isn't dazzling, but it doesn't stick out as a drawback either. It simply acts as the vehicle to tell the story. Some disbelief will have to be suspended to fully enjoy the story, as some plot points are just a little hard to swallow. For example, the unlikely romance among eleven year olds is a bit farfetched and did warrant some eye-rolling.
The intriguing aspect of Hours is the story, and the chilling paranormal elements that put the reader/listener on edge. Dark secrets, appearances of apparitions, and an ominous hole in the ground provide enough suspense, but it's the creepy soundtrack that plays in the background that does the most damage to someone's calm.
A word of caution. Although the cast features eleven year olds in the main cast, this is a YA (young adult) tale with some very mature elements. The supernatural occurrences are not at all consistent with God's Word. Just outside the gym, the children invent a machine that enables them to meet death halfway, and the results include teleportation, super strength, and flight of sorts. Then there's the ghost that's beginning to lurk around, and we're getting hints that she's up to no good. Graphic descriptions of dead or dying children are detailed and cringe worthy, and there is already one mild abuse of the Lord's name. The story is enthralling, but worth the plunge...?
A subscription to Hours is $15, and the one to Midnight to Earthship is $10. The packaged deal of both together costs $20, and right now there isn't any other physical or digital outlet to acquire them from. For a Falling Up geek like me, it's a no brainer, but, if you didn't love Your Sparkling Death Cometh, I'd wait until the project is completed before checking it out. It's reasonable to expect where the band is going with the musical side of Hours, but I haven't a clue where the audiobook is headed.
Relient K is releasing a brand new EP of cover songs next Tuesday, June 28th, titled K is for Karaoke. The EP serves as a precursor for a full album with the same title releasing October 4th. With the new EP almost here, I'm ranking the songs as a countdown from the least standout covering to my favorite...
7. "Surf Wax America" by Weezer
It's a faithful rendition, and that's all it is. It works better during their live sets. Weezer have their own feel and charm that just doesn't really translate when others try to cover it, at least in a studio setting without the roar of a crowd.
6. "Baby" by Justin Bieber
Though Thiessen sings it like a champ, it can't beat the fact that they completely scraped Ludacris' rap during the bridge. They could have had a ton of fun with this, but instead the four-fifths of the song they do sing is very faithful to the source material, and that's about it. Regardless, it'll be the biggest seller on iTunes. We all know this is true.
5. "Doctor Worm" by They Might Be Giants
I hadn't heard this They Might Be Giants song until after I had heard Relient K's cover. I was struck by just how much the two sound identical. Thiessen definitely borrows some of his vocal chops from TMBG. This song is kinda weird, but it works as a goofy Relient K track. It kind of sounds like an actual Relient K song. And it's a lot of fun.
4. "Crazy" by Gnarls Barkley
Thiessen's vocals shine here, because he does a good job of nailing it, while not really taking it too seriously. It's a fun song with a funky beat, that Relient K somehow works out without sounding too weird. Job well done.
3. "Everybody Wants to Rule the World" by Tears for Fears
Relient K did little to take this one out of the 1980s, and that's exactly how it should be. It sounds a little wild as a Relient K song, but, man, I can't get it out of my head. I love it. I can't even really explain it, you just have to hear it.
2. "Girls Just Want to Have Fun" by Cindi Lauper
Definitely the most energetic song on the EP. I've always said that Matt Thiessen likes to state his intentions for each record he does somewhere on the album. We get the point of this EP right from the get-go- it's all about having fun. Don't hit me, but I think this version if superior to the original.
1. "Here Comes My Girl" by Tom Petty & the Heartbreakers
When looking at the track listing, I probably scratched my head the hardest at this choice. Tom Petty? Really? I mean, I love Tom Petty. But...Tom Petty? Really? But it works. So well. They have a ton of fun with it, and it works as a (slightly wild) Relient K track. It's got fun verses, rousing chorus lead ins, and a well-earned, melodic chorus that will have you singing along by the end of the second verse even if you've never heard the song before. This I promise you.
The idea of an interactive digital Bible may cause a few people to scratch their heads and say, "But why?!" To be honest, the concept sounded a bit intriguing, but for the most part, I couldn't visualize what the fuss could be about. An interactive Bible? Sure, I can see that possibly being cool, but what's wrong with our own personal paper Bible we can hold and carry around with us? Nothing, of course, but for those glued to a computer all day -- whether portable or desktop -- something like "Glo" may be exactly what they need.
"Glo: The Bible For The Digital World" is a three-disc DVD-based program that is installable for your PC (Glo for Mac is coming in 2010). Glo is unfortunately a bit of a resource hog, needing a whopping 18 gigabytes of your hard drive space and 1GB of RAM if you're using Window XP or 2GB for Vista or Windows 7. Granted, most new computers come with pretty big hard drives and a nice amound of RAM, so installing the Bible is hardly a waste of space, but it's something to keep in mind if you're already running low on hard drive space. It's also nice that Glo doesn't need to run off of a disc, so you don't need to lug the discs around or need to pop it in every time you need to run it. But why is Glo so big? The digital Bible boasts 2,382 High-Res photographs, 7,500 Encyclopedia articles, 463 Virtual tours, 689 Works of Art, and 3.5 hours of HD Video... that is, all in addition to the entire Bible accessible within a couple mouse clicks.
When you open the Glo program, a beautifully minimalistic black, starry menu pops up displaying the title "Explore The World Of The Bible." It instructs the user to select a lens for which to view the Biblical "world" and offers six different portals -- "Bible," "Timeline," "Atlas," "Topical," "Media," and "MyGlo." It also features a search box right below that menu, so you can search the whole entire Glo library right away.
So let's take a look at each individual section...
When I first opened up the program after installing it (which takes quite a bit of time), I immediately clicked on "Bible." When you do this, a screen displaying "Old Testament" on the left and "New Testament" on the right pops up and gives a breakdown of each book beneath the title. From this screen -- and really any screen in Glo -- there are colored tabs on your left which, once your mouse highlights them, expand to allow you to browse any of the six lenses. You can also access a journal where you can view any notes you make next to scripture references at any time. You will also be able to start what they call a new "session" so that you can jump around the program and save your searches or studies. This allows you to open multiple search windows - sort of like a web browser - and then save them upon exiting Glo, which is great if you are in the middle of researching something but need to close Glo or reboot your computer. But within the "Bible" section, you can simply choose a book, and with one click are brought to a break down of chapters, including an introduction. Once you click on a chapter, it brings you to the verses and you can view study notes, increase or decrease the text size, take a screen shot in an image or text form, or even select and copy text for use elsewhere. Right-clicking on a verse brings up a little control panel that allows you to send the scripture to a different lens, add a note, or just return to the passage. I had clicked on John chapter 2 and it suggested a video in the lower right hand corner when I selected verse 7. The videos are part of a series titled "In His Shoes." Author Troy Schmidt narrates his journey tracing the steps of Christ today. The music and presentation are a bit overly dramatic (and Schmidt tends to sound a lot like a news reporter in his delivery of the presentation), but the video still serves as an interesting added feature to give the Bible exploration another dimension.
TIMELINE Clicking on "Timeline," you're brought to a screen where it breaks down the Bible in chronological order from Creation to New Testament. Clicking on any point brings up further selections. For example, I clicked on "New Testament" and it brought up "The Life Of Jesus" and "The Early Church" as well as several subcategories. Clicking on the subcategory "The Church In Antioch" then expands a list of events like "Peter Released From Prison" or "Book Of James Is Written." Clicking on the latter brings up a separate list of Scripture references, Articles, and Photos. Other sections bring up Virtual Tour videos or famous Art as well. It's a pretty nice function for exploring the events of Scripture or trying to do research for teaching or personal study.
"Atlas" brings up a beautiful map that focuses on Egypt, Arabia, Babylon, Persia, etc. With the click of your mouse, you can drag the map around to look at other areas of the world. The map may be one of the bigger features for the program to load, so I found it taking longer than most other sections to navigate to. But it's no reason why. The map is a greatly detailed satellite-style view and you can zoom in and out at will. So when you click on a highlighted area like "Judea," a list of features pops up similar to those found on the Timeline. There are 171 results in Glo pertaining to Judea. It pulls up 43 Scripture references, 1 Article, 26 Photographs, 54 pieces of Artwork, 33 Virtual Tours, 8 Maps, and 6 Interactive Documentaries. It's a cool way to search the Bible by Biblical locations.
TOPICAL Clicking on "Topical" displays a page of three different sections: "Biblical World," "Christian Faith," and "Life." Clicking on one of them, for example "Biblical World," zooms in to a set of submenus. "Biblical World" offers "Animals," "Biblical Life," "Peoples," "Writings," "Languages," "Plants," "Climate," and "Lands Of The Bible. "Christian Faith" offers "Spiritual Beings,""The Church," "The Bible," "Salvation," "Sin," "Man," "Holy Spirit," "Jesus Christ," "God," and "End Times," while "Life" displays "My Life," "911 Life in Crisis," "Life With God," "Life With Others." Clicking on "Jesus Christ" under "Christian Faith" brings up even more subcategories, and clicking on "Deity," for example, displays the search results section which displays 23 Scripture references and 2 Articles. This seems like a great way to prepare for a teaching or study, or if you have your own personal questions about something that you'd like to learn more about. The title "911 Life In Crisis" seemed like an intriguing title to me, so when I clicked on it, it was cool to find it lists such touchy subjects as Homosexuality, Abortion, Marital Affair, Divorce, etc. Topics like Divorce bring up Scripture references and even links to YouTube videos and online articles.
MEDIA "Media" brings up the search results screen right away, displaying 3,749 media results. Here is where you can view over 2,300 photos, over 700 pieces of Artwork, 525 Virtual Tour videos, 143 maps, and the "In His Shoes" documentary. Out of curiousity, I clicked on "Church Of the Holy Sepulcher" under Virtual Tours and it brought up a cross-section diagram of the church with clickable sections that zoom into the diagram and allow you to click and see real-life photos of the church. Further clicking reveals photos inside that give you the opportunity to click on different views inside of that view, with text describing or explaining different features. It's a brilliant feature and a great way to bring some of these Biblical locations to life! Other tours, like "The Tabernacle at the Sinai" give a computer-rendered illustration of what it may have looked like, with the option to zoom in and even view Moses' personal tent. You can zoom in further and check out views of the Tabernacle, too - from the Bronze Laver to the Bronze Altar and even an inside view to peek at the Ark of the Covenant and the cherubims on top of it!
MyGlo Finally, the last lens is titled "MyGlo." MyGlo lists what features will be coming soon. It lists Animated Maps and a Reading Plan, scheduled to release next month, as well as an Audio Bible and Expert Videos (from Max Lucado, Joel Hunter, and others) both releasing in in the first Quarter of 2010. Lastly, it lists "My Apps" which features the HD "In His Shoes" documentary, and "My Journal," which compiles your scripture comments and notes into one location. I was under the impression you'd be able to actually write journal notes directly into the journal, but apparently it only compiles notes you make elsewhere in Glo. Still, it's pretty nice that it also attaches the scripture to your journal along with your note, so you can make your own personalized study if needbe.
Overall, I have to say I'm really impressed with what Glo has to offer. While it's hardly a substitute for the feeling of holding the pages of the Word of God in your hands to browse through and reflect on, Glo is a wonderful tool and essential for your Bible study needs. Those wanting a quick and easy reference for their teaching needs will also enjoy having this digital tool. The maps, photographs, virtual tours, and artwork are a nice addition to the Word and I myself look forward to digging in a bit more to bring an added dimension to my personal studying. With everything going more and more digital and handheld, it'll be intriguing to see where Glo goes next. The fact that they're already planning new features is exciting, and I'd love to see this becoming handheld (aside from a laptop) in the near future. What a great resource!