Music Co-Review: A Conversation About “Cold Hard Want” by House of Heroes

It’s my pleasure to introduce my first guest blogger of sorts, Austin Mitzel. Austin and I were roommates for a year in college, and one of the many affinities we shared was a love for art, philosophy, and the intersection of the two. As one clear example of this, when I discovered the band House of Heroes’ (HoH) sophomore album, “The End Is Not The End,” and showed it to my roommates, Austin fell in love with the band just as much–if not more–than I had. When House of Heroes’ newest album, “Cold Hard Want,” came out earlier this summer, I made a point to ask his opinion via Facebook message. Here is our exchange (with minor edits for grammar and flow):

So your request lit reviewer flame in my soul. here goes.

I’ve always appreciated the band’s work for its originality and thought-provoking material. Besides the album “Cold Hard Want,” I’ve only heard “The End is Not the End” and “Suburba.” Both of those were strong albums–particularly, in my view, in terms of thematic unity. “Cold Hard Want” isn’t an exception. In fact, “Cold Hard Want” is arguably more unified, especially in formal, musical terms. I’ll get to that later on, but you can know, for now, that I think it’s their best work yet.

In strictly musical terms, I think “Cold Hard Want” is features some of their most diverse work, and it seems to consistently get better. They’ve started to move away from the classic rock of “The End is Not the End,” but what’s not to like about “Remember the Empire,” or “Angels of Night”? Frontman Tim Skipper is considerably more adventurous on this album, and his vocal talent shows. “Cold Hard Want” feels much more weighty than HoH’s earlier work, but I think the heavier punch suits them.

Isn’t the title fascinating? It struck me as odd even before I took my first listen. I’m convinced now that that is how it’s supposed to be. The title is taken from the chorus in “Out of my Way”:

“It took a whole lot of blood and sweat to get what I got,
It took a whole lot of cold hard want to get what I got,
It took a whole lot of nights like these to get what I got,
Yeah it took cold hard want to get what I got yeah!”

Of course a whole host of questions come up: What did he get? Was it worth it? Quintessential HoH here; it’s never answered. Or, actually, the whole album is the answer. One of the stand out tracks for me at this point is “Comfort Trap.” It’s a blood chilling caricature of the materialistic man if ever there was one. “Cop” is another one of my favorites, and one that was (I think) deliberately placed before “Comfort Trap” to depict the characters in contrast to each other. It’s easy enough to see the album as a resounding condemnation of materialism (“Comfort Trap” is, after all, the centerpiece of the work) but the questions it asks are more universal.

Back to the musical form. If you’ve listened to the album, you’ve probably noticed that two of the tracks are a capella. Their positions in the album at the very beginning at near the end would seem to make them book ends–and would make the last song a coda of sorts. The opening a capella track sets the tone for the whole album. Time, racing on before us while we stare helplessly as it passes. And a dream of a man, a man who’s not afraid of life and death. The second a capella section asks us to look into our souls-time passes us by, but we can still get home. Or can we? Continue reading →

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Music Review: Vice Verses

It’s easy to choose one word to describe Switchfoot’s new album, Vice Versestension. Musically, this new work from San Diego natives bring the same rocking signature-guitar-riff-songs that fans have come to know and love, balanced, of course, by softer, but powerful, heartfelt ballads. Lyrically, it deals with many of the main themes from Switchfoot’s past albums. Vice Verses takes the band’s best qualities and strings them tight between the great hurts that confront us every day and the great hope we can have despite them.

This tension comes out as the songs bounce between an Ecclesiastes-type mourning of the vanity of life and a yearning for hope in the eternal life to come. As you listen to Vice Verses, this comes in transitions: it opens with a powerful upbeat trio of songs and then drops abruptly to “Restless”, one of the softest tracks on the album. Shortly after this comes the most cynical song on the album, “Selling the News”, followed by the much more tender “Thrive.” We don’t even get to the hardest song on the album until track eight.

Throughout the album, front man Jon Foreman’s lyrics paint a dark and gritty world in which we are strung between the evil and the good–the “in-between,” as he calls it several times.

It’s a world full of rampant deception, manipulation and confusion. “Selling the News” delivers a poignant critique of the American media and the masses who listen to it: “Begging the question/mongering fears/the truth just seldom as it appears/We’re selling the news.”

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Music You May Have Missed: The End is Not the End

You do not often find a band from a Christian label that actually tries to do something outside the box. Yes, I’ve spent a good chunk of my past as a Contemporary Christian Music fan–still am, I suppose, but to a much lesser degree–and I can say that Christian music has taken it’s fair share of criticism over the years. Some of it is justified and some is perhaps not as justified. But House of Heroes is not just the next group from Tooth and Nail Records. According to their facebook page, they set themselves apart from the mainstream by describing themselves as “fearless, uncompromising, and heartfelt.”

Regardless of whether you think statements like that have themselves become cliche, that’s what House of Heroes delivers in their sophomore release, The End is Not the End (TEINTE). Released back in September of 2008, TEINTE is my personal favorite music album of all time. Don’t let that raise your expectations too high, but it’s good music. It will make you think, and in doing so, take you places.

I was first drawn to TEINTE when the band gave away a small sampler from the album. I listened to it, and it seemed interesting enough. When I found out that iTunes had the album–15 full length tracks plus a short intro track–for only $6.00, I decided to give it a shot. One year later, the price has gone up to $10.00, but I can say with confidence that it will be one of the best $10.00 you spend on entertainment this year.

The first thing to know is that themes of World War II and the Cold War dominate TEINTE. It is not an anti-war album, per se, nor is it pro-war. I believe in an interview the band described it as being “pro-human” more than anything else. As front-man Tim Skipper sings in Lose Control, a song where (as best I can understand it) the speaker is war itself, “I am the answer that you misunderstand. I do the evil that an honest man can’t. I walk in shadows that the enemy casts. I have no future and I have no past.” In that, we find a refreshing balance and distance from any sort of political stance. War does evil, yes, and it’s tragic, but sometimes we have no choice but to fight.

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From the Vaults: One Christian’s Perspective on Art

I wrote most of this about a year ago. It could also be called: “My Musings on the True Nature of Art”

One quick disclaimer before I take off: this post represents a theory in progress; I don’t think you can find many of these ideas explicitly in the Bible, but as far as I know they are born out of a Christian worldview; please feel free to question, compliment, and/or criticize.

Art. Perhaps in no other area do Christians have a wider spectrum of perspectives, opinions, and rules. You can paint this subject but not that one, you can watch this movie but not that one, you can listen to this band but not that one. It’s worth doing, it isn’t worth doing. There are cultural anorexics and cultural gluttons in the Christian world, and it seems everyone is eager to either exercise their freedom to do something or to condemn those who partake in certain types of art. Amid all the blurry lines and opinions, it is odd that no one seems to bother defining exactly what art is. What makes some art better than others? What makes it worth pursuing or shunning? Is beauty really only in the eye of the beholder? I think the answer is quite simple in concept yet wonderfully complex and beautiful in practice. The chief goal of the artist is to “play God” by creating beautiful works of art that reflect his creativity and genius.

It sounds scary at first thought to think of the artist as “playing God.” But I think that is the essence of human creativity. We are made in the image of God, so our goal is to serve as a mirror for His glory. Art, no matter how creative or original, is always some form of imitation at its core. When the artist paints a picture, composes a song, or writes a story, he is reflecting the creative nature of God. It doesn’t necessarily or definitively say exactly who God is, nor does it replace God. However, when a painter works on a painting, he should be able to say “look, this is what God is like when He creates.”

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Welcome to the Blog

Welcome to ACwords! This is my second attempt at blogging. My first try had its highs and lows, but mostly lows. I never achieved much of a readership besides a handful of friends and family members. I posted inconsistently and, last summer, decided to completely abandoned the whole thing.

So here’s the goal this time around. I want to post my own original content at least once by the Sunday of every week. I think that’s reasonable: one post a week that I write myself. I will also occasionally post links that catch my eye, maybe offer a bit of commentary on things, etc. Substantial posts of my own work will center on personal philosophical/theological musings, art analysis and criticism like film and music reviews, political commentary, criticism of news coverage, perhaps the occasional poem or short story, and whatever else inspires me.

This blog will not be another one of those public diaries where I post things like insignificant personal ramblings or pictures of me and friends. Hopefully, it will be a place for intelligent commentary and conversation. After a few months, I want this to have developed into something that I can use for my portfolio.

I also plan to repost some of my work on the (hopefully) rare week that I can’t get something of my own up. I wrote a few decent pieces at my old blog as well a some things for school that may end up resurfacing here.

It will probably help you to get an idea of where I’m coming from personally. I’m a Christian, sometimes a bitter, confused and cynical one, but a Christian nonetheless. I struggle with my faith, I have doubts, and I make lots and lots of mistakes. My core beliefs are rooted in the Bible. I’ve been influence quite a bit by people like C.S. Lewis, John Calvin, Charles Spurgeon, Timothy Keller, and Albert Mohler (among others). But I also want to be a writer and a thinker in the public square. I’d like to be a journalist, teacher, and perhaps even screenwriter eventually. My concern in this regard is with the truth and understanding how the world works. I believe I can bring all subjects under the Lordship of Christ without necessarily bringing in the Bible or any explicit mention of God.

Understand, though, that all that “religious” stuff will come up eventually because I care more what God thinks of my writing than anyone else. I just don’t want to be that one-sided, fundamentalist Christian metaphorically beating people over the head with a “Jesus brick.”