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September 2009


Cheap Trick

Cheap Trick are perhaps the one band who have the credentials to cover The Beatles. Building a post punk guitar rock sound around the foundation of The Beatles’ melodies they didn’t do the copycat plod of Oasis but made the influence their own. They have not only been engineered by The Beatles’ engineer Geoff Emerick and produced by fifth Beatle George Martin but actually were John Lennon’s band on I’m Losing You, though their version was left off Double Fantasy and only released later as an outtake on the John Lennon Anthology. They have also released versions of Day Tripper and Magical Mystery Tour.

No, it is not better than the original but it is a great live encounter with what has arguably been declared the best rock album of all time. Basically Cheap Trick with the New York Philharmonic and a little help from friends Joan Osborne, Ian Ball (from Gomez) and the Indian Sitar Band do what The Beatles never did and perform the album psychedelic cover to cover. So successful has it been that they have since finished a residency in Las Vegas performing it. Cheap Trick are great players and everything is played with a flourish; check in particular Nielsen’s guitar on Fixing a Hole and Peterson’s bass on Lucy In the Sky With Diamonds. There is something about the removal of the songs from the arty seriousness of the defining album of rock and into a Cheap Trick world of madness that allows songs about imaginary bands, circuses, traffic wardens and children’s drawings to relax and become real fun. This is done without losing the poignancy of She’s Leaving Home where the Philharmonic strings tug at your heart, the spiritual yearning of Within You Without You where the Indian Sitar Band tug at your soul and the stripped back but building to a crescendo sophistication of A Day in the Life tugs at your mind.

Totally enjoyable; the ultimate Beatles’ tribute band!



It is coming on twenty years since Prefab Sprout were the critics darlings and hitting the charts a few times a year. When I mention their latest album to my students, even the older musical literate ones, no one has heard of them. What a shame. There has never been a more intelligent, well crafted, never mind emotionally and behaviourally accurate break up song than When Love Breaks Down; it should be given to every male when they turn sixteen. To achieve such psychological thesis in a top ten banker of a tune is very rare. Then there was Cars and Girls, a Bruce Springsteen critique that again was too smart to be so radio friendly but Prefab Spout made it work. The spiritual depth of One Of the Broken, that opened up exegesis on David and the Psalms, was another major achievement in lifting pop into the highest realms of art.

Yet, it has been twenty years, and actually this new album was written and demoed in 1993 but lands nine years into another century with the same lush beauty and pop hue that gave, the now reclusive and hardly able to hear and sing, Paddy McAloon the music magazine superlative of genius. Effortlessly catchy, cleverly written and stunningly crafted, Let’s Change the World With Music is what I have been attempting to write a book about for a good few years. That McAloon believes that music has power is not a surprise. Where I sat up and really started to listen was when I realised that he adds another vital contribution to the mix; God. For McAloon, music is a gift of God for the transformation of individuals and society. I wish it had been released before I did my dissertation on the same theory!

God is everywhere on Lets Change The World With Music. For McAloon the voice of God in our fallen world comes through music. His take on Genesis and the genesis of this album finds God speaking:

“Let there be music,

music will be...

and you shall hear my story,

you will glimpse my glory

and find a refuge

from the trouble that you see.”


Throughout the piece you’ll hear angels sing and sweet Gospel music will carry the heavy hearts, ignite the romance of love and the fire the acts of constructive change. On Ride people “walking in the footsteps of the Lord” know Jesus by their side. On Earth: The Story So Far the birth of Jesus comes with a message of salvation and love. God Watch Over You even suggests incredulously that McAloon is not a believer but is wearing out his knees praying for his children.


It is a remarkable piece of spiritual art coming from somewhere it might not be expected, though I guess those who loved the aforementioned One Of The Broken were warned of an interest. Whether the album is contemporary enough to have my students rediscover great albums like Steve McQueen and Jordan: The Comeback is not certain but as an album about music and faith it is a rich treasure trove for us theo-musicologists!



Worth the wait! It is ten years since Susan Enan approached me at someone else’s gig in Belfast and asked if I’d listen to her tape and see if I’d like to book her for  the Greenbelt Festival. I went home as nervous as I always am about tapes that 99% of the time were awful and was pleasantly surprised. I was even more surprised, but concluded she might be the real deal, when she turned down my offer to play the Greenbelt that was coming up; she had the next year in mind when she’d got it just right. That strategy, patience and precision has come to beautiful fruition on this debut album after the work-in-progress eps down through the decade. For those who have followed her career, all the crafted songs are here, but more fully formed which does not mean more produced or arranged. Enan uses spaces between chords like Denison Witmer and has the same literary spirituality as Over the Rhine. Arrangements are careful and the understated strings here, piano there brings the sonic punch. Some might be aware of Beyond The Wonder from it featuring on the TV show Bones and subsequent album but here it shimmers beyond the wonder! Moonlight is classically romantic and Skin, Bone and Silicone sad and deeply tender. When it comes to overall impact you are back to the word understated again. With songs like Don’t Worry, On Your Side and If You’re Feeling Low, there is a vast amount of hope, love, forgiveness along with help, recovery and redemption; like she left the spaces for God to fill. Run the bath, light the candles and allow it these songs to gently sweep over you to soothe body, mind, heart and soul.


Chaplains photo I’ve been surmising the psychologically damaged souls I come across in work and friendship. I am talking about people brought up in the Church whose sense of self worth is worse than nothing. I am talking about people who are told that God loves them and believe the concept but who struggle with guilt and shame and feeling they have nothing good to contribute to family, Church or society. They can’t begin to feel loved by God and struggle to find any love for themselves. As I surmise I see the error in the outworking of Reformed Protestant theology that might cause such pain and ineffectiveness for the Kingdom.

There is a saying in evangelicalism, “Ah, you got to tell them the bad news first!” And right there is the error that causes the damage. It is an emphasis on the sin and lostness of the human condition that in itself is not wrong but where the emphasis comes between the lostness and salvation has been crucially imbalanced. The bad news has become the most important part of the story which of course is not what the GOOD NEWS was meant to be. The caricatures are all well known, “Sinner friend, I am here to preach the good news... you are a worthless worm...   you are damned to hell... the wages of sin is death!” It is not exactly good news and before someone attacks me for criticising Scripture the verse is not “the wages of sin is death...” it is “The wages of sin is death but the gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord.” The salvation part is the good news and needs to be the emphasis.

If, as I tucked my daughter up in bed at night, I started to shout at her about how worthless she was, how pathetic and mistaken and dark and ignorant but then whispered, “Daddy loves you anyway,” I would be put in jail for Child abuse. Yet, there are many preachers and teachers in good respectable evangelical Churches abusing the souls of their flock just as horrendously. What my daughters need most in the world is to know that they are loved and that that love is secure, no matter what. From that place of deep inner security I can start to discipline, point out flaws and develop their lives in ways that are positively filled with potential. With such an approach to the good and the bad in their lives they will grow up secure and confident in spite of a healthy awareness of the flaws within.

Now, I am not advocating in any way a denial of the doctrine of sin; not at all. Our society needs such a mirror to hold us back from an arrogance that would lead to dictatorial oppression never mind the constant reminder that we need to be dependent on the grace of God and work of Jesus to transform us into the human beings that redemption buys. What I am saying is that when sin is the central obsession in our theological thought, and preaching, that Christ’s salvation takes a lesser place than it should and we are more than likely, as evidence proves, to nurture followers of Jesus who are so psychologically paralysed that they are inhibited from fulfilling their “world formative Christian” vocation. To follow Jesus is to be set free from the hopelessness of our fallen humanity to a new life of hopeful transformation by loving grace not stick waving damnation!

I always go back to that brilliant Disney illustration in the Beauty and The Beast. The Beast does not become beautiful by a tirade of people lambasting his ugliness. The transformation in his life happens when he is loved as a wonderful human being in his ugliness. By seeing through the ugliness by grace he is changed into the Beautiful person he had always the potential of being. When Paul told the Romans that “God demonstrated his love for us in this, that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us” he was saying that we are loved first, as we are. That love will be what forms us into who we can be, not worthless but heirs of God and joint heirs with Jesus. God loves you! Now that is good news. Preach it brothers and sisters!


Athlete The first time I saw Athlete live (being there to see the support Iain Archer) I was taken aback by the beauty of those moments when the whole band swept in with a melodic swoosh. It happens more than a few times in the Athlete style of writing and every time it hit my heart with a warmth and I had that deep down wonderful feeling that you get when your soul smiles. The swoop and crescendo in their music that causes the soul smiles has had them pigeon holed with Snow Patrol and Coldplay for the longest time and there is no doubt that they are comrades in sound with both those major players. The downside of that is that for some reason the British rock press have taken and irrational lazy dislike of said bands.

I find it infantile and less than intelligent when I hear these bands being called bland and sometimes in the same sentence that Oasis are being recognised as crucial. The Gallagher’s might support Man. City but let us not kid ourselves, when they put two fingers up, at whoever, we should be glad they can count to two and their cheap-pack retreading of Beatles’ riffs, melodies and song titles ran out of intrigue a good decade ago. That neither Gallagher thinks music can change much apart from their bank balances and their opportunity for wild hedonism leaves me preferring to waste little time on such empty pap.

Athlete are a band of deeper motivation and their songs seem to be almost too grounded, sometimes in the mud of life’s weary struggles of family and culture but somehow they always find a refrain that reaches into blue hopeful skies. The title track of Black Swan is a case in point. The dark chime of its guitar riff declares a sadness of mortality’s end result before the hope kicks in:

“Though many battles I have won

I lost too many friends I could count on

And I know theyʼll be the first to welcome me

When I parachute into eternity.”

Belief in spite of the evidence of the real world could be a way to describe the Athlete mission statement. It is never creedal but it is always spiritually bright. Love Come Rescue and The Unknown prove the point. The former with its stripped down guitar arrangement reveals a new intimacy to Athlete’s craft. The latter perhaps indicates that The Killers could be another bunch of companions, not only in sound but particularly in spiritual intention. It is an invitation and encouragement to seek for the mystery in all its brilliance and all its shocks and surprises, knowing that whatever happens...

“Lift your head up

Untie the knot

My little sunshine

Hope is never light-years away.”

This is the strongest set of tunes that Athlete have yet released and my advice is that the deluxe edition is a must buy for the acoustic piano version of the title track and the lovely, original of The Unknown, Ordinary Angel. The full eighteen tracks of this longer version reveals a band with a variety of shades and shapes, who have just released as good an album as any British band will release this year and way, way beyond the feeble ambition of recent Oasis releases!

Full of soul smiles!