I trust I have your attention. Details are down below, but you have to keep reading. I don’t normally do music reviews, but fortunately this is not a hard-and-fast rule. I obtained my copy of the new CD, “We Will not be Silent — Music from St. Benedict’s Table” this past Sunday evening, and wow, what a treat. It’s been in production since May 2006, and the wait has not been easy. Sometimes anticipation can build to the point where the end result can’t possibly satisfy, but not so with this first release from the musicians who hang at St. Benedict’s Table: the patient are richly rewarded with this one, and I’m pleased enough that I can’t avoid doing a review. Regular readers will know that I do refer to music from St. Ben’s from time to time, something I find to be exceptionally rich within the community. The little fellowship in fact finds an inordinate number of professional musicians, many of whom aren’t even on this disc.
I’m going to be unashamedly and unapologetically biased in my approach to this CD, having heard most of the tracks live often enough beforehand. To set the stage with an overview of what the CD delivers, I quote from the liner notes:
saint benedict’s table is a church community in the Anglican tradition, which seeks to cultivate the arts in life and in worship. Very much an ensemble project, this album represents some of what has emerged from our circle of musicians over the past two years. The songs are ordered in the shape of our Sunday evening worship: from being gathered and hearing the Word (tracks 1-6) through confession (tracks 7-8), toward the communion table (tracks 9-12), and finally to be sent home into the stillness of the evening, confirmed in God’s love for us (tracks 13-14). Many of the songs are quite simple in structure, and are intended to be sung in a repetitive and contemplative manner, creating a foundation upon which the community’s prayer is offered. It is hour hope that your prayer, and that your community, might be deepened through this music.
As for genre, imagine a contemplative folk liturgy. Some of Steve Bell‘s stuff fits right in, for those familiar with his music (not surprisingly, as he is associated with St. Ben’s and with some of the musicians there), and part of the CD was in fact recorded in the Signpost studio. Having hopefully given a sense of the style, I offer a track-by-track summary of the album, which is an not only an overview of the music, but introduces you to St. Ben’s Table itself.
- We Will not be Silent — Gord Johnson.
Gord’s previous release, “Stubble and Hay” (Signpost, 1996; Review) is now unfortunately hard to find. The present CD opens with one of his compositions though, the title track based on Psalm 30. The track is an almost folk-liturgical-anthem in a call-and-response format which my wife was delighted to find on the disc, it being one of her favorites. I could hear her singing with it in the car on the way home (we couldn’t wait any longer). This one inevitably meets you where you are and lifts your soul, and in that way makes great opener for what follows.
- I Know It’s You — Mike Koop.
Mike is the one most likely to pull out a Larry Norman tune for Sunday evening worship, and he’s also the one who claims “Death Cures Everything” as his brainchild, a tune he has yet to pull out on a Sunday evening (to the best of my knowledge; I deeply wish I could point you to a recording). This track offers something that’s characteristic of Mike… he speaks for you, and gets it right, somehow managing to come up with the words that were buried somewhere deep in your soul. This one is a reflection of knowing that Christ is near, and is very quietly responsible for the “good stuff” amid the twists and turns of life. “So many times I fell behind; You picked me up; You’d see me through the night…”
- I am Coming for You — Jenny Moore.
If you don’t find Mike’s voice speaking for —or to— the innards of your soul in a haunting (but good) fashion, Jenny’s will. In this track, the words of Jesus find you when you felt forgotten, and promises to fill you. The song is a healing balm for any who need to hear the voice of God in a forgotten quiet place, reaching out with the message that you are seen, known, and not forgotten. Only hinting at a call to community, it meets a troubled soul with hope to lift it from a wasteland… and sometimes, from a wasteland you didn’t know you were in.
- He Walked — Mike Koop.
The fourth track is a reflective summary of the Incarnation, walking out of Heaven, and back in again, while somewhere in the middle, “His mother worried; how her son might end up”. The mystery of the Incarnation is hard to capture without majoring either on Jesus’ humanity or his divinity to the near exclusion of the other, and theologians have grappled with this for centuries. Yet somehow in this relatively simple song, Mike pulls it off, and you know he’s singing about the God-Man in a simple story that remains a mystery.
- My Hope is in Your Mercy — Gord Johnson.
Gord’s second entry on the album is a simple one, and Gord is the master of simple infectious lyrics: through hope in God’s mercy, we become what we’re to be… but it’s so much better than that when Gord sets it to music.
- Even in the End — Dale Nikkel, Larry Campbell, Catherine Pate, and Grant Ball.
Psalm 139 inspires this song of “I’m still with you,” directed from the singer toward God. With the Psalmist’s reasoning as to why, it’s a slightly upbeat celebration of a continued walk with God. Although the psalm which inspires it is out of scope for the book (it occurs just after the “Psalms of Ascent”), I’m somehow reminded of Eugene Petersen’s classic, A Long Obedience in the Same Direction, perhaps because in a way, this song celebrates the long obedience, “even in the end.”
- Being Lonely — Mike Koop.
Based on the title, you know what’s coming with this last one in the “gathering” section. Everyone can relate on some level to a feeling of loneliness, and this one reaches to those who are… because in some way, “those who are” includes all of us. The final verse ends with, “but you know I will shine on you; ’till there’s nothing more this body can do; ’till you forget all you ever knew; of being lonely.” Somehow it lands with the hope that loneliness always ends, and sometimes, you can almost feel it leaving by the end of the song.
- Song of Confession — Gord Johnson.
For the record, this song was one of, if not the first one that my soul latched onto when I first started attending St. Benedict’s Table. I still haven’t let go, and it’s one of the absolute treasures of the album. Adapted from the prayer of confession from the Book of Alternative Services of the Anglican Church of Canada, the lyrics will stick in your mind and your heart will sing them for you after your voice stops. Simply put, it’s a dose of perspective, a confession of sin and an acknowledgement that there is but one source of salvation from it. The song has more instrumentation than there typically is in the live performance, so it took a couple of playings to get used to the absence of Gord’s knuckles on the guitar at one point in lieu of the percussion which the recording has. This one alone is worth the price of the CD in my view.
- The Lord’s Prayer — Jenny Moore.
I’ve mentioned this song before, and I’ll just get it out of the way, I love this song absolutely. Just like the last track, in my view again, it alone is worth the price of the CD. Not sure if I can say that twice in one review, but there you go. Chances are exceptionally high that you’ve never prayed The Lord’s Prayer exactly this way before, but it’s possible you’ll never pray it quite the same again. It’s hard to gush on this track too much, and is the final proof in my mind that Jenny needs a recording project all her own… where do I line up for that disc? Jenny’s songs sometimes tend to burst forth at some point in the progression of the lyrics, her voice rising from something quiet and understated up to the realm of never missing that she’s in the room, and it does just that when she gets to the chorus in this song, which concludes with a phrase left hanging tangibly in the air before pausing and softly slipping into the next verse while your brain catches its mental breath. The recording doesn’t catch this quite as powerfully as the live performance, but it’s there just the same.
- Agnus Dei — Mike Koop.
A very simple melody with words from the Book of Common Prayer, a song that sticks in your soul, giving it a voice, and like several on this album, stays with you when the music stops. Mike told me once that it’s a great compliment to a musician to tell him you left with the song still echoing, still singing it. I would think he’d be used to being told just that. This is the first song in the section on “The Table,” any of which you might imagine as a backdrop for a meaningful experience at the communion table. With this track, you would be taking the bread and wine with the lyrics, “O Lamb of God, that takest away the sin of the world…” just sort of floating around the room, enveloping you.
- Pass the Cup — Jenny Moore.
This track was a delightful discovery for me, as I didn’t recall having heard it before… either I missed it, or it’s just been too long. “Pass the cup around, I can hardly speak a word, and I am lost;” Yeah, I know that feeling. “Pass the bread around, I cannot sustain my self, The day is growing longer;” Oh yeah, I know that feeling. Later in the chorus she comes to the cry, “We long to feast.” If you didn’t have the words for some of what you feel at times as the communion elements come your way, here they are.
- Jesus, Feed Us — Gord Johnson.
“Again and again and again, to this table we come; once a people estranged, now as one in your name….” Delightfully, this carries on from there. The peaceful lilt of this track can lodge in your soul at the communion table and stay with you for days, keeping the experience of the table near you for the first few days of the week, whenever you need to draw upon it. Quite possibly the most beautiful song I’ve ever heard on the subject, the song actually feeds your soul by centering it, even as it calls on Jesus to feed you.
- Song of Simeon — Larry Campbell.
This one is an upbeat kind of anthem of glory to God based on Simeon’s words in Luke 2, it’s a kind of “Alright, I have what I came for” kind of song that yields a feeling of completion. Larry, who must have played with almost everyone of note in Winnipeg at some point, produced this CD effort and oversees the music at St. Ben’s. Conjure an image of Kenny Rogers and you’ve pretty much seen Larry.
- Be Our Light — Jenny Moore.
The final track on the disc is an adapted hymn, a kind of reflective, contemplative call to God to light the darkness through the long day and the dark night. Imagine this as the closing of a Sunday evening meeting in the winter, after which you head out into the dark and the cold… remembering a call to Christ to “be our light.” Somehow it never seems quite as cold or dark when you leave with this song.
Into the Rest of Life
There you have it, an unqualified recommendation. After hearing the album, you’ve almost been to a service at St. Ben’s. Almost. With music this rich, I might sometimes wonder how daunting it is to get up and address the congregation with a sermon… but for the record, Jamie Howison does just fine in that department.
For those in Winnipeg, a CD release party is forthcoming some time in February. For those who aren’t nearby, I don’t yet have details on where you might purchase online (or if you can yet) but if you want to track down a copy, leave me a comment or email me and I will try to hook you up… it’s the least I can do, having gushed enough. And no, I don’t get anything out if it, save the satisfaction of having done a good thing by making the introduction. In fact, I believe in this enough that somebody’s going to get a free copy, my compliments — simply leave a comment with a story of some kind (an experience, whatever) that relates to one of the tracks above and I’ll pick a random winner after a few days or whenever the comment responses die down.
Update 2: I worded the offer badly, so I posted a clarification, which basically says that I don’t mean to restrict the “contest” at all, it’s open to anyone, so to clarify: now you’ve seen above what each of the songs is about, based on the song title or bits of information I provided for each one. I expect you won’t have ever actually heard the song before, but respond in the comments below with whatever springs to mind… a brief reflection on the subject matter, why you like contemplative worship, a memory that relates to “Being Lonely” or “The Lord’s Prayer”; an insight on “Song of Simeon”, or perhaps a response to the lyrics I quoted from “I Know Itâ€™s You” …pretty much anything will do. Once selected, Iâ€™ll email the winner for shipping info.
Update 1: Jamie confirmed for me that copies can be obtained in person at any Sunday evening service for $15 or you can use the contact info on the website to obtain one by mail order for a $20Cdn cheque or money order, including shipping.
Finally, a Zen question for you, based on a recurring theme in my overview above. If your soul could write a song of its own, what would it sound like? Odds are, it’d sound like at least one of the tracks on this disc, and it’d probably be singing a few things you didn’t know you felt.