~~~ Overview ~~~
Having sold over 6 million records, won three GRAMMYs and headlined thousands of shows and festivals, it is incredible that Jars of Clay have yet to make it big here in the UK. Billed as "folk rock", Jars of Clay comprises Charlie Lowell (keyboards), Dan Heseltine (vocals), Matt Odmark (rhythm guitars) and Stephen Mason (lead guitars) who met and formed the group whilst studying together at Greenville College in Illinois. Oddly, Jars of Clay lack a permanent drummer or bassist, instead relying on a selection of "ringers" for recordings and performances.
The name Jars of Clay is taken from 2 Corinthians 4:7 which says "But we have this treasure in jars of clay to show that this all-surpassing power is from God and not from us."
Good Monsters is the eighth album by Jars of Clay and their first ever "rock" record selling over 15,000 copies in its first week on sale. Released in September 2006, tracks from Good Monsters have been used to promote several TV programs in the US including Bones and House. Good Monsters was also named CCM Magazine's Album of the Year for 2006, Christianity Today's number 1 album of 2006, won the Best Rock/Contemporary Album of the Year Dove award in 2007 and peaked at number 58 on the Billboard 200 chart in America. Pretty impressive stuff.
~~~ Tracklisting ~~~
### 1. Work ###
Starting confidently with a single guitar, joined by a steady drum and then the rest of the band, Work is a great opener to the album. The vocals and arrangement are clear and every word is perfectly enunciated making this an easy song to sing along to, especially the multi-layered chorus. Upbeat and forthright, this tune makes me smile despite the negativity of the lyrics about a man who is lonely, alone and has lost all hope. 4 out of 5
"Now all the demons look like prophets and I'm living out
Every word they speak, every word they speak"
### 2. Dead Man (Carry Me) ###
The opening of this track sounds just like "Love is the Drug" by Roxy Music complete with hi-hat heavy drum and twanging guitar riff. Heseltine's melancholy tone perfectly matches the apathy of the lyrics, rising to a desperate heartfelt plea at the chorus which again is instantly singable and often has my kids bellowing along in the car. The song speaks of a man's inability to overcome his own apathy and failures in his own strength, despite his desire for change. The best track on the album without a doubt explaining why it was released as the first single. 5 out of 5
"So Carry Me,
I'm just a dead man
Lying on the carpet
Can't find a heartbeat"
### 3. All My Tears ###
Moving away from rock, "All My Tears" is closer to JoC's folk roots and a cover of a track originally by Julie Miller. Opening with a reverberating synth, the beat is more relaxed whilst the clarity of vocals and instruments is retained building to a much calmer chorus. Far more gospel in content, the verses are the final wishes of a dying person who is not interested in where they are buried, but their final destination. Despite the change of tempo, it is possible to sing along to the chorus, but this one does not appeal to my kids as much as the last two. I like the way the song ends with a really simple vocal which I always find myself ooo'ing along with. 4 out of 5
"When I go, don't cry for me
In my Father's arms I'll be
The wounds this world left on my soul
Will all be healed and I'll be whole."
### 4. Even Angels Cry ###
Even slower than "All My Tears", this track starts quietly with distant vocals and plucked banjo over a reverbing synth which builds to a rather disappointing crescendo at the chorus. As the song progresses, the vocals take on a more ethereal quality whilst the ongoing banjo is joined by an electric guitar to contrast and layer the instrumental sounds. The meaning of the song is something of a mystery, suggesting a comforting conversation between two lovers where one tells the other it is ok to be worried and tearful at times because "even angels cry". This tune is more in line with other JoC material, and because of the very slow rhythm does not appeal to me very much. 2 out of 5
"Cold fingers find the curve below your tired eyes
No comfort in familiar places, not this time
You hold it deep inside"
### 5. There is a River ###
Beginning with Heseltine's solo voice over an accoustic guitar, before the rest of the band jumps in at the chorus this is a catchy toe-tapper. Heseltine sounds vulnerable and caring as he sings to a friend about the need to let the past go and accept salvation. Despite having an almost country-music style solo in the middle, I really like this tune. An obviously religious song for those who know their Bible or complete weirdness for those who don't although everyone will be able to identify with the periods of depression and darkness mentioned. 4 out of 5
"Blood that was spilled, although not your own
For all of these things, love will atone"
### 6. Good Monsters ###
Returning to the earlier upbeat tempos, "Good Monsters" is more of a pop tune than the previous three tracks with a thrumming guitar and more intrusive drum beat. Despite the elevation in energy and tempo, the instruments still play second fiddle to Heseltine as he tells a weird analogy of "Good Monsters" (christians) who fail to live out their faith because they are so self-obsessed and thus allow the world to become a steadily worse place. This tune has grown on me from being a strange frivolity to something with many different layers which warrants repeated and deeper investigation. 4 out of 5
"All the good monsters rattle their chains
And dance around the open flames
They make a lot of empty noise"
### 7. Oh My God ###
Opening with a relaxed accoustic guitar and the gentlest falsetto voice, there is something about this song that sends a shiver up my spine every time I hear it. After a minute, the accoustic guitar is joined by a gentle bass and some faint drumming while Heseltine's voice fractionally gains strength. 90 seconds later, the tempo changes altogether as Heseltine sings acapella for a few lines. As the song continues, each new line hears an instrument added, first accoustic guitar, then keyboards, then electric guitar and all the while Heseltine's voice grows imperceptibly in strength and volume and the tempo picks up becoming an unstoppable crashing wall of sound and emotion. The song relates how we look at the world and the injustices we perceive, how we blame God for the world that we see and choose to negate our own responsibilities. A genius song which benefits from repeated plays, especially loudly! 5 out of 5
"Hospitals that cannot treat all the wounds that money causes,
All the comforts of cathedrals
All the cries of thirsty children - this is our inheritance
All the rage of watching mothers - this is our greatest offense"
### 8. Surprise ###
Following on from the crashing finale to the last track, "Suprise" opens with what sounds like a Bontempi organ and a tick-tock rhythm and Heseltine in weak-voice mode again. Unlike "Oh My God" however, "Surprise" does not increase in tempo or strength, even when the synth joins for the chorus. This song again deals with apathy and the desire to shut the world out through any means, or in this case, heroin although just maybe hope will waken us by surprise. After the emotion of the last track, it is almost inevitable that the next song will feel disappointing and such is the case with this one. An unfair 2 out of 5
"Shoot a dream in your arm and sleep away
It's not the stuff that kills you, that keeps your life at bay"
### 9. Take Me Higher ###
Opening with a grinding synth reverb it feels as though the stage is set for a synth-pop classic but "Take Me Higher" melds itself into a slow country-rock style track when the vocals begin before rising into a traditional rock-style chorus which seems specially crafted for the listener to sing along with the gospel backing group. Lazy in tempo, Stephen Mason makes up for it with a reverb-heavy out-of-character guitar solo in the middle of the song. Apparently a love song, this tune is about the freedom available through faith. 3.5 out of 5
"It took a lot to turn away
Blood and water from one side
It took your eyes to stare me down
It took the truth to set me free, to set me free"
### 10. Mirrors & Smoke ###
This track opens with a thrumming guitar and bassline, and when Heseltine begins to sing it is in a stronger timbre than elsewhere and present a brilliant contrast to Leigh Nash's (of Sixpence None the Richer) feminine response similar to something one would expect of the Beautiful South. Again this is a vocals-driven track, with guitars providing impetus to the singers as they discuss the pains of true love and the difficulties of truly sharing oneself with another choosing instead to hide parts of ourselves with mirrors and smoke. I can identify with the man's view in this track and I expect many women can empathise with the female viewpoint presented in the song. 4 out of 5
"I blew flowers, gave you candy to even out the guilt
I sent you greeting cards with messages that I could never write"
### 11. Light Gives Heat ###
Another slower track with obvious country music influence, "Light Gives Heat" saves itself from falling into hurdy-gurdy territory by Heseltine's delicate voice and the lyrical content which decries racism and general prejudice against others. Halfway through the song, Heseltine is joined by the African Children's Choir who provide a fantastic vocal juxtaposition. The song also addresses the need to view the world as Jesus did if we are to truly change things for the better. Another multi-layered, multi-stranded track which needs to be played a few times for full appreciation. 4 out of 5
"It's not the way to light their way
Boys in holes in empty fields
Oh, how good it feels
Lower-class, and understate
Empty promise, empty plate"
### 12. Water Under the Bridge ###
Opening with a drum roll and a laboured, twanging guitar this tune is a strange love ballad driven by Heseltine's lead and some subtle backing vocals. Being a ballad, the tone and beat are relaxed to provide an inoffensive rolling tune which rounds off the different musical textures evident elsewhere on the album. Heseltine sings of a long term relationship which changes and morphs over time and yet the partners continue to grow with each other until the last drop flows under the bridge. 3.5 out of 5
"Waters, they rise
And they carry our hopes and our dreams away
Baby, we can stay, stay"
~~~ Conclusion ~~~
Not being a fan of "folk rock", I have never before appreciated Jars of Clay and their somewhat unusual musical style, but with "Good Monsters" I feel as though they became more accessible, albeit briefly. Unlike many other bands, the lead singer Dan Heseltine has a very delicate voice and all of the tunes on this album have been crafted to fit around this, underlining the lyrics through the emphasis on vocals, the instruments playing supporting roles. The combination of rock and pop make this an eclectic album which at times veers dangerously close to country music (which I detest!) and "picks" melodies and tempos from many musical genre; at times I listen to this album and get tantalising glimpses of music from other places, almost like a magpie has taken a bit from here and another from there and yet woven them into a whole that is unique.
The themes of separation from God and from our fellow man run through this album and it is interesting to play the album through a number of times spotting patterns and recurrences, trends and similarities. Despite the frequent changes in style, there is something coherent about the whole that make this an above average album.
I frequently find myself listening to "Good Monsters" whilst driving in my car, and my kids certainly enjoy the first two tracks. I would certainly recommend this CD to anyone who has never heard Jars of Clay before although I would do so with the caveat that this album is unlike their other material and is not therefore representative of their musical style. Which is a shame.
Would I recommend this album? Most definitely. 4.5 out of 5!
~~~ Links ~~~
Jars of Clay official website: www.jarsofclay.com
Music Samples: http://www.crossrhythms.co.uk/products/Jars_Of_Clay/Good_Monsters/20066/
© ben-lloyd 2009. This review may appear on other websites under the same user name.
Disc #1 Tracklisting
2 Dead Man (Carry Me)
3 All My Tears
4 Even Angels Cry
5 There Is A River
6 Good Monsters
7 Oh My God
9 Take Me Higher
10 Mirrors And Smoke
11 Light Gives Heat
12 Water Under The Bridge