Saturday, June 20, 2009

Ugly Tree

Ugly Tree[1] is Michael Nagel's[2] first full-length album, but the songwriting and album craft bear a maturity that most artists don't achieve until their 3rd or 4th album. The album struggles mainly with the contrast of the church and the homeless. It's available for download from BandCamp[1], with a name-your-own price (including $0).

From the very start, it's clear that he's trying to make "main-stream" Christians uncomfortable:
A cigarette
To keep you warm
A cigarette
Praise the Lord!
— "Alison"
The whole album is full of subtle, piercing observations like this. This one sums up the whole album:
And April Fifth was freezing.
Alison had lost her coat,
And St. Jude's Cathedral
Was closed.
— "Jesus on the Sidewalk"
The words and folk instruments paint the pictures and emotion in such a way that you can't help feel empathy for the people he's writing about... and meanwhile feel shame that you haven't already done anything about it.

Nagel himself describes the album like this:
I wrote these songs while struggling with some difficult ideas about the Kingdom of God based mainly on experiences I've had with some homeless folks in dallas, conversations with ryan, and reading these books: Jesus for President, Jesus on the Non-violent Revolution, Does God Need the Church?, Politics of Jesus, Prophetic Imagination.[1]
While the songwriting takes center stage, the music is no slouch. The main instruments are his voice, acoustic guitar, an old analog synth, accordian, possibly a harmonica, and various percussion (shakers, thighs, etc.). Possibly the thing he does best is let the words step aside and allow the reeds in the accordian weep for us. The same technique in "Leaves" gives us space to be happy... as though we're floating quietly down a stream. It's full of haunting, singable melodies. However, some of the songs have a little too much space, and it's hard to pay attention (e.g. "Jesus on the Sidewalk" develops very slowly).

My favorite songs on this album are "Leaves (Intermission)" and "Following a Speck." Leaves is a beautiful love song that also gives us a much needed break from the heavy subject of the album. In "Following a Speck," the song just has a way to make you want to move. This is the first time I've heard Nagel play slide guitar — anywhere. It's a welcome compliment to his musical arsenal.

This isn't an album for everyone. It's well crafted, prophetic, political, and folky — and a lot of people will have trouble paying attention to this album. It's not immediately accessible like his other songs (e.g. "Robot"). In many ways, the structure and techniques used on the album remind me of David Crowder*Band's "A Collision."

The entire album was recorded on 4-track analog tape... which is sometimes hard to believe with the detail that is put into it. For example, Nagel's voice is recorded with a "room" sound in several songs where it fits well (e.g. "Noise, Noise..."). Other songs have a very tight vocal recording that fits those songs well (e.g. "Alison").

However, because the music on this album is slower and has a lot more space, the 4-track is more of a limitation than a feature.[3] Many of the rich tones and combinations sound like they're coming to us from a transistor radio. With all the pregnant melodies and instrument combinations, it's like we're missing out on something that is much more grand.

This is an excellent piece of art. Any music lover should take advantage of the free download this and listen at least once. If you like it, go back and pay for another. :-) People who like lo-fi songwriting (like Bob Dylan, Jon Foreman, Bruce Springsteen, Jewel, etc.) are more likely to enjoy this album.

[image] Shamelessly used without permission.
[2] Full disclosure: I'm priviledged to call Michael Nagel a personal friend... but I promise I'm not pulling any punches. :-)
[3] In his collection "Fuzzy Comotion" , the 4-track analog added charm to the songs.

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