Grace Notes: Jay Tholen, Either/Orwell
Grace Notes is a weekly exploration by Jason Morehead of signs of common grace in the music world. We hope to alert you to wonderful music, some of which will be spiritual in nature but all of which will be unique and worthy of your attention. Each week we will share brief reviews of albums worthy of your attention and maybe a video or two.
Jay Tholen, whose “chiptune gospel” album Control Me left me floored earlier this year, is back with a new full-length titled Mud Pies or Bread and Wine?. It’s rough around the edges — Tholen himself describes it as “loose” and “crusty” — but even those songs that don’t fully come together are still full of fascinating moments. However, when everything does click, the result is some of the most brilliant, bizarre music to emerge from Christian circles this side of Soul-Junk. “Jesus is Real, He’ll Never Fail” features video-game bleeps, dubby Middle-Eastern textures, and samples of old gospel recordings, all of which make for a mind-bending experience. His cover of Dan Zimmerman’s “Secret Name” (my fave track) blends cryptic lyrics with an 8-bit orchestral groove like you wouldn’t believe (as well as a little synth-reggae swagger). Finally, “Though Lamps Are Dark” runs a sample from a children’s prayer book CD through some auto-tune, and crafts a haunting plea for God’s comfort and peace. What’s important to realize, though, is that Tholen isn’t simply making weird music for it’s own sake: there’s a devout heart beating at the core of these songs, as well as a sense of joy and worship that is pretty infectious and moving.
Vocalist/guitarist Jeff MacKey — who you might recognize from the excellent post-punk/ambient group Writ On Water (and if you’ve never heard of Writ On Water, you’d do well to check them out, particularly 1992’s Sylph and 2008’s A Wingless King) — recently announced a new group titled Either/Orwell that focuses more on the ambient end of the musical spectrum, a la Stars Of The Lid or Hammock. No proper release has been announced, but you can hear several tracks on Either/Orwell’s MySpace page. I’m particularly fond of “Vermontana” and “To Establish, To Release And Then To Recede”, which introduce some interesting and affecting melodic structures into the group’s contemplative, long form drones and atmospherics.