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A Month of Sundays (review)

Author(s):
William Jolliff
Issue:
On Seeds (November 2023)
Department:
Reviews

A Month of Sundays

an album of music by Derek Lamson

reviewed by William Jolliff

It’s been over a decade since Derek Lamson’s last CD, which makes his new release, A Month of Sundays, all the more welcome. The subtitle, An Anthology of New and Newly Recorded Songs, telegraphs the listening experience to come: the collection is indeed an anthology, and the themes, the genres, and even the arrangement choices are a potluck. Like his earlier work, this offering finds its deepest stylistic roots in folk and blues. But overall, the influences are more varied. Lamson’s smoky baritone and fingerstyle acoustic guitar are usually up front in the mixes. Beyond that, all bets are off.

Not surprisingly, then, the music is hard to classify, but a couple of touchstones may help. At his best – and some of the songs here are among his best – Lamson’s writing tills a field somewhere between the rootsy romanticism of Townes Van Zandt (e.g., “Marguerite”) and the understated sophistication of Leonard Cohen (e.g., “Sophia”). But his persistent Christian Quaker convictions are never far away and, at least for listeners attuned to them, they show up everywhere.

The greatest poetic strength of this album is Lamson’s expert ability to dance the tightrope between sentiment and sentimentality.

The greatest poetic strength of this album is Lamson’s expert ability to dance the tightrope between sentiment and sentimentality. Every easy answer gets questioned, as in the plaintive “Better We Meet.” And songs like “Rise Up and Sing O Ye Saints” prove that any religious cliché can be bent or deftly twisted. Also noteworthy is the poet’s easy, erudite ability to shuffle between biblical motifs and a weathered, bluesy vernacular, as portrayed in what may be the project’s finest cut, “Pastor’s Daughter.”

Lamson’s musical arrangements have always made good use of varied instrumentation, and this project offers a broad palette of tonal color, using everything from flugelhorn to banjo to organ. Similarly, his arrangements have often featured the expert incorporation of (usually female) singing partners. But this project pushes that tendency further by occasionally offering up the lead vocal slot to another performer. These shifts create a keen variation of texture, which is one of the most notable features of the project.

Some of those textural shifts are surprising, even satisfyingly unsettling, and there is a kind of genius in the juxtapositions. Ultimately, the album works in wonderful and fairly weird ways. We suspect a complementary purpose, too: Lamson’s compositions may extend beyond his own musical comfort zone, and the focus here is really on the songs. These cover the range from his customary folksy blues (“I’ll Go Ahead”) to songs you wouldn’t be surprised to hear in a mainstream steeple house (“Rose Hips”). Other cuts could even be slipped into a gig in a country bar (“Where Do These Praises Come From?”).

So, what does it mean to put a serious piece of overtly Christian art into the musical marketplace, one that defies easy stylistic classification (and is fairly certain to lose money)? This question is answered by the lyrics of the songs in this album. The consistent message throughout is that faith matters, that faith is difficult, and that faith, in the end, no matter how mud-spackled or worse for wear it gets, offers the power to sustain us (“Angel, Big Black Wings”). And through the gift of this good work, Lamson’s faith may help sustain the rest of us. ~~~

William Jolliff is professor emeritus of English at George Fox University, a poet, critic, songwriter, and occasional banjo player. He has published several books of literary analysis and poetry. He lives with his wife, Brenda, in Newberg, Oregon.

Quaker musician Christian music

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