I was kind of surprised to see that my iPod has 137 songs by Daniel Amos. Not because I do not like them or anything…but because usually I tended to have a bit under 100 in the past. Like…maybe 86 songs. This, of course does not include solo work by Terry Taylor or the Swirling Eddies songs. Adding those actually brings the total to 229.
Daniel Amos qualifies as the third Christian band I flipped out for. Seriously. Before that were Steve Taylor and then the Choir. My introduction to Daniel Amos was Darn Floor-Big Bite. It was a somewhat strange and trippy album. Oh yeah, and the artist was Da. No D.A. Not Daniel Amos. Not DA. Not Dä. Da. See, before Madonna, there was Daniel Amos. Except, they morphed through musical styles and names more than coned bras and other lingerie.
When the band Daniel Amos (named after the Old Testament prophets Daniel and Amos) began in the seventies, they were a Christian country and western act. You read that right. It was not bad, but it wasn’t really special either. The most memorable song is the Skeptics Song. It’s a… mean song. It’s unpleasant, actually. It contains the lyric “Oh My, you’ll fry as we wave goodbye to you.” It is also remarkably out of character for Daniel Amos. But the song speaks of a time in the 70s where such a lyric would illicit cheers from an audience. Terry Scott Taylor has spoken critically of the song, and I would not say it should bias those unfamiliar with the band. Why? Because, really? You can skip the first album. It is the second album where Daniel Amos starts to show its growth.
Shotgun Angel is still country & western, but it hints that the band is getting restless in that style. Admittedly, when people talk about shotgun angel, they are not usually talking about the first half (or the A side, since this was back in the day of records and cassettes). It is really the second half, which is a mini opera about the end of the world. Released in 1977, this was part of that whole Late Great Planet Earth obsession with the end of the world which swept the Christian world (taking the briefest of breaks in the early 90’s before the Left Behind books started it all over again).
The songs on the first side are more traditional c&w, such as Shotgun Angel and Black Gold Fever. Meal is a memorable, goofy track. It is almost a novelty song, but also hints at later Taylor projects (such as the Miracle Faith Telethon or the Farm Beetles). The second side touches on more of a rock vibe, with hints of the new wave music movement. The second side actually was re-released as The Revelation, with Chuck Smith reciting the relevant Bible passages between songs. But Shotgun Angel has some strong tracks, such as Fathers Arms, Sail Me Away and the Whistler (As well as the title track).
The band signed on with Jesus Music/Christian rock pioneer Larry Norman for their next album Horrendous Disc. The album got hung up in legal limbo for awhile, the end result being a souring the relationship between Terry and Larry and causing the band to move on to a new label. More on the CD in a second. See, it was 1981 before the band got a new record in the can for their new label. Fans were coming to concerts and getting angry, because the country and western was fading and the band instead. The band was more and more influenced by the likes of the Talking Heads and Elvis Costello. They were quickly losing fans, and lacking the opportunity to pick up new ones.
In 1981 they were prepared to Release ¡Alarma!, only to find that Horrendous Disc was getting released at almost the same time. Horrendous disc was a band searching for a new sound. The rocking intro (I love You # 19) still holds up all these years later. It’s just solid rock and role. Then there is the waking nightmare of being pursued by God called Hound of Heaven. It’s an eerie rock track, with a hushed delivery during verses but an impassioned plea during the chorus.
Sky King feels kind of like…well… Lennon meets the Eagles. On the other hand you have The humorous near-sighted girl with approaching TIDAL WAVE. It is kind of like a new wave Beach boys song. It is very indicative of where the band’s sound was going though. To me, the standout track is Horrendous Disc.
It tells the tale of an abusive husband who hides hid cruelty from the world-but not from God. It’s so haunted, and then is interrupted by an upbeat rock chorus, all culminating in a judgment of the husband and his evil. The song is also a reminder to the listener not to live life in secret, trying to keep things hidden, for they will come to light.
1981’s ¡Alarma!, on the other hand, felt a bit more coherent musically. Having shaken free completely of country & western and embraced a quirky new wave style full on. The album was the first in a series. Called the ¡Alarma! Chronicles, Terry said they were inspired by a series of dreams. The albums included writings that resembled the dreams of prophets in books like Revelation. But these were not a prophet dream of the end…these were songs calling the church to task for it’s sins, much like the prophets of the Old Testament.
The opening song announces the “Central Theme”, the Chronicles are about God. God and the Church. God and Man. The title track is more of a call to wake up, to prepare the audience. The album challenges the church ignoring the hungry and poor while living in comfort (Faces to the Window), the falseness of Hollywood type happy endings (Props), reaching out to people with Love instead of judgment (Hit Them), and charismatic leaders damaging good things by calling them evil (Colored By). Admittedly, my favorite songs on the album are the ones that close it. Endless Summer feels like summertime rock and roll. Walls of Doubt is a catchy number that is sympathetic to the person trying to come to peace with doubt. The fragile and haunted Ghost of the Heart is a terrific song.
1983’s follow-up Doppelgänger, a darker entry in the Chronicles, is primarily focused on truth, lies and self deception. The Hollow Man is an interesting opening track-it’s music played in reverse, while Terry speaks ominously over the musical bed. The rock number Mall (All Over the World) paints the world as nothing more than a mall that tries to feed hungers it can never fulfill… all while piping in music of a religious nature. The album challenges Christian consumerism (Little Crosses), our culture’s degradation of women through entertainment (Real Girls), the belief that Christianity equals a life free of pain and heartache (Angels Tuck You In) and the obsession with the “better days” of the past (Memory Lane). The band was also challenging Televangelists with I Didn’t Build It For Me, a raucous song whose protagonist swears that even though it’s his name on the wall, he did not build it for him-it’s for you… it was all in a vision.
The Hollow Man reprise asks “Who has failed-mankind or the church?” And I am not sure that is so easily answered anymore. Doppelgänger is easily one of my favorite of Daniel Amos’ catalog, and it is tops the four albums that make up the Chronicles. 1984 brought the keyboard heavy and much lighter Vox Humana.
Lighter you say? And I say… yes… with lyrics like “Our hair points to the sky-the place I want to be” (Home Permanent, a pretty clever wordplay truth be told) and a song about how the 80’s are kind of disappointing and not at all like the Jetsons (It’s the 80’s-So Where’s Our Rocket Packs?) lead me to call it light. But there is also the beautiful and literate William Blake. And personally, I wish I could play guitar, I would love to record an acoustic version of She’s All Heart.
Anyways, the band challenged the televised reality long before we had reality television, the idea that we sit comfortably watching others who suffer starvation, oppression, etc from the safe confines of our television in It’s Sick. The daunting final track, Sanctuary, makes for a killer album closer. This is probably the most “pop” Daniel Amos ever went.
The fourth and final album in the Chronicles was Fearful Symmetry (which has my vote for one of the nicest Daniel Amos album covers). The entire album feels haunted, with inviting tracks like a Sigh For You, Sleep Silent Child, Beautiful One and the Pool (a very dramatic presentation of baptism). The lyrics are more poetic and abstract than past albums. In some ways, it feels like Terry kind of lost his zeal and wanted to do something new. The album has quirky tracks like Instruction Thru Film, Sudden Heaven and Shadowcatcher. There is also the intense dance track Neverland Ballroom. It’s a good album, though feels pretty disconnected from the other Chronicles. This is not shocking…while the previous three albums came out pretty close together, it was 1986 (a full two years later) before Fearful Symmetry was released. The Band even called themselves DA.
In 1987 under the name Da, the band released Darn-Floor Big Bite. The album did not do well, but then, it carried the literary and art rock underpinnings of Fearful Symmetry farther. This is an art CD. When Christians complain about pretentious lyrics? They are talking about this album. And I love it. I think it is one of the best things the band ever released. It has no songs I dislike. But then I am a strange animal. The sales were apparently poor, causing the band to give up work on a follow up. Instead, Terry Taylor and company came up with fake identities and had one of the poorest secrets in Christian music.
The Swirling Eddies released Let’s Spin… it had no serious pretentiousness. The album opened with a toilet flushing before the rollicking title track invited everyone to a party where if “they punch us in the face, we’re gonna turn the other cheek and do the cha-cha too!” Sure, there is a moment of thoughtfulness with Catch That Angel… but the Unsuccessful Dutch Missionary kicks you in the pants. I’ve Got an Idea kicks off with LET’S HAVE A BURGER BASH! It is a fun little album, and clearly the band was tired of being so serious.
But you cannot keep a serious thinking in a cage… and The Swirling Eddies’ Outdoor Elvis almost perfectly blended sarcasm, comedy and serious commentary. It’s most famous song was the bold attack on Christian College drinking policies Hide the Beer, the Pastor’s Here. Okay, maybe not as bold as Steve Taylor attacking Bob Jones University for it’s racist policies in 1984… but hey.
It’s really a quirky album, with goofy tracks Arthur Fhardy’s Yodeling Party, Elimination(The Band That Won’t Go Away) (Comprised of actual hate mail the band had received), Attack of the Pulpit Masters and Knee Jerk. Yet the album contains heartfelt tracks like Hold Back the Wind Donna, Billy Graham (a sincere song of praise) and the sweet Blowing Smoke (about growing old with your spouse). It’s an eclectic disc, but a real lot of fun.
Then, in 1991, the guys decided it was time to play some rock and roll. Under the name Dä they released Kalhöun. This was Terry and company’s “we can still rock!” CD. And lo, rock they did. Not a perfect CD, it’s good. You have great rock songs like Virgin Falls, Kalhoun and Father Explains, as well as the more subdued Gate of the World. It was a welcome return.
Followed up two years later by the Beatles influence Motorcycle, the guys returned to their original name of Daniel Amos. It’s a jangly alt-pop collection of songs, opening with a retelling of the parable of the banquet.
A certain man was preparing a great banquet and invited many guests. 17At the time of the banquet he sent his servant to tell those who had been invited, ‘Come, for everything is now ready.’ But they all alike began to make excuses. The first said, ‘I have just bought a field, and I must go and see it. Please excuse me.’ Another said, ‘I have just bought five yoke of oxen, and I’m on my way to try them out. Please excuse me.’ Still another said, ‘I just got married, so I can’t come.’ The servant came back and reported this to his master. Then the owner of the house became angry and ordered his servant, ‘Go out quickly into the streets and alleys of the town and bring in the poor, the crippled, the blind and the lame.’ ‘Sir,’ the servant said, ‘what you ordered has been done, but there is still room.’ Then the master told his servant, ‘Go out to the roads and country lanes and make them come in, so that my house will be full. 24I tell you, not one of those men who were invited will get a taste of my banquet.’
The version from Matthew is a bit more horrific…and the song Banquet At the World’s End is far more focused on the rosy parts of the story. Terry leaves out stuff like the King sending his servants out to kill all the folks who declined his offer. Man, Jesus told some crazy stories, huh?
Hole In the World is a beautiful declaration of mystery in faith. The upbeat Grace is the Smell of Rain is dedicated to the freedom found in grace. One of my favorite Daniel Amos tracks. Hearkening back to their country roots (but not going all out into the realm of country & western), the band writes a praise song that puts most of what passes for praise to shame (What’s Come Over Me). The second half of the CD is, similarly to the Beatles’ Abbey Road, a series of songs that lead one into another. The band does a solid job of avoiding jarring transitions between the songs.
In 1994, the Swirling Eddies released Zoom Daddy. Truthfully, it feels very much like a Daniel Amos CD…they dumped the secret identities. So, it doesn’t totally feel like the Eddies, but it is a killer disc. Almost every track is full of heart and soul. There is the Twist-a gut wrenching song about the crucifixion that digs far deeper than the Passion of the Christ did. The Golden Girl of the Golden West is another criticism of the constraints our culture puts on women. It’s a strong track, and deceptive in it’s delivery. In Pyro Sets a Wildfire, Terry sings an apology to God for the times he has misunderstood or misrepresented God and let his ego get in the way.
But my favorite track is Art Carney’s Dream, which tells the tale of Ed Norton sneaking into heaven via the sewers and trying to hide. It’s an amazing bit of work that could have gone horribly wrong… but it works.
1994 also saw the Daniel Amos album Bibleland. With great songs like the Bubble Bursts (an honest admission of imperfection), Bibleland (finding God and grace even in crass commercial places), Broken Ladders To Glory (a gentle remembrance of our broken-ness) and Constance of the Universe this is a fairly strong release.
1995’s Songs of the Heart was an ambitious disc that seemed to just appear. I remember not hearing anything about it, and then suddenly there it was. I recall initially feeling a bit disappointed. It’s a story, and each song is telling the tale of Bud & Irma Akendorf traveling down Route 66. Time has tempered my feelings, and I consider this a much better CD now. Standout songs include When Everyone Wore Hats, My Hand to God, Sins of the Father and the cover song Can’t Take My Eyes Off Of You.
In 1996, the Eddies came back with Sacred Cows. Mostly, this is a novelty disc where the band performs songs by big time CCM Stars. There was Carman’s Satan Bite the Dust (sung with an affectionate lisp), a lounge version of DC Talk’s I Luv Rap Music, Audio Adrenaline’s Big House (Sung with the voice of Droopy Dog) and Amy Grant’s Baby Baby (sung in a deep baritone). Oh yeah, and a hysterical version of DeGarmo and Key’s God Good, Devil Bad. Honestly? It’s basically a album satirizing the CCM hit making machine. Or it is the band goofing off. Take your pick.
It was five years before the band made another CD, the two disc epic known as Mr. Buechner’s Dream. The title is a reference to the theologian and author Frederick Buechner. Originally, it was not meant to be two discs, but the band began to work in the studio and found that the creative juices were flowing… over flowing in fact. To an extent, the album feels a bit bloated, but lyrically, the album is full of great poetry. Some of the standout tracks include The Staggering Gods, Ordinary Extraordinary Day, Who’s Who Here?, Joel, Flash in Your Eyes, Fingertips and Beautiful Martyr. While it suffers a bit from the sheer number of tracks, there are enough good songs to make it worth owning.
Daniel Amos has kept somewhat active, but mostly in re-issuing special editions. This has included the Alarma! Chronicles collected into a very nice 3 disc “book set”. The book contains all the writings Terry did for the four records, commentary on the discs, all the song lyrics all bound in a nice hardcover book. It was a great way to collect four good CDs (um, by spanning them across three CDs). They also did an expanded “book set” for Songs of the heart with new material, new recordings of the original material and the story of Bud and Irma told in the book. They re-christened it When Everyone Wore Hats. There was also a 2007 release by the Swirling Eddies of which I cannot comment on because I never have actually heard the album.
Terry Scott Taylor also released a few solo discs through the years. In a way, the many years between each solo disc serves well as time capsules of Terry. His first album Knowledge & Innocence has a youthful optimism that strives for maturity not yet achieved. This is not a slight, but merely, it is what the young perceive the wisdom of age to bring. The heartfelt longing of a Briefing for the Ascent (a touching exploration of death, brought on by the impending death of his grandmother) made for a classic release (although, the CD re-issue removed the spoken word bits between the songs, which was unfortunate).
It was twelve years before Terry did a follow-up. The album John Wayne was a terrific rock album which had strong tracks like Too Many Angels (focusing on Christian Gossip and Christian Concern Trolls), Mr. Flutter and You Lay Down.
Terry waited only a couple of years before releasing the follow-up, Avocado Faultline. A largely acoustic and reflective endeavor, the album is deeply entrenched in a sentimentality that can only come with age. Many of the songs are expressions of love for family and friends. Songs such as a Kind Word, Angels Must Smile Like That ant Papa Danced on Olivera Street are touching paintings of life that are truly beautiful. Terry also gives word to the regrets we often can feel as we grow older and wonder where the time has gone. Who cannot relate to a lyric like “Startin’ Monday, I’m cleanin’ the slate, gonna quit smokin’, start losin’ weight, tell someone I am sorry, it’s gonna be great… startin’ Monday”? And then there is the ultimate regret of having the perfect comeback…days later (With What I Should Have Said). LITTLE, big (released in 2002) was described by Terry as his most personal offering. It focuses on seeing the amazing and extraordinary in the day to day. Terry writes, “It is in them that we often find the grace, mercy, and love of God.” The songs are less rock, more pop and sound very different from Avocado Faultline.
After that, Terry released some specialty discs for his fan club, mostly acoustic demos (some unreleased songs). Terry has had a prolific output, and unlike many other artists, Terry manages to hit a lot more often than miss. He also released a mostly humorous Christmas EP called Songs for the Day After Christmas.
Terry Scott Taylor has proven himself a gifted and articulate lyricist, and a surrounded himself with friends of equal musical talent. As Daniel Amos or the Swirling Eddies, they constantly re-invented themselves. They were not afraid to try something different and take risks. I think this is why I have over 200 of their songs on my iPod. You’re on display…
And it is for this I declare that Terry Scott Taylor, Daniel Amos and the Swirling Eddies make Christian Music That doesn’t Suck.