May 27, 2014

Does Crowder's 'Neon Steeple' Meet Its Lofty Expectations?


Expectation may very well be the arch-enemy of music enjoyment.

How many “favorite bands” have been cursed by their fans upon release of a new “experimental” album? With that in mind, the debut release by Crowder, Neon Steeple, may have the deck stacked against it from the outset.

I remember picking up David Crowder’s first independent record (Pour Over Me, billed as University Baptist Church) my first weekend at college and feeling like it was something I had never heard before. It was part of the growing “worship” music subgenre, but it was artistic, introspective and advanced. Over the years, Crowder and his Band honed their craft of great melodies, solid guitars, electronic elements, DJ samples, occasional violins and southern gospel influences. While firmly planted within their genre, they definitely expanded its definition.

Their final record, 2011’s Give Us Rest, was—in a word—dichotomous. Blazing, electronic-heavy tracks were juxtaposed against acoustic guitar-only ballads and bluegrass oriented revival hymns. Shortly thereafter, the Band re-formed after the breakup under the moniker “The Digital Age” and released an incredible EP, Rehearsals, and the man himself put out a sparse solo video for the song “After All (Holy).” These two movements made the gaps in Give Us Rest all the more apparent.

David would go on to form a band of bluegrass musicians that would operate under the name “Crowder.” The played a few gigs, released a live iTunes session, and hosted a hoedown at Passion 2013. All signs pointed to a full-on nu-grass record, perhaps in the vein of Chris Carrabba’s Twin Forks project. A full-length record was announced, with Crowder himself coining the term “folk-tronica” to describe it.

I tell you all this, because this is how expectation is built.

So, I’ll tell you: it took about a month of listening for me to overcome my own expectations. What I was looking for was something more decidedly folk. What I found was a much heavier (elec)tronica influence. At first I was asking, “How is this any different than what he has done before?” But, eventually, I found the nuance and grew to appreciate the record for what it is, not what I had wanted it to be.

The bluegrass influences are there, and they aren’t subtle. Songs like “My Beloved” and “Hands of Love” don’t shy away from their use of the banjo. “Jesus is Calling” is suited for a Sunday afternoon church-grounds potluck. And “Lift Your Head Weary Sinner” has a dark, roadhouse flair about it. But then there are tracks like “I Am,” “Come Alive” and “You Are” that sound like they may have been lifted straight out of the DCB catalog with new instrumentation added.

There don’t seem to be as many immediately catchy, “singalong” songs here as Crowder (the man) has offered in his previous work. With that in mind, I don’t know if this album easily fits into the “worship” subgenre—and maybe that’s a good thing.

David Crowder is a standout among his peers and always has been. He has always been willing to play with sound and take risks that others may not be willing to take. That should be applauded. This group together has a lot to offer as evidenced by their unofficial work (that iTunes session is definitely worth a listen).

It seems, however, that when they hit the studio they weren’t quite able to reign themselves in enough to cultivate a single sound/message/identity. This is a good record, but I would just encourage you to leave your expectations at the door.

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