April 20, 2004

Amps For Christ "The People at Large"

The three adjectives that most accurately sum up Amps for Christ’s latest full-length, The People at Large, are “homespun,” “eclectic,” and “political.” Let’s begin with the first adjective. The booklet for the CD is filled with colorful drawings, haphazard collages, and various poems and liner notes written in calligraphy. The music itself has a crisp yet nubbly texture that can only come from a really well-done home recording. It seems as if every aspect of this record was carefully assembled by hand, with the 5RC logo on the back cover the only indication that any sort of intermediary was involved in the process of getting the music from AFC guru Henry Barnes’ living room to yours. The People at Large sounds like Henry’s reinterpretation of a mix tape someone gave him of recordings by John Fahey, Steeleye Span, Jimi Hendrix, Ravi Shankar, Allen Ginsberg and Merzbow…which is where the second adjective comes in.

Adventurous rock musicians have been pairing guitars with sitars for the past 40 years, so the idea is nothing new. However, opener “Tsaress” produces a folk-raga hybrid so hypnotic that it makes the Beatles’ “Norwegian Wood” seem like a corny relic in comparison. Whereas Cornershop’s exploration of this territory seems kitschy, even despite the fact that its front man is of Indian descent, and even the best efforts by (the nevertheless awesome) Pelt sound as if the musicians haven’t quite mastered the ethnic instruments they’re fooling around with, Barnes is a string-slinger gifted enough to pull this fusion off perfectly. He can pull off rapid flurries of notes like Ravi (see “Claremont Raga”) and squealing, distorted guitar solos like Jimi (see “Memorial Immemorial Revisited”) with equal agility.

Barnes also has a breathy, lilting singing voice that sounds like a smoother Robert Wyatt. Unfortunately, he doesn’t use this gift enough, as he only actually sings on a third of the album. Even then, he often pushes his voice to the back of the mix, rendering his lyrics unintelligible. There are also a couple of spoken-word tracks on The People at Large. In a slightly bizarre move, these tracks are the only ones whose lyrics are printed out in the CD booklet, even though (unlike the other vocal-based songs) Barnes’ voices is recorded clearly enough to render printed lyrics unnecessary! The spoken-word tracks aren’t the only ones in which Barnes deviates from folk-raga, which is ALWAYS a good thing if you plan on making an hour-long 23-track albums. There are instrumentals with lush countrified three-guitar arrangements, remakes of traditional Scottish ballads, TWO reinterpretations of “Auld Lang Syne,” and mercifully brief snippets of power electronics that sound like they were recorded under the wing of a malfunctioning airplane futilely attempting to take off.

Every couple of tracks on The People at Large, Amps for Christ employ the particularly rewarding trick of augmenting their East-meets-West sound with an undercurrent of noise that’s perceptible enough to keep the music from veering into New Age blandness, but too far back in the mix to become truly grating. “Freddie the Mockingbird” plays host to a plethora of computerized percussive noises that suggest an old shoot-‘em-up video game gone horribly awry, which strangely underscores the political message underlying the album (which I’ll get into later). The bluegrass reverie of “Branches” is supported by a chorus of squealing synthesizers that would probably give listeners tinnitus if mixed even a little bit higher than they are. As is, though, they make the song sound as if it’s being broadcasted through a slightly fading airwave.

One song that fits into the previous paragraph’s assertions, “AFC Tower Song,” can be viewed as the center around which the rest of the album is organized. It’s a banjo driven hymn that begins with Barnes thanking God for loving him even when he was down and out, and ends with an assessment of 9/11 that is almost childlike in its simplicity and optimism. “In America, we have the cars to destroy the Earth. In America, we have the crap and throw it all away. Now, the towers have been hit using our own jet planes. Now, we don’t have all the crap, but we still have God…yes, we still have God.” Don’t let this excerpt give you the impression that Barnes has the same messianic zeal regarding the “War on Terror” as our current president; if anything, it’s the exact opposite. The poems in the CD booklet strongly criticize Bush. One of them ends with the stanza, “God will protect the land/that gives food to its starving/Not to shun the poor and lame/and go to battle charging.” Press materials regarding this record assert that “AFC is for Christ but against the FAKE Christ for profit right-wing elitist blind comfort-loving destroy the Earth and bring on Armageddon church!” You don’t hear such a stance being taken by many explicitly Christian artists nowadays, and whether one agrees with it or not (I certainly do), Barnes’ decision to go against the grain is commendable, especially because The People at Large still holds up well as a listening experience even when separated from its political context.

(Guess I’ve sorted out that last adjective now.)

---Sean Padilla

Label Website: http://www.5rc.com

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