The first time I saw Jamie Barnes and Brooks Ritter perform together was in April of 2008. Stars of the Lid was playing at the 930 Listening Room, and I went mostly on reputation. It was a sparsely attended show, but I spotted a few friends in the mostly NPR crowd and pretended I knew something about drone/ambient music. Admittedly Jamie's brand of bluegrass infused indie folk music was an odd opener, but sometimes juxtaposition can really make a show.
I was quite familiar with Jamie's discography (The Recalibrated Heart, Honey From the Ribcage, The Fallen Acrobat), and even though Brooks hadn't yet released his debut album, The Horse Fell Lame, I knew most of his repertoire by heart. I had recently started playing keys with Sojourn band and was just getting used to playing with such talented musicians. I loved playing with Jamie because of his uncanny ability to create, arrange, and deconstruct songs. A profound lyricists with a diverse musical arsenal, Jamie creates lush sonic landscapes pregnant with meaning. Conversely, I loved Brooks because of his uncontainable energy. (Anyone who's ever seen Brooks play live knows he's a combustable ball of light when he plays- always on the verge of a supernova.) Brooks is a skillful songwriter in his own right, but it's his soul that shines through.
That night as Brooks (with Rebecca Dennison) joined Jamie on stage I discovered how incredibly complementary their talents and giftings are. Their harmonies and subtle dissonance sounded otherworldly. It was decidedly moving and I often wish I had a recording of that concert.
Almost three years later when I found out that Jamie and Brooks were doing a split EP together I couldn't help but think that dream had finally come to fruition.
Unlike their previous albums, this collection of songs is for the corporate gatherings of the church, specifically Sojourn Community Church, where both men serve on staff. Of course both artists have contributed heavily to past Sojourn albums, but this is the first time they've released solo material under the Sojourn music umbrella. As such, there is a personal kenosis, an emptying of ulterior motives, that has taken place. In other words, what is primary is not their artistic vision as musicians, but their faithful expression of worship as worshippers of the true God.
"Approach My Soul, The Mercy Seat" is the opening track and also lends its name to Jamie's half of the EP. It's adapted from John Newton's classic hymn that implores believers to boldly come before God, on the basis of Jesus' work. Sparse piano and eerie slide guitar create a somber atmosphere which compliments the gravity of sinful human approaching a holy God. Jamie's trademark 3-finger picking is met with with stirring strings and a huge drum beat, which build into an ecstatic frenzy; the blissful response to divine grace.
"Absent From Flesh" is equal parts stadium anthem and hoe down, by the time the horns kick in (is that a tuba I hear?), it's something like a bluegrass Srgt. Pepper's. I really can't imagine what Isaac Watts would do if heard what Jamie's done to his song, but I kind of hope he would dance ( I guess we'll find out in heaven?!?). Brooks' harmony is the closest we get to a true duet on the album, and leaves me wanting it on more songs.
The title track for Brooks' half of the EP is "The War". Brooks' soulful baritone is joined with a raunchy electric guitar and a no-nonsense drum beat; a less-is-more, Black Keys-esque blues-rock. The chorus unleashes a screaming B3 organ and driving bass, creating an intensive wall of sound that more than justifies the militaristic lyric imagery.
"Good Day" is pretty much good old fashion blues/gospel and could be the only Sojourn song equally tailored for the 7 PM gathering or the next Gaither Vocal Band reunion concert. I'm not even kidding. It's great.
"Rock of Ages" is an apt closing track. 18th Century Anglican minister August Montague Toplady's beloved hymn remains as profound and moving as when it was first penned in 1763. This minimalistic take- very much in the same vein as Sojourn's cover of Before the Throne- emphasizes the lyrical content. Mike Cosper's wailing slide guitar interludes provide space for somber reflection or thankful prayer.
In a Christian music industry characterized by self absorbed spirituality, theological shallowness, and questionable artistic merit, The Mercy Seat and The War are a breath of fresh air. I can't stop listening to it, and I doubt you will be able to as well.