A Sprawling, Brilliant Gospel Folk Landscape
Joy & Sorrow Meet
13 tracks / 39 minutes
2016 Sprig Music
Review by Jason Ramsey
By the time the slow drum bass kicks in on the first track of Weston Skaggs’ debut LP, the stage has been set: spoken chord progressions, a floor creak, a breathy baritone, a backing female choir. The stage is hushed, intimate. A family room adorned with a mashup of chairs, people sitting in a circle, nodding heads, raising hands, closing eyes. Swaying with the beat of hand claps, countering Weston’s falsetto pitch shift, humming an old Gospel melody akin to Appalachian bluegrass folk from days of old. Days when scenes like this existed. Days when music was organic and imperfect. Heartfelt. Soul felt. Days when sorrow and joy met with a reverent simplicity. Days of old that beckon desperately to be days of new.
“Joy & Sorrow Meet” was recorded at Old Bear Studios in upstate New York, an old warehouse that overlooks a cemetery. It’s a bit of a stark contrast for an album that sounds like it was birthed in the foothills of Kentucky. Weston Skaggs is an Ohio native, and his music has long lived alongside the humid banks of the Ohio River (his previous EP, “Dust & Clay“, offered a robust collection of modern folk sounds). This is music to be played outdoors on hot summer nights after the sun has descended: bluegrass acoustic guitars, banjos, a Korg keyboard for melancholy soundscapes. The rustling of wind in trees. A black box recorder for an authentic tape delay slapback sound. The only things that stand between you and God above.
There’s an authenticity to these songs. A sense of raw honesty and vulnerability, a self-awareness that is rare these days. There are no pop hooks, no giving in to mainstream temptation. “Joy & Sorrow Meet” plays like a concept album, a sort of avant-garde gospel-indie-folk concoction with equal parts nostalgia and originality. The album was produced by Chris Hoisington of The Brothers McClurg, and he did an incredible job in keeping the integrity of Weston’s vision and sound.
Sonically, the album shifts effortlessly between old-time roots gospel (“Lay It Down”, “Hammer & Nails”) and minimalist folk (“Blush”, “Out Of The Wreckage”). “Down In My Soul” could have been penned by Johnny Cash, and would have felt at home in his mother’s hymn book next to “Do Lord”. “Creation Will Sing Your Song” lilts and sways like Bon Iver before ending in Sigur Ros fashion. It’s a beautiful collection of subdued and diverse sounds.
Growing up with a foundation in the hymns, choral and gospel quartet music has always given me a love for where we’ve come from musically as a church. I love that there has been a folk revival and because of that with indie music there are no rules. It freed us up to chart our own path and not try to follow one particular sound/artist/genre. My producer Chris Hoisington and I both listened to a lot of old gospel, folk, and indie records late into the night on many occasions and we made an agreement to go whatever direction best served the songs we had written.
The crux of this album lies in the balance between Jesus’ sacrifice and suffering. It’s a delicate balance. In “Hammer & Nails”, Weston’s dissonant croon hits new highs: “Hallelujah, when joy and sorrow meet / Hallelujah, in His hands and in His feet / Hallelujah, our sin was washed away on Calvary and on that day.” It’s this marriage of joy and sorrow that led Weston on this journey:
I have really tried to write from a place of brokenness and honesty. It’s easy when writing Christian music to fall into a narrative of “things are bad now but I’ve still got it together and everything’s gonna work out”. I wanted to be uncomfortably honest with people so that they know I don’t have it figured out but yet I cling to the Savior. That’s what the song ‘Blush’ is about: I was convicted of pride and self reliance when I was sitting down to write one day. And I thought… “Even when I’m doing right I find myself bracing to feel your pat on the back.” To answer the question- I hope that people think more of the Savior because of this album but that they would be emboldened to be more honest with themselves too.
“Joy & Sorrow Meet” is about the tension of our lives here on this earth. The season I’ve walked through with my wife Amy the past two years (starting with the near loss of my wife in childbirth, the birth and growth of my daughter Paisley, walking through post traumatic stress and depression as a couple, and the adoption of my son Bo) has held the darkest sorrows and the brightest joys of our lives. But joy and sorrow are inseparable in this life. Each enhances the other. Until we’re in eternity it will be that way. There are also the themes of the prodigal in Home Pt I and II. Part I being a song for anyone who’s been selfish and hurt someone, Part II is the return home to the Father.
And so it is. This is a record for those who love music in its purest form. It has melodies for days. It asks us to “blush a little more” at our sins, to take hard looks at our souls and praise Jesus above all else. It’s an incredible record in scope, a sprawling landscape of nostalgia that merges generations of music into one glorious set. Let your heart feast on this. It’ll warm anything frozen over and stave hunger for lost faith. “Joy & Sorrow Meet” is a meditation for Christ. And it’s a brilliant one.
Lyric spotlight: “Pocket-Sized god”
(A nifty little folk ditty in “playful yet biting Keith Green fashion”.)
My friend if you need some help feeling right
Or writing political posts
Try a pocked sized god, he’ll have your back,
and go wherever you go…
Oh my pocket-sized god if the handiest tool
A trinket that suits my needs
An easy companion that sits on my dash
And I like him cuz he’s just like me – my keychain deity
And he doesn’t require reverence or praise
He’s been happy with any attention I can give
Oh my pocket-sized god, he’s there when I need him
But he don’t interfere with my life
Pull him out on a Sunday or a really bad Monday
Like an old Swiss army knife
And there’s no inconvenience
I can set him aside
My personal pocket-sized god
No you can’t buy your own pocket-sized god
In an arcade or market bazaar
But it’s easy to fashion one all on your own
If you let your ego whittle and carve
Til he doesn’t require reverence or praise
And he’s happy with any attention I can give
My personal pocket-sized god
My personal portable pocket-sized god
- Let a Song Go Out From My Heart Weston Skaggs 2:56
- Lay it Down Weston Skaggs 3:55
- Blush Weston Skaggs 2:00
- Hammer & Nails Weston Skaggs 3:44
- Down in My Soul Weston Skaggs 2:35
- Pocket Sized god Weston Skaggs 2:24