An Unbelievable Comeback

In one of the most notable scenes from Cameron Crowe’s poetic film Almost Famous, rock critic Lester Bangs tells apiring writer William Miller that he must always be brutally honest, or rock and roll will become nothing more than an “industry of cool.”  (By the way, this is tower, 25 y/o radio Chicago radio host).

I realize that by blogging honestly about the new Third Day album Revelation (out July 29), I put myself at risk to a). offend members of the Christian music industry, who’s anger can without a doubt hurt my career, and b). pretty much destroy any credibility I have with the ultra-hipster music fan who’s number one criteria for a great listening experience is that the artist is “obscure.” 

Heck with it all.  When I was sitting in study hall at the age of 15 and drawing the MxPx logo on my notebook, I wasn’t dreaming about working countless hours to have a voice in media just to play it safe.  So, here’s what I think; consequences be, uh, darned (this is a Christian run website, after all). 

From 2001 to 2007, Third Day made the same album five different times.  Sure, the titles and artwork were different, and the song names were always new, but the sound remained pretty much the same (which was beginning to pass its expiration date when they got on this musical treadmill).  When I got the chance to interview them (on the radio), I always directed the questions towards the groups humanitarian interests (they’re out on the road this summer, along with Switchfoot, Jars of Clay, and Robert Randolph in support of Habitat for Humanity), and away from their music, which I enjoyed about as much as “voodoo economics”  back in high school. Furthermore, Mac Powell thoroughly annoyed me by once admitting that he “needed” to root for the Braves since he lives in Atlanta, even though he grew up a fan of the St. Louis Cardinals (if you don’t understand why this is borderline treason, you clearly didn’t grow up in Southern Illinois, Missouri, or Arkansas).

When I got ahold of an advance copy of the band’s latest work, I only wanted to hear it because Howard Benson turned the knobs.  He’s a producer who’s elevated the careers of everyone from Mae to Flyleaf to All American Rejects.  Quite frankly, I wondered why someone who had found a lot of success on the modern rock charts (with Daughtry, Cold, Theory of a Deadman) would even bother stepping into a studio with Mac Powell and Co.  (Benson, who’s Jewish, told Billboard Magazine that he likes working with Christian bands because “they believe in something”).

After living with the album for seven days, I’ve found the answer: Benson knew he could make the band fall in love with rock music again.  The album’s opener “This is Who I Am” comes out of the gate hard, aggressive guitars layered over a driving drum track and punchy bass line.  Gone is Powell’s “singing to soccer moms” tone (turn on your local Christian or mainstream Adult Contemporary station, you’ll several artists doing this), and it’s replaced with an edgy attitude that seems to sneer “thought we were down and out…listen up!” 

The front half of the album holds true to equal parts southern rock and the 90’s grunge sound that’s never really left the modern rock charts since the world domination of Nirvana and Pearl Jam. Clearly, a lot of bands have mixed these influences ingredients into poor concoctions (see: almost any single from Nickelback, Rob Thomas’ solo horrific attempt at a solo album). But it’s the fresh nuances that make the album exciting. “Otherside” sounds like a groove laid down by a southern-fried Jack White, and “Give Love” isn’t far from fitting on a Drive-By Truckers or Jason Isbell record.

The strength here is first in the arrangements, then in the songwriting. The album is beautifully produced, with thundering arena rock drum tracks thumping through almost all 43 minutes, and Benson wasn’t afraid to match the power of Powell’s pipes with sonically equal guitar riffs.  In turn, the sound has inspired the band to pen lyrics that sound much more like rock music than made-for-CCM-radio fodder.  Ironically, now that Third Day has quit abandoned the “safe zone” of the CCM world, the message of faith shines through like never before. 

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The  genius of Benson also brought one other piece to the puzzle: a star-studded guest list.  American Idol alum Chris Daughtry adds backing vocals to one track, the under appreciated Robert Randolph throws down guitar parts on “Otherside” and Lacy from Flyleaf contributes her unforgettable wail to the mix on “Born Again” and possibly backing voals on “Run to You” (the pre-release album sleeve doesn’t credit the guests).

Good music essentially comes down to two elements: songwriting, and authentic artistry.  Somehow, on their 9
th

studio project, Third Day has pulled these pieces together to create one of the better albums I’ve heard this year. 

In the words of Lester bangs, skip the “industry of cool,” and consider giving these guys a fresh listen. No one has been more surprised by this band than me.

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