From the Sky Down

We attended a documentary on Saturday night. It's called From the Sky Down, held at the Toronto International Film Festival (trailer here). It tells the story of when U2 hit a creative dead end, and had to destroy its own identity in order to create itself anew.

I remember discovering U2 in the Joshua Tree era. I can still remember walking in a ravine while a seminary with the cassette tape playing through my Walkman. I then remember losing track of U2 while they seemed to go through a strange period that I didn't understand. I rediscovered them later on in the All That You Can't Leave Behind era, only to discover that I'd missed some of their best material such as Achtung Baby, released twenty years ago.

What happened in that strange era? That's the subject of this film. U2 retreated to Berlin and (forgive the cliché) reinvent itself. Producer Brian Eno says, "The biggest enemy any artist has to face is their own history." Bono adds, "You have to reject one expression of the band before you can get to the next one." This means letting go of the old expression without knowing it's going to work.

One reviewer puts it like this:

But what to do instead? From the Sky Down, without being at all overblown about it, presents the recording of Achtung Baby as a moment when the band was trying, in essence, to get from one side of a canyon to another, only they weren’t at all sure that there was a bridge they could walk across, because only the album they hadn’t made yet could be that bridge. Either they would create an inspired album…or they would implode. The movie is startlingly intimate — and honest — about the fears, the personal and musical tensions, the artistic chaos, the grinding work and discovery that went into the recording of Achtung Baby. It is, quite simply, one of the most transcendent close-up looks at the process of creating rock & roll I’ve ever seen.

I love movies like this. If you're a writer, artist, or musician, it will help motivate you to take the necessary risks to create new great work. It applies to life as well: moving ahead does involve risk sometimes. As one book says, we continually face the choice of slow death or deep change.

I enjoyed this movie. It's worth checking out if you get a chance to watch it.

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Songs in a Minor Key

I just bought a new jazz album by blogger and church planter Zach Neilsen and company. Love it! If you like jazz at all, you should check it out too. It's available from iTunes and Amazon.

Zach writes:

For some, jazz is esoteric and obtuse. To the unacclimated, it can sound like random noise that is challenging to listen to for extended periods of time. For that reason I recorded a couple songs that most people will recognize. The recording kicks off with my arrangement of Nirvana’s “Come As You Are” and later on you'll find The Police’s famous hit, “Message In A Bottle”. In my experience, if people hear a simple melody that they recognize it greatly increases their enjoyment and overall listening experience. I hope that is the case for you as you encounter this recording.

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Wake Up Love by Melanie Penn

I don't do a lot of music reviews at this site, but that doesn't stop me from recommending a good album when I find it.

Melanie Penn is on staff with Redeemer City to City in New York City. I've heard her sing before, particularly at the Dwell Conference in NYC a couple of years ago.

I got to meet Melanie this week. Turns out she's just released an album and it's excellent. She's not only a great singer but a songwriter as well.

Here's a review by someone who knows a lot more about music than I do:

Composed mostly of originals, Wake Up Love is a fun, well-arranged pop gem. Produced by Ben Shive (who has also worked with Sara Grove), it has a stellar cast of musicians on board, including Ron Block of Union Station and Andrew Osenga (both of whom I'm an adoring fan). The arrangements pull conceptually from a whole host of singer/songwriters - a dash of Sufjan Stevens, a heaping scoop of Paul Simon, and references to Sixpence None The Richer, Over the Rhine and Emmylou Harris.

It holds together very well, and through it all Melanie's airy, pure and beautiful voice shines. The amount of detail in the arrangements lend themselves nicely to headphone listening, and doesn't wear you out. The front half of the record has some of the more adventurous ideas, like "Wake Up Love," with it's Russian dance breakdown near the end, while the second half gets a little more intimate and straight-forward. My personal favorites are "The Wind" and "Train" - a great take on the classic Americana theme of the railroad.

Definitely worth checking out. I know I'm enjoying it. It's playing right now.

Find out more at MelaniePenn.com, or Melanie's MySpace page. Or just buy the album at Amazon or iTunes.

Review: How Many Kings by Downhere

I'm pretty picky when it comes to my Christmas music. The old songs have been done so often and it's hard to improve on them. The news songs don't always measure up. But I'm glad to recommend this album by Canadian group Downhere.

The song that got me hooked is the title track How Many Kings. This new song is good enough to add anyone's Christmas repertoire, and I'll be using it this coming Sunday morning. If nothing else, buy this one track from iTunes or Amazon MP3s.

The rest of the album is good too. There are fun parts and some good covers of traditional pieces. My favorite cover is Silent Night.

Glad to find this Canadian group. Good work.

More at Amazon.com | Amazon MP3 | iTunes | Downhere.com