The Collection’s Listen to the River was Worth the Wait

The first time I heard The Collection’s music, I thought my heart was going to explode. I’m always listening for lyrics, but it wasn’t David Wimbish’s earnest songwriting that resonated with me, it was the image of him turning his group of talented musician-friends into an orchestra.

When The Collection toured their first full-length album, Ars Moriendi, the then thirteen-piece band wedged their van and trailer full of instruments into a DC parking space and covered every inch of the first floor of my house with sleeping bags. I don’t know how we had enough sheets and blankets for all of them. We have hosted many memorable shows in that house, but if I could go back in time to experience one of them again, it would be that night.

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That time I found myself in The Collection’s band photo and then on the cover of a Greensboro, NC arts magazine.

In a world in which it is more common to communicate via technology than face-to-face, Wimbish brings friends together to create music with him and spend weeks at a time in the confined space of a tour van. It’s really everyone’s fantasy at 23: “let’s all quit our jobs and tour the country together as band!” From what I observed while hosting The Collection, they did it with grace and great enjoyment, like a group of kids on a mission trip but without the need for chaperones. When asked how they were able to get along so well, it was clear that they shared deep love for each other. This made their music feel all the more real—the passion exuded in the music continued into their visibly grace-filled behavior toward each other.

While The Collection’s first EP drew primarily on biblical themes with poetic honesty and earnest hope, Ars Moriendi reflected on the untimely deaths of friends and carried heavy questions about salvation. Listen to the River was recorded after Wimbish “found his faith and courage left at the bottom of a spiritual well.” The album’s liner notes explain:

Listen To The River is the story of the rope that he used to climb out, one that’s strands were made of great spiritual writers, from Rumi and Kahlil Gibran to Herman Hesse and Lao Tse. The process that followed was a re-examination and reorientation of both his spirituality, and his marriage to member Mira Joy after mutually deciding to divorce last year, ultimately leading to an album created together, hoping to honor the past while accepting the present.

I can’t imagine the tension of going through a co-creation process with an ex-spouse. But The Collection’s music has always embraced tension, just listen to the introduction to Fever

“I was singing by the river, waiting for my troubles to be gone
and you were coming through the speakers, sliding down my ears and played their drums”

or The Art of Dying

“Death sits inside his office as we wait for the verdict
he speaks our fate with a nervous tick; do we get the cure or the sickness?
and when we die, what will it be – a graveyard grave, or a golden fleece?
And will we fight or will we flee?
Will you still have faith in me?”

And this, perhaps, is what tugs at my heart so strongly: to end a relationship and still be attached, be plagued with trouble yet feel close to God, to wonder about the afterlife after watching peers die. Wimbish writes challenging questions into his songs and chews on them with strings and woodwinds and perfectly timed percussion.

Listen to the River holds this tension too, but there’s evidence of some settling in. And the thirteen-piece band has been stripped down to seven, resulting in a meeker sound.

“There are so many people
They float like the lashes that fall from my eyes
I know between them, they believe everything
So I don’t have to be right” – So Many People

Now contending with the complexities of his mid-twenties and asking big questions about faith and existence, Wimbish continues to turn harsh realities and lack of certainty into honest, reflective songs. And he continues to involve a wide circle of musician-friends, resulting in a co-creation process that speaks more volumes of hope than lyrics ever can.

On Repeat: Dream in Blue by The Stray Birds

I think I can thank the great folks algorithms at Spotify for introducing me to this song.

From their website:

All originally from Lancaster, Pennsylvania, The Stray Birds started as a duo of acoustic buskers in early 2010 when Maya de Vitry and Oliver Craven met with their instruments, their voices, and their songs. It didn’t take much convincing to get bassist Charlie Muench on board, and with the addition of a third unique and powerful voice, the group began to define its captivating sound. Seven years, three original records, and some six hundred performances later, the band is best known today for its songwriting, its tight and forthcoming vocal harmony blend and its commitment to an impassioned delivery of original material, both on stage and in the studio.

Lowland Hum answers that nagging question “but, what does it mean?”

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My parents were in town for a Lowland Hum show at my Washington, D.C. group house several years also. They made conversation with my friends before the music started and paged through Lowland Hum’s signature handmade lyric books song by song. My love of music comes from my dad, so I assumed they’d like it enough. After the show I asked for their impressions. “I liked it,” my mom said, “but what does it mean?”

Have you ever posed this question to an artist? I did once, and, because of their unwelcome response, still regret it. Often, they don’t even know. It meant one thing, then something else later. Or maybe the true meaning is too personal to share. I still find myself pondering it as I listen to music, though. I think this mystery is part of music’s magnetism.

Along with the release of their new album, Thin, Lowland Hum shared a track-by-track explanation of the stories and meaning behind the songs. The folk duo from Charlottesville, Virginia has been an open book since day one, often leaving time and space for audience questions during their live shows. Perhaps this lifestyle of authenticity and self-reflection is what allows them to shed light on the meaning behind the result of their creative process. In the article, Lauren Goans says: “A big part of what we hope to do with music is to create vulnerable spaces. There is such a pressure to come across composed and if you can’t pull that off, then there is pressure to put forth a sort of mussy nonchalance. I wouldn’t describe us as very cool people and I would definitely not call us composed and so we feel we have an opportunity to share in a way that doesn’t result in us coming out on top of things.”

I have to admit that knowing the “why” makes me appreciate Thin all the more. And the album’s simplicity, just guitar and percussion accompanying two voices,  leaves room for the listener to observe the honest and thoughtful songwriting that Lowland Hum is known for; to sit down for a meal with this couple that is very transparently working out how to be people in this world abounding with both beauty and ugliness. They’re asking “but what does it mean?” too.

Favorite Music of 2016

In spite of all of the bad news, 2016 was a great year for music. Here are my top 10 favorite songs released in 2016, in no particular order: (and here’s a link to the list on Spotify)

1. Home in Your Heart, Elephant Revival

Alex and I had a front-row view of Elephant Revival at the 930 Club in April. They began the show with an acoustic rendition of Ring Around the Moon that rendered the venue hauntingly silent from the first note. Seeing Bonnie play the washboard live added a new dimension to my appreciation of their instrumentation. I bought their (then) newly released album, Petals, at the show and nearly scratched a hole into “Home in Your Heart.” I’m a sucker for strings and simple harmonies with words about home.

2. Damn Sure – Laura Gibson

Also in April, a friend and I ventured to IOTA to see Laura Gibson touring her (then) newly released album Empire Builder. Her performance was as emotionally raw as the album, which draws on the aftermath of her cross-country move to New York City for graduate school. “Damn Sure” is about the irony of leaving good things behind.

3. Best Kept Secret – case/lang/veirs

I discovered case/lang/veirs shortly before Newport Folk Festival and angled to get a good seat for their set. While recent festivals haven’t been as politically charged as the years of Baez and Dylan, with The Staves’s loud and clear “don’t f***ing vote for Trump” as an exception, k.d. Lang’s closing refrain from “I Want to be Here with You” echoed pre-election hopes.

The hungry fools
Who rule the world can’t catch us
Surely they can’t ruin everything

4. Vincent – Car Seat Headrest

Will Toledo starting making records in the back of his parents’ car, hence the name Car Seat Headrest. Vincent is on Toledo’s twelfth album, which he released at the age of 23. The song reminds me of the rock and roll my dad played for me

5. Life Crisis – River Whyless

River Whyless played an earnest set at Newport Folk Festival and were my most-listened to band in 2016. In addition to Life Crisis, Bath Salt, Miles of Skyline, and Cedar Dream III are favorites.

6. Wendell Kimbrough, formerly Director of Worship Arts at my church in DC and currently Artist in Residence at Church of the Apostles in Fairhope, Alabama, released a highly anticipated album of original hymns this summer. He gave me a rough cut of the album when we visited last fall, and “Eternal Weight of Glory” quickly became an anthem of hope during a difficult season in my career, this verse in particular:

Oh eternal weight of glory!
Oh inheritance divine!
We will see our Lord redeeming
Every past and future time.
All our pains will be transfigured,
Like the scars of Christ our Lord.
We will see the weight of glory,
And our broken years restored.

In line with the name of the album, Psalms We Sing Together, Wendell toured the album in churches on the east and west coast this year. Wendell has a gift for writing songs to be sung by a congregation and shared how he uses Sunday mornings to experiment and iterate.

7. Hey Big Star – Kishi Bashi

Kishi Bashi’s third studio album, Sonderlust, was released in September 2016. Though Sonderlust was written during a season of heartbreak in Ishibashi’s life and is more reflective in tone than his previous work, Hey Big Star reminds me of the poppy hooks that make me a fan.

8. Ophelia – The Lumineers

Ophelia is another delicious ear worm from the Lumineers. This episode of Song Exploder tells the story of how it was created.

9. Sia – Cheap Thrills Remix

I first heard this song during the leg series in a Monday night pilates class of which I was a frequent flier, and it made me smile every time. I chose the Spanglish version because lyrics are distracting when you just want to dance.

10. Become Younger – Peals

Peals sent their first album, Honey, to Bob Boilen on a thumb drive inside of a jar of honey. Sounds gimmicky, but the music’s good enough to justify it. This song had me tapping my feet from the first time I heard it on All Songs Considered. The interwoven, rolling melodies remind me of what Sufjan Stevens did with strings on his early albums, and the electronic instrumentation on the Broken Bells’s self-titled album.

I was giddy to discover that Spotify created a list of my most-listened to songs in 2016. It looks about right to me; these are my go-to tunes for that extra boost of energy at work or a soundtrack for a weekend road trip. In my opinion, fun things like this, in addition to avoiding the obnoxious and sometimes uncomfortable (!) ads, make that $9.99/month subscription totally worth it.