Playlist #9: Happy Easter / Jesus Songs

Especially for Easter weekend, Marc Hall takes a look at music’s long-running relationship with religion, with particular reference to JC…

As with its Christmas sibling, Easter is a holiday gifted to us in-part by religion. We’re all aware of the Christian stories behind Easter, but not being of religious persuasion myself it becomes all about the eggs, and that’s only because I have two little chocolate devouring monsters in my household. Without them, it would just be a lovely long weekend, but for now I’ll rejoice in the chocolate theme. There’s nothing wrong with this.

But how does one choose ten songs that meet the criteria of Easter without resorting to ten hymns? Worse still, I could make a playlist consisting of ten Christian rock songs. Rather than drive you all away, I’ve tried to select songs on the basis that they site Jesus. Whether that’s the use of said name in the title, a reference within the song, or in some cases perhaps, an heretic-tinged twist on the theme.

Some of my earliest musical memories are from watching The Blues Brothers, a film rife with religious imagery. I’ll always be thankful to that film for introducing a pre-teen me to a world away from what your usual eight year old may be listening to. I wouldn’t know it at the time of course, but when you start off your musical journey, or pilgrimage if you will, with the likes of John Lee Hooker, Ray Charles and James Brown, then you’re pretty much rooted for any genre of music that will follow.

The gospel-influenced blues and soul ingrained in me from an early age lead to an appreciation of roots blues. The type of music that Alan Lomax would document on his travels – Lomax was famed for the first field recordings of legends such as Leadbelly, Muddy Waters and Fred McDowell amongst others; frequently spiritual songs, recorded in their rawest form.

“Often, the passion emitted from a spiritual song leaves you speechless”

It’s often the passion emitted from a spiritual song that leaves you speechless, believer or not. When you take the power of a voice such as Marlena Shaw and mold it with lyrics that obviously strike a chord, how could the final results not bowl you over?

Since the peak of soul in the 70′s, you tend not to find mainstream pop songs that quite manage to evoke the same emotion, hence the earlier mention of bland Christian rock, or worse, Alexandra Burke’s deadening version of Halleluja – both entirely lacking the requisite ‘soul’ to affect. Instead, it’s left to the artists that grew up listening to these songs to carry the torch.

Take The Vaselines ‘Jesus Wants Me For A Sunbeam’.  Famed for the Nirvana cover on their Unplugged album – Kurt Cobain actually introduced the song with: “A rendition of an old Christian song I think.  But we do it The Vaselines way.” Was Kurt toying with the audience or did he not know it was an original Vaselines song, albeit a parody of children’s hymn, I’ll Be a Sunbeam?

Another band famed for their stirring sound are Spiritualized. Jason Pierce has never shied away from gospel hues, apparent even back in the Spaceman 3 days. They’re a band that have embraced its power, touring with gospel singers and naming an album Amazing Grace. Even with their new single Hey Jane, a song with no religious theme, it retains a sense of the crusading spirit.

Music wouldn’t be music without cryptic lyrics. From the Modest Mouse song Jesus Christ Was an Only Child, here covered by Mark Kozalek’s Sun Kil Moon project. Though unable to say that I’m entirely sure of the song’s meaning, one could hazard a guess in the direction of the over-commercialism of religion.

We’ve also got a cover of Neutral Milk Hotel’s King of Carrot Flowers pt2 and 3, from The Broken Family Band.  A song in which we scream “I Love You Jesus Christ”; but who is the Jesus Christ we are expressing our love for?  Jeff Mangum, as with many rock and pop stars, leads the faithful in a mass sing-along creating a surreal but joyous atmosphere. Is it too much to suggest that the Jesus of the song will be projected back onto Mangum?

We close out our playlist with George Harrison’s ode to his own religion. There’s no doubting Harrison’s devotion to ‘my sweet lord’, in this case, not the Jesus of the previous songs, but Krishna. Harrison also takes the opportunity to call for the end of religious sectarianism, blending Christian Hallelujahs with those Hare Krishna chants. Not a bad shout that, George.

Marc Hall

Posted on 08/04/2012 by thedoublenegative