One year ago, on this date and at this time, TLB was born! So raise a glass of your favorite wine or champagne and toast to your favorite listening blog!

As you can see, I finished the redesign just in time. All your favorite features are still here–subscriptions via RSS and email, the Amazon widget (although it looks a little funny right now), post tag categories–but it’s packaged in a brand-new look (and the Twitter widget is much fancier now). I’m loving the new digs at WordPress as well. I’ll be making some tweaks here and there, but for the most part, this is how TLB will look from now on. Leave a comment and let me know what you think!

And now, for the big announcement I promised two and a half weeks ago! Drum roll please….

I’m going to be recording a new pop music album!

That’s right folks, for the first time since the release of Following A Star in 2005, I will be writing and recording a new CD. I have a collection of new songs, and a few old songs I want to rerecord, that have been sitting around for a long time; and now that I have new (and much better) recording technology and a renewed passion, I’m gonna do it. I’ll be writing some new songs for it as well, and my goal is to release it by the end of this year.

And that’s not all! You, my loyal readers and fans, can play a part in the making of this album. And here’s how: The CD will be entitled Songs From My Shelf, so-called because every song on the CD will contain at least one literary allusion–to a novel, a poem, etc. And as I mentioned above, it’s going to have at least a few rerecordings of old songs on it. So here’s how you can participate: Vote for your favorite previously-recorded song from the list below. The song or two with the most votes will get a brand-new recording and will make it onto the album!

And even that’s not all! The first five people who can correctly identify at least one literary allusion in each of the songs below will receive a free copy of Songs From My Shelf along with an exclusive bonus song.

So let’s recap:

  1. I’m making a new album!
  2. You can participate by voting for your favorite song to get a new recording and a place on the new album!
  3. If you correctly identify at least one literary allusion in each of the songs below, you’ll get a free copy of the CD with a bonus song!

If you need a refresher on the music or lyrics for the songs, click on the title to be taken to the song’s page on my website. Then click the link after the list to be taken to the voting page!

“All I Need”

“The Aisle”

“Beren’s Song”

“Too Far”

“Watchin’ From A Distance”

And now that you’ve refreshed your memory, click to vote here!

Thanks for your interest and support! I’m really excited about making this new record, and I can’t wait for you to hear it. Stay tuned to your favorite listening blog–further news will be forthcoming!

EDIT (5/27): All the old Blogger posts have now been imported, complete with their labels/tags/categories! Some of the links may not work anymore (since the URL path for links to other posts is different now), and it looks like embedded videos show up simply as links; but all the content is there now. Rock on!

EDIT (later on 5/27): I’ve reconfigured the RSS feed link in the sidebar. If you’ve previously subscribed to the RSS feed, you might need to subscribe again since the address has changed, and the past TLB RSS feed no longer works. Sorry for any inconvenience!


TLB Downtime

Posted by AJ Harbison at 9:07 pm

Hi folks,
Another quick update–I’m going to be changing my web host for TLB, and I’m initiating the domain transfer today. There may be several days of downtime while the transfer takes place, so you’ll see a parking page if you visit TLB during that time–but have no fear, we’ll be back up and running in a few days, hopefully with a new look!

Catch all y’all on the flip side!


Quick Update

Posted by AJ Harbison at 11:29 pm

I’m sorry I haven’t posted in a while–I’ve been busy working on the site’s redesign and host switch. It’s turning out to be a lot more complicated than I thought it was going to be, and so consequently the redesign might be delayed until after May 26th. But have no fear–redesign or not, the Big Announcement will still be made that day. So stay tuned!


Agnus Dei, AJ Harbison

Posted by AJ Harbison at 7:10 pm

At my church, every Sunday morning we follow a set liturgy or order of service–the prayers, songs and Scripture readings change, but the structure of the service is always the same. Early in the service, there’s a time of confession where the congregation reads a prayer aloud, and then prays in silence for 45 seconds. Following this we sing the “Agnus Dei,” a traditional liturgical text originally used in the Catholic Mass: “Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world, have mercy on us / Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world, have mercy on us / Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world, grant us peace.” The Agnus Dei that we sing every week was composed by a member of the church, David Hlebo, who is a composer and musician who plays sax and flute on the church’s worship team. The Agnus Dei that he wrote is amazing. It’s very simple, and probably most lay people would think it adequate but unremarkable; but from a compositional standpoint, it comes close to technical perfection, and it works really well at the point in the service when it’s used.

After becoming a member of the church myself, I thought it would be fun to try to compose another Agnus Dei that could alternate with Hlebo’s version. (I suggested this to the pastor, and he was all for the idea, since he said “We’ve sung the same song every week for the past seven years”). It took me a long time to come up with a good idea, because Hlebo’s version was so ingrained in my head and so good–most of my early thoughts were far too similar to his. But eventually I came up with a melody and chord progression I was happy with.

My Agnus Dei is in 6/8 time, in C minor. Since the piece is for congregational singing, I wanted it to be a simple, almost folk-like melody that would be easy to catch onto quickly; and since it’s intended for use in the confessional part of the service, I wanted it to be solemn and reverent without being too slow or boring. I wrote along with the melody a suggested piano accompaniment; it’s not too exciting, but it has some cool moments and it helps to give the piece some movement and energy. At the moment I don’t have the ability to record the piano part, but in the future I will, and I’ll let you know when that happens. In the meantime, you can head over to the Agnus Dei page on my website to listen to a scratch recording with guitar. Leave a comment here and let me know what you think!


Red Balloon, Sandra McCracken

Posted by AJ Harbison at 9:11 pm

This past week and a half or so, I’ve been listening again to an album by Sandra McCracken, Derek Webb’s wife. Her latest, entitled Red Balloon, is my favorite of her seven albums, and the best in my opinion (which I recently relayed to her, although sadly I didn’t get a response).

In order to make some of the comments I’d like to make about this CD, I have to go back a bit and mention a few things about her last few albums. (If you’d like to follow along you can see her discography here.) She’s always had a folk/acoustic/singer-songwriter sound, with some country flavoring, and apart from her third release (Best Laid Plans) her music has always fallen on the underproduced side, opting for real-life simplicity and grit instead of slick production. However, following Derek Webb who used the technique beginning with his album Mockingbird in 2005, on her next few albums (The Builder and the Architect and Gravity | Love, as well as Ampersand EP with Webb) she adopted what I tend to think of as a “tired” sound. Most of the instruments and vocals on those albums were recorded in her home as opposed to a studio, and so have a very unproduced, almost grainy sound to them. (This sound, though, is intentional, it’s not due to a lack of quality recording or production.) The songs were generally slow or mid tempo, without too much energy or quick movement. The main aspect of the “tired” sound, though, was a technique of recording the main vocal track twice, that is, singing and recording it once, and then singing and recording it a second time without changing the first one. The slight differences in intonation, different timings for final consonants (e.g. the “t” sound at the end of a word being heard twice, one a little after the other), and lack of polishing on the vocal production leads to a sound that is very original (in my experience). It’s almost like an in-tune, good-song version of the Juno sound”, in a way. But it’s still not a sound that I particularly enjoy, or at least it’s not one that I could listen to all the time.

Which is why I love Red Balloon, which was released last September and produced by McCracken, Webb, and often-collaborator Cason Cooley (whom I recently wrote about on TLB). It keeps the best aspects of the “tired” sound–the house-recorded feel, the cool drum sounds, some effective use of the vocal doubling–without the tiresome aspects, like the lack of variation in tempo, the lack of energy and too much use of the doubling. Guitar and piano (both of which Sandra plays) freely trade primary importance, and the drums and percussion sound really good and have some really cool grooves (listen, for example, to the sweet percussion on the sixth track, “On The Outside,” and the drums on “Halfway,” track seven).

I also enjoy the lyrics quite a bit. Red Balloon was her first solo studio album released after the birth of her first child, and most of the record is about the emotions and experiences that that brought with it. (I especially love the opening lyrics to the second song, “Storehouse”: “The first uninterrupted sleep since July / The first waves of wisdom swing like a wrecking ball / A child takes the throne / Displacing us all / In good time, just in time…”). McCracken is not as brilliant a lyricist as Webb, but she’s got skills and the lyrics on this album are particularly emotional and evocative.

I only have two problems with this album. The first is that her promotional email touted it as including “ten previously unreleased songs.” Technically that’s true, but the last song, “The High Countries,” was previously released by Caedmon’s Call on their album Back Home, and so I didn’t get the ten brand-new songs that I was hoping for. Even though it’s a different recording, calling it a “previously unreleased song” is a bit of a stretch. And that’s really the only song I’m not a big fan of on Red Balloon–I think the Caedmon’s version is better. The other problem I had was that it came “in a special two-disk package.” The entire album consists of ten songs, of normal song length (between three and five minutes); but it arrived as two CDs, labeled “Side A” and “Side B,” each containing five songs. Kind of a cool idea in theory, and listening to the songs there’s definitely a coherent feel to each of the halves by themselves; but practically, that’s just annoying. The first thing I did when I got the album was to burn all the songs onto a single CD.

But those are my only beefs. This is a great album and I’ve listened to it a lot without growing tired of it. The songwriting is great (especially when you know the back story about her son being born), the sound is original, and it’s inspiring to those of us who are aspiring independent songwriters ourselves.

You can find Red Balloon on iTunes and Amazon, as well as at the Sandra McCracken Official Online Shop. If you’d like a test drive first, you can hear four tracks from the album (“Guardian,” “Lock and Key,” “On the Outside” and “Big Blue Sky”) on Sandra McCracken’s Myspace page. You can see video of Sandra and Derek performing “Halfway” and “Lose You” at a recent house show by clicking on the links; and on that same page you can read Sandra’s account of the recording of the album.


Christmas In May

Posted by AJ Harbison at 9:54 pm

I had a dream as I was lying in bed this morning that it was the Christmas season; and in my dream it was the first day that they started playing Christmas music 24/7 in stores, restaurants, etc. I like Christmas music a lot. There are a great deal of good Christmas songs, both sacred and secular, and while there are innumerable bad versions of them, there are also many creative and excellent ones. And I love the feel of Christmas that holiday music injects into the atmosphere. One of the sure signs Christmas was coming when I was growing up was when my mother would start to cycle through her Christmas CDs on the living room stereo (including an amazing CD by Robert Shaw, which I don’t seem to remember well enough to be able to find on the internet); we didn’t often have music playing in the house, but Christmas music was a sine qua non of the holiday season for me.

All of that as a brief aside to say: I’ve decided to enter the Welcome Christmas Carol Contest this year. It’s an annual composition contest, sponsored by the American Composers Forum of which I am a member, that asks composers to write new carols using a different given instrumentation each year; this year it’s for mixed chorus and viola. The text can be “sacred or secular, medieval to present, appropriate for concert setting,” and I decided to ask my brother to write a new Christmas text because I think he’d be good at that sort of thing, and he accepted.

Should be a lot of fun! I’ll keep you posted as we make progress on our new Christmas carol.

P.S. TLB is nearing its first birthday! I can hardly believe it’s been that long already. And as we near May 26th, there are some changes in the works. I’m contemplating a redesign of the site to make it look a little more professional, and also a move from Blogger to WordPress (thanks to Mike’s persistent suggestions). I’m also planning to make a big announcement here on May 26th–so stay tuned!