The Arts Section

I have a friend, Lori, who is a singer and a songwriter, among many other things. She recorded a CD this spring. Just after the CD was released, Lori was over for coffee and asked if I’d write a review of it. I can never say No directly to anyone, and certainly not Lori, so I said, “Yes, of course Lori, I would love to write a review of this CD, though I’ve never written a music review in my life and have no idea how to write one and, because we’re close friends, it really can’t be an objective assessment of the CD – so any review I would write, if I even could write one, would be virtually useless and no one anywhere would ever publish it.”

That’s what I said. What she heard was “Yes, of course Lori, I’d love to.”

And so I did. It hasn’t been published anywhere. This is why writers start blogs.

Let me reiterate, I can’t do a real review of this CD.  First, I’m not a musician or a music critic. If this were a review, it would be my first. And perhaps my last. Second, as noted, Lori is a friend. A good friend. I’m not sure good friends should write CD reviews for good friends. However, I’m a reasonably honest guy, if not objective, and I am  fairly musical, though no expert. So, I wrote a piece here about my friend’s CD and what I think about it. This may surprise you, but I liked it quite a bit.

Here it goes.

God grant me the Serenity

To accept the things I cannot change

Courage to change the things I can

and Wisdom to know the difference…

Even those not currently engaged in a twelve-step program are familiar with the Serenity Prayer. It is everywhere. On fridge magnets, coffee cups, medallions, greeting cards, posters. It is usually printed in heavenly cursive script and surrounded by some really awesome natural beauty – a sunset, a mountain, a large cloud. It often looks like one of those corporate “motivational” posters you see hanging on office walls and cubical dividers, encouraging personal growth through the pursuit of the goals of the employer’s strategic plan: Perseverance, Courage, Teamwork, Success, Achievement, Unpaid Overtime, Whatever.

But the Serenity Prayer, on its own, is inspirational and, unlike the motivational posters, it is not bullshit. It is cleverly expressed, poetic and economical. For recovering alcoholics and addicts and those who love them, it holds a central, hopeful place. The Prayer identifies the vexing dichotomy – the division of all the troubles in our lives into “the things I cannot change,” and “the things I can”. All we need is the secret of sorting one from the other and we’re away. Okay, not all simple truths are easy.

Of course, in our maniacally self-helpful society – emphatically displayed on the covers of magazines at the grocery checkout – we overload the “things I can” side of the ledger. Don’t be accepting things as they are. No way. That’s so powerless and pitiful. Accept being a loser? Are you kidding? You can change anything; and you should start by losing a few pounds, Lardass. In our new hypercompetent, have-it-all, control-freakish world, we have a necessary addendum to the Prayer: “But, God, I mean, really, just grant me the POWER to change anything and everything that needs changing.” That, of course, is a recipe for failure and frustration – and much worse. Alcoholism can’t be  defeated. Addictions can’t be controlled. That’s why we call them addictions. And you can’t change – can’t cure – your alcoholic or addicted loved one. The “recovery movement” is very big on the somewhat surprising notion that you change your life by finally accepting those things that you can’t change – by recognizing the limits of your power. The Serenity Prayer makes that point with simple elegance.

Recognizing and accepting the limits to our power – indeed our powerlessness – is the first step, the essential step. The end of denial and beginning of honesty. Acceptance of powerlessness is, paradoxically, empowering. Liberating. When you “get it” there’s a tremendous sense of discovery and a hope of recovery. Great news. We should be singing and dancing. Right?

Well, no. The SP is usually monotoned lifelessly, the flat mantra that concludes meetings. Despite it’s central place, it is rotely recited like an ecumenical Lord’s Prayer. And, it doesn’t get sung very much. You Tube has some samples. It’s like going to a church supply store. The renditions are dull, maudlin, pious. It’s either styled like an old time country gospel twang or it is laid on heavily, new-age and synthesizer-infused. In either case, it is accompanied by the ubiquitous sunset on the mountain, suitable for reproduction on a coffee mug. What is it about this Prayer that makes us so tacky?[editor’s note: I thought this was a CD review?]

Into this solemn syrup steps the gravelroadsongstress – Lori Erhardt – a prairie preacher from soggy south east Saskatchewan. The Reverend and her band, “Homemade Jam” treat this Prayer like the celebration of liberation that it is, or ought to be. In her newly-released CD “Opening Time!”, Lori gives us what sounds like a Jewish hora, starting slow, picking up speed and intensity with each repetition of the prayer, over and over and faster and faster until she and the band collapse laughing. Finally, a Serenity Prayer with some guts. “God grant me the guts,” – the unspoken premise of the whole thing.

The Serenity Prayer isn’t even my favourite song on the album, though it is the most ear-wormish.  “Beyond Oblivion” describes the pain of standing by and watching while someone spirals into addiction: “It hurts me to know you …”. It is a rich piece, musically and lyrically, and shows remarkable depth and intelligence [for those of us deep and intelligent enough to notice] Unike so many laments about self destruction, this piece doesn’t offer resolution or hope because, in fact, there may be none. Nor is this just a hurtin’ song. As a loving bystander, you let go, care for yourself. You maintain that love and connection but try hard not to get drawn into the spiral. You’ll be there when the loved one pulls out. Yes, it is just that easy. Easy to say. In fact, it is the most wrenching, difficult thing imaginable, and something millions of people touched by addicts struggle with every day. It’s a world of no easy choices, where doing the right thing just seems wrong. Lori gets it and delivers it with grace and beauty.

That’s it for the dark world of addictions and recovery on this album. The rest is upbeat, joyous, spirited and spiritual. Especially worth a listen is “As if We knew How”, a song that shows off two other voices of Homemade Jam: Leora Joy Godden, Lori’s daughter, a professional musician and actor in her own right; and David Morton, who plays guitars, piano and bass on the album. Both have vocal solos in this piece. If you can sing like this; you must sing. All the time.

Ross Nykiforuk, along with David, was the technical soul behind the project and also adds some keyboards and saxophone. Glenn Enns, the drummer, and the other half of glennross studios in Saskatoon, rounds out the group.

Lori wrote the music for all the songs on the album and the words for all but three songs. On those three, she worked with her frequent collaborator, John Wesley Oldham. John is a former minister, a long time obsessive wordplayer, hymn-writer and full time thinker and tinkerer. His lyrics, like everything he writes, emerge from deep within his theology, yet remain fresh and playful. You feel like a participant in the meaning of his message. He draws out of you as much as you draw out of the words.

This music is difficult to categorize. Lori gravelroadsongstress does actually live down a gravel road. When she sings “the weather’s bad, the crops are sad and we are feelin’ like hell”, it comes from personal experience. She’s partnered with a farmer. She is rural. She’s also dramatic and effusive and affectionate and passionate and fun. And the music is all of those things. So, that’s how I’d categorize it, which is why you may not see this CD at HMV, because they don’t have a Rural Dramatic Effusive Affectionate Passionate and Fun Section – something you might raise with them.

Lori completed work on and recorded these songs on “Opening Time!” while on a nine month leave of absence she fondly named her “singing sabbatical”. It was time well spent.

That’s it. That’s my effort at a CD review. If I had a day job, I wouldn’t be quitting it.

 

Postscript

Lori tells me there are a number of ways to get this album. It is available on iTunes. You can get it at Sunset United Church in Regina, and all the money goes to the M&S fund. Or cdbaby.com, Bach and Beyond in Regina, McNally Robinson in Saskatoon, Coffee Comfort in Estevan, Calling Lakes Centre near Fort Qu-Appelle, or St. Andrew’s College on the University of Saskatchewan Campus. Proceeds go to a variety of causes, other than the one mentioned, though Lori has told me that some of the money has to go to pay the cost of recording the CD, which seems reasonable, I guess.