Snug Harbor Records (label)
06 November 2020 (released)
19 November 2020
The average music fan (who isn't a staunch historian) will quickly acknowledge the direct influence blues and jazz had on the evolution of 20th and 21st-century music. Oft overlooked is the impact of gospel music on the generations to come. The Stones and Dylan have both gleaned a tremendous amount from the music of praise and Elvis would not have had the same command over the masses had he not a preacher's soul speaking through him. The country gospel singing group may not be high on many millennials list of genres to explore but the pristine church-filling harmonies have certainly played a huge part in the success of Americana indie bands like the Lumineers, Trampled by Turtles, Mumford & Sons, and Old Crow Medicine Show. Perhaps these classic praise albums are worth a revisit to trace back our roots and appreciate the gorgeous nature of their creation.
Rock/soul group Idiot Grins did just that with Thoughts and Prayers, a song for song reimagining of The Louvin Brothers classic, Satan is Real. The Oakland band may not have a lot in common with the Louvin Brothers' beliefs socially or politically, nevertheless, they can appreciate the contribution they made to music and perhaps for a moment, empathize with these God-fearing men who simply wanted to live a righteous life for fear of perpetual damnation. The idea was conceived following a trip to the Country Music Hall of Fame in 2017 and a purchase of the album in question on vinyl. What started as an idea for a fun, one-off cover became a passion project for the next three years. Trying in vain to attain the vocal perfection of this gorgeously recorded country gospel classic.
A deep south diner on a dusty highway is the scene instantly set by the title track to the Louvin Brothers original record Satan is Real. The lazy waltz of an acoustic guitar is flanked by a chiming, bright telecaster. The vocalists give you fair warning in their quaint, polite way that the Devil is always present and you must always stay on guard. The ensemble singing of the chorus gives way to a frank spoken word passage with only the holy glow of a church organ to back it. Idiot Grins play it very straight to the original material, following the earnestly-told cautionary sermon.
'There's a Higher Power' leans into bluegrass territory with its bouncy cadence and call and response vocal circle. It's a style copped heavily by Old Crow Medicine Show and their ilk. A plucky electric guitar lends a sheen to the toe-tapper. The Idiot Grins gang do an admirable job of matching up their harmonies to the original. The original does have a more blanketing reverb to wrap every voice in a cloud. There's also a “smallness” to the original that is damn near impossible to recreate if you're using any kind of new technology. We've designed it now so everything is bigger and broader but there is something about a recording from 1959 that is unique because it is small.
The harmonies continue to impress on 'The Christian Life' with the backups pulling off ascending runs behind the steady main vocal. 'The Kneeling Drunkard's Plea' is the first in a pair of tracks about the curse of inebriation. The organ again assembles the congregation to tell the story of a man praying to God to free him from the claws of alcohol. Further down the album 'The Drunkard's Doom' tells of the wretched bar scene from the worried, terrified perspective of a Christian desperately trying to stay pure. He manages to ditch the booze but the song takes a much darker tone when the man gets home to find his wife overcome with grief over the death of their infant. Yikes.
'Are You Afraid to Die?' is a disturbingly jaunty tune about an existential fear of death and the almost delight the Christian finds in it. A mandolin further brightens up the Idiot Grins interpretation. That mandolin shows up again in the final track 'I'm Ready to Go Home'. The ride off into the sunset track yearns for a meeting with the maker. Idiot Grins pour extra emotion into this closing tune.
Idiot Grins deliver a faithful rendition of this classic gospel record. A reminder to younger generations of the influence that the great gospel albums have had on popular music. The harmonies and structure are part of the skeleton of modern songs. It's particularly interesting to listen to the albums from a secular perspective. Setting aside the incredulity of religious zealots and their seemingly inevitable bigotry and judgement of others, when you imagine believing what they believe by inhabiting this album for 31 minutes, you can at least find a sliver of honest desire for a good life on their part amidst all the crazy malarky.