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A Riff and a Prayer

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Low

Things We Lost in the Fire

(Kranky)

Pedro the Lion

Winners Never Quit

(Jade Tree)

By Anders Smith-Lindall

Last month at the American Music Awards--the one-fan-one-vote answer to the Grammys--the Christian hard-rock trio Creed beat out Britney Spears and the Backstreet Boys to take home the Best Album prize and Limp Bizkit and the Red Hot Chili Peppers to win Favorite Alternative Artist. The surprising part is not that Creed are both Christian and popular--it's that they've been able to convert the religious content of their music into a selling point, or more precisely into sales of more than nine million copies of Human Clay.

The intersection of rock and religion is still a dangerous crossing--and the Chicago scene in particular has witnessed at least one nasty wreck there. As recounted last year in a Reader cover story by J.R. Jones, the local pop-punk band the Smoking Popes met its demise when front man Josh Caterer was born again. Caterer and his bandmates had started out worshiping Fugazi--whose DIY ethics inspire a quasi-religious zeal in their followers--then signed to a major label. As the Popes struggled to live up to their hype, Caterer struggled with booze, pot, and panic attacks, and eventually turned to Christianity. Soon after, he came to the conclusion that he couldn't glorify God and himself at the same time.

Nonetheless, the crossroads is busier than ever these days. A growing number of acts with Christian members and messages--among them Sunny Day Real Estate, Damien Jurado, and the Danielson Famile--are gaining larger audiences and learning to cope with the contradictions. On February 9, a bill at Metro pairs two of the most successful such acts, Seattle's Pedro the Lion and the Minnesota trio Low.

Pedro the Lion is the brainchild of David Bazan, a pastor's son reared in the Assemblies of God church--the Pentecostal denomination best known in this cultural moment as the spiritual home of John Ashcroft. Bazan plays guitar, writes articulate and effortlessly melodic pop songs, and sings them, accompanied on each of two full-length albums and three EPs by a changing cast of musicians. Low has undergone just one lineup change in its history, adding bassist Zak Sally six years ago to the core of drummer Mimi Parker and guitarist Alan Sparhawk. Sally isn't religious, but Sparhawk was raised as a Mormon in rural northern Minnesota, and Parker converted about ten years ago, before the high school sweethearts were married.

Parker and Sparhawk have found it possible to preserve the practices of their faith--no alcohol, no cigarettes, no caffeine, no cursing, no shows on Sundays--while presenting their work almost exclusively in smoky rooms full of drinkers. But from the beginning, Bazan has toured the church circuit, performed at various religious events, and--although he's pointedly chosen not to distribute or advertise his albums through contemporary Christian music channels--been covered by the Christian music press. He gained secular fans as Pedro the Lion toured rock venues with the likes of Jets to Brazil (whom Pedro would ultimately follow to Jade Tree Records) and Jurado (who once led a band in which Bazan played drums).

If the message board on the most comprehensive Pedro fan site, members.dencity.com/pedrothelion, is any indication, the band's Christian and secular fans coexist peacefully. The faithful are obviously inspired but low-key about it ("God has used that song greatly in my life," one fan wrote; "That's cool," another replied). When a secular fan posted a message with the subject line "Is Bazan a Christian?" the first response was simply "Yes." Another fan chimed in: "I'm not going to say any more about it, I'd rather you read the interviews."

There was, however, a flurry of discussion recently in response to the posting of one such interview, in which Bazan used the term "half-ass."

"I just want to know why does David cuss in his interview?" wrote xEMO HAIRx. "'Can both fresh water and salt water flow from the same stream?' James 3:11."

"What did you want him to say...half-butt?" responded burnmeinthestars.

The greatest resistance to Pedro the Lion's religious foundation has come from other indie rockers. Cadallaca--a bobby-soxish side project of Sleater-Kinney's Corin Tucker--once canceled several shows with Pedro the Lion because they thought Bazan was affiliated with the anti-abortion advocacy group Rock for Life. Though he generally keeps his political views to himself, Bazan dropped broad hints in the wake of the incident that he is in fact pro-choice. He's also repeatedly dismissed the rumor that Pedro the Lion is so named because it's abbreviated the same as "Praise the Lord." The name comes from a character in a fable Bazan wrote and once planned to include in the liner notes of the first album, It's Hard to Find a Friend.

Josh Caterer's former bandmates have suggested that his newfound devotion to Jesus is merely a replacement for other addictive behavior. Both Bazan and Sparhawk returned to religion after a period of personal turmoil, and Bazan has written about such situations evocatively and at length. The 1996 EP Whole catalogs the physical and psychological damage that results when a seeker shoots smack into a God-shaped hole. "The chances are slight / That I won't shoot up tonight," he sings in "Almost There," "But the sensation that's waiting beneath / Is a kick in the teeth." By the end of the disc the narrator still hasn't found what he's looking for: "You know I want to be like Jesus / But it seems so very far away."

Bazan once tried to imbue every song with a divine message, while Sparhawk has said he used to edit most explicitly religious references out of his lyrics. In retrospect it's clear on early Low albums that Sparhawk was trying to write about his spirituality--he does a lot of oblique yearning for "finding answers" and makes scattered allusions to evil and angels--but his narratives were cramped by a forced minimalism of verse. More recently, as their skills have matured and their confidence has grown, both songwriters have abandoned preconceived agendas in favor of freer, more personal expression. As a result, Bazan's songs have become less preachy and Sparhawk's more direct.

On the sublime 1999 album, Secret Name, Low finally realized the rich potential of their signature "slow-core" sound, assuredly incorporating the strings, keyboards, and more complex rhythms they'd dallied with before. Sparhawk's narrative voice blossomed too, and for the first time he didn't hold back his faithful fervor, deftly weaving scripture into "Lion/Lamb" and crafting a fluid ode to failed Mormon settlers in "Missouri." But even those tracks and Parker's delicate spiritual "Weight of Water" ("Take a cupful from your hand / Wait for 40 days / Make a river through the sand / Till you're called by a secret name") seem coy compared to the follow-up, Christmas. That EP paired three covers (including an echo-chamber take on "Little Drummer Boy" used by the Gap in a TV spot last December) with five holiday originals as nakedly reverent, deeply felt, and plainly beguiling as Linus's biblical soliloquy in A Charlie Brown Christmas.

Low's just-released Things We Lost in the Fire, their fifth full-length and second on Chicago's Kranky label, is no great aesthetic departure: the tempos are as hurried as an ice floe, harmonies as gauzy as harbor fog. It doesn't match the sustained intensity of Secret Name or the sheer melodic bliss of tracks like "Immune," "Soon," and "Starfire," though Sparhawk's "Sunflower" and Parker's "Closer" are perfectly executed showcases of the band's strengths. Elsewhere Low seems to be feeling its way through territory they haven't quite mastered, from the fingerpicked ballad "Kind of Girl" to the power-chord-driven single "Dinosaur Act." Thematically, where Secret Name explored the connections between romantic and spiritual fulfillment and Christmas openly celebrated the same, Things We Lost is the parenthood album--Parker and Sparhawk had a daughter last year. "Partly hate to see you grow," Parker sings in the closing track, "And just like your baby shoes / Wish I could keep your little body / In metal."

The most recent Pedro the Lion album, last year's Winners Never Quit, is an eight-part song cycle about sibling rivalry, personal ruthlessness, and political corruption. Blinded by ambition, a candidate betrays his alcoholic brother to police, buys votes when he's lagging in the polls, kills his wife to keep her quiet, and--still without remorse--commits suicide. Though the album was written and recorded long before last fall's bitter campaign and the standoff that followed, it's easy to see glimpses of those candidates in the characters here. When the networks gave Florida to Gore on election night, Bush sneered; if he were half as eloquent as Bazan he would have stared into the cameras and said: "The crisis posed a question just beneath my skin / The virtue in my veins replied that quitters never win." And what's the couplet "Strange that it should end this way / But martyrs never have a say" if not Al Gore's epitaph?

But it was the album's ambiguous perspective on religion, not its blatant cynicism about politics, that riled Pedro's fans. The candidate finds biblical justification for even his most bloodthirsty actions; then, at his funeral, the surviving brother surveys the grieving family. "All the while, the good Lord smiled," he says, "and looked the other way." Many fans mistook Bazan's layered commentary on the consequences of unchecked power and blind faith for a condemnation of Christianity. A backlash followed, manifested mostly online. The band kept an electronic journal while touring the U.S. last spring; in a post dated April 7 they sarcastically encouraged readers to contribute to the "now riotous Jade Tree Message Board. Look under headings such as: 'Pedro the Lion Suck My Fat Ass.'"

As powerful as his Christian-themed work can be, though, some of Bazan's best and most affecting songs have little or nothing to do with religion--like his single from last summer "June 18, 1976," an anguished recounting of a suicide whose chorus ("Speeding toward the ground / Through the air without a sound") explodes in melodic catharsis. Like all the great anthems of angst--Low's "Immune," Nirvana's "Smells Like Teen Spirit," the Replacements' "Unsatisfied"--it captures the loneliness of the existential search, the doubt that discomfits Pedro's Christian fans, and the desperation obliterated by Creed's bombast.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Daniel Corrigan.

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