By SILAS HOUSE
Although I go every chance I get, I have had a hard time finding a church that fits just right. Some Sunday mornings I elect to stay home and reflect in silence, walk a mountain, read, and/or—most often—listen to music. My friend Ashley once said that “music is a balm,” and I don’t believe I’ve ever heard it described more succinctly. Sometimes, when I feel at my most distant from God, I encounter Him once again in the notes of a song. Most often this is not in a gospel song; the Divine might be encountered as easily in the drums of the White Stripes as in a rousing chorus by Mahalia Jackson. Wherever there is beauty—rough or soft—so is the Creator. At least that’s what I think.
But rarely does an entire album make me feel that I’ve been to a perfect kind of church. Daniel Martin Moore’s latest effort, In the Cool of the Day, does just that.
Although some might categorize this new album from SubPop as a gospel album, I’d say it transcends that because true art cannot be categorized. Moore has included a handful of gospel standards but the real standouts here are Moore’s own compositions. It is hard to top the poetry of well-known hymns such as “Softly and Tenderly” (wisely presented the way we’ve heard it done in church all of our lives), “Closer Walk With Thee” and “In the Garden” (jazzy panache accomplished by the piano and drums)—all which Moore covers here, along with a couple other traditionals—but Moore manages to do that with his originals.
“O My Soul,” Moore’s meditation on spiritual freedom is sung with true grace and backed by Moore himself on a hovering organ, trembling drums, and tinkling piano while guest cellist Ben Sollee and bassist Chris Morrisey lend instrumentals that make the song take flight.
Moore’s instrumental piece “Lay Down Your Lonesome Burden” is one of the most moving songs I’ve ever heard, and that’s accomplished without a single lyric. Instead, Moore allows a piano and violin to recite an incredibly moving prayer with a melody I’ll be hearing in my head on those reflecting Sabbaths the next time I walk in the woods.
On another original composition, “Set Things Aright,” Moore is joined by Haley Bonar—a singer everyone should know—with a particularly memorable mandolin (Joel Runyon) and banjo (Yim Yames) solo and lyrics as layered and rich as the best homily you’ve ever heard.
While “Set Things Aright” is a miracle of subtle production, thanks to the keen intelligence of producers Dan Dorff and Moore, the producers also realize that a song as lyrically perfect as Jean Ritchie’s rousing environmental hymn “In the Cool of the Day” needs nothing more than his keen vocal and piano.
There’s plenty more on this concise collection, and every single track is like a prayer.
“Art sings of God and ultimately belongs to Him,” Patti Smith says in her book Just Kids. This wonderful piece of art proves that.