Sorry I’ve been AWOL here in the Rabbit Room for awhile – When I haven’t been hunkered down writing for a new record, I’ve been cloistered away from the world to spend time with my family. But what is it that could call me out of my hiding? A new Jill Phillips record.
One of the perks of being an artist is that I get to keep company with other artists and often find myself graced by friendships with people who I’ve long admired. Such is the case with Andy Gullahorn and Jill Phillips (Gullahorn). I was a fan long before I was a friend, and though I’ve spent a fair amount of time with them and shared meals at their dinner table, there are still times where I revert to a geeky fanboy and can’t believe my good fortune to have fallen into such great company. “Don’t be a spaz, don’t be a spaz,” becomes my mantra in these moments.
So you can imagine my delight when Andy & Jill gave me a copy of Jill’s new record, The Good Things, two and a half months before it’s release date. I was like a kid in a candy shop, as the equivalent of salivary glands in my ears began to tingle. So I guess you could say that when Andy handed me the disc, my ears began to water in anticipation of the delectable sounds they would soon be treated to (please accept my apologies for that ridiculous word picture). At any rate, The Good Things has been in regular rotation ever since.
I was a fan of Jill’s for years and her album Writing On The Wall is one of my favorite records of all time. Nobody’s Got it All Together didn’t disappoint either, but as I started to anticipate the next record, I secretly hoped to hear Jill break some new ground musically and lyrically, which is what I think she’s done on The Good Things. This is unmistakably a Jill Phillips record, but there is a sense of adventure, of something being risked. It’s not the kind of showy, in-your-face bombastic experimentation, but rather the risks she takes here are more subtle, nuanced, and intimate as she reaches for new levels of self-disclosure.
The Good Things is an adventure of the heart, and the new production value supports this. It’s still very organic and acoustic like her past efforts, but producer Cason Cooley (Derek Webb) brings his signature vibe that adds a depth and ambiance to these tracks. Cooley is a fan of Daniel Lanois (Producer for U2, Peter Gabriel, Bob Dylan, etc.) and even worked under Lanois’s right hand man Malcolm Burns when Burns produced a record for Cooley’s former band The Normals. I think he brings a similar production sensibility to Jill’s record here and the songs benefit from Cooley’s musicality – especially the opener “Your Usual Response” – drenched with the kind of ethereal vibe that feels like a warm sonic bath.
As a side note, and this is subjective so it may not be the case at all, but for me, I felt a lot of these tracks were defined by the drum tone and the personality of the snare. I geek out over sounds and I love the way the drums sound on this record – they feel organic, fat, and vibey and as soon as they would come in they cued me about what this song would be about musically. But I obsess over these kinds of things, so I’ll step out of geek mode now and get back to the heart of the matter.
Because really, the heart is the matter for this record. There’s a lot I could say about each song, but I’ll focus on three that to my mind represent what I love most about this record. Many of these songs are deeply personal and explore the tension between remaining open hearted versus shutting your heart down to protect yourself from shame (“Your Usual Response”), relational hurt (“Any Other Way”), or the biggest heart killer of all – disappointment with God (“Resurrection”).
“Your Usual Response” opens the record and was my immediate favorite. Cooley’s production takes a great song and makes it even better. This is the vibiest track on the record, and I hope that it signals more to come in future Jill Phillips installments.
“Resurrection” is a declaration of faith at it’s most convincing because it is a quiet, humble hope without bravado. It is hope that looks at the worst that we see – different facets of the senselessness of death and suffering explored in each verse – and still proclaims:
Though it’s hard sometimes
You are the Resurrection and the Life.”
But the gem of the record for me is possibly the most personal. “Any Other Way” explores a difficult time in their marriage and the blessing that came in seeing it through. I can imagine this song being a great encouragement to other couples in the throws of relational hardship. The lyric is honest, direct, and blessedly devoid of poetic self-indulgence. We know that both Andy and Jill are exceptionally competent writers (lyrical ninjas as I like to call them), but the lyric that exemplified what I respect most about their songcraft comes from the bridge:
“When we first met, love was a feeling
Making it last, that’s a decision
A good decision”
I imagine as a writer myself that there is a part of me that would resist writing a line like this because it’s a sentiment that many of us may have heard before. I would be tempted to write something more clever or “songwriterly”. But of course it’s exactly what needs to be said, and so Andy & Jill are brave enough to say it. They demonstrate here that they are less interested in impressing me with the clever lyricism they are clearly capable of than they are with telling me the truth and helping me. To love your listener enough to speak plainly is a great virtue that is sometime overlooked in songcraft. Sometimes you just need to say the thing, and knowing when that is is one of the marks of a great writer.
The rest of the song is brilliant and very intimate, as it expresses in detail what this season of life felt like for them – talk of moving away to a different city, the feeling of having the rug pulled out from under your feet, the courage of taking the first steps back to trust, and the gratitude that comes in the end when all is said and done and you’ve found the grace to do the hard work of marriage and come out better for it on the other side.
But it’s not just the lyric that reveals an eagerness to risk a deeper sense of intimacy and self-disclosure, it is Jill’s voice, too. Any one who’s heard her sing knows she could sing the phone book and it would make you cry, but there’s something different this time around that I can only describe as a profound sense of vulnerability.
Some of these songs come to us like a whisper of Grace, and whispers always make you lean in, quietly, to listen more intently. It’s like a relaxed conversation with a trusted friend, a conversation that leaves you feeling more human, alive, and more in touch with the holiness that ties all the good things in our lives together and gives them meaning and a sense that God has taken note of us, we are not alone, He knows our name and is intimately involved in all the details that make up the story of our lives.
Jason Gray is a recording artist with Centricity Records. His latest single, out now, is "When I Say Yes".
I agree with you Jason. The drums are key here, (thanks for putting words to that for me)
Also,(here is my layman’s attempt) I usually can check off the tension and release in a song right of the bat. My soul unconsciencely looks for it. What suprized me (and it must just be me)there is this tension and release and another release. It is like jumping off a high diving board, when your used to regular diving boards. You think the water is going to hit.. right there.. and it doesn’t – your still falling.
For example: “Your Usual Response”
Right before the bridge there is a tension built up for incredible lyrics like:
” I can’t explain how weak my conviction is
How I can make up my mind but it won’t make a difference
It’s like I am allergic to solutions that would make any sense
Just a moth around a fire”
Then the chorus comes in and Jill’s voice seems to expand and rise past where I “think” it should go and that just rocks my soul:
“But You’re reaching out your arms —- of forgiveness
Its your usual response I’m afraid
After all the things I’ve done — you love me anyways”
There so many little moments of the Album I could go on and on. Great Album Jill, thanks Jason (Looking forward to your new one too :))
Can’t wait to hear the new album. Her CD “God and Money” is one of my alltime favorites (one of my desert island CD’s)
Thanks, Jason, for that observation about a writer loving the audience enough to speak plainly. What a great reminder. And thanks for this introduction to these beautiful songs. Jill is a treasure for sure.
In addition to hearing another Jill Phillips record I am also excited about hearing something else that Cason Cooley has worked on. I didn’t realize that he had produced this CD. I know he has been doing this for a long time but I didn’t start noticing his work until The Ringing Bell, Katie Herzig’s record and Ben Shive’s album. He seems like he is bringing fresh melodic depth to Square Peg records and that he is getting even better as he goes. He also seems like he is becoming the Jim O’Rourke, Nigel Godrich or Jon Brion of the Square Pegs.
Jason, I had the Incredible good luck to host a house concert here in Sugar Land for Andy G last year and in his second set we got to hear 3 of the songs that are on this new album. Hearing how the song “Only Say The Word” (one of my favorites off of The Good Things) was both touching and hilarious in the way only Andy can pull off. He talks about needing to steal these lyrics from the Catholic Liturgy and the Book of Common Prayer because with kids around who has time to be original anymore. But I guarantee that when the guitar work started and the words came drifting through the room, I’m pretty sure everyone in there had a new sense for how the Book of Common Prayers can be that beautiful and personal
He also spent some very heart-wrenching time describing the writing of “Resurrection” and the tragic stories behind them. It began with a sermon his pastor preached on Lazarus and Mary’s reaction of Lord if you had only been there things would have been different. And as he reflected on his friend Paul in the wreck, his other friends who lost their baby (a story that gave birth to Andy G’s song “How Precious Life is” which is another real heartbreaker), and Jodi the Queen of Iowa) he thought about how things would be different if Jesus were here to fix it.
Needless to say, my ears were very tingly and ready for the release of Jill’s album.
Time’s running short for me today, but I wanted to quickly note how romanced I’ve been by this CD. It’s been awhile since I’ve listened to one CD so obsessively.
The quiet earnest simplicity of “Cool” is my current favorite. It is so easy to hide behind walls of our own construction. It’s understandable, because we don’t want to get hurt. But the same walls that we think will minimize hurt, also block deeper truth and love.
I first heard “Resurrection,” during the Resurrection Letters tour. From the stage, Andy G. mentioned that he “just finished it.” There’s something thrilling about witnessing the hatching of a brand new artistic creation.
Whether by design or something else, the more personal nature of this record elevates it.
Jason, thanks for the review and for your astute observations. I’ve mentioned it privately, but I also publically wanted to let you know how much I enjoy your music reviews.
Jill, I know you’re out there (probably.) My wife and I love, really love this record. i love coming upon music that you like for reasons deeper than how it sounds. This records “sounds” amazing, but that is not even close to its finest qualities. There are songs here that will save marriages and rescue the broken from despair and the pretenders from hiding. And there are songs that will help folks understand knowing why God does what He does isn’t a prerequisite for trusting Him. In fact, knowing He has ways that are higher is a better reason to trust than if we knew the same things He knew. You’ll help some folks who need to see this. Well done.
this is a really great review of a really great cd. love to see you do more reviews!
You had me at ” the personality of the snare” !
Hope to catch up with you on Saturday. Thanks for the review. I’ve not heard much of Jill’s music, but look forward to the opportunity. The song you posted is excellent.
I feel the rabbit room love, friends. Thank you so much for your support of this record and thanks Jason for your kind review.
This is my new favorite CD. I’ve been listening to it non-stop since I got it about a month ago. Like Curt, I really like “Cool”. I think that keeping up appearances makes me weary. Eventually I have to be who I am, and let people know that person, whether they like me or not.
My favorite is “All the Good Things”. It reminds me that God is in control and working out everything for my good. And that He loves to take “bad” things and turn them into “good”. I lost my job yesterday, and ever since I’ve had this song running through my head.
“If I could see like you do with your perspective view
The fires I’m walking through would look much different
I’d see those difficult days for who they made me become
And I would count them among
All the good things You’ve done for me”
I’m looking forward to the time when I look back on this difficult day and see all the good things God has done for me through it.
Sorry to hear about your job loss. Don’t know what you’d be looking to do next, but I can share a few resources that may be helpful in your search. So, drop me an email if you are interested. Also, let us know how we can pray for you.
You are on the right track in leaning into our caring and capable Father in Heaven. He will take care of you and you can also rest assured that your brothers and sisters here and in your local church body will lift you up as well.
Thanks, Tony. God is already taking care of me in ways I would not have expected, and my family and church body have been amazing. God is good. My tendency is to be pessimistic, so being able to say that is a gift.
Cool! Thanks for the update.
I also love ” any other way”…such touching lyrics…also really warm production…like the laid back vibe to it.
I got this album a while ago and cannot recommend it highly enough. Any Other Way came at a great time for me during a challenging struggle in my relationship with my fiance, and said a lot of things i didn’t know how to say. And the whole album full of earnestness. Really good
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