TS10: Back on Track

My Friends,

It has been painful not being able to share music with you here the last few weeks. Sometimes, the old technology just doesn’t seem to work with us the way we want. Thankfully, things seem to be back on track now. So, take a listen and engage!



Tomme Suab’s 2017: Honors and the TS2017

Image above is entitled “Transition” and is featured courtesy of the artist, Denise Presnell (oil on canvas).

It’s been quite a year, huh? For a lot of us, 2017 cannot end quickly enough. Over the course of the year, I’ve touched on some of the stimuli potentially driving some of our eagerness to get to January 1. However, despite all the hard, there has been good as well, not the least of which has been deeply talented and creative artists making beautiful and provocative music. With that truth in mind, I want to take a moment to reflect on some of that music, especially the artists, experiences, and recordings which impacted Tomme Suab most significantly over the course of 2017, starting with some year-end honors.

2017 Tomme Suab Artist of the Year: Sylvan Esso

From Sylvan Esso’s Facebook page

Admittedly, I am late to the Sylvan Esso bandwagon. Back in 2014, I featured a track from their self-titled debut album on one of the very first TS10 playlists. However, I just couldn’t get into their music. Can’t explain it, but it just wasn’t speaking to me then.

Things have changed over the last three years. When I learned they would be playing at the third annual Eaux Claires festival this past June, I figured I ought to give it another go. Pretty soon, that first album was in regular rotation in my personal playlist. Their defiant spirit and pulsing sound took me prisoner and I’m still sitting in that cell. My fandom was cemented when I saw them play at the festival. Standing there in the midst of a crowd of thousands, this overweight, 40-something couldn’t help but move. So much energy. So much vivacity.

Their second release from earlier this year, What Now, has grabbed ahold of me more recently , sealing the “Artist of the Year” deal. Another great record full of creativity and emotional highs and lows. All of these factors combined, there’s no musician or band who has impacted Tomme Suab more in 2017 than Sylvan Esso.

2017 Tomme Suab Song of the Year: “Who We Are” by Gungor

There are several Gungor tracks which have grabbed my heart over the years (Beautiful Things, The Beat of Her Heart, and I Am Mountain among them), but none more so than Who We Are. This one, released this last summer, hit the proverbial spot for me. The right song done in the right way at precisely the right time.

The central question in the song, which is featured in the TS2017 playlist below, is “Will those who say they follow Jesus actually live up to those words?” The song represents a timely, poignant, and perhaps even prophetic question. As one who attempts to be like Jesus as much as I can, this question could not be more pertinent. The central human being in history, the one who opposes the proud but gives grace to the humble, the embodiment of love, who calls us to love our neighbors, the strangers, the prisoners, the sick… the generally downtrodden, is the model for all who say they follow him.

And yet, here in America, we see the Evangelical church (again, among those who say they follow Jesus), playing a pivotal role in electing perhaps the most un-Jesus-like President in our history, a person who denigrates women, makes fun of people with physical disorders, and mongers fear and hatred against those who are not like him (the very downtrodden who Jesus loves and values). We, the church, have defended and made excuses for his behavior. We stand with his unbridled hubris and claim that he is more overt about Jesus than previous Presidents (thank you, Franklin Graham). We should be ashamed of ourselves. We are standing on the wrong side of history once again (just as we did during the 18th and 19th centuries when it came to slavery, just like we’ve done in our historical treatment and “Christianization” of native peoples, just like we did during the Civil Rights movement of the 20th century and on and on and on. More importantly, we are not aligning with the one we say we want to be like.

Gungor, not standing in a place of judgment or ridicule but in the midst of the Evangelical American church, calls us to question these things in Who We Are. It challenges the church to set aside it’s political allegiances and learn to love once again. It asks, “Will we be who we’ve always said we are?”, intimating the vast disparity between the love we are supposed to embody just as Jesus did and the hate and fear we support politically as well as the apathy we show toward those who Jesus treasures. For all these reasons, Who We Are grabbed a hold of my heart like no other song this year.

2017 Tomme Suab Album of the Year: J.E. Sunde’s “Now I Feel Adored”

There is no question that J.E. Sunde is a TS favorite. I am a fan of just about everything the man makes. In 2017, Sunde released Now I Feel Adored, his brilliant sophomore solo album and it did not disappoint.

His vocal prowess is on display from the very beginning as Monica Martin from PHOX joins him on I Will Smile When I Think of You and continues throughout, never more evident than in My Attempts to Grow a Beard. Sunde’s committed focus on detail and precision, as well as phenomenal craftsmanship, is pervasive and virtually palpable. But it’s his lyrical content that brings all of it together for me and makes it a beautiful package. I won’t go into great detail here as I shared my thoughts on the record earlier this year here on TS. Suffice to say, the groaning of Prism, the hope of Called By Our Names, the romance of Color Your Nails, the strained apathy of Fire on the Mountain, and the passion of Wedding Ring, along with various other themes and feels, make for a powerful record. And there was no record that spoke to me as deeply as this one.


The TS2017

The following ten songs, in one way or another, have held sway and depth of meaning for TS over the course of 2017. Below the playlist is a brief description of some of that sway and meaning.

Sylvan Esso, “Kick Jump Twist”

Please see above. Sylvan Esso makes even this old guy want to kick, jump, twist.

Gracie and Rachel, “Tiptoe”

I’ve just been getting to know Gracie and Rachel’s music this past year. While I LOVE what I have heard from them overall, Tiptoe is special for me as it served as an introduction to their music. Dramatic, intense, morose… I’ll have more to say about them soon from an TS-exclusive interview.

David Bowie, “Blackstar”

I’ve always had immense respect for David Bowie. Honestly, I think he was a genius. Having said that, I haven’t always stayed current on his releases. The album Blackstar, released in 2016, didn’t really hit my personal radar until early 2017, about a year after Bowie’s death. The titular track immediately seized my attention and simply did not let go. It is an epic (a little less than ten minutes long) and encapsulates so much of what I like about David Bowie’s music.

Gungor, “Who We Are”

Please see above.

Soundgarden, “Jesus Christ Pose”

R.I.P. to one of the greatest rock vocalists of all time, Chris Cornell. And, for what it’s worth, there something in this song which speaks to some of what’s wrong with the Evangelical church.

Solange, “F.U.B.U.”

I hate the “n” word, always have. And, full disclosure here, I don’t understand black folks calling each other by that name. I don’t get it. And, I think that’s the point of this song. Solange released A Seat at the Table on the same day as Bon Iver’s 22, A Million in September, 2016. Because of my obsession with Bon Iver’s record, I didn’t jump into Solange’s record right away. This song encapsulates well the mix of creativity and the roiling discomfort the entire album brings. And, for this guy, that roiling discomfort happened much in 2017.

Jetty Rae, “Can’t Curse the Free”

The spiritual defiance in this song resonates deeply with me. The darkness has no right over the free. Preach it, sister!

Jessie Smith – “Been in the Storm”

This song is great in and of itself. But, it also serves as a great reminder of the fun I had connecting this artist with local venues here in the Chippewa Valley and spending a little time with her and her husband. Good, good people (and AWFULLY talented).

Leon Bridges – “River”

Oh man… this song. What a beautiful song. Originally released in 2015, I had not been exposed to River until a buddy of mine pointed me in it’s direction earlier this year. There is both universal and personal truth here… there’s blood on my hands and my lips are unclean… take me to your river, I wanna go.

J.E. Sunde – “Called By Our Names”

Redemption and hope. That’s this song. Dreams of a day in which all is made right, when shalom reigns. Let it be so.

NOW, onto 2018!!

Album Releases, Artist Focus

The Ambivalence and Hope in J.E. Sunde’s Now I Feel Adored

Here’s my problem: I have a tendency to gush on and on about how much I appreciate J.E. Sunde’s music. Over the past five years, I’ve written several pieces about Sunde and his various projects. There’s a reason for that: the man is immensely gifted and he honors his musical gifts by continually honing his craft. It doesn’t hurt that he’s also a genuinely nice guy.

So, as I’ve considered what I’d like to say about Sunde’s new record, Now I Feel Adored, I’m trying not to simply gush more. Unfortunately, there will be gushing, because Sunde has created yet another gorgeous album. Some reviewers have described this new album as “lush,” and I have to agree. It is indeed lush both musically and lyrically. Sunde’s creativity and unpredictability are on full display, to be sure. However, I have also been taken by the emotional and philosophical lushness of Now I Feel Adored. It seems consistently flirt with ambivalence. There is an underlying sadness to much of what I hear and yet there is a prevailing hope threading throughout.

It is fitting the album begins with nothing but Sunde’s voice (joined later by PHOX’s Monica Martin) in I Will Smile When I Think of You. The man can sing. There’s never been a question about his technical vocal abilities. But, the beauty of his vocals go deeper than precision. There is something in his tone which evokes both warmth and provocation, a pretty incredible mixture. Somehow, through the voice he has been given, he is able to both comfort and unsettle the listener simultaneously at times. Even in this song, his vocals carry a sadness with them, even as the song expresses something of the joy of connected relationship. Again, there is that theme of ambivalence.

Immediately after I Will Smile When I Think of You comes Prism. For me, this song is the sadness anthem for the album. It is an acknowledgment of the brokenness all around us. Something is dreadfully wrong. Sunde expresses a standing expectation for progress, a progress which seems to be too slow, if not at a standstill. The chorus details Sunde’s disappointment and borderline frustration: “I thought we’d be further along…” While Prism is likely the most explicit expression of sorrow on Now I Feel Adored, the theme of underlying sadness, a sadness precipitated by the brokenness of society and strained relationships, is pervasive.

In the end, however, sadness does not get the last word. Even though there are many reasons to feel grief, there is also hope. In Called By Our Names, Sunde speaks of an impending “rising above”. The lyrics describe a connected hope, encapsulated in the lyric after which the entire album is named: “Now I feel adored.” Later, in the closing song of the album, Wedding Ring, Sunde describes a time in which “our sadness will drop off like scales.” He is referring to that “rising above,” a moment in which things are made right and there will be no more tears. That is the hope Sunde expresses in the middle of the grief, disappointment, and strife.

From what I can surmise, this hope is not based on a “blind faith”. Sunde’s hope is not based on some pie-in-the-sky dream in which, all of the sudden, things will just get better. What I hear in Now I Feel Adored is a relational, connected hope. It is based on trusting that there is someone who will in fact makes things right and has both the ability and desire to strip our sadness away. Such trust is only meaningful in the context of real relationship. And that’s what I mean by “connected hope”. To my untrained ears, this connected hope is the backbone of Now I Feel Adored.

Lush, again, is a great description of Sunde’s latest. It is textured and layered in every conceivable way: vocally, musically, emotionally, and lyrically. It is not ear candy… no, it is seven-course meal for the ears, mind, and heart.

Artist Focus, Music and Healing, TS10

Kalispell Helps Me Find Home


Eau Claire is home. That may sound like an insignificant little statement. But, for me, it means much.

I grew up in a different place with different people. During my childhood years, my family moved about ten times. We were almost always in the same city (Chesapeake, Virginia), but it seemed as though we were always restless. In such an atmosphere, it was hard to ever feel truly at home. Along with the constant movement, I was an isolated kid, up to so many things my folks never knew of. I was very much alone and seldom, if ever, felt the warmth and connection that home is about. My sense of home was really, really broken.

When I moved to Eau Claire in 2005, it didn’t take long for me to hate it. I’m serious. I literally hated Eau Claire. My false sense of home rejected what I experienced here. And then, I slowly began seeing the good things here. I began connecting with some people, especially through Valleybrook Church, that loved me, spoke truth to me, and helped me to start discovering the warmth, security, and safety of home.

Local music has played a large role in this healing process. In 2012, I heard Kalispell, Shane Leonard’s project, play at the Volume One Sounds Like Summer concert series at Phoenix Park. Leonard’s music was so rich, so emotive, so warm. At the time, I did some freelance writing for the Visit Eau Claire blog and I knew I needed to write something about Leonard and Kalispell. I met with Shane at Racy D’lene’s Coffee Lounge  on Water Street shortly after that concert to talk with him about his music and his story. It is not overstatement to say that the conversation we had that day altered my life’s course and was a deeper invitation to come “home.”

As I sat with Shane, I was overcome by his warmth and generous spirit. To be honest, I was a little star-struck at first. Yeah, maybe he wasn’t this nationally-recognized artist, but he was obviously immensely talented and he created art that deeply touched my soul. But, his unassuming way disarmed my sense of awe that day. In fact, he seemed far more interested in learning about me than talking about himself. As our time together at Racy’s went on, I felt more and more comfortable, more secure, more at home.

Around that same time, I bought his recently released “Westbound” album. It is a beautiful work of art. It is warm, honest, and inviting. Again, these are elements of a healthy sense of home. My wife also fell in love with the album, as did my then 3 year old son. We listened to it non-stop. It became the soundtrack of the Hudgins house in the second half of 2012. And, it was healing.

Sometime later, I drove to Mondovi from Eau Claire, passing through some serene and beautiful rural scenery. While I am not really a rural kind of guy, I so appreciate the beauty of the Chippewa Valley. It can be, if you let it, breathtaking. And, it is a central part of our community identity. So, I drove along, taking in the beauty of home, both visibly and audibly.

Kalispell’s “Westbound” became the background music for the restoration of home in my life. It spoke to me in its notes, melodies, instrumentation, movements, and lyrical content while I was growing deeper and deeper in relationships with people I could trust, and with the city in which I lived. I cannot separate Kalispell’s influence from the rest of this healing experience. It has been an integral part.

One of the major emphases of Tomme Suab is connecting the reader with the emotionality of music. To me, the reason this is so important is because I believe it can be healing. It can help you find the broken places in your heart, engage with deeply held feelings, express those feelings, and find healing and freedom you have never known. I say this as someone who has personally experienced this dynamic. Thanks in part to Shane Leonard and Kalispell, my heart has been healed and I now know what “home” feels like. And, I never want to leave it.

Kalispell’s “Westbound” is this week’s Gateway Record. Stream it in its entirety here.

Album Releases, Poignant Songs

Captivated by J.E. Sunde’s “Shapes That Kiss the Lips of God”

Ever since I started listening to music as a teenager, there have been those albums that have just grabbed a hold of me, seemingly not wanting to let go. U2‘s Joshua Tree and The Unforgettable Fire were a couple of those. Kalispell’s Westbound was another. Derek Webb‘s Mockingbird was yet another. I immersed myself into these albums, feeling every twist and turn. They sucked me in and I was captivated. I have wandered into another of these traps, J.E. Sunde’s Shapes That Kiss the Lips of God, released recently by Cartouche Records.

One of my favorite albums of the last few years is The Nature of Things by The Daredevil Christopher Wright. It was so delightfully unpredictable and the band tackled really deep philosophical, theological, and relational issues with grace and depth. This work of art stimulated me intellectually, emotionally, and spiritually. I was really bummed when I heard that the band was on hiatus and that Jonathan Sunde was working on his own solo material. Now, that’s no knock on Sunde. It’s just that there was something special about what The Daredevil had created together. Surely, there would be no way that Sunde would be able to create something comparable in terms of the unpredictability, craftsmanship, philosophical wanderings and simple beauty of The Nature of Things.

Well, I was utterly and completely wrong. Shapes That Kiss the Lips of God, is, in a word, wonderful. I can’t stop listening to it. Earlier today, I was listening to iTunes in “Random” mode. Easy Kid (the second track on the album) came up. Within ten seconds, I turned off the “Random” mode, selected the first track of the album, and was compelled to listen to it in its entirety. Again, it’s like a magnet… it draws me in and I seemingly can’t escape.

Now, don’t get me wrong… this is not another Daredevil album. It is J.E. Sunde. It is his voice, both literally and essentially. Other than his incredible vocals, it doesn’t sound like the Daredevil to me. Sunde has his own thing going here, and it is compelling and deep. The music and instrumentation are eclectic, to say the least. And, the emotional mood moves around throughout the album. There’s playfulness, passion, anger, sorrow… just so much to feel here.

One element that has drawn me in are the deep theological/philosophical themes in the album. It’s one thing to write about deep stuff. It’s another to make such thoughts compelling, both lyrically and musically. Sunde is obviously adept in doing just that. A Blinding Flash of Light describes Sunde’s apparent struggle with believing in God in the midst of people who don’t share that belief. The song seems like a journal entry in which he is weighing the views of the atheistic influences around him. He struggles with feeling “foolish for talking to Jesus.” These are heavy matters, and the melody, instrumentation, and lyrics accurately portray that heaviness.

Another song that grabs a hold of me every time I listen is I’m Gonna Disappoint You. It is a soulful ballad that sounds like part of a conversation between two folks on the verge of a romantic relationship. Sunde’s heart here is to ensure that the other person comes into this relationship with eyes wide open… “What if I don’t kiss you the way you want to be kissed?” “What if you don’t like the books I suggest?” This song is full of nitty-gritty thoughts about ways that Sunde could disappoint this potential partner. The trepidation he feels as he shares these thoughts is palpable. You feel it throughout the song. It’s as if he is saying, “I want to be with you, but I’m a little scared.” For so many, if not all, of us, these are thoughts and feelings that are very familiar, and he paints them clearly and emotively.

And then there’s the pain and anger of You Can’t Unring a Bell. It starts out with the sorrow-filled statement that you can’t, in fact, unring a bell. As the song continues, the listener learns that Sunde’s heart was broken and his trust betrayed by someone special. As the tempo picks up and the song intensifies, it’s almost as if you can feel Sunde himself shifting from sorrow to anger. Again, Sunde is masterful at portraying these emotions and the tensions surrounding them. When I listen to this song, I can’t help but enter the emotional world Sunde invites the listener into. I feel, to the extent possible, what he feels. There is no art that speaks to me as deeply as art that makes me feel like that.

While I once was disappointed that the Daredevil Christopher Wright was on a hiatus, I am now so glad that they took a break. J.E. Sunde has created something beautiful with Shapes That Kiss the Lips of God. The precise craftsmanship, eclectic instrumentation, incredible vocals, and masterful songwriting provide a portal into deep connection and emotion. I cannot recommend this album enough.