A Month of Sundays
Western Friend magazine
Reviewed by William Jolliff
(Nov - Dec 2023)
It’s been over a decade since Derek Lamson’s last CD so his new release, A Month of Sundays, is all the more welcome. The subtitle, An Anthology of New and Newly Recorded Songs, telegraphs the listening experience to come: the collection is indeed an anthology and as such the themes, the genres, and even the arrangement choices are a potluck. Like his earlier work, this offering finds its deepest stylistic roots in folk and blues. But the influences here seem, if anything, even more varied. Lamson’s smoky baritone is present on most cuts and his fingerstyle acoustic guitar is (usually) up front in the mix. Beyond that, all bets are off.
Not surprisingly, then, the music is hard to classify, but a couple of touchstones may help. At his best–and some of the songs here are among his best–Lamson’s writing tills a field somewhere between the rootsy romanticism of Townes Van Zandt (e.g., “Marguerite”) and the understated sophistication of Leonard Cohen (e.g., “Sophia”). But his persistent Christian Quaker convictions are never far gone and, at least for listeners attuned to his particular sensibilities, they show up everywhere.
The poetic strength–and what makes the album finally so edifying–is the way Lamson expertly dances the tightrope between sentiment and sentimentality. Just when we fear he might fall into the religiously typical, he yanks us back with an unexpected shot of truth writ plain: every easy answer gets questioned, as in the plaintive “Better We Meet.” And songs like “Rise Up and Sing O Ye Saints” prove that any religious cliche can be bent or deftly twisted. Yet most winsome, maybe, is the poet’s easy and erudite shuffling from biblical motifs and figures to a weathered bluesy vernacular, a dance portrayed in what may be the project’s finest cut, “Pastor’s Daughter.”
Lamson’s musical arrangements have always made good use of varied instrumentation. Not surprisingly, this project offers a broad palette of tonal color, using everything from flugelhorn to banjo to organ. Similarly, his charts have often featured the expert incorporation of (usually female) singing partners. But this project pushes that tendency a step further by occasionally offering up the lead vocal slot to his guests. This shifting creates a keen variation of texture that becomes one of the most notable features of the project.
Some of those textural shifts are surprising, even satisfyingly unsettling, but there is a kind of genius in the juxtapositions. Ultimately the art works in wonderful and fairly weird ways. We suspect a complementary purpose, too: Lamson’s compositions may extend beyond his own musical comfort zone, and the focus here is really on the songs, songs that cover the range from his customary folksy blues (“I’ll Go Ahead”) to songs you wouldn’t be surprised to hear reprised in an mainstream steeple house (“Rose Hips”). And others cuts could even be slipped into a country bar gig (“Where Do These Praises Come From?”).
In contemporary pop culture, religious expression has suffered its bruises, many of them deserved. So what does it mean to put forward into the musical marketplace a piece of overtly Christian serious art that defies easy stylistic classification (and is fairly certain to lose money)? The answer is in the lyrics: if there is a consistent message throughout, either in the lines or plainly between them, it’s that faith matters, that faith is difficult, and that faith, in the end, no matter how mud-spackled or worse for wear, offers the power to sustain us (“Angel, Big Black Wings”). And through this gift of good work, Lamson’s faith may help sustain the rest of us as well.
William Jolliff, professor of English at George Fox University, is a poet, critic, songwriter, and occasional banjo player.
Jolliff's books include The Poetry of John Greenleaf Whittier: A Readers' Edition (2000), Heeding the Call: A Study of Denise Giardina's Fiction (2020), and the poetry collection Twisted Shapes of Light (2015). He grew up on a farm just outside Magnetic Springs, Ohio, and now lives with his wife, Brenda, in Newberg, Oregon.