Sunday, January 25, 2009

Music Review: Sixpence None the Richer

My Dear Machine
1. My Dear Machine
2. Amazing Grace (Give It Back)
3. Sooner Than Later
4. Around

If you weren't looking for it, you probably missed the return of Sixpence None the Richer, humble and unheralded. Four and some change years ago, Leigh Nash and Matt Slocum parted ways, announcing the inconspicuous demise of Sixpence by wrangling its stray offspring and foster children that had found their way onto movies, TV shows, compilations, and the occasional contraceptive patch commercial, dumping them all onto one greatest hits disc. Even then, the general public seemed to have stopped paying attention after "Kiss Me" moved from Billboard Top 100 to soft rock radio stations, and was probably more surprised that the band just now decided to call it quits.

After four years and a carnival of side projects (that most always made nods toward their work together), Nash and Slocum agreed to revive Sixpence proper. The result: a sharp, four song EP called My Dear Machine, with their trademark whimsical artwork to boot.

The project opens with the title track and a warm guitar riff. "My Dear Machine" seems like an ode to the band itself with lyrics like "My dear machine, standing idle for so long, now it's time for another drive" and profuse apologies like those of a negligent lover. The song is earnest and catchy, and the horns are to die for. As the creative forces behind everything done under the name Sixpence None the Richer, Nash and Slocum seem to balance each other out. While Nash's solo album Blue on Blue fell too far saccharine, Slocum's work under the unfortunate moniker Astronaut Pushers seemed almost too hip for its own good. "My Dear Machine" is an exemplary product of pairing her pop sensibilities with his unique musical concepts and makes the most sense to anyone still listening—to them, to me.

They take a turn toward a familiar melancholy with "Amazing Grace (Give It Back)." This track contains my only complaint. And, no, it isn't the use of language too strong for many Christian circles. The title here, in fact, does no justice to the swirling resonations of doubt and candor. I can't imagine John Newton foresaw just how often songwriters would lift the title to his hymn when he penned it, and, while no one can copyright a title, this tired gem should at least be put to rest. And the parenthetical backup is no stronger, but this is all trivial quibble when this song embodies a certain paradigm shift for the band.

Since "Kiss Me," the band has almost seemed to try too hard to straddle the fence between mainstream and Christian music. They don't always fit the mold of contemporary Christian music, but they're a bit too religious for the mainstream. When Divine Discontent, their last full-length album before the big split, was released, Christian radio took the Jesus-take-the-wheel themed "Breathe Your Name" as a single, while mainstream radio took the cover of Crowded House's "Don't Dream It's Over." A happy compromise, for sure. Now, years later, the band seems to have a new resolve to completely uproot the fence, hunker down in the murky midlands of faith and real life. They remain true to their spiritual roots while approaching it in a manner that might easily be called "worldly" by the stuffier listeners. I call it "honest," because anyone who has committed their life to Christ has told Him "You're so damn hard to find" at least once, or something like it.

More hard truths show up on "Sooner Than Later," harkening back to the older mood and sounds of songs like "Within a Room Somewhere," from 1995's This Beautiful Mess. With a melody so memorable and words so sincere, this track stands out most to me. How often do I ask of God, family, friends, whoever "Won't you do me a favor: when it's my time to fall, please catch me sooner than later"? The ill-fated marriage of trust and doubt, hope and despair pop up again and again with Sixpence and is probably why, again and again, I find their music so agreeable.

Finally, "Around" closes the EP out with sounds like clockwork, begging for consistency, for companionship. Again, a song that could be aimed at the band itself: "We need you to be, need you to be around." The words fade, and all we are left with is the lush, haunting guitars and violins, and clinks and plunks. And then, when everything ends just around the EP's 15 minute mark, I am left with uncanny satisfaction and desire for more.

Sixpence None the Richer is yet again on the move, at the end of 2008, in addition to My Dear Machine, the band released the Christmas project The Dawn of Grace. They are setting up tour dates. And soon, hopefully, there will be more full-length albums. I look forward to the work Leigh Nash, Matt Slocum, and their rotating crew of bandmates offer in the future. For folks who thought they were done with each other, My Dear Machine proves that roads don't always part forever.

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