Style: Organic alt-rock; compare to Leeland, Guster, The Killers
Top tracks: "Small Rebellions, "We Will Follow, "Lay It Down"
Music has a unique ability to engage our periphery: we hear a quick drum roll, a violin ascending through major notes, a vocal trill that perks our interest. On The Shelter, Jars of Clay's eleventh studio release, the songs are not immediately engaging. Over time, they reveal an organic brilliance—slight touches and minor segues that make them more compelling.
The project is a group effort with no less than 15 guest musicians, including Amy Grant, Third Day's Mac Powell, and Sara Groves, plus a host of lesser-known indie artists, that turns just another Jars of Clay album into one of their most ambitious.
The album opens with "Small Rebellions," a song about random acts of kindness and living out our faith. The swirling synth grabs you right away as does a subtle choral chant and fantastic drum fills. "Love climbs up and down the human ladder," sings Dan Haseltine at perhaps his most poetic. On the meandering "Call My Name," acoustic rock artist Audrey Assad adds a soaring vocal on a song about setting our God-priorities.
"We Will Follow" is another standout, but with one fatal flaw: The verses sound so much like Arcade Fire that it's a little embarrassing. "Eyes Wide Open" is a mid-tempo rocker; strangely, when Mac Powell takes over on vocals, it's a bit jarring. "Shelter" is a big anthem about leaning on one another: "The tears aren't ours alone, let them fall into the hands that hold us."
The community notion begins coming clear on "Out of My Hands." Penned in part by Phillip LaRue, the song starts with a hammering electric piano and statements about letting God be God. "Lay It Down" (written by Sara Groves) and several other songs also take on a unique character. Jars of Clay doesn't exactly hand over the reins to other artists, since they take the primary songwriter credit on every song except "Lay It Down," but they are exploring new ground. The closing songs, including "Benediction" with Amy Grant, are slow-build crooners.
In the end, this artistic variety makes The Shelter rewarding; it's like a sculpture made with many hands. At wide angle, the sculpture is a bit similar to previous releases, but closer inspection reveals how Jars of Clay are maturing step by step.
Copyright © 2010 Christianity Today. Click for reprint information.