The very idea of threading Christian messages into pop music that we’re free to buy or ignore still bugs enough believers and non-believers to suggest the possibility that subversion might appear from this genre. C’mon, it could happen. Maybe Amy Grant or Michael W. Smith or Kirk Franklin or DC Talk or Babybird have reason to believe that their pop, rap, and R&B sort of defy American pop culture as well as gospel culture. After all, the nihilism of a band o’ bigshots like Slipknot becomes as corny as any Hallmark sentiment as the band and their fans outlive their own bad attitudes.
What’s missing from Christian pop is the thrill of defiance, the willingness to foul one’s own nest as well as another’s, to bite the hand that supports as well as the one that feeds. So let me get the following out of my system: there should be Christian musicians who lay into the Christian media and it’s power centers. Rag on Jerry Falwell, Frederick Graham, Pat Robertson, maybe the Southern Baptist Convention. Maybe direct a little crap at the founder of the Nuremburg Files, if they feel courageous. Abuse from the secular criticism impacts such people about as much as egging Enron headquarters would affect Ken Lay - just not all that much. It’s the criticism and mockery from within their own denominations, their own faith, that would sting.
John Kinghofer of Knoxville, Tennessee doesn’t actually do any of this protesting on Learning About Your Scale, recorded under the name Half-handed Cloud. But this one-man-band-plus-pals music inspires some tantalizing possibilities: like a Christian avant-garde producing an Uncle Meat inspired by St. Peter the fisherman, or a Pet Sounds based on the parable of the shepherd and his flock—either would be problem enough for a pop industry with standards as rigid as Nashville’s. Still, the world has enough tiresome religious pop to give Kinghofer’s goofy experiment an intriguing context.
According to his press, it took four labels to light this little candle. Learning About Your Scale was originally issued on a Chattanooga label in 1999, then jointly picked up by Sounds Familyre (run by the theatrically religious Danieleson Famile (sic)) and Asthmatic Kitty. They arranged distribution through Secretly Canadian last summer; the album saw little press until late fall. It’s incredibly short—25 songlettes running just over nineteen minutes, including three multi-part tunes.
Nearly all the reviews mention Frank Zappa and Brian Wilson as reference points, and jumpy, Zappaesque editing does dice up Wilsonesque harmonies. Though he’s at least as sincere as the Dixie Hummingbirds, Kinghofer shares Zappa’s knack of making his ideas seem jokey. And unlike Wilson, he doesn’t mind appearing crazy. But there’s a stronger comparison: Jad Fair (of Half-Japanese), who’s pretty fearless in the face of mockers himself. Already documented as punching out acoustic guitar chords over a slew of silly sounds from a backing tape, Kinghofer pursues Fair’s agenda of carefully staking ad-hoc playing with songhooks. The racket suggests one further influence: educational programming like Teletubbies or The Electric Company. Also helpful is massive input from friends of the artist, who add cellos and horns that blare in and fade away, and contribute voiceovers. The strangest comes from a basso profundo voiceover that pleads in Jesus’ name, “I died for your sins . . . Don’t you love me? Just a little bit?” Best to let that one stand.
Given Zappa’s legendary anti-religious bias, it would be funny if Half-handed Cloud actually existed to stuff good ol’ testifying into his (FZ’s) kind of instrumental shattering. And boy, is Kinghofer humble. But like any true believer, he can’t help pushing a painful metaphor one wince further. One example: So Busted Before Your Righteous Throne changes the lines “In order to be free / We might have to pluck it out” to “. . . might have to cut it off”. This implies a little more than Jesus’ “if thy right eye offend thee, pluck it out”.
What matters is that Kinghofer is straight up about his beliefs. If his quirks existed only to cover his theology, that would stink. But they’re what he’s about—opposites that were meant to be together, but not to be alike. It’s music that certainly fits the Christian ideal of reconciliation; if Jesus only meant to bring the same kind of people together to be the same kind of people, what could the big deal be? No religious artist who feels free to record his acoustic guitar and overdub his tunes from under a pile of alarm clocks, rubber ducks, squeaks, squeeches, and sproings is in danger of being enslaved by his culture any time soon.