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Brow Beat (Unplugged Alternative) by Various Artists (Review)

Alarma Records’ compilation features acoustic performances from some of the biggest names in ’90s Christian alternative music.
Brow Beat (Unplugged Alternative) - Various Artists

Remember MTV Unplugged, which featured acoustic performances from Paul McCartney, Sting, De La Soul, Nirvana, 10,000 Maniacs, and George Michael, to name but a few? At its best, the series — which ran regularly between 1989 and 1999, and then less so in subsequent years — was a win-win for artists and fans alike. The series offered artists an opportunity to explore their sound in new ways and pay tribute to their influences, often in smaller, more intimate settings, while fans got to hear different sides to their favorite artists.

From that perspective, it’s tempting to consider Alarma Records’ Brow Beat compilation a “Chrindie” version of MTV Unplugged, with its eclectic assortment of some of the most important figures in ’90s Christian alternative music. An when I say “eclectic,” I mean it. After all, the whole reason I bought my copy of Brow Beat was because it featured Mortal.

Back in the early-to-mid ’90s, Mortal was one of my favorite bands, and certainly my favorite Christian band, thanks to albums like Lusis and Fathom. Musically, “Bleeder” is a far cry from the duo’s trademark industrial intensity, but the sparse ballad still features the same passionate vocals and lyrics, with Jyro drawing existential solace from the natural world (“If not for wood and river/I would to my fate resign”).

Similarly, it’s still weird, even now, to see Dig Hay Zoose’s name in the track list of an unplugged album, especially since they also delivered the ambitious, psychedelic-oriented MagentaMantaLoveTree in 1993. But “Keep Me in Mind” is a fun, breezy track highlighted by Jimmy Flores’ jazzy drumming and Phil Schlotterer’s flexible vocals.

Brow Beat was notable — for me, personally — because it was also my introduction to major figures like Terry Taylor, The Choir, Lost Dogs, and Adam Again. Prior to Brow Beat, I’d only known Taylor as a producer on albums by Dig Hay Zoose, Mortal, Saviour Machine, and Scaterd Few. “Will Have to Do For Now” was the first proper Terry Taylor song I’d ever heard, and it remains one of my favorites. With its Beatles-esque melodies, soaring arrangements, and evocative lyrics (e.g., “I live and learn that the rain against the window’s saying, Life is grace‘”), it’s of a piece with Daniel Amos’ MotorCycle (also released in 1993) and a definite highlight here.

The Choir’s “Wilderness” — which later appeared in electric form on 1994’s Speckled Bird — explores faith and doubt (“Is your faith so right/Are you so blessed?/Everybody wanders in the forest”) with the help of a haunting musical backdrop highlighted by Steve Hindalong’s percussion and Dan Michaels’ plaintive sax. Meanwhile, Lost Dogs — an alt-country supergroup featuring Terry Taylor alongside members of The Choir, Adam Again, and The 77s — contribute a playfully ramshackle ode to love and fidelity with “No Ship Coming In.”

Finally, “Don’t Cry” might just be my favorite Adam Again song of all time, and everything about the unplugged version — Gene Eugene’s understated lyrics, his and Riki Michele’s harmonies, Paul Valadez’s graceful bassline, Jon Knox’s scattered rhythms, Rick Rekedal’s cello — is sublime. (A slightly altered version of “Don’t Cry” was released on 1995’s Perfecta.)

Years, if not decades, have passed since I last listened to Brow Beats. But after all this time, it’s more than just a collection of excellent songs; it’s also a time capsule from an era of Christian music the likes of which we’ll probably never hear again. An era when artists who didn’t fit comfortably in either Christian or secular settings carved out a sort of parallel universe all their own, and in the process made music driven by faith and artistic expression.

I certainly don’t mean to over-nostalgify that era — reading even just a handful of accounts reveals that it had plenty of its own faults, flaws, and scandals — but that sense of purity and artistry comes through all the more clearly in this acoustic context.

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