Sunday Night Journal — January 14, 2007
The Christ Tree

Music of the Week — January 14, 2007

Buddy Miller: Universal United House of Prayer

I’ve been hearing Buddy Miller’s name, usually along with that of his wife, Julie, for a while, but have only heard a little of their work. If the rest of it is in the class with this, I want to hear a lot more. (Although Buddy’s name is on it, Julie is apparently a major contributor to this album, singing and writing several of the best songs.)

I would be hard put to over-praise Universal United House of Prayer (see link below for a picture of the “house”—if you’re from the South you’ve seen its like many times). It’s so good I can hardly stand it. It’s a deep-souled and perfectly unified blend of rock, country, and gospel (both black and white), filled with the urgent exhortation and yearning of a man who surely must know what sin and salvation are all about and who has the musical skill to express them with the passion they warrant.

From the anxious leadoff, Mark Heard’s “Worry Too Much,” to Julie Miller’s imperious closer, “Fall On the Rock” (“or the rock’s gonna fall on you”—how’s that for laying it on the line?), it’s pretty much uniform brilliance—uniform in quality, that is, not sound. It’s country and it’s gospel, like I said. Sometimes it’s desperate, sometimes it’s joyful, sometimes it’s even playful. Sometimes it’s delicate, and once or twice it rocks so hard you might almost think you were listening to somebody like Tool. Miller is a great singer, and I think he’s also responsible for a lot of the smoking guitar work, like the mind-bending solo on “Shelter Me.” At first hearing I would have taken “Is That You” to be a traditional spiritual, but it, too, is credited to the Millers (both of them).

To my taste, the only moment of letdown here is Dylan’s “With God On Our Side.” I’ve never been a big admirer of Dylan’s protest songs in general, and this one seems, in comparison with the other songs here, clumsy and a little confused (were we right or wrong to fight the Nazis?). And it lasts almost ten minutes. But it is a memorable tune, and if you don’t analyze the argument too closely its caution against identifying God’s will with our national interest, or for that matter any cause, is something of which we always need reminding. And Miller gives it as good a “reading,” as the classical people say, as it’s ever likely to get.

If this sounds at all like your kind of music, do not miss it. Seriously. Don’t.

Here’s the record label’s page for the album. The review there, by Robbie Fulks, a highly regarded musician in his own right (I know him only by reputation) is informative and no hype, and you can hear a couple of tracks. And there’s a bigger image of the cover—it makes me miss the LP—as well as lyrics and a lot of other stuff, here.

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