Tuesday, May 15, 2007

Album Review: Michelle Tumes

Album: Michelle Tumes
Artist: Michelle Tumes
Label: Levanter, 2006

Major record labels. Who needs 'em?

Since leaving Reunion lo these many years ago, Carolyn Arends has been making amazing music on her own label, 2B Records. Now, five years after she left Sparrow, Michelle Tumes has put out an album on her own label, Levanter, that simply blows away much of what passes for music on the Contemporary Christian market today.

Now, an artist is an artist and will produce the goods whether attached to a major label or not. But, how refreshing, how heartening to know that musicians can follow their own stars and not have to compromise on the quality of production out of the arms (and wallets) of the big studios! This exquisite offering from Ms. Tumes is more proof that indie artists are the wave of the future.

I missed Michelle Tumes. She is one of the most talented and poetic songwriters in music, Contemporary Christian or otherwise. I enjoy all of her Sparrow releases (Listen, 1998; Center of My Universe, 2000; Dream, 2001). The first two of these were evidence of her strong, imagery-filled and evocative lyrics paired with her ethereal, lilting voice. To compare her to Enya, as so many seem to wish to do, is, in my opinion, to do Michelle Tumes a disservice. Enya's music is pretty and soothing, but boring; Michelle Tumes has far more energy than the Queen of Celtic Revival. The third of her Sparrow releases was a departure, and one that I feel often alone in admiring. Dream was playful and dance-beat-driven, with vocals more powerhouse than angelic. I really like it when musical artists are willing to step outside their comfort zone and try new sounds and styles. Most of Michelle Tumes's fans were disappointed, though. Then came the five-year hiatus with its regrouping and studying and songwriting and, now, its glorious culmination: this self-titled offering.

Actually, the title of the album is my only quarrel with it. I've never had much patience with titling an album after its artist. Were I consulted on the title for this release, I would have suggested borrowing from my favorite track and calling it Break Through. For this album is a breakthrough, in many different ways. But, I am getting ahead of myself.

Lush. That is the first word to pop into mind when considering Michelle Tumes. The orchestral sound that marked her first albums is back, richer than ever. The lyrics are nourishing, fulfilling, intoxicating -- cream and strawberries and champagne. Michelle's voice soars and whispers and charms and mystifies. The complete effect of listening to this album from beginning to end is one of being on a journey -- a wistful and sweet and edifying journey. For, this album is tinged with melancholy, but never slips into the brittleness of cynicism or despair.

I believe that Michelle Tumes may be one of the only contemporary songwriters who is able to dabble with Latin in her lyrics without sounding contrived or over the top. The first song, "Introit," is Latin only in the title, but, much like that enduring tongue, the words within are timeless: There's an angel resting on my shadow/There's a haven in every hope I breathe/There's an ancient cross beyond tomorrow/There's a fragrant hymn that's beckoning . . . That's just a taste of the sort of imagery that haunts the lyrics of this collection.

The next song is "Domine (Lord God)." The music of this song is rather upbeat, but the lyrics have notes of anguish in them: Forty days I cried with no reprieve/The tears that raised the tide/Were crashing over me/Forty days I cried with no reprieve/Too far to look ahead/Surround my heart Your grace amends/Domine, Domine/Make my path run straight/Lift my heart, speak my name/I fall, I break/Domine, Domine/Find me far away/Stay, take my pain, I am praying/Domine . . . Something in the idea of crying for forty days without reprieve really struck me. I think that is something to which any listener can relate.

Another song that I just love is "Fair Weather." Again there is a note of torment in her voice when Michelle sings the chorus: In the silence when the fear calls/And the tears pour You carry me home/You're the windfall in the rainstorm/Stay with me (with me)/Never fair weather/You are never fair weather. What a clever contrast -- God's steadfastness with the expression "fair weather friend."

The happiest song -- bright and sunny in both lyrics and tempo -- is fittingly called, "Lovely Day." As our old friend the sun is showing his face at last in the Land O' Rain, this song has played repeatedly in the car: It's a lovely day/It's a lovely day/Heaven on the inside/Your soul's going to fly away. Have you felt that? I have. I've felt so often that wild joy, especially in the beauty of Creation, where you simply feel that your soul is borne upward on the wings of the angels. This song is drenched in the sun's rays, and you can almost taste the salty freshness of the air -- it's the seashore in the form of a song.

My favorite song on this album is the aforementioned, "Break Through." Michelle Tumes is a Medievalist at heart -- she and C.S. Lewis could have a very comfortable conversation about the lore of chivalrous knights and Scottish castles. The imagery of those bygone days served to inspire one of the best songs I have heard in a long time. Imagine, if you will, peering into the distance from the uppermost room of an almost impenetrable tower. Through the misty moors you see a figure emerging -- a gallant knight on a white steed. He vanquishes every opponent on his quest to free you. He is your Redeemer: I see my love, see my love/With might to save/Scale the walls of yesterday/Break through/Be my joy, be my joy/Charge this path and/Storm the tower of my heart/For only you can break through/To me. "Scale the walls of yesterday . . ." She really captured a truth in that line. Our yesterdays are the dividing walls between us and our Creator.

"Caelum Infinitum" throws a little more Latin our way. Michelle translates it for us as "boundless heaven," and she offers us tantalizing glimpses of what previews of His kingdom look like on earth. The chorus is as close as you can come to Gregorian chanting without engaging the men in brown (not UPS drivers). This is vintage Tumes: reinventing the ancient and timeless.

The last song on this album is the most simple. It was written when Michelle was seventeen years old, and it is, "Hold On To Jesus." The arrangement is straightforward -- just the piano and Michelle -- and, because it is so unadorned, the beauty of it rings out clearly: You've got to hold on to Jesus/When your heart is crying, your world is dying/You've got to hold on to Jesus/When your life has had enough. Have you ever felt that "your life has had enough?" I surely have, and I am grateful always to be reminded to hold on to the only One who can recenter my world.

This is the probably the best album of 2006. It is wholly satisfying, and my appreciation of it grows deeper with each additional time I listen to it. I'm so glad that Michelle Tumes is back in the studio. We need her music.


Joelle said...

I *almost* bought this album a couple weeks ago. My hubby had given me a borders gift card, and after listening to numerous CD's (so frustrating to only be able to listen to a snippet of each song) I had narrowed it down to Michelle Tumes and Allison Krauss: A Hundred Miles or More. I finally went with Allison Krauss, because I love her voice and singing so much! Michelle is definitely on my list, though. When I got up to the checkout I found out my gift card was for $25, not $20, so I still have some money left to go back and get it. :) I don't think I have ever heard Michelle's third album, and I'm having a hard time remembering her second. I had her first at one point, and it got listened to a lot, but it went missing somewhere along the way (hmmm, maybe it wasn't even mine - it may have been my sisters that I "borrowed") so I need to get it again. She has such a beautiful voice!

Great review. :)

Justine said...

Hey Joelle!

I think of you repeatedly when I listen to this CD. Go ahead and buy it -- I think you'll love it.

Let me know what you think of "Break Through." That song in particular reminded me of you -- maybe it's the vivid imagery that calls to mind Celtic mystery and those bygone days Medieval splendor.


Arielle said...

I remember listening to Michelle Tumes years ago - she was one of the few Christian artists I was willing to listen to, because her music was actually good! I need to look up her albums and see if I can get my hands on them.