Back in 1995 everyone's favorite oddball alternative Christian band (well, mine anyway) decided to record a concept album, Songs of the Heart, detailing the last vacation of Bud and Irma Akendorf before Bud passes away in his sleep. As if the subject wasn't enough of a guarantee to ensure a "big hit with the kids" they decided to use unconventional instrumentation and arrangements and the vocalist often spoke the part of Bud. For further confusion they used an album cover from a 60's gospel album (not the one above), resulting in their album often being placed among Sandi Patti, Bill Gaither Trio and their ilk. It all seemed like a good idea at the time.
Even for many diehard fans this album had an unusually long warming period, myself included. But once it hits, it hits hard with rich stories of the blessings and sufferings in their lives, all presented in a kind of movie soundtrack. The instrumentation, while unorthodox, does usually revolve around the typical rock band setup. Except "Get Back Into The Bus, Aloha" which uses a trombone to play the bass part… and "The Glory Road", which is about Route 66 and is built in a very angular rhythm and an accordion part so luscious and hip that it encouraged me to learn that very instrument… and a few others. But I digress. Once one gets past the initial shock the different musical tone colors only serve to make repeated listens more enjoyable with new textures and parts being discovered each time. Personal favorites are legion but include the bittersweet, nostalgic, near a cappella "Donna Nietche and Her Super Race of Kick Boxing Uber Parrots" and "Sins of the Fathers", a song in which Bud faces his own mortality in a roadside diner by reflecting upon the young "counter kid with the insufficient moustache." Lines such as "I could offer the boy some kind of words of wisdom… Tell him about unrealized expectations … But you can't teach these young dogs new tricks" poetically portray Bud's past as well as his hope for the future. The final song, "My Hand to God" finds Bud with his sleeping wife of forty-seven years beside him in bed, his body in the grips of a heart attack, knowing his time has come and yet hesitating to offer a prayer for his wife that "You know I love you, sweetheart / See you again soon." As strange as some songs on the album have been, here the music is a perfect compliment to the beautiful lyrics that often manage to pull tears from deep within me. In addition to the many lyrical and musical gems on this album one can also hear the insane musical ramblings of bassist Tim Chandler and the kind of guitar parts that can only sprout from the mathematical mind of Greg Flesch, who by day is a real NASA scientist. I've heard thousands of musicians in my life and these two approach their instruments in such an off-kilter manner than I've yet to hear their equal.
This album has been reissued in a most unusual and fitting format. First there is a sixty-page book that includes notes on the original recordings and a lengthy story where this last vacation is fleshed out and given more depth. A second disc contains a stripped-down acoustic version of the album with the songs presented in a somewhat more coherent order. Presented with only piano, drum kit, and acoustic guitar, the lyrics are allowed more of center stage and reveal previously hidden nuances of the songwriter's craft. The final CD includes band leader Terry Taylor reading sections of the story, an interview with him about the album, and two new songs that bring further elements of the story to life.
For those willing to take on this exhilarating Americana adventure down Route 66, cruise over to www.danielamos.com. Be sure to tell them Bud Akendorf sent ya!
This review first appeared in WhatzUp, July 2002.