Friday, October 17, 2008

Review: Half-handed Cloud

It sounds like a really smart Sunday-school class on a sugar high let loose in a music store.

-iTunes album review of We Haven't Just Been Told, We've Been Loved
Half-handed Cloud is my new Friday night favorite. When praise and worship, choir and organ, gospel quartet, and holy hip-hop have lost my musical interest, it's time for HHC, because John Ringhoffer, the man behind the project, takes "Sing a new song to the Lord" into a new dimension. I can only describe the musical genre of HHC in phrases: Juno soundtrack, indie-rock, sound experiment, high school band, and music my wife will only tolerate in small doses.

I was introduced to Half-handed Cloud by my brother-in-law, who knew Ringhoffer from the Seventh-day Adventist community around Chattanooga, TN. Today John lives in a church basement Berkley (except when he's turing with Half-handed Cloud or as the trombonest in Sufjan Stevens' band), where he's the janitor in exchange for his diggs. He does not describe himself as a Seventh-day Adventist, but does attend an Adventist church among others on weekends.

Listening to an HCC album is in some ways like reading the Bible, you will not get everything the first time through, nor the second. The tempo is generally fast, and the lyrics are just as quirky and dense as the music. The 50 second opera, "Pup Tent Noah", is an exception to the fast and dense rule but it's two-line libretto nicely illustrates John's unique take on Bible stories: "If your father's getting naked in the pup / Walk in backwards and cover him up."

From a theological perspective, I see an Adventist influence on the themes addressed in two Half-handed Cloud albums I own, We Haven't Just Been Told, We've Been Loved, and Thy Is a Word, and Feet Need Lamps. Thy Is a Word deals primarily with Old Testament stories--the ones Uncle Arthur didn't tell--that challenge the our notions of God's loving character. And six early tracks on We Haven't Just Been Told are about Sabbath beginning with "Our First Full Day Was Spent In Rest" and including my favorite line: "I got a-rested so I'm free...."

I think what keeps me coming back to HHC is Ringhofer's sensitivity to truth in paradox. His childish vocal stylings render lyrics of profound spiritual meaning; serious yet silly music accompanies his summaries of the most brutal OT tales (e.g. "Everyone Did What Was Right in Their Own Eyes"). There's something essentially real about these juxtapositions that resonates with my own experience of following Christ.

I recommend Half-handed Cloud to anyone who's up for something musically new. You don't have to be a Christian to appreciate this music, as John's popularity with the progressive music scene proves, but I find his work is best appreciated in its scriptural context. I myself plan to get some more HHC albums when I'm tired of the ones I have, but so far, that hasn't happened.

Check out this interview John did with with Relevant Magazine.

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