It was a chilly April night in 1990 when I met Rick Elias for the first time. The venerable Exit/In rock club in Nashville was hosting a showcase of various artists as part of the Gospel Music Week convention. A few weeks before, I had received an advance copy of Rick Elias and the Confessions from Frontline, a small west coast label, and was quite fond of what I heard. It was guitar-driven Americana with gritty vocals…akin to Springsteen, Mellancamp or Petty…not comparisons often heard in Contemporary Christian Music. But it was the penetrating, gutsy lyrics that were so honest that really set it apart. Most CCM was rather banal when it came to its message…you really didn’t want the “gatekeepers” to question anything about one’s reality in sharing the gospel message thru song. It was always best to keep hard questions, doubts, and insecurity out of the equation. That’s what made this bold album from this unknown entity so compelling, And it only grew with repeated listening.
Rick was kind of hard to miss when he sauntered into the loud music room. He was an imposing 6’ 6” with flowing black hair in a sort of pompadour cut, chiseled features, and covered head-to-toe in black (well worn leather jacket with tassels, frayed jeans, and scuffed biker boots). He looked like his music sounded: ready to fight for what he believed. Once again, not your typical preppy-looking Christian pop act.
His handlers had flown him in for the convention, but hadn’t landed him any performance slots. So he was just trying to understand this whole new industry. He’d been in the southern California club scene for years, close to some major label deals on several occasions, but never quite consummated. His disappointments had been punctuated with some severe substance abuse issues, and it was in recent years that he had been able to find some peace and hope via a renewed faith that he had abandoned in his late teens. All of this led him to be somewhat flummoxed by all the professional Christians he was encountering at this Music City confab.
Recognizing him from the cover of that debut CD, I walked up to him and introduced myself, telling him that I thought his album was truly terrific. We talked on and off throughout several sets by other artists, and at one point stepped outside so we could better converse. He asked what I did, and I shared that I worked with musicians who had a concern for the poor who might like to partner with Compassion International to find sponsors for needy children around the world. He was intrigued. Thus began a long friendship.
Within weeks we began phone conversations, and I was able to get him added onto an Artist Vision Trip to Guatemala several months later. I thought this particular grouping had great potential to bond significantly. Rich Mullins and Geoff Moore had both been friends of mine for five years, but had never met. I thought their Midwestern sensibilities to their music along with their desire for realistic discipleship would blend well. Chuck Tilley, a famed concert promoter, and my boss, Devlin Donaldson (also a much-published rock critic) were also along. My hope was Rick would find some cohorts in his yearning for honest communication, too. We all had a meaningful time engaging with the poor of Guatemala, but also in the fellowship of our own poor-in-spirit conditions. Everyone hit it off right from the get-go, and the rest, as they say, is history. Not only did deep connections begin across the board, but the seeds for the “ragamuffin band” idea that Mullins had rolling around in his head were birthed on that excursion.
Within a year, Rick and Rich were heading up said band, touring across North America and recording award-winning albums. Rick also did two more solo albums of his own, and made major alliances on soundtracks for films like That Thing You Do, My Big Fat Greek Wedding, as well as TV shows. His notoriety as a producer grew as well. After Mullins’ tragic auto accident five years later, Rick helped carry the flame with several more Ragamuffin Band albums.
But with the demise of the CCM industry and ever-tightening playlists at Christian radio in the past dozen years, Rick has been unable to move forward as an recording artist. He continues writing, producing, and occasionally playing live shows. He’s also a professor at a music school here in Nashville, passing on his deep knowledge of art, craft, and business sense to younger musicians.
It’s been 13 years since Rick has been in a studio to work on any of his own compositions. Seeing some of his contemporaries launch successful Kickstarter campaigns to raise money for self-released projects, he decided it was time to give that a shot. The money came in from eager fans that have waited well over a decade to hear more from Elias. And, despite a serious tumble that caused a debilitating shoulder injury in the midst of production, he was able to get his first solo album in over 15 years finished this year, and it is releasing to the public this week.
It is entitled Jōb, and the moniker is appropriate, not just for the long-suffering chronicled above, but also Rick’s desire to probe a thorny theological issue. It isn’t just the ancient Old Testament story that is examined, but also contemporary--perhaps even autobiographical--musings on the purposes of pain and disappointment that are brought to the fore.
Opening with “Do Ya,” Elias serves as a guide of sorts, leading us into places none of us would choose to go. The plaintive acoustic guitar is joined by a slowly building cadre of instrumentation and layered voices blowing across a dusty soulscape.
Who am I?
Do you know me?
If you know
Well then tell me
Ring those suffering chimes
Tell me whose fate is mine
Do ya feel like an angel?
Or a pawn in a fable?
Son of Jōb
Son of betrayal
There are no strangers at this table
Ending with one of the coolest chords since the beginning of “Hard Day’s Night,” the stage is then set for the ripping title track, which is easily the top rock song of 2013. Delivered with the edginess of late 60s Rolling Stones but the ferocity of mid-tempo Metallica, this slide guitar-fueled cruncher lifts the downtrodden questions into a realm of righteous anger.
Naked I came from my mother’s womb
And naked I will return
My serpent skins shed in the tomb
And a lover’s heart that still burns
A spoken word section halfway through, reminiscent of Bono’s laments in “Bullet the Blue Sky,” was written and voiced by Rick’s old high school chum, the illustrious Luis Alberto Urrea, now a Pulitzer Prize nominated and New York Times Best Selling author.
Templars in the alley performing esoteric rites
Junkies howl their hosannas in the galleries of night
Gathering upright citizens running from the light
Just another blind boy, blessed and cursed, with visions instead of sight
And I’m still walking…
If I fell down in the city would I make the slightest sound?
One the sidewalk where the saddest of the seraphim can be found
Where the children of the morning chalk their scriptures on the ground
And sing their hymns with the voices of the drowned
I hear them talking…
“When It All Comes Down” follows next as protestations begin to turn inward, examining how sometimes we help create our own quagmires. The sophisticated arrangement and cool elements like a backwards guitar, stark keyboard textures, and Tim Chandler’s lyrical bass figures broaden the pallet that provides paint for the picture.
I watched the level rise
Debris brought me to my knees
With all my crimes
And all my lies
I circled the drain
Like a spider going down the sink
When it all came down
It was like a mist that tuned to rain
Until the rain
Became a stream
The stream a river
An open vein
Bleeding out across the lowlands
Swallowing summer and spring
When it all came down
It took everything
Willing inner deception is also spoken of in a lament about divas and drama queens, and the men who are pulled under their spells in “A Kind of Brilliance.”
Critics, fakes, and cheap alcohol
Clumsy, mumbled dialogue
Would never bring her down
She’s lost in her soliloquy
Her lonely, bittersweet elegy
To love lost, not found
While here in the shadows I am bleeding, baby
But you can’t even hear my voice
And I admit
Kind of liar
A kind of brilliance
Melancholy and nostalgia soaked in resignation characterize the aching account of the years of a marriage; good, bad, and indifferent. Surely “When We Built This House” is one of the frankest songs I’ve heard about the ongoing challenges of life-long commitment.
Those were the days
When grace threw long shadows
And light filtered through
Now we see through a haze
Smoke and dust from a battle
Ghosts wander from room to room
I told you, “Love is never abstract
It will break your heart and never look back”
Then you ask me how I am
Well what do you see?
One heart left to chance
And the other to bleed
Two souls in a dance
A fait accompli
Then I remember
Your eyes, your laugh
You smiled and the world was right
And I still remember
When we built this house
A reworking of “Help Thou My Unbelief,” originally on the Prayers of a Ragamuffin album, continues the flow of recognition within the heart of Jōbs and Thomas’s everywhere that there is, indeed, a loving God in the midst of the trials and apprehension. A gentle, earnest plea for anyone that is wrestling with uncertainty.
Father you led me as I crossed the wasteland
Conquering the mountains, the rivers, the lowlands
But you would not conquer me
Abba you touched me, you heard all my cries
I sat at your table, I lay by your side
But as Thomas, no Judas
It’s you I denied
Still, you loved me
Bringing everything to a close is “Jōb, Naked,” and addendum to the title track that starts as an edgy acoustic Steve Earle-like thumper. The ultimate questions still resound, but there’s an allowance for clemency from the great beyond, and a hope for the coming redeemer.
Well, yer straight out of luck
The hand’s dealt from the bottom tonight
Deals have been struck
And the seersucker suits came to buy
After all their manipulations
Yeah, all those clever moves
Comes a single act of mercy
As a child in a young mother’s womb
The final several minutes morph into a middle-eastern whirling dervish, reminiscent of the eclectic instrumentation utilized on the Page-Plant Zeppelin Unledded tour back in the mid-90s. The interaction between Elias’ frenetic guitar and drummer/percussionist Steve Hindalong’s accents builds in hypnotic intensity. The rising string section adds to the mounting crescendo, that ends with an Olympic droning sustain that washes over the whole procession. As it fades, one is reminded that Yaweh does speak, usually as a whisper, through the howling winds on occasion.
Sonically, Jōb is by far the best sounding album Elias has done. Rich in texture, warm when needed, stark in the right places. Little instrumental flourishes and sweeteners from accordion, organ, piano, vibes, mandolin, etc. lend just the right grace notes. The contributions of the aforementioned Hindalong and Chandler, who make up the rhythm section of The Choir, are stellar. Their band mate, Derri Daughtery, does a premium effort engineering and assisting on the mix. But it is Elias, who plays nearly every other instrument, and blends in many intriguing harmonies alongside his ardent lead vocal, who carries the day.
All said, Jōb is such a satisfying listen, and worthy of the wait. It is certainly one of the strongest releases of the year. And all of it combined begs just one more question: how long until the next one? I’m confident that Rick has much, much more to offer, and can hardly contain myself in anticipation of more to come. Lord knows, we need his brand of literate, seasoned, and fervent rock to help us navigate the thorny questions.
You can buy Jōb as a digital download here (as well as hear samples):
You can also purchase it at iTunes (as well as hear samples):
If you want a physical CD (and maybe some other swag such as a signed album art poster, autographed B&W pic, comp CD, etc.) go here: