Religious music in America has a checkered past. In the earliest
days of American music, from the mountains in the East to the deltas in
the South, religion, most often Christian, was prominent in folk and
the blues. Unfortunately, contemporary perceptions of religious music
are colored less by historic tradition and more by clownish,
commodified, self-flattering attempts of the last ten to twenty years.
Those too are largely Christian, but must be as reprehensible to God as
they are to music fans. It's tough to communicate religious ideas in
music with sincerity and without drifting into self-parody. Yet Doug
Burr attempts just that on his latest work The Shawl, a collection of Biblical Psalms set to his own compositions.
The Psalms of the Bible have been sung for literally thousands of years. Virtually every generation has made an attempt to put some or all of them in their intended tuneful context, with mixed results. Usually this is done as a paraphrase: a Psalm is interpreted, rhymed in the language of choice, and given a good beat. On The Shawl, Doug Burr chose to sing the Psalms word for word as read from a single English translation of the Bible, forcing him to flip the standard practice and instead mold the music around the words. Burr, for his part, is humbly wise to leave the Psalms unadorned with commentary, to be heard and appreciated for their natural efficacy. This act alone should ingratiate the material to a variety of religious traditions.
The question is, do Hebrew Psalms really hold up as musical poetry in literally-translated English? Burr's attempt is fairly convincing. The phrasing and meter never sound forced. Musically, Burr seems to tip-toe into the Psalms, cautiously, reverently. The songs move at a shuffling monk's pace, giving Burr time to carefully handle each word. Instrumentally spare, The Shawl is clearly constructed to give emphasis to the words themselves, so it is Doug Burr's voice that is always carried above the various guitars and banjos and atmospheric hum. Burr sings alone without bravado in the calm manner of the old country sound, which is consistent with The Shawl's reverent austerity. The one exception, and most engaging moment of the album, occurs on "The Righteous Will Rejoice," which ends with the grandeur of a full gospel choir.
The Psalms are all prayers, words that spilled out of overflowing human hearts. On The Shawl, Doug Burr gives nine out of the 150 Psalms a respectful presentation. In doing so, Burr lets listeners in on the surprise that the Psalms are actually pretty compelling story songs, suitable not just for the devout, but any lover of sung drama.
1. I Am Weary With My Sighing
2. God is Known in Judah
3. Surely God is Good to Israel
4. A Thousand May Fall
5. The Righteous Will Rejoice
6. And We Will Be Saved
7. My voice Rises to God
8. Which We Have Heard and Known
9. In the Lord I take Refuge.