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Christian Music - Reviews, News, Interviews

Play for the Gallery

  • reviewed by Russ Breimeier Copyright Christianity Today International
  • 2002 1 May
  • COMMENTS
Play for the Gallery
Sounds like … very alternative-pop songwriting for fans of Beck, John Mayer, Kevin Max, and Pete YornAt a Glance … Jonfulton and company have created an excellent modern pop/rock project that is truly "alternative" and very capable of attracting a mainstream audience.

At this year's Gospel Music Week, one of the hot topics for discussion was how to successfully break Christian artists into the mainstream arena. With the raging multi-platinum mainstream success of artists such as P.O.D., Creed, and Lifehouse, there's a strong renewed interest in impacting the culture at large, to create Christian music that's relevant to believers and non-believers alike. The success of such artists also proves that there is at least indifference (if not a strong interest) in spiritually-themed music by the public at large.

That's essentially the mission statement for Jonfulton (note: His first name is a combination of his two grandfather's first names. Calling him Jon would be like calling me "Ru."). Having grown up in a Christian home, Jonfulton got his start playing with a local band called Solar at the tail end of the grunge movement in Seattle. After some regional acclaim, the band separated and Jonfulton moved to Miami, where he further developed his vocal skills with a local choir. He eventually caught the attention of a label executive from the newly founded Crowne Music Group, started by David Byerley and Michael Omartian. Within weeks, the record label flew Jonfulton to Nashville to work on demos with John Elefante. With the writing and production support of David and Michael, as well as Tony Palacios, Christian rock veteran Rick Elias (The Ragamuffin Band), and Kevan Cyka (former collaborator with Trent Reznor of Nine Inch Nails), Jonfulton created the songs that would eventually comprise his debut, Play for the Gallery.

With so many Christian music legends supporting the project, it's no surprise Play for the Gallery is such a success. What is a surprise is how different this sounds from the Christian music norm. It's become such a meaningless term in music, but this album truly is "alternative" sounding, a hodgepodge of all sorts of musical influences. The closest I can come to describing Jonfulton's sound is Beck's similar Frankenstein-like blending of genres, though you also can hear the modern songwriting technique of artists such as John Mayer and Pete Yorn. As much as I like Kevin Max's Stereotype Be solo album, I can't help but wonder if this is the album he really wanted to make — something unusual sounding for Christian music, yet right at home on mainstream alternative radio, with lyrics that are acceptable for both formats.

You need listen no further than the opening track, "Strange Confession," to get a feel for Jonfulton. Set against a thumping dance-rock backbeat, he delivers the verses with a muffled and distorted moan, only to explode into a very singable and catchy chorus. The song is a call for reconciliation among family and friends: "We must be as one / Faith is the light that burns your candle / And brings distance to your fears." His vocals on the joyful anthem "Plain Jane" are sung with a whiney alternative vocal consistent with Ben Folds and Beck. The song recognizes the contributions of those who make the world a better place through humility and a simple lifestyle of serving others. Jonfulton pays similar tribute on "Heavens to Betsy," a sort of love song to a girl who helps others without fanfare or recognition. Another song with hit written all over it is the strong and convicting "Shook Up My World," which serves as testimony to the impact of Christ on Jonfulton's life. The driving alternative rock of "Take a Ride" challenges listeners not to blame our problems on everyone and everything else, but rather to accept our basic human need for God in our lives: "Call me a freak, call me a poser / I like ridin' on the holy ghoster / do you wanna take a ride?"

It's hard to resist talking about every track from this album in detail. I believe the song "Don't Throw It Away" will register with a lot of people as a wonderful reminder of the importance of a Christian upbringing and a child-like faith. I also love the sharp production on the album's closer, "Great City," a progressive pop expression of Christ's return as recorded in Revelation 20 and 21. The song features strong drum programming and a solid guitar hook — kind of a cross between Nine Inch Nails with Sting's hit single "Desert Rose." The amazing thing about these ten songs is that Jonfulton never refers specifically to Jesus Christ or God; the closest he comes is the aforementioned "Take a Ride" and its line about the "holy ghoster." And yet there's little doubt where this guy is coming from lyrically. "Standin' Here" is a step away from modern worship, a vertically focused song about God's goodness and unfailing presence: "No doubt about it, You're the rudder to my ship, You're the only reason that I even have a grip."

Play for the Gallery is not for all audiences. It's alternative enough to turn off pop-music lovers, with its edgy drum programming, distorted guitars, and occasionally sleepy and whiney vocals. For modern-rock fans, however, this album is like rain in the desert, and it represents a very important album for the Christian music industry on many levels. It proves you can create a Christian album that communicates the message without resorting to Christian rhetoric. It demonstrates that a Christian album can be truly alternative by mainstream standards. It lets the mainstream music scene know that Christian music is just as capable of producing well-produced, smartly written, creative ear candy. On top of all that, Crowne Music Group seems to recognize the mainstream crossover potential and is organizing heavy promotion of Play for the Gallery through Best Buy stores. There's even talk of bundling a CD sampler of the first single from the album with the new Goo Goo Dolls CD. Crowne Music Group and Jonfulton seem to have hit upon a winning formula for getting the message of the Gospel out beyond the Christian subculture via modern music. All I can say is that it's high time someone did, and more power to Jonfulton for attempting to take the road less traveled with an album that can truly reach a whole new audience.


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