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Christian Music - Reviews, News, Interviews

Scribbling in the Sand

  • reviewed by Russ Breimeier Copyright Christianity Today International
  • 2002 1 Apr
Scribbling in the Sand
Sounds like … an episode of "VH-1 Storytellers" with Michael Card — acoustic arrangements of his best-loved songs performed with a variety of guest artists. At a Glance … the live acoustic setting gives Michael's music a fresh and timeless sound, highlighting the superb musicianship of the performances and the lyrical thoughtfulness of his songs.

He's had 20 albums and 19 #1 songs in a 20-year career as a recording artist — Michael Card truly is one of the most important Christian artists in the history of the genre. His inspirational folk/pop music is regarded by many to be among the "smartest" in Christian music, tackling deep theological matters head-on and expressing them with simplicity and poetry. The problem is, and some of you may disagree, I have a hard time going back to some of the classic Christian albums from 20 years ago because they sound so dated today. The solution to this in Michael's case is Scribbling in the Sand, an album recorded live in front of a small audience in Nashville last year that features 15 of his greatest hits and 2 songs that have never appeared on an album before now.

If you've ever seen the "Storytellers" series on VH-1, Scribbling in the Sand is essentially like it with Michael and band performing acoustic arrangements of his music in an intimate venue, interspersed with short stories about the songs. The nice thing about this setting is that it shifts the focus from glossy production tricks to the intelligence of Michael's lyrics and the talent of the musicians performing. The recording is clean, practically placing Michael Card in your living room. Part of Michael's intention with this album was to illustrate how true creativity is born out of community with other artists. As such, Scribbling in the Sand highlights guest musicians throughout the album, on nearly every track. Guitar virtuoso Phil Keaggy lends his talent to an exciting acoustic arrangement of "The Poem of Your Life, and saxophonist Kirk Whalum sounds terrific on a stripped-down version of the gospel-flavored "Soul Anchor." Steve Green lends his vocals on "Immanuel," though I was impressed equally with the vocals of Michael's long-time "best friend," Scott Rowling, who helped write "Things We Leave Behind" years ago. With introductions between nearly every song, the only artist not mentioned on the album is acclaimed new songwriter Sara Groves, who probably was not introduced because she was Michael's opening act on the tour from which this album was recorded. She appears throughout the album, singing with Michael on both "El Shaddai" and on a lively version of "Jubilee." On "Why," trading vocals between Michael (the questions) and Sara (the answers) highlights the question-and-answer aspect of the song, inquiring about the mysteries of Christ's passion and crucifixion.

Other favorite tracks include "Starkindler" (featuring a rousing fiddle performance for the Celtic-flavored song), "God's Own Fool," "The Basin and the Towel," and "Grace Be With You All" (from the Soul Anchor album, with an absolutely gorgeous melody). One of the two "new" tracks is "Underneath the Door," a folksy song Michael has performed at his concerts for years. The song recollects a young Michael striving to earn the attention of his father, who would lock himself in his study at night after a long day of work as a doctor. It has the same melancholic story-song tone as Harry Chapin's most famous work, "Cats in the Cradle," though it does offer some hope and encouragement in its message. Then there's the title track, which refers to Christ's wordless response to the angry mob prepared to stone an adulterous woman in John 8:1-11. It's an interesting perspective, focusing not on what Jesus wrote, but the fact that He did write — "It was silence, it was music, it was art, it was absurd / He stooped and shouted volumes without saying a single word."

I kind of wish that Michael didn't have an introduction between each and every song on the album, or that he wouldn't have focused so much on introducing the guest musicians and mentioning how long he's known them, though that certainly plays well to Michael's theme of artistic community. It would have been nice if, like on "VH-1 Storytellers," he would have spent as much time explaining some of the songs — the songwriting process or the story behind them — as he did for "Underneath the Door." This album definitely will appeal to longtime fans, and it also serves as a good way to introduce newcomers to these songs. Michael's music translates best in this folksy, intimate environment, giving his songs a timeless sound. I'm also impressed by Michael's commitment to artistic excellence through musicianship and community. Scribbling in the Sand also is available on video (DVD/VHS), and the words also are the title of his book, which delves more deeply into this subject of creativity born out of community. This concert album is unmistakable evidence to that idea.