Split EPs can be a gamble. The basic premise is that two artists split what would otherwise be a full-length album and split it right down the middle, each creatiing a separate EP which are then packaged together as one full-length album. The cautions should be obvious: what if the two EPs sound too much alike? What if they sound too different? What if the two different artists’ styles clash with one another? What if it doesn’t work as a cohesive whole? But, just as the cautions stare us in the face, so do the potential victories: two creative forces have a platform within which to shine off of another artist’s strengths, sharpening their own. That’s exactly what happened when Louisville’s Jamie Barnes and Brooks Ritter decided to do a split project together.
Barnes and Ritter each contribute five songs to the project and while the two EPs are distinct and different, they play off of one another in astonishing beauty and grace. Each EP explores the battle against sin and reliance on Jesus in different yet complimentary ways. The thematic uniy is really what ties this project together, along with the production, which allows different musicians, expressing themselves different to compliment one another.
Barnes opens the album with The Mercy Seat EP. I was immediately struck by the lushness and added textures Barnes has added to his music. While his music has always been marked by a simple lushness, he addition of strings and horns adds layer, texture and depth to already beautiful songwriting. On “Absent From The Flesh,” Barnes shows that there’s more in him than the typical mellow singer-songwriter material he’s largely known from. The upbeat track looks forward to that final celebration when God finally takes us home. The New Orleans style horns and backbeat urge you to join in the hand-clapping and sing out: “I go where God and glory shine, to one eternal day. This failing body I now resign for the angels point my way.”
Perhaps most interesting amidst Barnes’ strong offerings is “Dark Passenger,” a song struggling to understand our ongoing battle with indwelling sin, longing for the final victory. “Dark passenger” is a phrase borrows from the television series Dexter, about a serial killer who struggles to come to terms with his urges. The lilting, almost walt-lke upbeat melody plays in stark contrast with lyrics like: “What is this voice that trails behind me breathing blameful lies? I fail to shake its shadow from me.” The contrast is powerful and forces each one of us to look to the mercy seat in contrast to our own weakness.
Ritter, too, it seems, has expanded his musical palate. While his 2009 outing The Horse Fell Lame was largely solo, acoustic and featured minimal instrumentation, highlighting Ritters’ soulful vocals, The War EP expands his already rich sound, adding full band that only serves to further push his strong vocals front and center.
Opening his section with the EP’s title track, the foreboding guitar and marching drums pick up perfectly the theme of struggle Barnes has just left us with. Ritter opens, longing for relief in the desert, “a drop to quench my grief,” bursting into a powerful chorus reminding us that the only true relief “in my hour of need” flows from Calvary. The powerful contrast to the lilting melody Barnes has just left us with could not be more perfect because the theme of struggle beyond ourselves s woven so skillfully by both writers.
Ritter soulfully explores the same territory of hope-filled struggle as does Barnes. In fact, many of the songs seems to mirror one another thematically. Both EPs open with songs of struggle and go immediately into joyful, celebratory tracks, not only looking forward to that day of final deliverance but back to the “good day” when Jesus did, in fact come to save His people.
But whereas Barnes leaves us in the midst of struggling, battling our “dark passengers,” Ritter leaves us with the “Rock of Ages” that saves us from wrath and makes us pure.
Barnes and Ritter have risen to the challenge of a thematically unified, musically diverse split album wonderfully. Each has expanded their musical palate, drawing on their strengths and complimenting one another all the while. The album is honest and hopeful, a balance often often missing in much “Christian” music. It not only draws on traditional material but also adds to that already rich canon, reminding us that beauty is often found in the chaos of life and that, though we struggle in a war to run to the mercy seat, there is always a rock stronger than us.
Highly, highly recommended.