Jewgrass Duo Joanie and Matt Sell Biblical Inclusiveness on 'Sterling'
There has been a lot written over the last few years about the Progressive Christian movement. Led by people like pastor and blogger John Pavlovitz, the movement tries to reclaim faith from its recent connections to the political right, focusing on the healing and charity messages of the Bible. There has been less written about Progressive Judaism. But now the movement has a musical standard bearer in self-described Jewgrass duo Joanie and Matt, who use their new album Sterling, out July 19, to tell stories from the Old Testament in a way that is respectful of women and LGBT inclusive.
It's a daunting task. Old Testament women tend to fall into one of four categories; victims, harlots, schemers, or in one extreme case, the sole bearer of responsibility for the whole exile of man from paradise. But Joanie Leeds and Matt Check, longtime friends who released an album together a decade ago before separating and reuniting just recently, find ways to stay true to the spirit of these stories while reframing them by focusing on the secondary characters in stories.
The most effective, and devastating, example of this is the album's title track. The track retells the tale of Tamar, the daughter of David who was raped by her brother and lived the rest of her life in desolation after telling her father and having him do nothing in an effort to keep the peace. “Sterling” is told from Tamar's perspective, a broken and dejected figure who is brutally betrayed by someone she trusts (“you used to call me Baby Girl. Up on your shoulders I would twirl) only to be more tragically betrayed by her father. It's powerfully, painfully sung by Leeds, with lines like “you've taken this body, becoming a scoundrel. I could start a war, I'm not sterling anymore” delivered with an emotional rawness that can be felt through the speakers. It's a strangely timely song, considering it was taken from the Bible's earliest book. David is hailed as one of the great heroes of the Bible while Tamar is relegated to a minor tragic figure. Essentially, Tamar is the exact kind of person #MeToo was born to protect; a victim of the powerful forced into silence.
The album's other standout track is the polar opposite of “Sterling.” “It Ain’t Paradise” tells the story of Adam and Eve as a “Who's Gonna Take the Garbage Out” style argument duet. But Leeds' Eve is no abashed destroyer of Paradise. Instead, she's an empowered, sassy woman, quick to remind Adam that he didn't exactly turn that fruit down himself. In the song's best exchange, Check's Adam sings “Now dear you've heard the story, and now you know your place” only to have Leeds' Eve fire back “I don't need no ruler, and I ain't gonna listen to some sneaky little coward who sold me down the river. I labored 18 hours and birthed us Abel and Cain. What have you done today... Adam?”
Those are the best songs on the short 25 minute 7 song album, but they are far from the only ones. “The Mighty Have Fallen” explores the extremely close friendship of Jonathan and David from the Book of Samuel, a relationship that has led some to believe they were gay. Joanie and Matt run with that idea, telling a love story that transcends sexuality and is just a plain declaration of devotion and friendship that could apply to anyone. Love is love, the song makes clear, and it's the same no matter who you are.
Other tracks include the Jonah and the Fish story “Coming Up” which, if you strip out the Biblical elements, could be a great song about depression and healing. “Absalom” gives David a more sympathetic spin, turning the tale of the son who split his house into war (and, it should be mentioned, was the only member of the family to avenge Tamar) to a song about a father's love, with David singing “Absalom, I would have died for you. That's what a father would do.”
The songwriting on Sterling is just that throughout. To balance respect for these ancient texts with a more inclusive message is a songwriting challenge not many could have accomplished. But Joanie and Matt make it look easy. This album could easily be written off by some fans as “another gospel album” but that would be a mistake. Good music is good music, not matter the subject and Sterling is very very good music.
Joanie and Matt currently have two show upcoming. The first is a Sterling album release party at New York's Rockwood Music Hall on July 18. The other is Aug. 26 at The Bitter End in New York. You can get tickets to either show, or keep up when they (hopefully) expand to your town, here.