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"Hammers & Nails"
Paste Records 2003
Hammers and Nails - cover

Teaser: The final archiving of a tortured prophet is a welcome revelation, although nothing would have changed - he was always too different to be welcomed in the bourgeois world of CCM.

Paste Music, with the cooperation of Fingerprint Records, has done us a great service with what is believed to be the final compilation of the recorded work of Mark Heard, the peripatetic troubadour turned studio whiz who became THE voice for a clan of edgy Christians in the seventies and eighties. Hammers & Nails is the accompanying “soundtrack” for Matthew Dickerson’s deeply researched chronicle of the same title, published by Cornerstone Press and, like the book, the CD tells us a lot of what we already figured out and a significant little that we craved to learn.

For example, “Hold Me Closer,” is typically more than what Dickerson calls “a gentle love song in the confessional vein.” The song represents Heard at his lyrical best, exuding a warmth while at the same time chafing over the fallen and failing world: “Disregard the violins,” he croons, “In a fight that only two can win.” The poignant vulnerability of Heard’s latter works (such as in “I Always Do,” played here in a stripped-down fashion) endeared him to an audience that relished his almost painfully honest maturation from young cultural apostle to middle-aged visionary of self-reflection.

Three of the revelatory tunes that are highlights of this CD are the previously unreleased “I Hang My Head” and “I Might Have Felt That Way,” and the recognizable “Everything Is Alright,” originally sung by Phil Keaggy on Sunday’s Child. “Hang” first reminds us that Heard was a master of the rock/pop arrangement, using his electric guitar to provide a sonic culture for his word growth. Secondly, we rediscover the brutal honesty of self loathing that created a crucial rhetorical balance for Heard’s cultural rants. “Felt” rides one of Heard’s best acoustic guitar riffs to reveal a one-sided view of the generation gap. “Everything,” in the voice of its author, becomes a much more poignant testimony of the life of the artist. Among the rock and roll of Sunday’s Child, the song became a victim of Keaggy’s McCartneyesque sweetness (and could have been easily replaced with Heard’s more rocky “Your World or Mine,” which would have fit the tone of that album better).

We are also reminded of Heard’s studio ability that testified to his superb rock sophistication, evinced more by the “finished” material on the final third of this CD that was released earlier and then [was] (putting 'was' as part of the verb) added to this collection. Surely Buddy Miller had something significant to do with the ambiance of “Shaky Situation,” but we had listened to guitar layering and pristine background vocal mixing in earlier albums anyway. Heard had demonstrated his facility with sounds in his iDEoLA project, and here we also get the wondrously electronic “Jericho,” released on a Myrrh compilation but under the name of “Lee Cahuenga.” (Odd, how Mark could never put his name on the truly experimental music of his career.)

And we get his story telling, usually through personification. “Shaking” appears to be about an intriguing woman, a female savant perhaps, who “lives out East a way…with summer flowers in her hair” but “you don’t wanna know her or get on her bad side” or she’ll have you “shaking.” In the swinging “When His Luck Runs Out,” the male counterpart is more stereotypical, having “two of anything you could name” yet “just one step away from being down and out.”

But of all these long-awaited songs, the one that opens the album represents the whole of Heard’s art the best. “Seasons of Words” (which would have made a cool title for this CD) has an Ashes and Light folk-rock air that slightly masks the dour viewpoint of the singer. Loaded with imagery and irony, Heard’s voice peals the hour of tears that is distracted by the noise of modern rhetoric: “Children play and children cry/Simple things summon the tears in their eyes/We might’ve been so young/But for the constant drone/That’s making us old…”

It was a bad heart that made Mark Heard old before his time, but it could have easily been that “drone” of Christian institutional mediocrity that dragged his spirit, and then his flesh, to what we like to think was an untimely death. Thank God for the technology that has allowed us to enter this prophet’s world and keeps his voice ringing in our ears.

Jeff Cebulski ( The Phantom Tollbooth, 8/26/2003 )

A collection of demos and unreleased recordings written between 1987 and 1989. Audio quality ranges from okay to excellent, and really showcases Mark's development and growth as a musician, and songwriter from his early work. In a world full of what if scenarios, one wonders what the musical landscape would be like today if Mark hadn't passed away so young. What if ...

Some of the familiar songs here are shown in their early form and have a warmth of delivery that speaks to the source material. Hammers and Nails serves up a final helping of Mark's work and in a subtle way points an accusing finger at the fickle record buying public as if to say "Look, look at what you missed." Hats off to the fine folks at Paste Music for working to keep his legacy alive.

Why is it that so many artists only begin to reap their rewards after they have passed on? Unlike the other arts, in time the music will fade, the master tapes turn to dust. Leaving only words. Which when you think about it is entirely appropriate, and I'm sure Mark would find the humor in it, for in the end, like the beginning was the word.

Jevon ( Banophernalia, June 30, 2003 )

Although many of my favorite artists looked up to him, and those who considered him an influence included such names as Bruce Cockburn, Victoria Williams, T-Bone Burnett (of O Brother, Where Art Thou? fame), Buddy Miller, Sam Phillips and Michael Been, it took 12 years after his death for me to finally delve into the music of Mark Heard. Once I did, it only took 48 seconds into the first track to get hooked. Maybe it was the immediacy of his guitar playing, the earnestness in his voice, the lonely melody or an unorthodox chord that drew me in. Whatever it was, I knew that Heard was to join my collection of cherished deceased geniuses whose work is destined to remain ignored by the world.

As is the case with all dead musical geniuses, a collection of demos and rarities is eventually released. For Heard that collection is Hammers & Nails, 17 tracks that are mostly unreleased songs. Never one to half-bake anything, the musical passion evident on these well-recorded demos exhibits the raw reality in which Heard lived.

Stylistically, most are acoustic rock songs that hide their influences well, but Heard’s real genius is in his melodies and poetic lyrics which teeter precariously between melancholy introspection of the human condition and hope. The source of this tension is Heard’s Christian faith. Although he strongly held to the Christian tenets, he was so put off by the modern Christian subculture that he refused to attend church during his adult life. It is ironic that those who would most identify with his stance are the very same who would be most put off by the “Christian” label he fought against during his life.

Lyrically, he tackles many subjects familiar to the introspective, from self-loathing (“Fencing with the windmills of my deepest fears / Jousting with this armor that I’ve riveted on”) to lost youth (“We might’ve been so young / But for the constant drone / That’s making us old: The usual distractions”) to the fragile nature of relationships (“Just a taste of love can kill you / Like shallow breathing underwater / I know that hearts can be accident-prone”) to the walls we build (“She keeps things to herself / Like she’s the scene of some crime”) to abandoning dreams (“And all the dreamers in this town / Wake up to lay their sweet dreams down”), all without pretension or pedantry.

Obviously I like the cut of this guy’s jib, enough for me to part with my money to invest in his back catalog (and for a cheap-skate like me, that’s saying something). To hear for yourself, or to part with your own hard-earned cash, leap to

Jason Hoffman ( Whatzup, 2004 )

Hammers & Nails  ~  Lyrics / DISCOGRAPHY