Salvation in Lights
ou know the story. It's the one where the hard-living rocker battles addiction and teeters between God and the Devil and reaches bottom and turns it around. The rocker then re-dedicates himself to his faith and continues to happily make music, whether anyone cares about it or not. The difference in this case? The music has gotten markedly better.
Mike Farris, former vocalist and guitarist for the Screaming Cheetah Wheelies (of brief "Shakin' the Blues" fame) and guitarist for Double Trouble, put together a series of traditional pieces, spirituals, covers, and originals for his second solo album Salvation in Lights. As you'd expect, he blends his style—grounded in classic and Southern rock—with the original folk styles; as you might not expect, the attempt results in a cohesive album of familiar yet distinctive performances.
The disc opens with a somber gospel choir on "Sit Down Servant" leading into the New Orleans jubilation of horns and soft-edged funkiness. Setting the tone for the disc, Farris announces that his Salvation stems from joyfulness, but his narrator "just got to heaven," so it's not as if we can escape turmoil here on earth. Far from cutting a worship album or a meditative prayer (Farris has described playing music as being like prayer to him), the artist goes after the larger internal rumble of faith and worldly challenges.
Farris claims the ground as his own with "Oh Mary Don't You Weep." Here, he competes not only against tradition, but also against Bruce Springsteen's recent version from We Shall Overcome: The Seeger Sessions. Where Springsteen lets a melancholy fiddle give way to an energetic swamp stomp, Farris uses his confident vocal, small gospel backup, and simple orchestration to provide not only the title line's consolation, but, more important, the empathy necessary to make any comfort worth taking. Springsteen's version works, especially in the midst of his album's celebration, but Farris takes the "rainbow sign" only after considering the water.
The album's one misstep comes with "Change Is Gonna Come." Farris has a remarkable voice, but he can't stack up to Sam Cooke's original (or Aretha Franklin's or Otis Redding's), and choosing a soul number both so often butchered and so often stunning slows the persistent hope of the album even as it limits the idiosyncrasy of Salvation. He fares much better with "I'll Take You There," the sort of song with which he could have had similar problems. For this version (with new, adapted, and Christianized lyrics), he slows down the track, trading in the upfront bassline and funk for a more classic rock anthemic sound, with a guitar-led build to the glorious crescendo. Farris and band resist going over the top, but they make it clear just how significant and beautiful "there" is to them.
Farris composes a number of originals, doing an excellent job to mix up their content while blending them in fluidly with the rest of the disc. "Devil Don't Sleep" has a back-alley sound to match its tone of warning, while "The Lonely Road" builds on an alt-rock feel into the celebration of "I'm Gonna Get There" (the natural thematic outcome of its preceding song, and of Salvation's concerns as a whole). For that servant that just got to heaven, death is no longer simply an escape from the horrors of earthly living, but a chance to put on some dancing shoes, whether they were meant for gospel, rock, or soul. All three fit Farris just fine.