Like its creator, the music of Wendell Kimbrough defies easy description.
Half of his latest album, Things That Can't Be Taught, includes drums and therefore qualifies as rock. The drumless other half relies on piano and acoustic guitar for its rhythmic pulse, thereby qualifying as folk. The clarinet-embroidered "Communication" and portions of "The Longest Month" could fit into a Dixieland revue. And each song's lyrics, sung by Kimbrough in a gently yearning tenor, display insight seldom attained by most young "singer-songwriters."
Yet a folk-rocking, early-20th-century-music-loving singer-songwriter is what Kimbrough is-as well as a Mississippi-bred, 28-year-old newlywed reared in the Presbyterian Church in America who now leads music at a conservative Anglican church in Washington, D.C.
"I never had a 'breaking' with the PCA," he told me. "My entire philosophy and practice of leading congregational music is shaped by the wisdom of Protestant hymnody. I just found another gospel-centered church in another tradition that was a good, healthy place for me to be, to serve, and to use and develop my gifts."
Another good place for Kimbrough has been D.C.'s indie-music scene. Besides helping him network with the itinerant likes of Damien Jurado and Elizabeth & the Catapult, it has also helped him build a local following so loyal that he was able to finance the recording of Things That Can't Be Taught with donations solicited via online campaign. Partly out of gratitude and partly "to greatly expand [his] fan base," he has decided to make the album available for free.
Those who take advantage of his generosity won't be sorry. Whimsical numbers such as "The Longest Month" (about hating February because it's always winter and never Christmas) and "Communication" (about a girl who wants to be "just friends") serve as foils for meatier fare such as "When I Work Alone" (a portrait of the artist as a perfectionistic young man) and "The Death of Death" (which ends "Hallelujah! Hallelujah! Hallelujah!").
One song is so meaty, in fact, it might take listeners aback. Sung from the point of view of a happily married family man who nevertheless knows not to think he stands lest he fall, it urges the man's friends to jolt him to his senses should he ever seek greener grass. "Tell me 'bout my wife and kids," Kimbrough sings, "and then tell me 'bout my mom. / Tell me I'm an [expletive deleted] to ignore them."
"Vulgar language is rarely appropriate," he says. "But when someone is in egregious sin, I think strong language is justified. It's a little bit like Jesus calling the Pharisees 'You brood of vipers!' when they claimed he was from the devil in Matthew 12. Strong language was merited because the offense was great. I just ask listeners to consider the story the song is telling."
Another believer who has apparently come to believe in the legitimacy of "strong language" is the Rock and Roll Hall of Famer Dion DiMucci.
After nearly 40 minutes of mostly original, razor-sharp blues, he concludes his new album, Tank Full of Blues (Blue Horizon), with "Bronx Poem," an almost certainly improvised-in-the-studio, rhyming overview of his 72 years, spoken atop a laid-back shuffle and overflowing with gratitude toward his Savior. "I ride with the King of Kings," he recites. "He brought me through."
Then, mid-song, he declares himself "authentic, genuine, a truth teller," and adds "no [B.S.]."
"Don't have a fit," he says immediately thereafter. "God's on His throne."