Packaging aside, similarities abound between this new six-disc box and the 1993 five-disc box it supplants. Both contain all the hits and many of the same album cuts, and a good chunk of the new box’s “60 previously unreleased tracks” are just stereo mixes of hoary mono-only recordings. An even better chunk, however, are special. “Soul Searchin’,” “California Feelin’,” “You’re Still a Mystery,” 15 live cuts spanning 1965 to 1995—why, even “Rock and Roll Music” has gained an extra verse and heretofore unheard harmonies.
This natural-born belter suffers from backup-singer syndrome. I.e., despite the catchiness of the retro-soul in which she traffics on this album’s first seven songs, she sounds as if she’d be more at home helping the Rolling Stones put across “Gimme Shelter.” Then, suddenly, on Track Eight (“Leave Me Too”), she switches gears, easing into a sleek pop worthy of Fleetwood Mac. Were it the A-side of a single, the Bob Seger–worthy “Light My Fuse” that immediately follows would make a nifty flip side.
Having long ago mastered the art of fitting irresistible hooks to masterly production, Jars of Clay now live and die by their lyrics. And this batch, if not their best, may be their wisest. “Don’t know enough about love, so we make it up,” they sing repeatedly on “Age of Immature Mistakes,” succinctly summing up everything anyone needs to know about an era in which people say “homosexual marriage” with a straight face and headlines announcing the contracting of HIV by porn stars are the new “Man Bites Dog.”
“Soul,” “R&B,” “funk,” “jazz”—such descriptive terms have their place. But on this album by mainstream blues-rock’s most high-profile convert to the Christian faith, all that such terms describe are the ingredients in an explosively infectious stew. Meanwhile, anyone confused by the lack of explicitly gospel lyrics is directed to the liner notes, which name the producer (the CCM-crossover jack-of-all-trades Tommy Simms) and contain a shout-out to Jesus that goes, “I realize my need for you now more than ever.”
A personal note: I interviewed Lydia Tomkiw (pronounced Tom-Q) in 1993. The verbal half of the poetry-rock duo Algebra Suicide, she was promoting her band’s swan song, Tongue Wrestling, although she and Don Hedeker, Algebra Suicide’s musical half, had just called their professional and marital partnerships quits. What was her favorite poem? After some thought, she said it was probably Gerard Manley Hopkins’ “Spring and Fall.” It was a curious choice coming from someone known for spare, cleverly sardonic verse that had little if anything in common with Hopkins’ Catholic, 19th-century sprung rhythms.
For those still interested in finding the connection, Dark Entries Records has released Feminine Squared, an 18-track compilation of Algebra Suicide’s 1980s work. (The vinyl edition comes with a 1984 concert DVD.) Tomkiw immersed herself in dark subjects, but she remained playful throughout, never countenancing melodrama or self-pity. Her death in 2007 at 48 deprived the world of a uniquely fascinating voice. —A.O.