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The Guardian Heart

There are all sorts of hearts in this world. Some are cold and hard, impenetrable and insulated from any emotion, good or bad. Others are soft and tender, feeling every little thing that comes their way. However, a precious few seem destined to help those who need it, giving what love, peace and protection that is to be had to all that heart encounters. They exist to give, often without any expectation of recompense. I call these guardian hearts.

I’ve haven’t had the fortune to find many of these in my 50 plus years of travels on this Earth. Part of the reason for that is that not only are they unbelievably rare but also that those who possess these tend to have a limited shelf life. These are sensitive souls who feel things so much more keenly than others do, and often they come with their own special demons. I can’t say that all of them burn brightly and flicker out, but that is often the case. That’s why when one is encountered, it is incumbent upon us to do everything we can to nurture and preserve those who possess one.

Sometimes, I’ve run into them not so much directly but by proxy; they can be recognized not just by what they do but by those who are touched by them. One such guardian heart belongs to a gentleman by the name of Scott Stapp.

Some of you may recognize the name. Yes, I’m talking about that Scott Stapp. Lead singer of Creed. Yes, yes, the “Arms Wide Open” guys. No, I’m not crazy. Not about this anyway.

Creed was never the most fashionable of bands and they took a whole lot of critical lumps. Stapp’s vocal style is a bit over the top, I’ll admit. The band has a hard rock edge but a very strong patina of Christian faith. They may not necessarily always be overt about that faith, like a Stryper for example, but nonetheless they weren’t shy about it either and bands with a message of faith tend to make mainstream critics uncomfortable. Their upbeat lyrics tended to make the bloggers snarky. Nothing brings out the snark than a message of hope, after all. That kind of thing never made sense to me; not everybody has to be the Smiths. Of course, it became fashionable to bash the Smiths too. I think it basically becomes fashionable to bash everyone. That’s just the culture of destroy everything we touch that we live in these days. It’s so much easier to bring down than to build up which is one of the things that makes the guardian heart all the more special.

Stapp grew up here in Orlando (went to Lake Highland Prep if I’m not mistaken) and formed his band among friends at Florida State. The market at the time wasn’t receptive to straight ahead rock bands and they had trouble finding gigs, often having to create them themselves in restaurants and in other venues. Their powerful live shows and Stapp’s soaring vocals and immense presence got them noticed and after they recorded an album for $6,000, they found a label as well – Wind-Up Records who remixed the album and sent it back out into the world. That album would be My Own Prison and would generate four number one singles on the Billboard rock charts, the first debut album to accomplish that feat.

A second album, Human Clay brought even further success and a Grammy for “With Arms Wide Open.”  While preparations were underway for touring for their third album, Stapp was involved in an auto accident which would eventually help get him hooked on prescription pain medicine, in addition to his already growing dependence on alcohol. The tour eventually went on but was something of a disaster, leading to a show in Rosemont, Illinois at which Stapp was admittedly intoxicated and was accused (and later sued for) being so incoherent he couldn’t remember the lyrics to a single song. That lawsuit was eventually dismissed, incidentally.

With tensions between Stapp and the band intolerably high, the group broke up. Stapp started a successful solo career while the rest of the band reformed as Alter Bridge. However in 2009 they reunited and released their fourth album, Full Circle which brought back the band’s fan base, and which spawned another triumphant tour. However, plans for a fifth album were abandoned after once again Stapp and the rest of the band had another falling out. While Stapp has kept the door open for a further Creed project, guitarist Mark Tremonti has been less hopeful about any more touring or recording by the band.

Since then, Stapp’s drug use and alcohol abuse have spiraled out of control. In November 2014, his wife Jaclyn filed for divorce after receiving bizarre messages from her husband, taking custody of their two children as well as his son from a previous marriage. Later that month, Stapp posted a video to his Facebook page stating that he was homeless and living in a Holiday Inn with severe financial issues. He has also made several 911 calls that alluded to him being chased by people who wanted to kill him.

It seems likely that Stapp is suffering from mental illness; there are some who believe he may be Bipolar. There is no doubt that his life has unraveled and he is facing some of the most darkest days that anyone could ever face and he seems to be doing it alone.

You might be asking yourself here what makes this man worthy of attention. After all, he’s just another drug-addled rock star that had it all and blew it, right? Well, that would only be part of the story.

Stapp has a history of giving to those in need. He began his With Arms Wide Open Foundation in 2000, giving aid mainly to needy children not just here in the states but around the world. In 15 years the foundation has donated more than a million dollars to various causes mostly related to children in crisis. Eventually he renamed his charity the Scott Stapp foundation; there is currently another organization using the Arms Wide Open name to battle childhood cancer which so far as I know is not affiliated with Stapp’s charity. Stapp has donated a portion of ticket sales to his foundation for years; all of the proceeds from the “With Arms Wide Open” single went to his charitable foundation. While it is largely inactive now due to Stapp’s difficulties, it has made a difference in a good many lives and largely under the radar.

But that’s not what qualifies Stapp in my book for the truly high praise. A good friend of mine, whose husband at the time worked as a monitor engineer for Creed’s road crew, told me a story about how her daughter had gotten very sick, to the point where doctors felt she wasn’t going to make it. She called her husband and pleaded with him to come home to say goodbye to their child. When her husband told Stapp what was happening, not only did he give his crew member leave to be with his family, he also found out about the little girl’s condition and discovered that there was some cutting edge research being done at Johns Hopkins Hospital. He arranged for the girl to be flown to Baltimore where she was treated and eventually recovered and is alive to this day because of Stapp’s intervention, which he paid for out of his own pocket.

That’s not a story many people know about, and I only heard about it because I know the girl’s mom. When Stapp’s troubles became public, she asked me to write something about him, something that maybe he might read one day and hopefully get from her a return on the gift that he gave her – the gift of love that led to life. I don’t claim to be close to Scott Stapp, nor do I claim to really be able to even have any sort of understanding of what he’s going through. Normally, I’d just wish him well and hope for the best.

And yet there’s that story, a little girl alive today because of his direct involvement and hundreds and thousands maybe millions of people whose lives today are better not just because of his charity but because his music inspired them to hope for better things and maybe even find them. Lives like his that touch so many lives that way are to be treasured and preserved. I do hope that he can find his way off the precipice that he is on to a safe place to land and gets the help that he needs. His kids deserve to have their dad around. His friends deserve to have him back. HE deserves the happiness of a life well-lived. I hope his guardian heart remains strong and beats hard for many years to come.

Heart of Gold

Heart of Gold

In a lot of ways, we define ourselves by the music we listened to growing up, particularly in our adolescent years. Listening to loud, aggressive music doesn’t necessarily make us loud, aggressive people but it certainly can pave the way.

We identify with our genre of music. Metalheads wear lots of black leather, tattoos and big hair (or no hair – shaved heads are getting more prevalent in the loud hard school). Greasers wear leather jackets, ducktails and poodle skirts. Ravers have a lot of Day-Glo and a ton of ecstasy. We all have our uniforms.

Our attitudes towards love are often informed by our attitudes towards pop songs as well. There are those who go for the real superficial pop songs in which love is more of a teenage crush. I can truly understand that – it breaks love, a complicated and confusing emotion, down to its base elements. The love in these pop songs is easy to handle. Lots of platitudes and epic proclamations of the heart that sound passionate on the surface. This love is much easier than the real thing, which can be a pain in the ass.

Then there are the more adult love songs, those that talk about love in the real world; of building a life together and battling through the obstacles that life sets before all of us. This love is imperfect. There are discussions, arguments, mistakes made and forgiveness extended – sometimes grudgingly. This love is a struggle that is, at the end of the day, worth it although in these love songs there aren’t always guaranteed happy endings.

Then there’s the third kind; the lost love songs. These are the sorts of songs that I used to relate to as a heartsick teen and even up until today. Unrequited love songs were my favorite; that was an experience I was quite familiar with as a teen and a young man. Being as hideously shy as I was with the self-confidence of an epileptic on a high wire in a disco, I had trouble expressing my feelings (and sometimes still do). I felt that I would be shot down if I were to even ask a girl out on a date and to be honest, most of my experiences taught me that it was the case. In all fairness to the girls of my high school, college and neighborhood, I can’t imagine I was much of a catch being as immature as I was. Then again, considering the way they were treated by some of the guys they did hook up with they could (and did) have done a lot worse than me.

In any case, my sensitive teen heart was drawn to those songs like a moth to a candle. One of my favorites to this day is “Everything I Own” by Bread – with lyrics like “You’re loving them so and taking them all for granted, but you lose them one day someone takes them away and they don’t hear the words you long to say.” That was me. Almost every girl I crushed on during my teens and early 20s

found other guys to hang around with and why not? How would they know I was interested if I didn’t tell them anything? I gave teenage girls much more credit for being psychic than perhaps I should have.

But it was a strain for me to talk to girls. I always felt inadequate, unlovable and unworthy. I learned to be polite and respectful, complimentary and flirtatious when I was in my late 20s and early 30s. The women at work and of other acquaintance responded to that. Still my romantic life was pretty sad – I had no money to take anyone out and when I did have any money at all I couldn’t get past my own shyness. There were a lot of wasted opportunities back then; looking back, there were plenty of women giving me hints that they wouldn’t mind going out with me but I was simply too naive or too un-self confident to interpret them. When I thought a girl was sending out signals that she liked me, I tended to disregard them as delusion. After all, what girl in her right mind would want to be with me?

So I listened to a lot of sad love songs and songs of love lost and took comfort in them. Someone else knew exactly how I was feeling. That’s a powerful thing when you’re miserable. It felt good to know I wasn’t alone. David Gates felt exactly the way I did. So did Paul McCartney, when he wrote “Eleanor Rigby” (I was certain that I would live the rest of my life alone and die that way). It wasn’t until I was in my late 20s and early 30s that I discovered that there were women attracted to me and that some of them might even consider (gasp) more than a single date with me. They might even consider (double gasp) a relationship.

That changed everything. Soon I was listening to the adult love songs and the simple love songs. “Follow You, Follow Me” by Genesis became a favorite. So did “For You” by Big Star. Marshall Crenshaw’s “Whenever You’re on My Mind” spoke to me…and I listened. Love became, at last, a possibility.

There are a lot of lonely people out there. I know, because I was one of them. I still battle my issues – my shyness remains, the depression that came out of it rears its ugly head from time to time and I continue to harbor doubts that I deserve the love that I am very fortunate to receive every single day. I’m a lucky guy. But all of us have had those dark nights when we wondered if there really was anyone out there for us. All of us have cued up those broken heart songs on our playlists to give us comfort. Don’t lie, you know you have.

I still love those songs though. They remind me of where I came from and there’s something cathartic about listening to them. It also reminds me how fragile love truly is and how easily it can disappear if you’re not willing to continue to work at it 24/7/365. I’m here to tell you that it is truly worth the effort. And that even at your darkest moment, anyone can meet their soulmate at any time. If it happened to me, it can happen to you.

Music and Meaning

I love music but I hate music. That may sound contradictory and of course it is. What I mean to say is that I’m passionate about music but I hate music that wastes my time. Lyrics that are shallow, music that is mass-produced with little soul – these are a few of my un-favorite things.

I also have a loathing for “American Idol” and such programs. There is a reason for that – and it’s not just because it’s so popular, although I grant you that the underdog-lover and music snob in me make that true, but the reason I really hate it is because it is symptomatic of society as a whole.

My biggest issue with music in general is that it has become a cult of personality – it’s all about the singer and not the song. In other words, what is being communicated has become less important than who is doing the communicating. That drives me bonkers. We see contestants on “American Idol” in trying to put their own spin on a song add all sorts of vocal gymnastics and blue notes in order to sound more “soulful.” They also very often adopt styles like the flavor of the month, be it Mariah Carey or Christina Aguilera or Garth Brooks.

I used to be a big fan of pop music – I love the melodies, the harmonies, the hooks that were part of the pop music essentials. Unfortunately, there is less and less music that is popular that I can get behind. Sure, there are exceptions – there always are – but for the most part, when I hear a Grammy-winning pop hit there is nothing that grabs me or touches me.

That bothers me. Music is a very personal thing and what touches one person may not affect the next in the same way. I am also well aware that to say “one song sucks” or “this genre sucks” is lazy and stupid – because music is so personal, it is impossible to say “Lady Gaga’s ‘Poker Face’ sucks” because one person may find some meaning in it; to say the song sucks is to say that person’s life sucks.

The fact of the matter I that there is a lot of great music out there but it generally receives less attention from both the mainstream media and the general public. And while I do have a loathing for “American Idol,” I recognize that plenty of people love it and some of them are touched in some way by the songs that are sung.

My objection is to what “American Idol” represents, placing more emphasis on the singer. It is symptomatic with what’s wrong with American society, the emphasis on the individual. It’s all about me, me, ME in modern society and the rest of the world can stick it where the sun don’t reach.

That is a catastrophic way of thinking.  It has led our planet into ecological and economic disaster. It’s the kind of thinking that allows the very rich to feel entitled to more than their share of the wealth, that allows businesspeople to think that profits comes ahead of people and politicians to feel that getting re-elected is more of a priority than getting things done. Conscience has become an endangered species in our world.

The truth is it is about the song, not the singer. The world is our song, the creatures that live in it the singers. Our voices rise in a single choir, although lately we have been discordant in our song. The harmonies we used to have are lost in each of us trying to sing our own song louder than the rest.

The singer is the least important part of the equation. In music as in life, the singer is but an instrument in a larger orchestra or band. The singer is a conduit for what is truly important – the song. Whether the purpose of the song is to express some sort of insight into life or love, or merely to move you to dance, the singer is mute without a song (while it is true that a song is mute without a singer, there are always musical instruments that may substitute).

We cannot go through life thinking that we are more important than the rest of the people inhabiting our rock. Our needs are no more urgent than those of the person next to you. While courtesy and compassion are lost arts in the miasma of today’s cultural landscape, they need to be re-addressed. We need to change the tide from “all about ourselves” to “all about each other.”

The planet is our birthright and our song our responsibility to it. When we become callous and self-centered as a species, it means the rest of the world suffers. Every time we put ourselves ahead of everybody else we murder the world a little bit. It doesn’t mean you have to be a Buddhist monk, nor do you have to be Mother Teresa.

It’s not about giving your life to service, only to not putting yourself on a pedestal and worshipping your own awesomeness. We’ve made a culture of self-image, placing an emphasis with our children of building it. Unfortunately, we’ve done too good a job. Instead of boosting the ego, we’ve made it the be-all to their world view.

Music needs to have meaning and none more so than the music of our souls. We cannot afford to put the emphasis on the singer any longer; it is the song that needs tending to. If we were to harmonize together, how sweet would it be? Unfortunately, the discordant mess that we have created threatens our economy and our very planet. When will we realize that only through that harmony can we accomplish anything? Truly, the music we could make together could make a song our children and our children’s children would be proud to sing.

3 Bands That Matter

Music is important. It inspires us, consoles us, uplifts us and comforts us. It is part of what defines us each as individuals. It is a highly personal and subjective thing. What appeals to one person may not necessarily appeal to another. Some people love jazz, others swear by heavy metal, others find meaning in hip hop. For some music is just a means to dance, a conduit to acquiring a lover. For others music is a means of rebelling, of setting ourselves apart from our parents or our community.

We all listen to music for different reasons and with different ears. Like you, I have a great passion for music but I was lucky enough to have a professional interest in it. During the late 80s and 90s, I was a music critic for a variety of publications, mostly the San Jose Metro newspaper but also Calendar Magazine (which would become SF Weekly) and a myriad of online and print magazines. During that time, I was exposed to a wide variety of music from avant garde to alt-country, from reggae to punk, from death metal to Christian rock.

In a real sense, it just means I have an opinion. Of course, we all have an opinion but I was fortunate enough to have a vehicle for expressing it (in an era before blogs, there weren’t a whole lot of those). I tried to use that vehicle wisely. It’s very easy to point a finger at someone’s music and say “that sucks,” or in a more critical way, “that is the aural equivalent of Ex-Lax.” It’s very easy to tear things down, after all. Finding something worthwhile in music you’re not particularly connected to is much harder, and only the really good critics can do that. I have to admit I took an easier route – I tended to only write about bands that I found some connection to. Fortunately, that was fairly easy – I had access to a whole lot of music and there were a lot of performers that caught my ear.

“Bands That Matter” is a terribly subjective appellation. Matter to whom, for example? And how do they qualify? I will admit that this is a somewhat dodgy endeavor, as my English friends might say. For one thing, I’m picking three bands at random that I think are worthy of putting on a pedestal. Some of them are well known, some not so much. I will admit this is more of a self-portrait in my musical taste than a real scholarly effort to discover bands that have made a serious effect on music in general, but I think when you see the list below you will admit that all of these bands have had some sort of impact on music, society or both although truly, some impacts have been more profound than others. One thing to remember – these aren’t necessarily the three bands that matter most, even to me. They are just three of the bands that matter. There are certainly many more that do, which is why this will be an irregular series.

It would be easy to lead off with the Beatles and/or John Lennon here, but I’m restricting my three to bands that are extant in one form or another. This isn’t a list of major hitmakers, although some of these bands have had their share of success on the charts. Mostly these are bands/performers who have either had something to say, or something to share and I think you will agree, the world is a better place for having all of them in it.

U2

Many bands have come and gone since this band burst onto the scene in 1979 but I can’t think of many that have operated for 30 years without changing membership at all. The same four individuals who played on their debut album Boy are still playing in the band today. Unlike other bands that have kept stable, U2 hasn’t been afraid to re-invent their sound from time to time. They’ve gone the pop route, they’ve gone the arena rock route but even when they haven’t been as successful, they’ve always stuck to their convictions.

From the beginning, the band has exhibited a social consciousness, exemplified by their lead singer Bono. As the band would become more and more successful, he would become a tireless advocate for the poor, the starving and the downtrodden. He has lobbied nations and individuals to take a stand to help those in need for various charities, going all the way back to his work in Band Aid, of which he was an integral part. He is one of the most charismatic front men in the business and he has used that to capture the attention of the world media for causes that are important to him ranging from world hunger and AIDS to social justice and global warming. His compassion for his fellow human is exemplary in a business where most rock stars are the definition of self-centeredness.

Bono and his guitarist The Edge have a knack for creating soaring, soul-stirring music that grabs you by the throat and doesn’t let go. Few bands make you want to stand up and cheer for nearly every song in their repertoire, but that’s how U2 affects most people. While they are not as confrontational as, say, the Clash their songs nevertheless cannot be ignored. When you hear “Pride (In the Name of Love)” or “Sunday Bloody Sunday” you cannot really treat them as background noise – they require a response, emotionally or intellectually. Agree or disagree with the bands politics (and they aren’t really political in the sense that they are active campaigners for politicians or a particular political party) you will find yourself responding to their music.

Part of that is due to the guitar work of The Edge. He is the kind of player that plays from the inside out; his style is distinctive but easily accessible. His sound is the equivalent to a falcon in full flight; it soars and moves at speed but can swoop down at any time without warning and tear at you. Before you know it, a piece of you is missing.

REQUIRED LISTENING: The Joshua Tree is their commercial breakthrough, although the band had success prior to that both at home, in the UK and here in North America. It contains many of their signature hits, such as “I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For” and “Where the Streets Have No Name.” It also has lesser-known songs like “In God’s Country” which are among their best. However it must be said that I have a particular fondness for The Unforgettable Fire which not only contains one of their signature songs (“Pride (In the Name of Love)”) but also two of my very favorites, the title cut (see below) and “A Sort of Homecoming.”

THEY’RE PLAYING MY SONG: The song that has the most meaning to me is the title track from The Unforgettable Fire. It was off the album that marked the beginning of their fruitful collaboration with producers Brian Eno and Daniel Lanois and is one of the rare songs in their repertoire to make extensive use of keyboards in the mix. I still think of it as the quintessence of U2 although there are those who might disagree. More of a soundscape than a song, “The Unforgettable Fire” shimmers with layered guitars and synthesizers while Bono’s voice rings clear as a bell over the aural landscape. I still get chills whenever I hear it.

BRUCE SPRINGSTEEN

The Boss burst out of Asbury Park, New Jersey on the shoulders of the saucy Latin-spiced “Rosalita” and hasn’t looked back since. He has one of the most rabid fan bases of any performer in rock and roll, and while some regard him as more of a cult item, there is no doubt that Springsteen is one of the most influential performers of his generation.

Few others can lay claim to being the voice of the working class, and in these difficult times we need his voice more than ever. Springsteen’s values are blue collar to the core and American in their essence. While working the bar circuit on the Jersey shore, he assembled the legendary E Street Band, a group of musicians who would complement Springsteen like peanut butter and grape jelly; while Springsteen is the focus of the band being the lead singer, primary songwriter and guitarist, he might be just a great songwriter with a blue collar focus if it weren’t for his musical partner-in-crime saxophonist Clarence Clemons.

There’s something about their collaboration that is truly magical; one can’t think of his great hits “Born to Run,” the aforementioned “Rosalita” and “Dancing in the Dark” without Clemons’ sax. The Big Man is the yin to Springsteen’s yang and in live performances the chemistry between the two is electrifying.

The rest of the band ain’t too shabby either, with Mad Max Weinberg on drums, Garry Tallent on bass, Danny Federici on organ, Roy Bittan on piano, Little Stevie van Zandt (and while van Zandt was pursuing other musical directions, Nils Lofgrin) on guitar and later, his wife-to-be Patty Scialfa would join the clubhouse. 

Springsteen has not been without controversy; when the Reagan campaign appropriated his song “Born in the USA” Springsteen was outspoken with his annoyance. He is a lifelong Democrat who has leant support over the years for Bill Clinton, Barack Obama and Michael Dukakis along with a plethora of candidates for office in New Jersey, not to mention weighing in on subjects near and dear to the heart of his own constituency.

Springsteen’s appeal lays in his ability to get to the heart of the common man. In that sense, his album titled The Ghost of Tom Joad is no accident; Springsteen himself is a latter-day Tom Joad, a decent man with honest values horrified at the liberties taken with the working class. In some ways, he has been able to cross party lines; there are an awful lot of Republicans that I know who think The Boss is Da Bomb and have “Hungry Heart” and “The River” on their iPods.

One of the things Springsteen has managed to do successfully is keep his mystique intact. You don’t see a lot of him in the tabloids and he doesn’t do a lot of interviews. While he has contributed songs to movies like Philadelphia and The Wrestler, he is very careful who he allows to use his music and he has been known not to license his songs to filmmakers when he hasn’t been satisfied with the content or the quality of the movie they’re making. For someone with the kind of popularity he enjoys, he has more or less managed to stay out of the public eye and yet when his concert tour comes through any given city, there is a feeding frenzy to snap up the tickets.

You can safely say that Bruce Springsteen comes from a long and honorable line of musicians that include guys like Pete Seeger and Woody Guthrie, and he keeps the traditions of their music for the common man alive. Springsteen, more than any pop star today, is identified with a specific voice and I don’t mean his singing voice. He is the voice of the factory worker, the mechanic, the construction worker, the farmhand. He sings for the grocery clerk, the waitress and the road worker but you don’t have to be one of those to appreciate his music….or the man.

REQUIRED LISTENING: There are three albums that no Springsteen fan should be without – not that Springsteen fans are without any of his albums. In chronological order, they constitute his most fertile creative period and while he continues to create compelling, important music today I suspect that it is these three albums he’ll be remembered for; Born to Run, an album that would cause him to become the first man to be on the cover of Time and Newsweek in the same week; The River, an epic double album set that is in many ways his most ambitious work of his career and his commercial apex Born in the USA which brought Springsteen out of cult status.

THEY’RE PLAYING MY SONG: When I think of Springsteen, I hear “Jungle Land” off the Born to Run album. This is a song that captures desperation and despair, the triumphs and tragedies of being young and free. It is epic in scope and stirring in places, often juxtaposed by quiet moments of self-doubt and self-realization. The heroes and heroines of “Jungle Land” are flawed but doing their best in a world that has become perdition. Sometimes, it’s not escape that’s important but merely the act of attempting to and that’s what “Jungle Land” is all about.

SIGUR ROS

After the first two bands on this list, I’m sure there are an awful lot of people shrugging their shoulders, rolling their eyes or just saying “Huh?” Certainly this Icelandic band doesn’t have the pop chart success of either Springsteen or U2, nor do they have the presence in the mass consciousness of Americans in general.

That’s not to say that we are the be-all and end-all of world opinion mind you. In fact, in their home country Sigur Ros are much admired and highly popular. More than that, however, they are creating a style of music that is unique and compelling. Whether or not that has any kind of lasting impact on music in general remains to be seen. I can tell you that what they are trying to create should have a lasting impact, if music is to mean anything in the coming decades.

One of the problems I have with modern pop music is its soullessness. The primary motivation to creating music seems to be in moving units, selling albums; making money, in other words. Music is being made by committee, with hired gun songwriters cranking out safe, homogenized songs that are in turn gotten hold of by celebrity producers and session musicians until the performer lends whatever stamp they can on the vocals. It is what “American Idol” is all about and quite frankly symbolizes everything I can’t stand about popular culture in general.

Sigur Ros make music for all the right reasons. They never pursued success; it found them. After one of their songs was used on the soundtrack for Vanilla Sky, people responded and began to seek them out. Eventually their songs would appear in commercials and on blogs. Suddenly there was a demand for them and the band found themselves touring the world, all the while wondering how on earth they got there.

One of the reasons Sigur Ros appeal so much is that while they are proudly Icelandic and carry the values instilled in their upbringing in that society with them, their music is accessible on a global level. While some of their earlier albums were sung in Icelandic, they have taken to giving up lyrics almost completely. Singer Jon Thor “Birgi” Birgisson sings in a combination of nonsense syllables and a kind of free-form Icelandic poetry to create his own language which he calls “Hopelandic,” a play on the title of the band’s debut album.

Birgisson sings in a falsetto that swoops and flutters like a seabird, soaring one moment and whispering the next. His bandmates provide music that washes over you like the cold waters of a mountain stream, enveloping you like a fog. Often their music is quiet and simple, utilizing mostly acoustic instruments. From time to time, the band will exercise their rock urges and when they do, they are overpowering.

What I like best about their music is that it isn’t meant to be listened to, at least as far as I can tell; it’s meant to be experienced, to be felt. It is literally music for the heart, and nearly every song elicits an emotional response. This is not a band that wants to make you angry although some of their themes involve subjects that might be upsetting. This is a band that wants you to feel, and then act on those feelings.

They’re currently on a bit of a hiatus while their members are working on some side projects but they are due back with another album next year. In the meantime, seek out their music, find a quiet place and listen. You will be richly rewarded.

REQUIRED LISTENING: Heima/Hvart is the soundtrack album of their astonishing concert film Heima. The band performed a series of free concerts in a variety of venues around Iceland after returning home from their world tour off of the Takk album. The first disk contains songs from that film; the second, Hvart, contains demos and outtakes of music from throughout the bands career. However if you really want to get an essence of what the band is both live and musically, see the DVD if you can find it.

THEY’RE PLAYING MY SONG: Although in many ways atypical of Sigur Ros’ sound, the track that first placed this band into my heart is “#8 (A.K.A. Popplagio).” From their 2002 album () (which is essentially untitled – as are all the songs on it), the song starts off slow and dream-like, with vocalist Birgisson warbling bittersweet over an almost dirge-like tune. However, the eleven-minute magnum opus doesn’t stay that way. With drummer Orri Pall DyRason signaling the change with a low, unsettling drumbeat, Birgisson steps up with soundless vocals soaring over an unnerving guitar-bass riff, the music swelling until reaching a crescendo of crashing drums and guitars. The effect is invigorating, much like a plunge into a frigid Icelandic lake after a session in a sauna. It’s hard to do anything but applaud and admire upon hearing it.