Gospel Without God

After 9/11, pundits proclaimed that the age of irony in America was dead. How could disaffected cynicism survive in a culture that had suffered such a monumental blow? Suddenly, not giving a damn seemed downright immoral. Even Howard Stern's show, rarely known for its social conscience, devoted the entire program on the morning the attacks occurred to a serious and heartfelt (albeit still frequently reactionary) discussion of the implications and motives of the attack. Comedy was dead. We'd never laugh again, etc.

The idea that it was no longer hip to be “over it” lasted all of about three weeks, before America realized that introspection was never its strong point and sunk once again into cynicism and celebrity obsession. Post-Altamont, post-Watergate, post-Vietnam, the championing of sincerity seems like a lost cause . . . and why not? In 1967, the Who released The Who Sell Out,their satirical argument against doing just that. In 2000, they sold their music to CSI. As America scrambles to protect itself at all costs from the appearance of vulnerability, sincerity is once again regarded with suspicion, especially when it comes from Lavender Diamond, a four-piece acoustic band from Los Angeles with a vocalist, Becky Stark, who sings like an angel, dresses like a Maxfield Parrish print, and talks of the supremacy of peace and love as though the lessons of the past 150 years of American history bothered her not at all.

Even the name of the group's most recent release, Imagine Our Love, smacks of a potentially embarrassing earnestness. The songs themselves strive for the same kind of heart-on-their-sleeve openness as the title. Critics of the band's musical prowess dismiss the melodies and lyrics as childishly simple, with sparse arrangements and standard pop structures. The band consists of one guitar player, new addition Devon Williams; one drummer, Ron Regé Jr.; one pianist, Steve Gregoropoulos; and Stark on vocals. The music is relatively straightforward when compared to the output of Lavender Diamond's contemporaries—Joanna Newsom, Animal Collective—in the “New Weird America” scene (which used to be called “Freak Folk” and is one of those journalistic shorthand genre descriptors that few musicians would self-apply), but musically, Lavender Diamond are something entirely different.

While the aforementioned bands compose almost unimaginably complex music, Lavender Diamond opt for the opposite. The songs are deceptively simple, the kind of music one could theoretically cover with a group of competent band mates. What the band does share with some of their similarly accomplished contemporaries, and what is far harder to achieve than it may sound, is an ability to express something ecstatic through their performance. It is, as critic Erin Smith once said, “gospel without God”—that is, deeply spiritual music that ultimately believes in the power of human will to create positive change without recourse to the supernatural.

Stark was initially operatically trained, and certainly her vocal ability is outstanding. Lyrically, Lavender Diamond's songs read like the naive and earnest musings of socially conscious college freshman—and it is at this point that many critics tune out. Once a student at Brown University, Stark is no naive child, so how could she pen such innocent songs about the power of human energy, the idea that, as John and Yoko famously stated, “War is over, if you want it”? Onstage, Stark asks the audience to applaud for the end of war and the reigning of peace—all this while outside the concert hall, things seem to be getting increasingly dire.

And of course, she is aware of the reality of global politics and human interaction. Yes, it is a persona, but one in which she believes so fully it becomes something far more than just an act. Her decision to disregard the doubt and fear that lie at the root of cynicism and to actively encourage others to do so themselves is her own way of affecting social change. Sure, peace on earth may seem like a joke nowadays, but why? Lavender Diamond wonder why it's shameful to think like a child during these times when adults have clearly less of an idea of the answers to our problems than ever before.

Lavender Diamond are bringing their ideas of ecstatic joy to a county that is—like the country that surrounds it—frequently invested in pretending that everything is fine. Lavender Diamond know that it's not fine, but unlike so many of their critics, they believe that with enough love and and energy, it could be.


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