Album Review :
Josh Garrels - Love & War & The Sea In Between

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Artist: Josh Garrels
Title: Love & War & The Sea In Between
Label: None
Release Date: 6/14/2011
Reviewer: Joshua Hedlund


  1. White Owl
  2. Flood Waters
  3. Farther Along
  4. A Far-Off Hope
  5. The Resistance
  6. Slip Away
  7. Sailor’s Waltz
  8. Ulysses
  9. Beyond The Blue
  10. For You
  11. Million Miles
  12. Bread & Wine
  13. No Man’s Land
  14. Rise
  15. The March
  16. Revelator
  17. Pilot Me
  18. Processional

The music industry seems to be in decline these days. Album sales have been plummeting for years and major record labels are in disarray. Bands are turning to fans to raise thousands of dollars so they can afford to record ten-track records every two or three years. Well, independent Portland musician Josh Garrels makes those guys look like sissies. After releasing the masterful 15-track, 58-minute Jacaranda in 2008 – his fourth album – Garrels followed up in 2009 with a 10 track almost-EP called Lost Animals. Now, two years later, he’s back with an 18-track, 66-minute creation that is neither fraught with filler nor compromised by subpar production. Oh yeah, and he’s releasing it for free.

Love & War & The Sea In Between begins with a classic Garrels acoustic guitar groove that quickly fills in with an atmosphere and drum pattern. Josh’s rich voice illustrates nature, using animals as metaphors for a child growing up to embrace his call. The loose themes of nature and travel continue on “Flood Waters” and “Farther Along,” where Josh sings with a subtle songwriting that often weaves together two or three Scripture references per stanza: Skipping like a calf loosed from its stall / I’m free to love once and for all / And even when I fall I’ll get back up / For the joy that overflows my cup. Throughout the peaceful poetry, Josh freely lingers on various syllables, carrying them across multiple notes like a bird from his songs with his trademark vocal wobble, occasionally even straying into “soul” territory. A light female harmony adds a nice layer in places as well.

After a well-crafted instrumental, we are treated to one of Josh’s more upbeat deliveries on “The Resistance”: Lesson number one, overcome / Every fear of regret and confusion / It’s all illusion, delusion / Sent to disconnect the holy fusion / of the spirit and the flesh… But God can restrain the madness of a fool / He can bring His truth through the mouth of a mule / You can move a mountain without any tools / It just takes the faith of a little seed… The song doesn’t quite pack the power of Lost Animals‘s praise anthem “All Creatures,” but it’s still full of energy and definitely an album highlight. The next track is a polar opposite – a slow, melancholy plea of regret for betrayal. And for the most part, Garrels opts for less intense sounds on Love & War, delivering his poetry – sometimes slower, sometimes faster – through relaxing grooves full of sequencing, string trios, a flute, french horn, and more.

The nostalgic “Sailer’s Waltz” leads into “Ulysses,” a soft song that references the Odyssey: Sirens call my name, they say they’ll ease my pain, then break me on the stones / But true love is the burden that will carry me back home. I really like the vocals on that one, from the ascending melody on the verse right down to the way he pronounces mem-o-ries. “For You,” a song from Jesus to his followers, has a more restrained folky-country feel similar to parts of Lost Animals.

Throughout the songs, Josh’s clever songwriting breaks down the walls between natural and spiritual as he simultaneously explores the beauty of God’s natural creation, his supernatural glory, and his personal working in our lives. On “Beyond the Blue,” he sings, Yellow and gold as the new day dawns / Like a virgin unveiled who waited so long / To dance and rejoice and sing her song / And rest in the arms of a love so strong.

After a couple nice songs expressing commitment to his wife (these deserve more attention, but this review is getting long), and an instrumental, the album could have ended at track 13 without lacking anything. But it picks up again on the courageous “Rise,” which has a strong melody on the chorus (can someone please use this track for the inspirational training montage of an old-fashioned hero film?). Then there’s a march, a track about God’s glory in Revelation, and a simple worshipful island jam with a call to “Pilot Me,” led by a ukulele-like instrument called a charango.

Overall: Josh Garrels has done it again, using his well-developed creations to sing (and occasionally speak) about the richness of God’s creation. The first third gives us more of the layered indie sound of Jacaranda, the middle section hits on some of the folky campfire sounds of his older work or of Lost Animals, and the last act shows Garrels continuing to develop himself as an artist with soundtrack-worthy offerings. The musical grooves would still be interesting and encouraging without the lyrics (there aren’t many musicians who can get away with five wordless tracks on an album), but it’s the poetry that really sets Josh Garrels apart, expounding upon oceanic themes to celebrate adventure, life, love, community, and home. This would be a highlight of the year even if it wasn’t free. Unless you just don’t enjoy folk music at all, I think you’re going to enjoy this album a lot. You have no excuse not to.

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