Jars of Clay were formed when keyboardist Charlie Lowell met vocalist Dan Haseltine at Greenville College, Illinois; Lowell initially noticed Haseltine’s Toad The Wet Sprocket t-shirt. The four-piece band was completed with guitarists Stephen Mason and Matt Odmark – unusually, the group don’t have a permanent rhythm section.
The members started writing songs for their college music and recording classes, and quickly gained attention with their alternative, folk-tinged sound. King Crimson‘s Adrian Belew offered to produce Jars of Clay, and the song ‘Flood’ became a hit on secular radio.
Jars of Clay didn’t enjoy any further mainstream success, but the initial burst of attention paved the way for a series of well-crafted studio albums, with their next three albums all winning a Grammy Awards for Best Pop/Contemporary Gospel Album.
Jars of Clay Album Reviews
Jars of Clay
Jars of Clay’s most idiosyncratic work is on their debut Jars of Clay. Their low key acoustic style is at its most pronounced. Haseltine’s lyrics are distinctive; instead of Hallmark gospel sentiments, Haseltine’s lyrics are thought-provoking. Opener ‘Liquid’ asks “Blood-stained brow, Are you dying for nothing?”, before concluding “He didn’t die for nothing.”
Breaking up the acoustic songs are the productions of Adrian Belew, who graces two tracks with fluid production and bass, mandolin and cello parts. The surprise hit single ‘Flood’ and the opening track ‘Liquid’ work wonderfully, and provide a welcome burst of energy for Jars of Clay. Elsewhere, the acoustic songs are nice, particularly the passionate fan-favourite ‘Worlds Apart’.
As beguiling as a full album collaboration with Belew would be, and as much as the acoustic songs drag occasionally, Jars of Clay is a fine debut that established the band as a much-loved CCM act.
The surprise success and distinctive atmosphere made Jars of Clay a tough record to follow. On Much Afraid, the group’s acoustic textures are blended into a more straightforward pop/rock sound. The
The group rock through the single ‘Crazy Times’, which seemed outside the scope of Jars of Clay, while opener ‘Overjoyed’ heads towards power pop, and features some creative chord sequences. Much Afraid also features memorable pop songs, such as ‘Fade to Grey’ and ‘Tea and Sympathy’, but it’s on their more subdued songs that Jars of Clay are at their most effective, particularly the seven minute ‘Frail’.
The mainstream sound of Much Afraid is dispiriting after the interesting atmosphere of the debut, but some of the group’s best loved material is on Much Afraid.
If I Left the Zoo
Two albums produced by Dennis Herring were released in November 1999 – Counting Crows (whose drummer Ben Mize guests here) released the excellent This Desert Life, but Jars of Clay’s If I Left The Zoo is a career nadir. Counting Crows’ . Wikipedia describes If I Left The Zoo as quirky – it’s an accurate description, but in this case it’s a pejorative. Elements such as the accordion in ‘Goodbye, Goodnight’ and the gospel choir in ‘I’m Alright’ come across as irritatingly quirky window dressing.
Fortunately, the real Jars of Clay manage to sneak an occasional appearance on If I Left The Zoo; the low-key closer ‘River Constantine’ is the highlight, while ‘Hand’ also escapes unsullied.The rockers, ‘Unforgetful You’ and ‘Collide’, are also effective, even if they’re not what Jars of Clay do best.
For a talented group, early in their career, If I Left The Zoo is extremely disappointing.
The Eleventh Hour
Pitchfork hit the nail on their head when they wrote that, leading up to The Eleventh Hour ,Jars of Clay “recorded two albums of standard pop fare, the kind enjoyed less by college kids, and more by their 30-something, married and mustached youth group leaders.” Herring left the project during pre-production, and the group produce themselves.
The Eleventh Hour was their most varied set yet; the opener ‘Disappear’ and ‘Whatever She Wants’ are among their edgiest songs, while the title track and ‘I Need You’ are hooky pop songs. They’ve also scaled up the beauty of their compositions; the gentle ‘These Ordinary Days’ is lovely, while ‘The Edge Of Water’ benefits from a more dramatic arrangement.
The Eleventh Hour is a creative rebound from a group who were becoming more insipid, a welcome return to form.
Furthermore, as its title implies, is not a new studio album from Jars of Clay, but an appendix to their existing body of work. There are two discs; From The Studio, newly recorded minimalist versions of some of their best loved tunes along with three new songs. From The Stage captures a surprisingly sharp Jars of Clay performing live. More than anything this release is intended for established fans, but it’s a pleasure to revisit the best moments of Jars of Clay’s strong back catalogue, while the two different facets of the band that are captured are revealing.
Of the two discs, the live set is the strongest. The first half is impeccable as the Jars rip through stellar tracks ‘Disappear’, ‘Crazy Times’, ‘I Need You’, and ‘Like A Child’, before ending with excellent takes on their trademark ‘Flood’ and the contemplative ‘Worlds Apart’. There is a slight stumbling block in the middle, where an extraneous choir is unable to resurrect two of the worst songs from Jars of Clay’s back catalogue, ‘Revolution’ and ‘I’m Alright’. The group’s instrumental chops are more apparent on stage than they are on record, while Haseltine’s vocals are clear and strong. Also included is ‘This Road’, an excellent folkish piece that was previously only available on the City On A Hill compilation.
The studio set has a very consistent acoustic vibe, that never rises above mid tempo. The remakes of ‘Liquid’ and ‘Overjoyed’ into reflective pieces are revealing, while the three new songs are all up to standard; ‘Dig’ is my favourite, with impressionist lyrics (“the earth is hard/ the treasure fine”) and a sense of urgency. ‘Needful Hands’ is another excellent rarity, originating from the Exodus compilation.
After four albums and eight years, Jars of Clay were due for a greatest hits compilation, but Furthermore is far more interesting.
Who We Are Instead
After the (relatively) hard rocking The Eleventh Hour, Jars of Clay explore a stripped back sound on Who We Are Instead. It’s rooted in Americana and gospel, but the most obvious change from the previous record is in lyrical emphasis – it’d be possible to listen to The Eleventh Hour or If I Left The Zoo and not realise that the group are Christian, but this record’s much more blatantly evangelical with titles like ‘Amazing Grace’, ‘Jesus’ Blood Never Failed Me Yet’ and ‘My Heavenly’.
Covers appear for the first time on a Jars of Clay album – America’s ‘Lonely People’ fits in nicely. ‘Jesus’ Blood Never Failed Me Yet’ is best known for the Gavin Bryars recording with a homeless man; it’s fleshed out into a full song. Elsewhere it’s business as usual for Jars Of Clay – the uniformity of the songs means it’s not their most interesting album, but it’s arguably their most consistent album in terms of songwriting. The album is full of minor gems like the piano-laden ‘Jealous Kind’, the gospel feel of ‘Amazing Grace’ and the soothing ‘Faith Enough’. The single ‘Show You Love’ is hooky and memorable, and was used in the Adam Sandler movie Spanglish.
To date it’s a three way tussle for Jars of Clay’s best record – whether the title goes to the arty, acoustic debut, the rock of The Eleventh Hour, or the countrified consistency of Who We Are Instead is in the eye of the beholder.
Non Album Tracks
Jars of Clay have an altruistic tendency to donate some of their best material to compilations. If you are a fan you will want to hear the outstanding ‘Needful Hands’ from the Exodus project, and the gorgeous piano driven ‘The Stone’ from City on a Hill.
Ten Best Jars of Clay Songs
I Need You
The Edge of Water
Show You Love