A Primer on Christian Alternative Rock: Adam Again

A Primer on Christian Alternative Rock: Adam Again

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WHO ARE THEY? Larry Norman, let’s say, invented Christian rock and was largely responsible for the way it sounded in the 1970s. Terry Taylor (of Daniel Amos and the Swirling Eddies) turned it into a genuine art form and had a hand in most of the important Christian alternative rock records of the 1980s. The man more responsible than any other for the sound of 1990s Christian alternative rock, on the other hand, is Gene Eugene, the lead singer of Adam Again.

As a band, Adam Again was never as influential as Norman or Taylor, although Christian rock superstars Jars of Clay and Third Day both covered their songs. But Eugene co-owned the most important Christian alternative rock label: Broken Records, which was quickly renamed Brainstorm Artists International. (The co-owner was Ojo Taylor of Undercover; as I said in that essay, someone really needs to write a book about the history of that label.) Brainstorm put out the first Christian rap records, among other things, and also is more responsible than any other label for allowing Christian rock to become art–it’s not surprising, in that sense, that Terry Taylor produced many of their artists.

Eugene typically engineered them, and over the course of the 1990s you can hear his mixing getting better and more sophisticated, until, at the time of his death in March 2000, he’d become the go-to engineer for West-Coast Christian rock bands (and basically the house engineer for Tooth & Nail Records, the logical heir to Brainstorm). Pick up a Christian rock record from the 1990s, especially if it’s even the slightest bit left-of-center, and you’re likely to see Eugene’s name on there somewhere. It’s for this reason that I’m not writing about artists who came of age after Gene Eugene died–the scene, as far as I’m concerned, was buried with him.

All of this is not to discount Adam Again as a band. They were as soulful and funky as Christian rock has ever been legally allowed to be, and, especially on their last three records, they probably had the best rhythm section (bassist Paul Valadez and drummer Jon Knox) in Christian rock–and one of the best in any genre. Eugene sang and played keyboards and guitar, alongside Greg Lawless, whose leads are delicate when they need to be and cutting and nasty when they don’t. Filling out the band was Eugene’s wife, Riki Michele, who sang backup and danced at live shows. When Eugene and Michele got divorced in the early 1990s, she (incredibly) stayed in the band, and sang alongside her ex-husband on songs that were very clearly about her.

Gene Eugene’s death at age 39 cut the band’s career short, and it’s interesting to imagine where they would have gone if they’d had a chance to make another record. As it is, none of the five we’ve got sound very much like any of the others, other than that they all have Eugene’s powerful, sorrowful voice at the center.

GENRE TAGS (OTHER THAN ALTERNATIVE ROCK): Alternative Dance, Funk, Funk Rock, Soul

RIYL Marvin Gaye, Prince, R.E.M., Red Hot Chili Peppers, Talking Heads

WHY DO I KNOW THAT NAME? As I said, if you’re into this music at all, you’ve probably got fifteen records with Gene Eugene’s name on them. And maybe you know them from Mac Powell’s cover of “The Tenth Song” or Jars of Clay’s cover of “Dig.”

WHAT’S THEIR BEST SONG? Basically everyone, including Gene Eugene, agrees that it’s “River on Fire,” from Dig (1992), an absolutely brutal and desperate song about the end of his marriage.

 


DISCOGRAPHY

MUST-HEAR

Homeboys (1990). Adam Again’s first two records very much sound like they were made in the 1980s. The band greeted the new decade, on the other hand, by going back in time: “I haven’t heard a Fender Rhodes this funky since 1976,” as Gene Eugene exclaims in the mission statement “This Band Is Our House.” Certainly Homeboys is rockier than anything they’d done before—but a distinctly ‘70s brand of rock, largely disconnected from larger trends in contemporary music.

The clearer touchstones are funk and soul—the excellent cover of Marvin Gaye’s “Inner City Blues” goes a long way in that direction, but so does the original “Save Me” (Riki Michele’s only lyric for an Adam Again song). “Bad News on the Radio” brings free(ish) jazz into the equation, courtesy of saxophonist Doug Webb. Only “Hide Away” and “Occam’s Razor” sound like alternative rock songs.

The lyrics mostly revolve around life in the inner city. I believe that Eugene grew up in a sketchy part of Southern California, and he refers directly to an incident from his childhood in the title track, which begins idyllically and ends in heartbreak. Other songs tackle drug addiction (“The Fine Line”) and murder (“Bad News on the Radio”), without ever turning their characters into issues. These are short stories, sung in Eugene’s distinctive voice—which was never better or more nuanced than it was here. The album ends with him at his most vulnerable, in “No Regrets,” its title neatly undermined by its lyrics.

NEXT STEPS

Dig (1992). Homeboys is the better album song for song, but its follow-up contains the three best Adam Again songs: the aforementioned “River on Fire,” plus “Dig” and “Worldwide.” The first is brutal in a profoundly understated way—as Eugene says in the liner notes to the band’s greatest hits collection, it’s one of the saddest songs ever written. “Dig” is yearning and pulsating, built on a Fender Rhodes riff and one of his greatest vocal performances (and wonderful harmonies from Riki Michele). And “Worldwide” only sounds upbeat as it questions the justice of the universe before affirming divine love.

The rest of the songs don’t land as hard as those three—but how could they? There’s some good stuff dispersed over the rest of the album regardless. Dig is Adam Again’s heaviest album. Eugene and company had clearly been paying attention to the alternative rock explosion of the year before, and even the funkiest songs here (“Deep,” “Hidden, Hidden”) are massive and loud, a universe away from Homeboys. Guitarist Greg Lawless in particular is at his best, slathering nearly every song with a glorious layer of noise.

Side A ends with “Songwork,” a song about how difficult it can be to write songs. In fact, songwriting (especially lyrics) seems to have always come rather slowly to Gene Eugene, which is presumably why he brought in Steve Hindalong and Terry Taylor to write lyrics on Homeboys and Ten Songs by Adam Again. And yet, as “It Is What It Is (What It Is)” suggests—“Five in a room / Alive, empty tomb / The fear of doing nothing”—he felt enormous pressure to produce. The result is that he occasionally put out songs that I’d call underwritten, three of which (“Walk Between the Raindrops,” “Hidden, Hidden,” and “So Long”) appear on the B-side of Dig and keep it from reaching the heights of Homeboys, its immediate predecessor. But these are minor quibbles—Dig is a classic even beyond the three songs that anchor it, and it’s hard to complain about a great album not being a phenomenal one.

Perfecta (1995). I have heard that Gene Eugene claimed that the songs on Perfecta aren’t as autobiographical as they might initially appear—but it’s pretty obviously a divorce record, in more ways than one. Most of the songs at least seem to reference the end of his marriage to Riki Michele (who, incredibly, stayed in the band after their divorce and even sings on songs that are apparently addressed to her), often in heartbreaking specificity. But beyond that, the album is sloppy the way people get sloppy after breakups: It’s quite long, for one thing, and the guitar interplay with the rhythm section is not as tight as we’d come to expect with Homeboys and then Dig. That’s not really a complaint: Perfecta needs to be sloppy to tell the story it’s trying to tell.

It’s a sad story, needless to say, although I mostly think the album avoids wallowing in its sadness. The opener, “Stone,” sets the stage for pretty much everything that follows—it’s the band at its most R.E.M.-ish, following arpeggios up and down as Eugene’s voice melts over the top of everything. Most of the album is in this mode, and most of it is quite effective: “All You Lucky People,” “All Right,” and especially “Relapse” have an almost hypnotic sadness to them.

The more upbeat songs, as one might expect, have a slight funk-rock edge to them. The single-chorded “Strobe” is about as happy as Perfecta gets, while “Dogjam” and the Leonard Cohen homage “L.C.” are mournful even in their groove. Cohen (who had recently entered a monastery and effectively ended his musical career) is also referenced, musically speaking, in Riki Michele’s backing vocals on the spare, brutal “Every Mother’s Way.” Frankly, a lot of this material reads very differently after Eugene’s death—he didn’t live long enough to see Cohen come out of his retirement, and the last words of “Every Mother’s Way” are “I am alive.” The album’s final track—the final Adam Again track—is “Don’t Cry,” a song that I imagine is about Gene and Riki’s divorce but which functions, for all intents and purposes, as Gene’s eulogy for himself: “If you could go / You would, I know / And if I could stay…” Would that he could have.

WORTH A LISTEN

Ten Songs by Adam Again. Ten Songs is the place where Gene Eugene became a producer and engineer to be reckoned with. A step up from their debut in every conceivable way, it’s covered with interesting flourishes—tape reversals, stacked and syncopated guitars, pitch shifts—all of them owing something to Minneapolis. “Beat Peculiar,” for example, couldn’t have existed without Around the World in a Day and Parade, even though its deconstruction of funk is quite different from that of “Kiss” or “Pop Life.” The songs, even the dancier ones, move beyond dance music, bringing in gospel music (“Every Word I Say”), soul (the cover of Bill Withers’s “Ain’t No Sunshine”), and psychedelia (“Babylon”). The two highlights both groove, though: “Eyes Wide Open” is built on an endlessly repeated three-chord Fender Rhodes riff but expands to fill the size of the universe; and “Tree House” is an apocalyptic warning about gentrification set to one of Eugene’s most beautiful melodies.

FOR FANS ONLY

In a New World of Time (1986). Like a lot of debut albums, In a New World of Time is the sound of a band trying to find its sound and not quite succeeding. Gene Eugene hadn’t yet figured out to use his voice, and it’s weird to hear him so . . . enthusiastic here. (His lyrics are also evangelistic in a way that they wouldn’t really ever be again.) The record is not without its joys, but they are entirely instrumental, be it the bonkers breakdown in the middle eight of “Life in the First Degree,” the weird, chaotic intrusions in the verses of “She’s Run,” or the mechanical synth-funk of “Your Line Is Busy.” There’s no mistaking New World for anything but a dance record from 1986—but I like it much more than I’d remembered.


GREATEST HITS, ETC.

In the rush of greatest-hits albums from KMG Records in the late ’90s, Adam Again put out Worldwide Favorites. It’s a good collection, though it skews too much toward the recent–Perfecta gets five songs, Dig four, Homeboys three, Ten Songs two, and In a New World of Time only one. There’s also a trip-hop outtake from the Dig sessions, “Sleepwalk,” previously available only on a Brainstorm compendium. Eugene provides track-by-track liner notes.


LIVE ALBUMS

After Eugene’s death, Millenium [sic] 8 Records put out a three-disc set of Adam Again concerts. The first two are all right–both of them are rather poorly recorded sets that don’t reveal why Adam Again was considered such a great live band. The third disc is the real gem–the Cornerstone tribute concert to Eugene, featuring a who’s who of Christian alternative rock barely controlling their grief.


SIDE PROJECTS

Gene Eugene was a member of the Lost Dogs–in fact, I believe the whole project was his idea. They’ll eventually get their own essay. Riki Michele has put out four solo albums, the first two of which I’ve heard. They’re both poppier than her work with Adam Again, and I can’t say I was grabbed by them–other than her wonderful, funky cover of Steve Miller’s “Fly Like an Eagle.” Jon Knox was at one point a drummer for the very un-alternative Christian rock band Whiteheart.


Other essays in this series:

Marc Byrd and Christine Glass
The Choir
Happy Christmas, Vol. 1
Mark Heard
L.S.U.
Poor Old Lu
Starflyer 59
The Swirling Eddies
Undercover

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