gray havens firenstonepick of the monthThe Gray Havens have delivered a project that respects the intelligence of its audience and – who knows - might even kick it up a notch...

Fire and Stone
The Gray Havens
10 tracks 41:17

Husband and wife duo Dave and Licia Radford – who, essentially, are The Gray Havens – are almost too clever for their own good. Producing an eclectic brand of folk/pop/rock on Fire and Stone, the Radfords occasionally might remind you of another husband/wife musical collaboration, Waterdeep – good company, indeed. The biggest difference between the two decidedly quirky bands is that Waterdeep's Don and Lori Chaffer tend to tell simple but familiar-feeling stories about relationship, faith, and the tensions therein, while the songs on Fire And Stone seem to be more about a mythic place that we are not necessarily familiar with but to which we can somehow relate, perhaps on a subconscious spiritual level.

Musician/vocalists Dave and Licia Radford are fond of storytelling and storytellers. The album is full of metaphor and imagery, some obvious, some not-so obvious. Underneath it all is a desire to transmit truth and beauty in an artful package which, for the most part, they've accomplished. While Dave's vocals are occasionally a bit too mannered and self-consciously 'indie' for my taste (interestingly, his stint as a contestant on American Idol established him as an old-school Sinatra-esque crooner), but the intelligence of the songwriting and arrangements manages to overshadow that. The Radford's love of Lewis, Tolkien, and others inspired clever lyrics invoking everything from fairy tales ("Jack and Jill, pt. 2") to a more literal, if poetic, retelling of the resurrection of Jesus ("The Stone"):

The stone heard inside
The first breath of life
It rolled as it shook
By the ground where they stood
Where the angels stood by
Oh the sight

The album is warmly produced by Mitch Dane with no lack for instrumental variety, incorporating (along with the usual keyboards, guitars, bass, and drums) accordion, mandolin, glockenspiel, xylophone and various percussion. In the middle of the melodies are shouts, 'gang' vocals, stomps, a bit of Celtic influence and some welcome harmony vocals from the Radfords. While the sound of the music incorporates elements of all of the aforementioned genres, it's captive to none of them and is really more about good songwriting, wherever that might fall stylistically (for instnce, I could hear Burlap to Cashmere – another band that defies genre - covering "The Stone").

Fire and Stone is a good album to listen to and one that requires thought and attention. There's a fine line of the mysterious that a lyric has to be carefully crafted around – enough to compel the listener but not so much as to keep him distant - and The Gray Havens dance a little too close to that line every now and then, which is a shame, because the music is good and the concepts are valid. The use of lines from nursery rhymes and familiar fairy tales works well on "Jack and Jill pt.2," and the imagery of "Far Kingdom" will strike a note in the heart of any believer, but there's a tendency on some songs ("Music, They Call Me") might be a bit too wordy and others ("Inheritance") might be too obscure.

It's not often that an album gets mild criticism for being too literary, so take that with a grain of salt and just be glad that The Gray Havens have delivered a project that respects the intelligence of its audience and – who knows - might even kick it up a notch. Fine music, excellent production, unique arrangements, and interesting lyrics make Fire and Stone a project that stands out from the pack of usual suspects in the Christian charts.

Bert Saraco