The Phantom Tollbooth
January 1999 Pick of the month

Prayers to Be
Artist:  Psalters
Label: Burnt Toast Vinyl
Length: 10 tracks/65:51 min.

The first thing you notice is the packaging, a 5-1/2" x 8" booklet using a warm, earthy palette. The CD itself is found in an envelope made from the cover and a few pages from an old hymnal. The foreword begins:

        Our most intimate conversations can only be with God. For with
        people we must translate our thoughts into languages of the body
        and spoken word. But God hears our thoughts in unfiltered purity
        at the very moment we ourselves think them. He responds to our
        souls in a language more native, more intimate and pure than
        even our dreams could manufacture.

Thus is framed this exploration of musical conversation with the living God. They employ many voices in this exchange, including doumbek, djembe, shofar, cello, bouzouki, guitars both clean and distorted, Casio keyboard, programmed drums, and of course the human one. The head of this project, Scott Krueger, says that its philosophical intention is "to be like modern days psalms with a strong emphasis in the praxis of the early church." The name "psalters" is an identity rather than a band name, "people intending to glorify God through music."

The end result of all this is unique and engaging. The opening track "All Yeshua!" spans the stylistic spectrum, and makes it clear that this is not over-produced, over-sentimentalized worship music. It is emotionally raw, with a highly experimental edge. It also features a beautiful Hindi melody, "Hadai Awaaz," mixed in with the screaming, drum loops, and Middle Eastern drums.

Michael Knott's influence is made known, directly through a quote in the booklet and indirectly in the writing. This is most striking in "Fattened Frothing Swine," which almost sounds like an out-take from a Browbeat disc. This track, however, is a bit of an oddity content-wise in that it steps away from direct dealings with the vertical relationship to God into the realm of commentary.

This disc also demonstrates how to make a lot out of very little. The very bare arrangement of Milton Brunson's gospel tune "I'm Free," a cappella except for a djembe, is sonically sweet and simply striking. The "Amen!" and applause at the end of the recording is certainly well-deserved. Many other tracks consist merely of a voice and a single instrument, and I wouldn't have them any other way. So little is needed to establish the connection with God, at least on the human end of the transaction, and these psalters do an excellent job of refraining from unnecessary clutter.

Frankly, some of this music is odd and goes well beyond the bounds of world music. For instance, the instrumental live track, "On Ruach," is somewhat of a cross between a basement jam session and an avant garde classical composition. Burnt Toast Vinyl, home of the experimental noise band White Trash, Inc., is not afraid to leap the walls of normalcy in search of new expressions of spiritual creativity. Consequently, Prayers to Be is probably the most intriguing piece of music to hit the Christian scene this year. Its fresh presentation keeps me pondering mysteries, a quality too often absent in worship music these days.

To order, send $12 (postage paid), payable to Scott Hatch, to:

Burnt Toast Vinyl
P.O. Box 42188
Philadelphia, PA 19101

or purchase on-line at:

By Titi Ala'ilima (12/17/98)