Free and legal MP3: Lenny Smith (homespun, unironic gospel)

Rollicking, front-porch gospel, delivered with kindly spirit by the 70-year-old Smith.

Lenny Smith

“How Blessed is the Man” – Lenny Smith

What better for the holiday season than an actual piece of gospel? Nothing against silly and/or sentimental Christmas songs but how much sturdier and more appealing is this homespun, Christ-supporting hoedown? And I say that as someone with no attachment to (or, to be blunt, faith in) Lenny Smith’s particular views of who the Lord may or may not be. But this is a heartening song—more fun than hymns or carols usually are, and as such more inclusive than it might initially sound. Someone having a good time, singing a catchy melody, with spirited, front-porch accompaniment, describing his idea of a happy world, without bad-mouthing anyone but an unspecific group of people called, simply, “the wicked.” (And even those folks seem to be approached with compassion by the kindly Mr. Smith.) This is a rollicking good time, and for the life of me I cannot figure out why anyone is offended by the reality of someone expressing a different belief system or celebrating a different religious holiday. How insecure in one’s own spiritual life does one have to be to be intolerant of someone else’s?

Oh, don’t get me started. Just crank up “How Blessed is the Man,” and see if you can’t feel a little bit blessed this holiday season yourself.

Lenny Smith is 70 years old and has been writing Christian music since the 1960s, all in the so-called “folk mass” style. His 1974 song “Our God Reigns” was a big hit with churches around the world who were embracing folk worship at the time. Family life intervened—Smith and his wife have five children—and he taught school and worked as a carpenter and sang his songs at his church and was very happy with his life. Eventually his son Daniel grew up and became a musician himself—he fronts the quirky-earnest, gospel-inflected indie art pop band Danielson—and sat his father down to record some of his songs, which became Lenny’s 2001 album Deep Calls to Deep. “How Blessed is the Man” is from Smith’s long-awaited follow-up album, Who Was and Is and Is to Come, released in November on Smith’s own label, Great Comfort Records. MP3 via Great Comfort. Thanks to Largehearted Boy for the head’s up.

Free and legal MP3: Jar-e (old-fashioned soul with an indie slant)

“3 Leaf” – Jar-e

With a genuine groove, the likes of which we don’t often hear in the indie rock world, “3 Leaf” slithers its way into my brain and then kind of just stays there. This song does not have hooks as much as moments: the big-voiced way Jar-e (real name: Jon Reid) sings at the outset of the verse; the sudden—perfect—appearance of horn charts in the chorus; the casual build-up to the song’s central metaphor (a “three-leaf clover”; not good luck, in other words).

Embodying an unabashed, old-fashioned sound (heck, it’s even got a saxophone solo), “3 Leaf” is something of an anomaly—a big-hearted blast from the past, seeking to be nothing if not accessible, that nonetheless has the spunky, independently-produced spirit of the ’00s. Take those horns, for instance: while bringing to mind the horns you might hear on a soul record from the ’60s, they’re actually kind of edgy and intricate–they don’t offer punch as much as ongoing counterpoint.

You’ll find “3 Leaf” on Jar-e’s second album, Chicas Malas, which was released in February on Exotic Recordings, based in the decidedly unexotic town of Bridgeport, Connecticut. Reid grew up in Norfolk, Virginia and is currently based in Asheville, NC. Thanks to the hard-working Largehearted Boy for the head’s up.

Free and legal MP3: Ghostkeeper (stompy, old-fashioned, and a little strange)

“Three More Springs” – Ghostkeeper

Stompy, greasy, old-fashioned, and a little bit strange. Ghostkeeper is a band from the remote reaches of northern Alberta; leader Shane Ghostkeeper (apparently his real name) is a self-taught musician who grew up listening to Hank Williams, CCR, the Stones, Robert Johnson, and maybe not that much else. With Ghostkeeper co-founder Sarah Houle (a self-taught drummer), he has figured out how to channel his influences together and emerge with something that is no mere nostalgia trip. “My whole idea is just to explore how I can contribute to the evolution of old-time intentions,” he has been quoted as saying.

“Three More Springs” is from the band’s debut CD, Children of the Great Northern Muskeg, released last month on the Calgary-based label Saved By Radio.