Aaron Strumpel | Elephants

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Folk: Alternative Folk Avant Garde: Avant-Americana Moods: Type: Experimental
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by Aaron Strumpel

“The only 5-star album I've heard thus far this year. If Nine Inch Nails sang the Psalms and invited avant-garde jazzbos, The Art Ensemble of Chicago, to the studio, it might sound like this.”- Andy Whitman, Senior Contributing Editor for PASTE magazine.
Genre: Folk: Alternative Folk
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  Song Share Time Download
1. Procession
1:30 $0.99
2. One Twenty One
5:59 $0.99
3. Blow Out The Wick
4:31 $0.99
4. Melee
2:23 $0.99
5. Fifty One
3:40 $0.99
6. Family
4:17 $0.99
7. Right Thru
1:43 $0.99
8. In Babylon
3:38 $0.99
9. Won't Stop
4:43 $0.99
10. This Can't Last
5:12 $0.99
11. After
1:08 $0.99
12. First Love
4:17 $0.99
Downloads are available as MP3-320 files.


Album Notes
About Elephants:
Elephants won Calvin College's 2009 Festival of Faith and Art's Bandspotting Competition:
"This is the clear winner. The singing is heartfelt, honest and highly unique…a voice of earnest longing. The production is highly original and simultaneously melodic and aggressive when need be. It is rare that I hear such clearly communicated Gospel music that is soulful, articulate and adventurous." -Michael Kaufmann, Asthmatic Kitty Records and Andy Whitman, Paste Magazine and Christianity Today.

“The album title is fitting as most tracks are interlaced with deep drum stomps, rough-skinned backing loops and
Aaron’s own trumpet. The sound is experimental, but with purpose, folk rock based but uniquely integrated with
a variety of instrumentation; it carries an element of abstraction to it with soul that bleeds through the vocals...and with the strength of an Elephant, you were going to be moved whether you originally wanted to or not.”
-Justin Boyer, Relevant Magazine

"'Elephants' is an acoustic smorgasbord of spiritual musings with prophetic and operatic overtones that insist on being listened to again and again to be fully understood and appreciated. There is weeping and wailing-- literally--amidst shouts and cries of joy." -Kris Rasmussen, Beliefnet

About Aaron:
Aaron Strumpel lives in a bursted bubble. His heart drips empathy for the freedom and revelation of fellow saints and sinners. Elephants, his new self-released recording is the first in a series of song collections where he has devoted himself to singing in the voices of these forgotten people. So, muster up your courage and sit with them for a spell and let their groanings soften you. There’s life to be found in the passed-over cast-offs, and he won’t stop until you have heard them. These recordings chronicle a gathering strengh, a force to reckoned with, a rumbling preamble to coming stampede, a survival of the ones deemed unfit.

His past endeavors have informed his current direction: a collaborator with inspirational collective, Enter the Worship Circle, fellow songwriter/performer with Tracy Howe’s Restoration Project, a contributing artist to Brian McLaren’s “Everything Must Change” tour, fellow Agent of Future with Todd and Angie Fadel at the 2009 Greenbelt Festival and tourmate with John Mark McMillan on a benefit tour to help supply clean drinking water for people in developing nations.



to write a review

Peters at CD Baby

It's hard to say much about Aaron Strumpel's brilliant "Elephants" that hasn't already been said, such as "If Nine Inch Nails sang the Psalms and invited avant-garde jazzbos, The Art Ensemble of Chicago, to the studio, it might sound like this" - Andy Whitman, Senior Contributing Editor for PASTE magazine. The praise goes on from other critics. The thing is - this album totally deserves it. It's rare to hear an album such as this, that makes you stop what you're doing and say, "Holy crap, I have to know what this is and hear more of it!" And this isn't hyperbole; these are the plain facts. Drum machines, folk guitar, jazz guitars, trumpets, weirdo percussion, and layers of Strumpel's vocal melodies and counter melodies all collide into a wonderful cacophony that lands somewhere in the company of Sufjan Stevens, Jeremy Enigk, and Bright Eyes, but with an outsider bent to them. It's some delirious, joyful, introspective, imaginative madness that you'll want to get lost in.


The Psychedelic Liturgy of a Visceral Psalmist
Aaron Strumpel's ELEPHANTS is a visceral, psychedelic Psalmist's liturgy. It's a bravura, heart-rending conduit to an honest picture of a/the soul's relationship with itself and with the Divine – warts and starry-eyed glimpses of beauty included. It's a musical marvel and as such, like the titular elephants at the circus, ELEPHANTS is a natural wonder of an attraction – exhilarating, poignant and haunting.

It's a struggle to render a worthy encapsulation of the dense and passionate layers offered on this record without resorting to full-blown exegetical dissertation. The other temptation is to succumb to Thesaural flailing that clutters with superfluous semantics that which, in this case, simply requires aural immersion for a holistic appreciation. Adjectives have their place – but yes, this is that good, and that special. Produced by Strumpel and Todd Fadel of Agents of Future, ELEPHANTS is a "trip" that pays out new musical and spiritual rewards each time you take it, to shiver-inducing effect (though that's not exactly what I meant by 'psychedelic'). This may all seem hyperbolic, but when the music industry subsists on cash-in from a handful of an artist's singles over-against long-term nourishment of discovery of substantive content, it's an inestimably valuable gift to find a full album with its own constant, inherent rediscovery potential.


Strumpel and Fadel's instrumental machinations and raw inspiration are psychedelic because they've successfully channeled the complexity and heady tumult unleashed by an honest encounter both with one's own smallness/insecurities and the transcendent LORD's very 'God-ness.' ELEPHANTS's soundscape opens up at the intersection of the Psalms' oft-ignored anguish, terror, accusation and their urgent plea for embrace by a Holy Mystery no less terrifying for the certitude of love and refuge it offers. If reference points help, imagine if Arcade Fire and Sufjan Stevens were woven, knotted and pulled through a keyhole by Son Lux, who then booked the product on a touring roadshow with the Psalters (or Agents of Future) as back-up (and if you're a fan of any of the above – congratulations, you've just found your new favorite album). It should be obvious by now, but I mean all of that as high praise and a grasp for honorable comparison, not to imply anything blandly derivative. Not even close. Elephants chug to thumping tom-toms and march to snares, calling out in warbling brass. Deep strings reverberate and piano keys both swell and ping their way across this plain. Blue-sy electric guitar undulates here and there while bristly acoustic strums buzz and hum as they wrestle with electronic acrobatics. The laments are interlaced with primal moans and gnashing that might be the turn-off they appear to be in print if they weren't so achingly seductive…and the hopeful constructions haunt with a pleading urgency – sometimes all in the same song. If it sounds like these tracks are sometimes barely being held together "thematically," that's the point (though careful listening proves otherwise). The Psalmist's psyche is messy and fragile and full of desperation at times – and it's then that the clearest and loveliest narrative thru-line reveals itself.


ELEPHANTS is a liturgy because in spite of the glorious cacophony, there is a distinct poetic order and purposeful lyrical journey to the proceedings here, which ultimately renders this inimitable record as so much more than the sum of its parts. In thinking about liturgies, many a church service very intentionally walks through a series of successive events that to the untrained eye might seem jarringly in tension with each other. There is welcome, (lament?!), supplication, confession, "intercession," praise, thanksgiving, communion (and literally), reflection and benediction. That's a dry rehash because that experience for the "church-going" peoples (air quotes because the term limits capital-C Church and the people "in" it for this reviewer) can be exactly that – a dry rehash – instead of the symbolic and literal spiritual spinal tap that our "Sunday" mornings should engender.

With ELEPHANTS, Strumpel takes said liturgical trappings and turns them emotionally up to 11 – i.e. true to the 'felt' experience behind the process ostensibly on display. There is "Procession," supplication ("One Twenty One"), confession ("Fifty One"), praise ("Right Thru") and throughout a spine-tingling reckoning with the life-inversion wrought by the absoluteness of that divine "Other" that is paradoxically so intimate (e.g. "Won't Stop"). "This Can't Last" is a beautiful melancholic promise of comfort until it becomes a literal sonic discharge of pent-up angst and joy liberated by intercession.

Like a jazz trumpet in which he is classically trained (and which serves as the welcome Elephantine intonations and trunk calls throughout), Strumpel's voice is a throaty tenor with an enviable elasticity. He delicately growls down "In Babylon," (its own beast that must simply be heard) and stretches up a ladder (to heaven?) of yearning falsetto with the new eyes of the closing "First Love." Strumpel's lyrics are not afraid to plumb the depths, tease out the contradictions, nor wonder at the heights achievable in the human experience. He bares it without plaintiveness. These are the bold accomplishments of a mature songwriter who stands by what he feels/sings even while aware of Who is listening.


The songs that comprise ELEPHANTS are certainly laying their worries and pains and hopes and fears before an altar, but are not hovering within four walls for protection. This "Procession" is ultimately marching OUT the "church" doors – to glimpse those shores promised and illuminated in Easter dawn, resolved to walk life's road with all its prophetic possibility, trouble and opportunity to work for a peace and justice that can last. As Oscar Wilde said, "We are all in the gutter, but some of us are looking at the stars." (A more restrained appraisal could have just taken that quote and pointed to ELEPHANTS and just said: "Yep." Oh well.) In today's world and for today's Church, does that make ELEPHANTS a cumulative song of protest or praise? I'd say both/and, and we are the richer for it. It's tangible urgency is thus rendered all the more irresistible for those hungering for something "more" that tracks more with their own lived reality.

Strumpel does not reappropriate the Psalms for modern-day "accessibility" (let alone palatability) the way so many vapid and banal "worship band" and "Christian radio" offerings use emotionalism to dilute and distract from the very potent challenges presented by the God of Scripture. Soaring and/or overwrought generalities do not a personal, dynamic relationship with the Creator make.

To my mind, ELEPHANTS succeeds that much more at being accessible and palatable because it taps into something so much deeper and therefore truer about our human condition. On the surface, this isn't necessarily what we might think we want to feel or sing when we step into the protective (escapist?) confines of our spiritual homes. However, after a few spins, our bodies and spirits reveal that, just maybe, a trip through this liturgical process is what we need to hear - because this is the song we've been singing deep inside too, yearning for safe and honest space. And God is listening.