REVIEW: Todd Snider’s “First Agnostic Church of Hope and Wonder” is Honest, Funky, Brilliant


Todd Snider has released yet another album of profoundly well-written, perfectly timed, beautifully arranged songs.  This one is a funky, harmonious enterprise First Agnostic Church of Hope and Wonder, produced by Todd Snider with executive producer Brian Kincaid; recorded by Colin Cargile and Joe Bisirri at The Big Purple Building, East Nashville, Tennessee with additional production and mixing by Tchad Blake at Full Mongrel & Co.  It was mastered by David Glasser at Airshow Mastering, Boulder,  with vinyl mastering by Pete Lyman at Infrasonic Sound, Nashville.

Musicians on the album are Todd Snider (lead vocal, bass guitar, electric guitar, acoustic guitar, banjo, piano, harmonica, background vocals and more); Robbie Crowell (drums, tambourine, shaker, bongos, oat toes, thunder tube, gogo bells, 808, cowbell, more cowbell and more) and  Tchad Blake (electric guitar, piano, metallophone, shaker flute, tuba and more).

In the early release “Turn Me Loose” you’ll be caught in the refrain “If faith moves mountains, what’s it take to leave them alone”? with its ending of groovy, head-nodding cowbell.  Is there anything else quite as pointedly expressive as a cowbell? “You never make no difference if all you do is nickel and dime…  if we can only help just one person we’re wasting our time.”  This song was inspired in part by Jerry Jeff Walker, on which there is more in the album’s fantastic liner notes.

“One day a wise young man threw down his apron and he said ‘I quit,'” launches “The Get Together.”  Wait for dilemmas and the twist after he goes through the soul searching.

The funk grooves on with bass, shakers and banjo, on  “Never Let a Day Go By” and Todd singing with himself in voices that seem to cover various cultural caricatures.  “There’s a fine line ‘tween reason and absurdity  … we are fractions of equations of illusions of duality,” and Todd’s various vocals play with styles evoking harmonies akin to Beck and Funkadelic.  You’ll be agreeing to “Never Let a Day Go By.”

“That Great Pacific Garbage Patch” is intense jamming with banjo, guitar, low and high end piano, bass and siren sounds underneath Todd’s: “Do something.  Say something.”  The harmonizing Todd is a mirthful echo of the serious lead Todd, and the whole production has resulted in one of those songs that’ll blow your mind under headphones and your daydreaming element of choice.  This one is an especially stellar arrangement.

“Handsome John” is an absolute tear-jerker tribute to John Prine featuring Tchad Blake on tuba, with Todd Snider on piano and harmonica. “Here come the singin’ mailman from Maywood, Illinois.” Here come the tears.

“Sail On” is another devastating tribute for Jeff Austin.

The we come upon the “Battle Hymn of the Album” and the genius, weighty philosophical analogies abound.  He stitches “The Battle Hymn of the Republic,” the heaviness of last year, and of last year with the police killings, swirled into undeniable imagery with cowbell and distorted electric guitar.

“Get down on the the ground.  Stop resisting. But you can’t stop this resistance.  John Brown’s body may be dead and gone but John Brown’s soldiers’ still marching on.”   It’s a march drumbeat, cowbell, banjo weaving into a resistance song with the funkadelic groove.  Turn this one up and float.  It’s a wake up, protest song.

Between “The Great Pacific Garbage Patch” and “Battle Hymn of the Album” we’re treated to as profound an external socio-political version of Todd Snider as we can get, the mask is off and all kidding is put aside and the effect is wonderful.

“Stoner Yodel Number One” will get his serious fans nodding, with his yodel “trying to find a way to resonate a little higher, now you’re preaching to the shithouse choir.”

“Agnostic Preacher’s Lament” is another Todd Snider instant great. Hitting the nail on the head with the religious leader’s “one thing I do know for sure is that everybody here wants there to be. … an after ‘thing’ … and everybody is also hoping for this after thing to be better than this thing. … we’d like there to be an ‘after’ and we’d like it to be better.  And mainly everybody wants to succeed at everything they try, live forever, and never die,” and the tongue-in-cheek accelerates into the absurdity of this element of human thinking.  It’s bluntly amazing.  “Forgive me, or whatever?”   Perfection.

Fans played along with the prank as Snider did a meta-enactment of the last song in the week before the album’s release, with the spoof of Snider fighting with his label Aimless Records.  Enjoy “The Resignation vs the Comeback” with the Todd chorus of devoted-fan gadflies “that’s right you dumb motherf**kers he’s stepping down,” defending him through the head trip whirlwind of stepping down, indecision, and coming back.  Contradictions and dilemmas mark the human experience and are undiagnosed pervasive features of society and in our own heads too.  Snider nails it.

Kudos to the brilliant Todd Snider, the skilled Tchad Blake, and the killer Robbie Crowell and the rest of the crew on a masterful job here.  The entire album is a joy.

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