I'm always amazed when I read a piece of journalism that takes what I call the "anthropological approach" to some weird religious group. It seems particularly odd when the group in question is Christians in America. Usually it's evangelical Christians who get this special treatment. Maybe it makes a bit more sense to write in such a manner when you're doing a feature for Paste, the music and culture magazine that focuses on alternative and independent music and film. (It's sort of like Rolling Stone for people with higher standards.)
Still, the interesting profile of the band The Welcome Wagon, written by Reid Davis, left me grinning at the casual way in which he denigrates Christians. Here's the opening paragraph:
Who are Vito and Monique Aiuto? Simple church folk suddenly clamoring for hipster cred? A Sufjan Stevens project masquerading under a new moniker? Are they simple-minded reactionaries? Or simply a Presbyterian minister and his wife, taking a break from tending their flock to play some heartfelt religious tunes?
And so begins Davis' journey through his own curious assumptions. And to his credit, the reporter admits flat out that the musical duo -- a Presbyterian pastor and his wife -- don't conform to expectations. He looks at their debut, which was conceived, arranged, recorded and produced by Sufjan Stevens, and where it fits in their life as clergy and parents. They don't perform live much, for instance. They don't plan on touring.
Each of the assumptions is cut down in short order. The duo aren't simple and they're not clamoring for hipster cred. The album is not Sufjan masquerading under another name (although I must admit that his influence can't help but be noticed by even the most casual listener).
The article has some interesting bits with Stevens, explaining that they met because they ran in the same literary circles in the late 1990s. We learn how Vito's songwriting developed concurrently with learning how to play instruments, leading him to construct new melodies over Gospel songs:
As a consequence, only three of the songs on Welcome to The Welcome Wagon are whole-cloth constructions, with Vito's own music and lyrics. The rest are divided between straight covers (The Velvet Underground's "Jesus," an incongruous take on The Smiths' "Half A Person," etc.) and adapted lyrics, taken from 19th-century Psalters and old hymnbooks. Unlike most of Stevens' output, it's unabashedly Christian, its imagery rife with blood, sacrifice and death. But like the Louvin Brothers, Johnny Cash and the Danielson Famile, it may appeal even to nonbelievers.
When I ask Stevens if he's worried about being connected to this project after years of trying to distance himself from being tagged as a "Christian artist," he's visibly surprised. "Oh, no! Not at all. I think it's beautiful music. You don't have to be a churchgoer or believer to experience that or appreciate that. I think the songs are really sacred, however you want to define that term. I don't have any qualms about that, obviously."
The reporter develops another theory. What if the album is just a taste of the average worship at the Aituos' Resurrection Presbyterian Church? Alas, no. The church plant services aren't trendy and the hymnody is straight out of the hymn book. In fact, Aiuto expresses hope that the congregation will continue to change from a young and mostly single congregation into a congregation for all ages and types of people. Back to the other theories:
So just who are Vito and Monique Aiuto? Are these two Christian believers just a couple of simple-minded reactionaries, shipped to New York City from America's evangelical hinterlands?
Where does this question even come from? It's so bizarre, saying so much about what hipsters think of Christians and saying so little about the Aiutos.
Thankfully, for The Welcome Wagon's critical reception, the Aiutos are safely unaligned with simple-minded American evangelical reactionaries from the hinterland. And thankfully, their music is really good. One fears what stereotypes might fly otherwise.
Still, if you can forgive the clumsy stereotype assumptions, the piece is an enjoyable read with tons of religious details packed into every single paragraph. The reporter notices everything from the never-ending hours of a pastor to the philosophy of church planting. Here's a good representative bit, describing the artwork for the album (pictured above):
This background is worth keeping in mind while taking in the album's artwork, which now seems like obvious ironic self-awareness in its retro-earnest cover and propagandistic Sunday-school illustrations of children hugging Bibles. It's almost on the same level as the bohemian appropriation of thick mustaches and mesh trucker hats, with one nagging exception-on some level, it's not really ironic.
"It's fun to have a nod to that, and fun to be tongue-in-cheek about Christian culture and Christian kitsch," Vito says. "But I don't mind owning that a little bit--that's who we are. All these songs are about blood and death and 'Jesus is my friend'--those are all things we think are true."
Davis comes to understand that the Aiuto's really believe this "stuff" of Christianity and that their church plant is the metaphor by which one can understand the band and album. Both the church and the band are about welcoming people who have been beaten down by life and are in need of faith and music that affirms it. Perhaps there's a metaphor in there about Christians overcoming stereotypes as well.