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Joel Marquard Makes a Mess of Gospel in His New Solo Project

Joel Marquard has a motto: "Life is messy. That's how I like my music."

Messy is the right word. How else could you describe Marquard's new side project, The Through & Through Gospel Review, which finds the songwriter stepping away from his popular indie-rock band Gospel Claws, to explore 12 tracks' worth of traditional-style gospel music?

The self-titled record is full of contradictions. Though it sounds like a scratchy old private-press 45 — all muffled vocals, reverb-laden guitar, and close harmony — the record was recorded digitally, and that's how it's being released by Common Wall Media: as an MP3 download. Further complicating matters are the songs themselves. Easily mistaken for straight readings from dusty old hymnals, Marquard wrote and arranged the songs himself, save for a sample lifted from his father's 1967 gospel record.

Finally, there's the fact that Marquard doesn't really consider himself religious. Though he grew up the son of a minister, Marquard says that the songs weren't motivated out of a spiritual desire, but instead are a reflection on the process of true belief. "My parents have heard it," he says with a laugh. "They were a little weirded out by it, but they like it."

"There were some times where [writing explicitly religious material] was weird," Marquard says. "I wrote 'I Firmly Believe' after thinking about how wobbly and unstable the Bible actually is. Then that song popped into my head. Sometimes it was hard, but I wasn't afraid of it, because I'm used to it."

Marquard hasn't shied away from topics like Christianity with his band Gospel Claws, but his roots in Valley churches stretch back to his first group, Dear and the Headlights. Marquard left the band in 2007. Marquard says he met "pretty much everyone" he plays with through church experiences, and both Dear and the Headlights and Gospel Claws have been mistakenly pegged by some as "Christian bands," an idea that songs like "Don't Let It Die" from Gospel Claws' debut EP and "Somebody Stole My Money," from the group's full length C-L-A-W-S, don't go far to refute. (Disclosure: I DJ'd soul records at the official record release party.)

"Oh, yeah, we totally regret that name [Gospel Claws]," Marquard says. "It's funny. We were talking about it this week. We were like, 'Should we change our name?' But we're like, eh, whatever. There was a point in Gospel Claws when we were like, should we really run with the whole gospel thing? I also liked writing fun pop songs. And maybe I wanted to stray away from the religion thing or not be pinned as that."

Some of the songs on Through and Through have origins as far back as Marquard's time in Dear and the Headlights. "I wrote 'I'll Be Right Here' in 2007. [The version on the record is] the original recording. I kept that vocal because it's so bad and out of tune, and I was like, I need to redo this, and I was listening back. But [on] a lot of my favorite songs, the singers are singing horribly, so I just left it."

The record doesn't explore one specific gospel tradition so much as it surveys them all (perhaps "review" is a play on the word "revue"). Opening track "I'm Not Dead but Alive" features a multi-tracked choir of Marquard's voice before settling into a country lilt. "I Was Born on the Edge of the Sword" is a lo-fi a cappella meditation, with Marquard singing "I was born in the mouth of a boar / I refuse to give up my life." "When the Lord Came Down," the album's lone pop song, recalls the left-of-center freak folk of Danielson Famile or Half-Handed Cloud. "I Head Toward The Light," with its stomping cadence and field-holler vocals, shares kinship with some of the Gospel Claws songs that initially gave Marquard the idea to record his solo album.

Marquard shrugs off the notion of using traditional songs with a self-deprecating smile: "That's just because I'm lazy. I'm just too lazy to figure that out and learn the lyrics. I'll just do my own [laughs]." The majority of the record was played by Marquard, alone with a ProTools rig, in his suburban home, though musical friends and family pitch in here and there on the record.

Marquard grew up singing Baptist hymns in church ("I just remember a lot of singing. It's kind of a neat experience. It taught me how to harmonize"), but the diverse sound of the record owes more to Marquard's exploration of the genre long after he quit attending church.

"I lived close to the public library," he says. "I walked my ass down there one day, and I just looked for interesting records. I found one called Songs of the Old Regular Baptists; it was '50s field recordings of just dudes and other guys singing. I said, 'Holy shit, this is really amazing.'"

The 2009 compilation Fire in My Bones: Raw Rare + Other-Wordly African-American Gospel [1944-2007] made even more of an impression. Spanning seven decades and featuring the work of Phoenix-based street evangelist Reverend Louis Overstreet, Marquard says the three-disc set blew him away.

The breadth of material featured in the set reinforced musical lessons Marquard has applied with both Dear and the Headlights and Gospel Claws. "I've always liked variety," he says. "It sucks to put in a record and have every song sound the same. I think I learned that from Smashing Pumpkins' Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness. I remember thinking, there's so much variety here; I have to incorporate that [into] my own songwriting."

Though the record is firmly rooted in black gospel traditions, Marquard says he had no intention of performing in musical "black face."

"It never really entered my mind, I guess," he says, with a laugh. "Maybe I don't really hear it. I've kind of treaded on that territory with 'Don't Let It Die,' which is almost more African-American-[inspired]. I remember being interviewed once, and they asked what genre of music we were, and I said 'Negro Spiritual.' That's kind of what it is, you know?"

The record cover features Marquard cradling his baby son, Hamilton, and concludes, following a specifically nonreligious spoken-word piece, with a sample of "Wonderful Peace," recorded by Marquard's father, Don, in 1967. The record could be read as an observation of family traditions. "It's really interesting once you have a kid, man, trying to figure out what you [believe]," he says.

Though the songs of his latest project might not spell out Marquard's beliefs entirely, his own orthodoxy is made clear during "Peaceful Valley." Over a moaning, reverb-drenched slide guitar line, he speaks, in his characteristically slow drawl: "The world can be rough, sometimes / And friends can be few / But if you wear your joy on the outside / You know they'll be true / Well, my friends, I'm here to tell you, there's no reason to be blue / Find joy in the little things, and you'll make it through."

It's a reassuring message, considering such a messy source. The kind of sentiment Marquard appreciates.

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Jason P. Woodbury is a music and pop-culture writer based in Phoenix. He is a regular contributor to the music blog Aquarium Drunkard and co-host of the Transmissions podcast.