In the last ten years - give or take a couple - Mark Heard released a decade’s worth of brilliant albums. Although generally well-received by radio, and always meeting with critical acclaim, Heard’s records did not set the sales charts on fire. That, and his penchant for writing lyrics a bit more obtuse than major Christian labels would prefer, perhaps explains why Mark’s latest effort is on his own Fingerprint label. Although you may have to work a bit harder to obtain a copy, the search for Dry Bones Dance is well worth the effort. It’s one of the first great records of the 90’s, and the equal of Heard’s best ‘80s work, Victims of the Age.
Depending of how great your interest in alternative music, you would either have last spotted Mark on his own iDEoLA project, or caught a glimpse of him backing Sam Phillips on an acoustic club tour. Heard’s return to the studio is the antithesis of the iDEoLA disc; where it was a "one-man-band", dance-oriented session of synthetic and sampled textures, Dry Bones Dance is entirely organic. Many of the basic tracks were performed "live" in the studio, and the most exotic thing you’ll hear is Heard’s kalimba (African percussion instrument plucked with fingers). The overall sound is acoustic-based, country-rock. Sometimes the songs veer in a Tex-Mex or Cajun direction, especially when Byron Berline starts sawing his fiddle and Heard joins in on an antique accordion. On other tracks, Heard harkens back to Rubber Soul-era Beatles, with delightful, chiming guitars, rich harmonies, and riffs that are instantly hummable. Heard has crafted 14 tracks which clock in at a generous 56:30 - and not a moment is wasted!
But Mark Heard’s superb songwriting is really at the core of Dry Bones Dance. Heard’s lyrics have often been described as literate, poetic, brutally honest and poignant. To that, I would add concise. There is no fat on these Dry Bones. Indeed, Heard may be contemporary Christian music’s best storyteller. With just five words - "penniless at the wishing well" - Heard conveys a feeling of utter brokenness. In "Our Restless Hearts", Heard spits out the lyrics "you smear the blame on me like cheap cosmetics" and goes on to admonish, "if there is love, then give me an example". Heard turns in a great flat-picked, bluegrass lead guitar on the loping "Nobody’s Looking", and sings (in his slyest Dylan-ese) "You can pray if you want to / Go ahead, nobody’s looking but God". "Everything is Alright" stresses the need for closeness with one’s mate, while "Lonely Road" reminds us that, no matter how tough we think we’ve got it, the Son of Man had it harder.
Dry Bones Dance has its harder moments as well. The rollicking "Waiting For A Reason", features a wonderful 12-string hook, and the closing, apocalyptic "Fire" combines all the instruments and voices in a glorious rock’n’roll stew. Heard is aided and abetted by several excellent musicians, most notably Fergus Marsh (of Bruce Cockburn’s band) on stick, Byron Berline on fiddle and mandolin, David Birmingham on drums, and Jerry Chamberlain, Sharon McCall, Pam Dwinell, and Sam Phillips on vocals. Perhaps at another time, we can debate why an artist of his calibre is forced to release recordings on his own custom label. For now, go out of your way to obtain Dry Bones Dance. (Sorry vinyl recluses, but it’s only available on cassette and compact disc).
Bruce Brown ( CCM, June 1990 )
Copyright © 1990 CCM Magazine
Mark Heard has been around for years. Of course he originally came out of Larry Norman's camp along with Randy Stonehill and Tom Howard, and three or so years back made an unsuccessful pitch for crossover success with the synth-rock persona Ideola. Now he's wisely returned to his roots and his latest is written, produced and engineered by himself, has fourteen songs and features accordion, fiddle, acoustic guitars and harmonica. Yep, truly more than a folk rock album. But don't stop reading, it's country that kicks gritty yet grooves, and no-one shouts out 'yee-ha' anywhere on the whole set. With touches of Leon Russell, Tom Petty and Dylan, Mark snarls his messages of woe and hope reaching deep within himself and pulling out nasal howls that erupt like a coyote on the night of a full moon. Acoustic guitar spits out riffs, the fiddle darts in and out and the occasional telecaster keeps us on the trail in true Jimmy Reed style. A lone female sings the harmony, drums and bass hold the arid atmosphere together. The texture of the music fits the themes of the songs perfectly. The cover pictures Mark with cowboy hat playing guitar in the open space of the prairie. The first song "Rise From The Ruins" speaks of the resurrection of humankind capturing the feel of dust to dust. The title song "Dry Bones Dance" continues the theme. Moody...raw...well worth parting with your £6.49
Paul Poulton ( Cross Rhythms, Nov/Dec 1990 )
Copyright © 1990 Cross Rhythms Magazine
Coming three years after the interesting (if unsuccessful) iDEoLA experiment, Mark Heard returns with a rich, rootsy album full of intelligent lyrics and well-layered music. Styles range from folk to Appalachian to zydeco. And all of these diverse styles are augmented by the Chapman stick of Fergus Jemison Marsh, more widely known for his work with Bruce Cockburn. The sounds of the more traditional instruments really color this record well - the accordion, the mandolin, the violin, the hammered dulcimer - rich instrumental painting and texture. The album has an energetic opening with "Rise From the Ruins" and the title track, and there's lots of clever wordplay on "Our Restless Hearts." The high point on this record is one of Heard's prettiest songs, "Strong Hand of Love." The trilogy of this album, Second Hand, and Satellite Sky comprise Heard's strongest work.
Mark W.B. Allender ( AMG )
Dry Bones Dance ~ Lyrics / Credits / CCM Interview / DISCOGRAPHY