But it all began as a way just for Monique and I to sing to God, and to sing to each other.
In the face of the commercialization of music, there is something powerful about a project such as The Welcome Wagon. At its core, it is the husband and wife team of Vito and Monique Aiuto. Vito is a Presbyterian minister and pastor of Resurrection Presbyterian Church in Brooklyn, and Monique is a designer and visual artist. Needless to say, they didn’t start out with the idea of making an album. In fact, neither one of them were all that musical. What they loved, however, was the way that songs allowed them to express their faith in God together.
Soon this joy spread to their friends, including Sufjan Stevens, the multitalented singer and composer. Sufjan started recording their songs so that Vito and Monique could share their music even more widely. Slowly they built a collection of tunes that Sufjan decked out in sonic finery. They recorded a crowd of background singers by hosting parties at their house and inviting everyone to sing along. Vito is slightly ashamed of using the word “organic” for their album (see the video below), but for all of Sufjan’s primping of the songs, they are organic. It shows.
For example, there is the collection of music: old reworked Gospel songs, a song from Morrissey, a re-arrangement of a song by their friend Daniel Smith, and a new melody for Psalm 127 from the Presbyterian Psalter. It’s a selection that grows from the heart of people who care about what music means for them, not about what music will make for them.
Now, of course, authentic, organic, “indie” — these can all be idols. (Nathan O’Halloran, my fellow contributor to this blog, has threatened to beat me if I praise authenticity too much.) If it is awful music, then it doesn’t matter how “authentic” or “organic” it is. And this album is not always great music. The voices wobble; the pitch is unsteady here and there. The last words on the album are of Monique saying to Sufjan, “I screwed up twice!” Some of the arrangements get out of control. Sufjan throws such a wrench into the end of the song, “Sold! To the Nice Rich Man,” that while listening my brother blurted out “What?”
Yet parts are sublime. “Up on a Mountain” is a beautiful hymn of Jesus’s self-emptying: “He came all the way down,” sings Monique, while dual guitars softly ascend and descend. And on “But For You Who Fear My Name,” Vito leads the crowd in a clap-happy song of the Father’s love.
In the end the album is a great little set of songs, and it challenges how we think of music today. Music has so often become something atomized into 1’s and 0’s, and not living in our fingers and throats, our communities and homes. But music does not have to abstract and isolate us. By praising God in kitchens, living rooms, and backyards, The Welcome Wagon has provided a model of how we might once more let God, through music, unite us.
video h/t: Sojourners online