Jan 8, 2017

This Tooth & Nail Records Catalog Is a ’90s Christian Music Time Capsule

I’d spend hours poring over catalogs like these, trying to decide what music to buy with my meager college paychecks.

Tooth & Nail Catalog 01

There was a nice little surprise waiting for me when I returned to the office after the recent holidays. One of my co-workers, obviously knowing of my love for ’90s Christian indie/alternative (aka, “Chrindie”) music, had left a pristine copy of Tooth & Nail Records’ Fall 1996-97 catalog on my desk.

I loved getting Tooth & Nail’s catalogs when I was in high school and college. This was during the web’s early days, so the label’s website was pretty barebones. Music blogs were basically nonexistent and a site like Pitchfork was just getting off the ground. Print catalogs were one of the primary ways to see what a label had released and what they were going to release in the coming months, and order it.

Tooth & Nail Catalog 02

Looking through the catalog reminded me of just how awesome Tooth & Nail was when they came along. Back in the ’90s, it was refreshing to (finally) see a label full of Christian artists that didn’t bill themselves as a “Christian” label or use that as a crutch and/or marketing tactic. It was refreshing to see a label operating in the Christian market that ostensibly released music for one simple reason: because they liked it (as opposed to its “ministry potential” or some other “spiritual” reason).

Or as label founder Brandon Ebel writes in the catalog’s forward:

We are not a punk rock label. We are not a hard-core label. We are an independent record company!!! Tooth & Nail is a reflection of me and my staff’s personality. We put out whatever we like… You can choose what to buy and not buy, I don’t care… What I do care about is quality, great production, packaging, and value.

Quality, great production, packaging, value — Tooth & Nail had all four in abundance when they burst onto the CCM scene. There was simply nothing quite like them at the time (as far as I can remember). Michael Knott’s Blonde Vinyl Records probably came the closest; they definitely paved the way for Tooth & Nail but had unfortunately shut down (their distributor went bankrupt) right around the time Ebel launched his label. But even when they were going strong, Blonde Vinyl never broke into the Christian market to the extent that Tooth & Nail did.

(One could argue that Blonde Vinyl’s roster, which featured the likes of Fluffy, Dead Artist Syndrome, Deitiphobia, Steve Scott, and Knott’s own mercurial projects, was just too weird for the label’s commercial good. Tooth & Nail was certainly eclectic (at least in their first decade or so) thanks to the likes of Havalina, Danielson, Joy Electric, and Joe Christmas. But Blonde Vinyl was something else entirely.)

To be clear, I don’t mean to simply lionize Tooth & Nail Records here. Like all labels, they have their faults, they’ve made mistakes, and they’ve released some bad music. And in all honesty, I haven’t followed the label much at all in the last decade or so. But back in the ’90s? They were, hands down, my favorite label, both inside and outside of Christian circles. So much of the music they released then left an indelible mark. As such, it’s difficult not to wax nostalgic when talking about that era, and the various artifacts that emerged from it… print catalogs included.

Tooth & Nail Catalog 03

Note the alternate artwork for Roadside Monument’s Eight Hours Away From Being a Man and Starflyer 59’s Americana.

Tooth & Nail Catalog 04
Tooth & Nail Catalog 05

One thing I loved about Tooth & Nail’s catalogs was the pithy descriptions given for the label’s releases. They were short, sweet, and a bit irreverent — and oh so hip.

  • Plankeye’s Commonwealth was “wonderfully produced positive alternative to question who, what, where, when, why, and how.”
  • Driver Eight’s Watermelon was “super melodic super star pop,” as opposed to Luxury’s The Latest & The Greatest, which was “super fab glam pop rock.”
  • Overcome’s Blessed Are the Persecuted wasn’t merely hardcore. It was, in fact, “brutal hardcore mayhem from the barren wasteland of Arizona.”
  • Finally, Joy Electric’s Melody contained “electric light parades for everyone.” Because who wouldn’t want that?

Again, it was cool to see a Christian label be so tongue-in-cheek about their music. Back then, it felt like most Christian music was presented in a fairly serious fashion lest it be seen as too flippant to really be “Christian.” Everything was very polished, produced, and proper. Tooth & Nail, on the other hand, had fun with their image in a way that felt authentic — and that was infectious.

Tooth & Nail Catalog 06
Tooth & Nail Catalog 07

I doubt I was the only church kid in the mid-to-late ’90s who thought that working at Tooth & Nail would be a dream job. And I can’t begin to tell you how many times I’ve watched videos from that first music video compilation.

Tooth & Nail Catalog 08

I got strangely nostalgic for the Cornerstone Festival while looking at all of those shirts. There were years when it seemed like everybody walking the festival grounds was wearing a Supertones or Bloodshed shirt.

For the record, I used to own one of those faux-metallic Starflyer 59 shirts and I wish I would’ve had one of those Roadside Monument shirts. Sigh… If only I could travel back in time to Cornerstone’s merch tents.

Tooth & Nail Catalog 09
Tooth & Nail Catalog 10

It is undoubtedly easier than ever to find and acquire music today, thanks to streaming services like Spotify and online stores like Bandcamp and iTunes. And there are now a million and one bloggers who are just itching to tell you all about the latest “must hear” artist or release.

But there are days when I would gladly trade all of that to order music via label catalogs that arrived in the mail once again. Along with Tooth & Nail, I used to get catalogs from the likes of Projekt Records and Soleilmoon. (Projekt’s print catalogs were particularly lovely, as I recall.) Much like the Sears catalogs of yore, I’d spend hours poring over the album artwork and descriptions, trying to decide what to buy with my meager college paychecks. (And in the case of Tooth & Nail’s catalogs, at least, I’d also decorate my apartment walls with their pages.)

At the risk of sounding like a curmudgeon — because most of the time, I really do enjoy our brave new world of music commerce — music felt like it mattered more “back in the day” because A) it took more effort to acquire it, especially if you were into something offbeat like Christian shoegaze or synthpop, and B) there was just less of it. The internet’s ability to let anybody upload any composition to sites like Soundcloud had yet to manifest itself. Rarity (or at least, perceived rarity) was the rule of the day.

In any case, an old print catalog like this is a lovely time capsule for “Chrindie” kids like myself, i.e., kids who were suddenly exposed to a lot of excellent “fringe” Christian bands that forever changed the way we saw music, ourselves, and even Christianity. For all its faults, Tooth & Nail Records played a major role in that process, something that I was glad to be reminded of while perusing this catalog. Most of the bands listed in its pages are no longer around — Crux or Velour 100, anyone? — but their legacy, and music, still lives on.

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