Has it really been over three years since Signature Sound released a full album of all-new material? It’s hard to believe, but it is a fact. Their last so-called “mainstream” project was Dream On, released in October of 2008. That project opened up some doors for the group, but it received mixed reviews. Some thought it was the weak link in their discography thus far, while others called it their best and most mature project. Although it contained some songs I enjoyed, particularly the touching lullaby “A Good Heart” and the hard-hitting “The Old Landmark,” I knew that Signature Sound would need to come back with something stronger once their “retro” phase had run its course.
And two member shifts and four albums later (five if you count the George Younce tribute), here they are again. I don’t know that I would go so far as to call it their best ever, but I will say that this album is one of their tightest and most solid to date. Some of their past projects have had a “hit and miss” feel, offering more than the ordinary number of songs but feeling a bit unfocused as a result. This one has twelve tracks and knows where it’s going. This does not mean that it’s void of surprises, but it offers a listening experience that flows consistently and well.
Now, let’s put it under the microscope.
1. Swing Low, Sweet Chariot: The first number kicks things off in the style of the Influenced projects. It begins with the sound of a projector being flipped on, then whirring in the background, conjuring up a grainy black and white image of the guys gathered around two microphones in matching suits. I like to give this spiritual the slow, heart-tugging black gospel treatment when I sing it, and that’s still the style that I feel it really “belongs” to, but this up-tempo treatment is certainly a lot of fun. It reminds me of “Someday.” Particularly cute is when they switch to “mouth instruments” partway through, creating their own vocal Dixie band. I have to admit though… the Penny Loafers do it better.
2. Singing In the Midnight Hour: I love this song. It’s got a killer foot-stomping beat. It’s not too far from southern gospel, though it’s definitely what you’d call progressive. Doug tears it up with a slightly gritty, soulful performance, proving once again that he can sing absolutely any style you put in front of him.
3. Here We Are Again: This fills the “soft, worshipful ballad” slot nicely. It doesn’t stand out in any particular way, but it’s a good laid-back number.
4. I Believe: Here’s “Puddin’” in his sweet spot, crooning along in that velvety, theatrical upper register that first caught Ernie’s attention. I’ve never been a huge fan of this song, but I’m such a sucker for velvety basses I’ll go for this arrangement! Now, Ian, about covering “My Mind Forgets a Million Things.” I know, I know, you told me you feel like you’re too young, but the song does say “The day WILL come when I’m so old…”
5. I’ve Been Here Before: They debuted this at NQC last year. Ernie has said that this is Devin’s chance to take a new song and make it his own. Musically speaking, the intro is a little odd and disconnected from the rest of the song, but it soon settles into a nice groove with a generous helping of gospel piano and B-3 Hammond, providing a nice setting for Devin’s bluesy style to do its work. Lyrically, it’s a personal message of reassurance for anyone who’s walking through a trial. Ernie has said it was inspired by his high-school sports days when the coach would find him grunting and complaining during his workouts and slap him upside the head, saying “Shut up and act like you’ve been here before.” Anyone who’s lived for a little while can remember a trial in the past that God brought him through, and that’s a promise to take hold of in whatever new trial faces us.
6. You Are Welcome Here: This is a full feature for Wayne Haun. For those of you who are familiar with Casting Crowns songs like “If We Are the Body” or “Does Anybody Hear Her?” this song is sort of like a response to those songs. It takes the perspective of someone welcoming a repentant, broken sinner into a church. These days, there’s pressure on the Church to welcome the proudly unrepentant sinners as well, but the characters in this song—a homeless drug addict and a girl who’s lost her purity—seem to recognize their need for a Savior. It’s that humility and recognition that makes all the difference in the world, and the Church certainly needs to reach out to such people. I wasn’t very struck by the music on this track (the melody isn’t terribly memorable), but it’s a piece with its heart in the right place.
7. Love Carried the Cross: Time for a textbook big ballad. We all know the formula, but it works every time. Signature Sound has been needing a song like this for a while, and it’s just what the doctor ordered. It’s lyrically meaty, it’s got sweep, it’s got impact. It doesn’t knock “Calvary Answers For Me” off its pedestal of greatest original song ever recorded by EHSS, but it’s nothing to sneeze at, to say the least. Vocally, Ernie Haase really comes through in a big way in this one, almost like his old Cathedral days. Nowadays Ernie likes to experiment, and sometimes I think of the different vocal styles he tries as being like the different haircuts he tries: Sometimes they work and sometimes they don’t. This one works, in a big way. I wish he would sing this style more often, but I know it’s a vocal strain, and he wants to save his voice for “Oh What a Savior.” Of course my dream would be for him to bring back “I Want To See Jesus,” but that probably won’t happen any time soon. Though I have heard that he’s open to reviving “Death Has Died.” We’ll see… meanwhile, I hope this makes some waves at Easterfest this year.
8. Stand By Me: This is something I wouldn’t have predicted—going ALL the way back to the song that first launched EHSS into the southern gospel stratosphere with Tim Duncan and having Ian cover it. I really thought Duncan’s version was untouchable, but Owens just brings a whole new quality to it. He sings it with a little more fruitiness, a little more swagger. If Duncan is like chocolate, Ian is like dark chocolate. That’s not to say Ian is necessarily better (the tradeoff for the extra velvet on top is that he’s got less cut on the bottom), just different in a good way. I for one am very excited that they’ve opted to revisit this song, because hopefully this means they’ll start staging it again. It’s like coming full circle for the group. It’s also fun to hear Devin coming in on what used to be Ryan’s moment toward the end. Production-wise, I loved all the little added touches to the arrangement—the electric guitar, the big brass, etc.
9. Everytime: This is Signature Sound in over-over-drive. The production is pretty fun—Ernie and Wayne compared it to a 1960s prom number. Unfortunately, it ultimately winds up as a failed experiment. Ernie said it’s like “Get Away Jordan” on steroids, but I actually had a flash-back to “Happy Birthday, Anniversary Too.” I get the impression he had a lot of fun with it and plans to stage it often, but I’m concerned about the effect it might have on his vocal cords, since I know that’s a big concern of his as well. Take care of yourself there, buddy!
10. Sometimes I Wonder: Okay Doug, do your thing. Make ‘em break out the hankies in one minute flat or you might not get back on the bus tonight. This is probably my favorite track on the album, even though it won’t be the one that generates the most buzz or gets the loudest crowd response. I had thought it was inspired by the death of Ernie’s sister-in-law, but this song actually dates further back to the death of George Younce, when fellow songwriter Joel Lindsey was coincidentally burying his parents at the same time. Their combined grief gave birth to this song, which lyrically recalls “I Can Only Imagine” but is a much better crafted piece of music. Very country-ballad-ish, in the best way. An acoustic guitar carries it along at a mid-tempo pace. The live band could easily do it justice.
11. Thankful: EHSS has actually been singing this one for over a year. Here is a video from December 2010, when Tim Duncan was still with the group. It’s obviously inspired by other (and better) songs like “Jesus We Just Want to Thank You” and “Thank You Lord for Blessing Me,” but it fits comfortably, sweetly and smoothly into the “thankfulness niche,” as it were.
12. Any Other Man: This one is already generating buzz. It will receive by far the lengthiest treatment from me of any song on this project.
I first heard this song when EHSS posted a low quality live video of it on their Facebook page last month. The sound was so muddy I felt like it wasn’t fair for me to make a final judgment based on that performance, so I was looking forward to hearing a better mix. The recording on the project is in fact the song’s live debut, in Bucharest, Romania. The quality is excellent, and it seems plausible that there wasn’t any “tuning up” on the vocals after the fact. However, there’s some extra instrumentation (strings, etc.) that couldn’t have been produced by a live band, indicating either that they were added in post-production or simply that a track was used for the performance.
Lyrically I wasn’t sure how to take it at first, because I couldn’t tell what the thought process behind certain lines had been, like the line about “the ones who love to hate.” I was having deja vu to something like this. But I’m really glad I watched a behind the scenes discussion about this song BEFORE finishing this review, because now I understand better where it sprang from, and I think I can embrace the lyric more completely. [Update: I've found further clarification in the fact that the lyric is "the ones who LOVED to hate."] Ernie was specifically inspired to write it at a time when he was feeling bitter and angry towards people who spread various nasty rumors about himself, the group, Wayne, etc. Having been around the Internet block a little myself, I know exactly what he’s talking about. Ernie said one day he was thinking “I’d like to get on there and tell them what I think of them,” but clearly that would be wrong on so many levels, most importantly because it isn’t what Jesus would do. As he fell into conversation with Wayne, they began thinking about the many things Jesus suffered, and Ernie said, “Man, any other man would have just used his power to say ‘Be gone,’ or ‘Be dead,’ or ‘Get away…’ ” That’s when Wayne said, “Ernie, Jesus wasn’t any other man.” Thus the kernel of the lyric was born.
Musically, this is probably Ernie’s most daring move yet. And I like it. More importantly, many other people seem to like it too. When I first heard it, I had the same thought Ernie and Wayne did when they decided to take the song in this musical direction: Is this going to play well at all to the over-40 crowd? In my mind’s eye, I was visualizing a big response with Michael W. Smith in Australia, but “polite applause” at NQC. Amazingly, Ernie and Wayne say that they’ve gotten the MOST requests for this song from the older demographic. Ernie said something I think is pretty shrewd, which is that he thinks it’s a sort of “controlled rebellion” from the old folks, an “I can still rock” type thing. They told one particularly funny story about a little old Mennonite man in Ohio who was listening with arms folded, sedately nodding for most of the show, but “came alive” when they brought on this song and gave them two thumbs up when it was over.
Now personally, I listen to a wide variety of music besides southern gospel, but my first reaction on hearing this song was that it was a bit heavier than what I normally enjoy. Then I wondered if that was the wrong way to put it. After all, I’m the girl who was dancing to “Trumpet of Jesus” before I could talk, who cranks up Journey on solitary driving excursions, and who was able to get out of bed on the first day of school only because of Huey Lewis & the News. Ernie and Wayne have said that they deliberately wanted the music to have that same classic rock sound (Ernie was first inspired while watching a “best of Bon Jovi” video). Maybe I’m reacting to the shock of hearing a sound that heavy from this group in this genre. (The fact that the lyrics are trying to say something meaningful might have something to do with it too. Others may be different, but I’m the sort who finds it easier to let myself enjoy something that rocks out if I’m not trying too hard to pay attention to the lyrics.) Somebody made the comparison to Third Day, and I actually don’t think that’s too far off, which may be why my first reaction was a bit lukewarm (never could get into Third Day). However, there is a happy difference, which is that the Signature Sound guys are exceptional singers. So they bring a skilled quality to the song that lifts it several notches from what it would have been in different hands. All are capable of handling a contemporary style, and in fact, if you follow them on social media, you’ll see that this is the kind of music they keep in regular rotation on their ipods. (Speaking of the vocals, check out Doug’s power tag on the end of verse two. That’s like “Happy Rhythm” encore territory.) And of course, Kelly Vaughn shines on electric guitar.
The lyrics are biblical and vivid. Take one snippet from a verse:
Any other man who was sentenced to be killed
Would beg for mercy from the courts that day
Any other man looking at his mother’s grief
Would call the waiting angels to escape
But Jesus wasn’t any other man
No, Jesus wasn’t any other man…
I will say that the decibel level occasionally makes it a bit difficult to hear the words. It took me quite a few listens to even catch that line in that last verse sung by Ernie (again, take it easy on the vocal cords there!) And I could picture sitting in a concert and being a little overwhelmed by the live drums and guitar. I know this sounds a little rad, but I’d be interested to see whether they could adapt this for all-acoustic instruments, a la rootsy/earthy country/blues. Then again, I’m hearing instruments like a dobro, and I don’t know if they’d want to carry extra instruments around.
Final thoughts: To say this project is a bit of an experiment would be an understatement. It’s more overtly pop/rock than any other project EHSS has done. That’s deliberate, because Ernie wants material they can use to appeal to a wider audience. At the same time, they aren’t abandoning their southern gospel roots, as evidenced by numbers like “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot” and the re-worked “Stand By Me,” plus new songs like “Love Carried the Cross” and “Thankful” that are typical genre pieces.
Vocally, all members shine, but I think Ian Owens impresses in particular because songs were picked for him that played to his strengths: hanging out in his upper register and hamming it up. But ultimately, the voice that continues to hold it all together is Doug Anderson. He never fails to impress, never fails to deliver precisely what any song demands, slow or fast, soulful or smooth, rocking or tear-jerking… and be pleasing to listen to through it all.
Even though I have personally enjoyed other EHSS projects more than this one, I am impressed with its production quality and its spirit of adventure. Several ho-hum tracks keep it from a 5-star rating. But it deserves 4.5. It’s a mature, well-crafted start to this new chapter in Signature Sound’s career.
Review copy provided. A positive review was not required.