When Guy Penrod and Marshall Hall left the Gaither Vocal Band, I admit that I was skeptical about how much I would like the super-star lineup that replaced it. A DVD came and went, as did a new project, and I remained somewhat lukewarm. But after a year or so, I’ve gradually warmed to this five-man blend of voices. Seeing them at NQC this year, I thought they had tightened as a unit and delivered some of the best new material of the convention. So needless to say, I immediately acquired their latest project Pure and Simple. My verdict is that although it could have been better, it’s a cut above anything else I’ve heard yet this year. Now, I realize I’ve already handed out a 4.5 star rating (to the Booth Brothers’ Gaither tribute), and this project isn’t absolutely perfect, so I can’t quite give it a 5, which means I’m going to be giving the two projects the same rating even though I think one is better than the other. I’m not going to go back and change anything though, because I’m trying to get used to thinking of my star ratings as the answer to the question “How well does this project fulfill its potential?” That could very easily lead to albums that are not completely on a par receiving the same rating. So just in case anyone would have been confused, there’s a little insider tid-bit on how the ratings work around here. As you can tell, I make a lot of things up as I go along.
Okay, so since there are so many tracks on this album, I thought I would do something a little different and sort them into three categories: Prime Cuts, Enjoyables, and Misfires. Because my time is limited, I’ll really only go in depth on the prime cuts and then just briefly touch on the rest.
Come to Jesus: I don’t know about anyone else, but my mind went first to the Chris Rice song of this name when I saw it in the track listing. As it turns out, it’s a completely different song by a writer I’d never heard of called Mindy Smith. I gather it was a big hit a few years back on both country and pop charts. This GVB version was the first time I listened to the song, and I was very impressed. Lyrically, it has the feel of a bluegrass lullaby. Think Emmylou Harris-ish. Musically, it’s more of a mix. There’s a little bluegrass in there, but it’s mixed up with some blues, a little country, a little pop/rock, just a blended style. (Sort of a microcosm of this entire album now that I think of it.) David Phelps takes the lead and gives it a sort of crooning/wailing flavor that’s perfect. He does this sound amazingly well. I hear Wes and Michael in harmonies, not sure about Mark or Bill. But the harmonies you do hear are beautiful and haunting. On a songwriting level, this piece is top-notch, the production is rich and the vocals are spot-on, so I think this is a candidate for best track on the album. It certainly was one that had me hitting repeat immediately.
Glorious Freedom: I love it when people go pull out obscure hymns that deserve not to be obscure. This has already been successful as a live number for the group, carried once again by David’s soaring vocals. The arrangement starts off with some gentle guitar strumming but quickly balloons to “Please Forgive Me” proportions as the harmonies escalate towards the climax. And of course, the hymn itself is magnificent.
The Love of God: This is NOT, as some had thought at first, a re-re-re-make of the Vep Ellis tune that’s already been done to death by the GVB, but rather the traditional hymn (“The love of God is greater far/Than tongue or pen could ever tell…”) I was excited to hear this arrangement since even though many groups have covered it, this is the first time the GVB has done a recording. It starts with Mark Lowry singing the melody, joined on the first chorus by Wes Hampton up top. Then Wes sings the second verse solo. My favorite moment comes after that step-out when the music suddenly transposes to a new key in a surprising and lovely way. I suspect Phelps had a phinger or two in the arrangement, since it recalls “O Love That Will Not Let Me Go.”
Winds of This World: This brought down the house at NQC, so listening to the studio version almost felt a little disappointing. It’s still a fabulous, exciting piece of music, but for the full flavor of awesomeness, you have to experience this one on the stage where everyone has room to improvise and move around. But in any case, top-notch musicianship here. A rumbling drum beat propels it forward with a 50s rockabilly flair—sort of like “Mystery Train” on steroids—and Ben Isaacs (?) provides killer string bass support. There’s also space for the pianist to cut loose, and while again this is always more fun to watch live, it’s pretty cool even in the studio. Michael English takes the lead, and honestly while he’s never been my favorite singer, I have to say he totally kills it. This get-your-hands-together gospel/soul sound is where he lives. Surround him with the rest of the GVB, introduce a choir for him to play off of when the song peaks, and you’ve got church, “pure and simple.”
Fool’s Gold: If I’m not mistaken, this is an original offering from the pen of David Phelps. Now I haven’t paid much attention to his writing before, since the only songs of his I knew of were solo and I haven’t followed his solo career. But I can tell you that this is a really excellent song. It has a mournful minor key sound, slightly folky, perfect for the feel of this project. The lyrics are about laying up treasures in heaven versus holding on to earthly treasures, which are “nothing more than fool’s gold.” It’s just a pretty song—not a sophisticated critique, I know, but that’s what I got.
Cup of Sorrow: Like with “Come to Jesus,” this shows the GVB pulling from an underrated indie folk/soul artist, this time Amos Lee. I’d never heard of Lee before this song, but after listening to some clips on Amazon I really like his sound and his writing. If you like introspective, easy-listening singer/songwriter stuff with a little soul a la Norah Jones, I would recommend him. This song has a wonderful swing to it, a great country/folk groove. Michael English turns in a smooth, twangy performance, and the rest of the harmonies are just layered in like butter. Lyrically, it’s got some interesting imagery and twists to it. It conveys a feeling of sadness and resignation that make an interesting contrast with the cheerful music. I’m still not exactly sure what it means because it’s kind of open-ended, but I’m okay with that because as I’ve broadened my listening palette, I’ve come to have more of an appreciation for songs that just feel right even if you can’t exactly put your finger on why. This is one of those songs. The extended jam sessions are really satisfying, and the groove is perfect for getting a good rhythm going while you walk.
The songs that I grouped under this category are “I Don’t Want to Get Adjusted,” “Whole Lotta Shakin,’ ” “Do You Wanna Be Well,” and “I’m Rich.” These are all good, solid cuts that weren’t quite as good as the cream of the crop but all contribute to making this a good project. My favorite among them would probably be “Do You Wanna Be Well,” a nice feature for Wes that has a thoughtful message about our willingness to let God heal, shape and perfect us.
The tracks that just don’t do it for me are “Rasslin’ Jacob,” “Rumormill,” “The Old Rugged Cross Made the Difference,” “I’ll Pray for You,” and “Sow Mercy.” “Rasslin’ Jacob” is a traditional spiritual that feels very random and nonsensical. A chorus about Jacob wrestling the angel keeps getting repeated and interwoven with totally unrelated lyrics from “Must Jesus Bear the Cross Alone.” It just doesn’t make sense. Then “Rumormill” has always been a just okay novelty song, made enjoyable largely by Jon Mohr’s bass delivery. Translating it into a Mark Lowry feature just ups the annoyance factor still further. This is one track that could easily have been left off.
I liked the other three a little better, but my complaint for them all was basically the same: They just drag too much. Now I know that with “The Old Rugged Cross Made the Difference,” you can’t really perform the song without dragging because that’s kind of how the song is. Well I’ll go ahead and say that even though I (naturally) like Michael English’s rendition less than Penrod’s, the song itself never did grab me. It’s not as cohesive as it could be, and it takes forever to pick up enough momentum to be interesting. So, just my .02. As for the two new songs, I was torn on “I’ll Pray For You” because it was a Wes feature, but the song just didn’t click with me. It’s a bit of a curve ball at the end of this album, very heavy and ponderous with a slow-dripping piano hook. I simply fell asleep. “Sow Mercy” had kind of the same effect. I like Mark Schultz’s song “Remember Me” much better along similar lines.
So there you have it! My thoughts on the Gaither Vocal Band’s latest offering. I think this album explores some new ground for the group, and I for one found it to be a very satisfying musical experience. Despite what the title says, these arrangements are complex and interesting enough to keep me coming back for more. In a genre where many artists are sticking to the same formula, we can always count on Bill and the boys to bring something a little different to the table. This album is a breath of fresh air, and for any southern gospel fan I would rate it as a must buy.
Rating: 4.5 stars