Category Archives: 4.5 star

CD Review: Legacy Five, Great Day [Updated]

As a backer of Legacy Five’s new project, I just recently received the final mix of their project Great Day. I am pleased to offer the first review of this record, officially out March 25th! I’m using what I believe will be the cover of that project based on the fan poll they held on their blog. Enjoy my thoughts in bullet point form!

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* Y’all know I’m a sucker for gospel shuffles drenched in B-3 Hammond. Standout track “Christ is Still the King” (the number on which some lucky backers got the chance to sing BGVs) goes straight to that happy part of my brain. Congrats to Rebecca Peck and Dianne Wilkinson (the lady is a machine!) for an exceptionally strong lyric and melody. It just keeps building and building to a triumphant finish with the aforementioned fan choir. The relative restraint of the production until that final verse makes it all the more effective.

Souls can still be rescued

For mercy still redeems.

Rejoice, the tomb’s still empty

And Christ is still the King. Continue reading

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CD Review: Pure and Simple, by the Gaither Vocal Band

Pure & Simple

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. Continue reading

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CD Review: Love Won, by the Talleys

Love Won is the first album for the Talleys as a quartet with the new addition of Lauren’s husband, tenor Brian Alvey. It serves up a generous thirteen cuts, a mix of new and old. The title catches the attention right away—possibly an intentional reference (response?) to Rob Bell’s controversial Love Wins? In any event, most of the songs are lyrically built around God’s plan of salvation, touching on themes of healing, redemption, forgiveness, and re-creation. Some of them are among the Talleys’ best new songs in recent memory.

Track-by-Track Continue reading

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CD Review: Here We Are Again, by Ernie Haase & Signature Sound

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. :D

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.” :-o 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. :D 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.

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CD Review: Part of the Family, by The Collingsworth Family

The Collingsworth Family has been turning heads in the industry over the past few years, and with good reason. They’ve cultivated an incredible blend which has only become stronger and fuller as the four kids grow and develop. Add to that Mrs. Collingsworth’s virtuoso piano playing, as well as the older girls’ prowess on the violins, and you have what may be the most musically talented group in southern gospel. I was privileged to see them live in concert last year, and I can tell you that if they are ever in your area, it’s a show you don’t want to miss. (Oh yes, and Mr. Collingsworth plays trumpet too.)

Part of the Family is their StowTown Records debut, and it’s arguably their most mature project yet. Their sound has always been primarily a blend of gospel and old-fashioned inspo, with dashes of country and jazz, and this album continues in that vein. Wayne Haun is at the production helm as usual, contributing his arranging talents and a couple of new songs.

1. God’s Family (Lanny Wolfe): The CD begins appropriately with the song from which its title is taken. Lanny Wolfe’s material always fits the Collingsworths like a glove. (I’m still waiting for them to discover “The Sounds of His Coming,” which is one of his lesser-known pieces but in my opinion his best.) The lyrics and music are somewhat schmaltzy, of course, but the Collingsworth Family has a way of taking these kinds of songs and delivering them in a fresh, un-schmaltzy way. It’s sure to be a concert favorite.

2. Tell the Mountain (Kenna West/Lee Black/Sue Smith): This new mountain-flavored ballad is one of the best cuts on the project. Phil Jr. takes the lead, and it showcases how much his voice has matured even in the past couple of years. A few other people have already made comparisons to Doug Anderson on this number, and I definitely hear that resemblance as well (pay special attention to the line “God is with you, and you’ll overcome” — the way he holds out “overcome” sounds exactly like Doug). I would say that he’s developing into a light baritone. Much like Anderson, he has resonance in his lower register, yet also has a flexible upper range. As for the song, it’s a very uplifting message of encouragement for people who are dealing with struggles in their lives. It reminds us that whatever the “mountain” is, and however big it is, and whatever it tries to tell us, we’ve got something to tell back to it: Our God is even bigger.

3. Joy Unspeakable (Caleb Collins/Wayne Haun): This has a similar feel to “Bottom of the Barrel” from The Answer.  It’s a vigorous, up-tempo country/jazz number (listen for some great keyboard work). The Collingsworths always do this sound very well. I could see this song working as a concert opener to get the crowd good and warmed up.

4. Jesus is All I Need (Marty Millikin): This is a mellow Kim Collingsworth feature. Lyrically very predictable, but very comforting and easy to listen to.

5. Nothing’s Worrying Me (Jerry Kelso/Marty Funderburk): Think of this as the bluesy, easy-listening jazz counter-part to “I Know” from The Answer.  I personally love this style, and eldest daughter Brooklyn handles it with a smooth class that’s hard to resist. While references to the bad economy peg the lyric as modern, the music has a deliberately old-fashioned feel. It actually sounds like the kind of thing Ernie Haase & Signature Sound might sing.

6. I Pray (Lyn Rowell/Wendy Wills): This new offering from the authors of “Jesus is Holding My Hand” features Olivia, the youngest at 13. Her voice is still developing, yet she already shows great promise. She has a sweet tone and sings low notes with great clarity. If you compare her voice with clips of big sister Courtney at the same age, the resemblance is very striking (so don’t be surprised if she turns out to be a Courtney clone when she’s done growing). I really like the laid-back feel of the arrangement. It’s a simple song, simply accompanied with acoustic guitar. A very good way to introduce small children to the power of prayer… and remind the grownups who may have forgotten.

7. At Calvary: Kevin Williams and his friends recorded an instrumental version of this hymn last year that was so creative and incredible it made me wonder if I’d ever appreciate a normal rendition of it again. But the Collingsworths won me over right away with their characteristically powerful, dynamic arrangement. Much like “I Want a Principle Within” from the last project, it takes the listener on a journey, changing keys multiple times and featuring multiple vocal combinations. I especially enjoyed the ladies’ trio on verse two and the sibling trio featuring Phil Jr. on verse three—more proof that Phil Jr. has become quite capable of pulling his weight in a dramatic piece.

8. I Found it All (Helga Kaefer/Wayne Haun): This is one of my favorite new songs on the project. It’s, like, sooooo Wayne Haun. The chorus goes like this:


I found it all
When I lost everything
And gave my life
To serve a risen King.
I found the truth
That I’d been looking for.
I found it all
When I found the Lord.

Middle sister Courtney takes the lead and delivers a pure, honest vocal. My only nit-pick is that I think the production could have been scaled back a bit and actually made it even more powerful. But no matter. It’s a sweet cut. If anybody remembers the old AC Christian radio hit “Can’t Live a Day Without You,” this is thematically a little like that, except better-written, and without the pop bombast.

9. Just Another Rainy Day (Cindi Ballard/Daryl Williams): If I’m not mistaken, this features the sibling trio of Brooklyn, Courtney and Phil Jr. It’s a hand-clapping, foot-stomping, house-bringer-downer (is that a word?) I’ll eat my hat if that’s not Gordon Mote on keys, and there’s all kinds of fun stuff going on with the B-3 Hammond (you’ll remember that’s my weak spot), the guitar, and the bass. And the lyrics contain great wisdom: “If God says ‘Build an ark,’ it won’t be just another rainy day!” Believe it or not, think Brian Free & Assurance on this one. It’s got that same kind of slightly progressive drive to it. Expect them to encore this at least twice in concert.

10. Praise You (Bill & Gloria Gaither): Brooklyn takes the lead on this low-key Gaither cover. The instrumentation is very similar to the GVB version of “Home Where I Belong.” I felt like I had heard the song somewhere before, then I remembered it was one of two unreleased Vocal Band tunes Wes Hampton recently shared that had been on the table for the last lineup but never got put on a project of theirs. I love the way Wes sings it in that clip, but I think it fits the Collingsworths even better. We’re treated to a great duet between Brooklyn and Phil Jr., as well as some work from the ladies’ trio and the Phil Sr., Kim and Brooklyn trio.

11. That’s the Place I’m Longing To Go (Robert Batton): Like “I Can Pray,” this song relies on an acoustic backdrop. It’s carried very tastefully by guitar and mandolin, and it’s a beautiful project highlight. You’d never know it was a new song unless you looked at the date. It sounds like it could have been around for decades. With vivid imagery, it evokes a picture of heaven as a place where nobody is orphaned, hungry, or mourning for the dead.

Where no tears will ever fall, where death angels never call
Where the crepe never hangs on the door,
Where the hungry never cry, where we’ll never wave goodbye,
That’s the place my soul is longing for.

12. The Resurrection Morn (Bill & Gloria Gaither): Bringing things to a majestic close is this old Gaither piece. I believe they themselves have done better with this theme on a piece like “These Are They,” but hey, it’s Bill and Gloria, and it’s the Collingsworths. Hard to nit-pick.

Closing thoughts: Although the Collingsworths’ sound is better than ever, this project doesn’t take too many liberties from a creative standpoint. As a dyed-in-the-wool traditionalist who dislikes change, I’m not really complaining. Grandma’s apple pie never gets old, even though she uses the same recipe every Christmas…because it’s Grandma’s apple pie! The same is true of the Collingsworths—who would even want them to change?

From a song selection standpoint, there’s honestly nothing here that really leaps out at me, even though there’s nothing I dislike either. It’s simply a very good, enjoyable, consistent listen. The new material is very solid, but I still don’t think they’ve found that one Hit with a capital “H.” As for how it compares with The Answer, I would probably still cite that project as my favorite because the songs were a little stronger/more memorable, but this one is tighter and more cohesive as a whole.

The production is quality as always, and they continue to show themselves wonderfully adept at a variety of sounds. This may be the first project I’ve heard of theirs where certain songs actually remind me strongly of another group (like Signature Sound on “Nothing’s Worrying Me” or BFA on “Just Another Rainy Day”). They are in expert hands with Wayne Haun, and he always brings the best out of them. I’ll never forget the chance I had to chat with him a bit at my first southern gospel concert last year (seriously, it was like meeting the President or something—actually, just kidding, that’s an insult to Wayne). Anyway, I had just recently listened to The Answer, and I told him that I loved the way he let the family be themselves, yet complemented and supported them perfectly for what they were doing. He does the same here. I especially liked the more stripped-down feel on several of these numbers, because it really allows their full talent to shine. It makes me wonder what an entirely acoustic (or even acapella) Collingsworth project might sound like.

Bottom line: The bottom line is that if you’re a Collingsworth Family fan, you should buy this project. And if you’re an SG fan who hasn’t heard of this group… you are seriously deprived, and you should buy this project.

StowTown, you’re three for three—first the George Younce project, then Doug Anderson’s debut, now this. Keep going.

Review copy provided.

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CD Review: The Only Way by Greater Vision

This is my first Greater Vision project ever. I’m just starting to get into the group, so my review may be a little different from the many others that have been posted. This is the opinion of somebody coming to GV’s music with fresh ears. Hopefully that’ll get you to read this even though everybody and his uncle has already reviewed the album. Enjoy!

1. He Didn’t When He Could Have Passed By (Griffin): Perfect country/gospel opener. Brisk fiddles get things going at a satisfying clip, providing a catchy setting for a thoughtful lyric about Jesus’ choices to stop and care for people’s needs when He could have let their cries go unanswered. As the lyric points out, “With every step he took, the cross was heavy on His mind.” Yet He heard the cry of the blind man: “Do not pass me by.” The second verse then makes the natural comparison to our own sinfulness and need for a Savior, who did not pass us by either.

One thing I did find somewhat odd is the repeated line in the chorus saying, “He could have passed by the little boy who had died, left him laying in the way.” I believe it’s meant to refer to the story of the widow’s dead son. But number one, he wasn’t a little boy, he was a young man (which is why his mother’s plight was so desperate—as a widow, she now had nobody to support her), and number two, he wasn’t just “laying in the way,” his body was being carried away for burial. However, this really is a fun song to listen to, and there are several key changes to keep the interest going.

2. Safe Within His Hand (Allman): A mellow Chris Allman song makes a smooth listen. It’s very leisurely overall, but Chris sings a strong and confident second verse after a key change to give it a bit of excitement. Short but sweet.

3. No Longer Chained (Griffin): This song’s historical blooper has already been noted by Daniel Mount. It uses the Roman practice of chaining a soldier to a prisoner to create a story-song about one such soldier who was saved through Paul’s testimony (which naturally leads to a convenient double use of the phrase “no longer chained”). In the very first verse, it sets the stage by having the soldier come home and tell his wife and children about meeting Paul for the first time. The problem is that this would never have happened, because Roman soldiers weren’t allowed to marry and have families.

There have been varying opinions on whether this anachronism matters, but I find it distracting. “Hugged his wife and kids and said ‘I’m home…’ ” Now I’m imagining them all around the dinner table on the day he gets saved: “So guys, what were your three good things for the day? [...] That’s awesome! Well, I guess it’s my turn now…” See? It just doesn’t work. Then the bridge asks us to imagine other soldiers like him and “what they might have gone on home from work to share.” It’s all through the song. So ultimately, a good idea (probably inspired by Philippians where Paul says, “It has become known throughout the whole imperial guard and to all the rest that my imprisonment is for Christ”) with nice music and some good lyrics, but an awkward setup.

4. I Know a Man Who Can (Campbell/Davis): Insert wild cheers, whistles, and screams here. This is EASILY the prime cut of the CD. I am serious: Think twice about listening to this one while driving, because you could end up having a Holy Ghost moment on the road, and then, well, “Jesus take the wheel” and all that.

This has hitherto been Kirk Talley’s signature song, but Chris Allman has officially stolen it. Southern Gospel has many great tenors, but few with a more effortlessly clear sound than Chris. As Aaron Swain once put it, he must have found the tenor singers’ fountain of youth, because he certainly shows no signs of aging. His flawless delivery combined with flawless production (a heavenly blend of piano, B-Hammond and electric guitar), make this a touch-down moment and a sure-fire future crowd favorite.

5. He’s the Only Way (Allman/Griffin): This is a very timely song, bringing welcome theological clarity when too many people are bringing fuzziness. It matter-of-factly brushes aside all the “many roads to heaven” nonsense and says plainly, “He’s not a good, not the best, but the only way.” And it’s heaps of fun, with a great “chicken-pickin’ ” electric guitar sound. One quibble: In the second verse, it discusses Nicodemus’ conversation with Jesus and assumes that Nicodemus walked away with a complete Christian understanding of who Jesus was and the theology of salvation. This is a bit simplistic. No doubt Nicodemus walked away intrigued, with a growing realization that Jesus was not just another prophet, but he would hardly have had all his theological ducks so neatly in a row. (Incidentally, a fascinating Old/New Testament connection was recently brought to my attention regarding that passage, which I’ll probably write a post about one of these Sundays.) But overall, great lyric, and I love the 3rd verse:

Have you come by the way of the cross

Where atoning grace is found?

All of your gains been counted as loss,

Have you laid your burdens down?

You see, perfection’s required

To stay away from the fire

So call on Jesus’ name…

6. Like I Wish I’d Lived (Griffin): This is the first of three slow songs in a row, prompting some reviewers to complain that the CD’s tempo drags too much in the middle. I do have something of the same feeling and might not sit through all three before jumping around to one of the faster ones for a break. But it doesn’t seem like a huge deal. However, I’m puzzled, along with others, that this is the album’s first radio single. Yet I hasten to add that I really like the song. It’s a very poignant, simple prayer asking God to help us make up for any regrets we may carry with us from past mistakes. Plus, it’s sung by Chris Allman, and well, what more can you say?

7. But God (Griffin/LaBar): Gerald Wolfe sings this  reflective song about trials and God’s sovereignty, originally done by Legacy Five. It’s a good performance and a soothing sound, but they slow down the tempo from the original, which makes it run a little long. And even though the verses are sung in a minor key, the overall easy-listening country feel seems to clash a bit with the lyrics, which are trying to describe some pretty dark times of suffering. It’s a little hard to concentrate on a lyric like “The voice that once praised Him now groans through the tears/And questions, ‘Lord, where are you now?’ ” when an electric guitar is doing bluesy little licks in the background. Like David Bruce Murray, I might have preferred to replace this with another fast song. But Lari Goss’s strings do sound good here.

8. We Still Have to Pray (Griffin): This is one of my favorite songs on the record. The music is gorgeous, and Rodney Griffin’s voice sounds very rich. It uses the Old Testament story of Rebekah’s barrenness and Isaac’s prayer for her to make a moving illustration about waiting on the Lord. It reminds us that “even when we’re in God’s will, we still have to pray.” I thought the bridge was striking: “You’re wishing that the Lord would show you what’s in store. But He loves you way too much to let you lose your faith’s reward.” It’s just a really comforting song, a great encouragement for anyone seeking the Lord in a difficult time.

9. Eternity’s About to Begin (Allman): Injecting some welcome up-beat relief, this textbook toe-tapper begins with Chris Allman, Gerald Wolfe’s piano and the B-3 once again stealing the show black gospel style. It then picks up the pace and proceeds to hop along quite nicely, filled with imagery about the celebration that’s “waiting to begin.” The Imperials’ “First Morning in Heaven” (not to be confused with “First Day in Heaven”) is still my favorite song along these lines, but this one is enjoyable too. (Say, maybe Greater Vision should think about covering that Imperials song. It’s very Chris.)

10. Heaven Can’t Be Far Away (Hurst): If “I Know a Man Who Can” was Chris Allman’s “hallelujah, glory be” moment, this song is Gerald Wolfe’s. They’re covering themselves here, having first recorded this song 18 years ago. Gerald still knocks it out of the park today. Even in the studio, he can barely contain his excitement as the song ramps up to the climax. He practically takes you through the gates of pearl with him. Classic, classic stuff.

11. Another Child’s Coming Home (Allman): With all the songs that have been inspired by the prodigal son, somehow the theme never really gets old. This Allman-penned closer is a quiet, understated addition to the “prodigal son catalogue.” There’s a beautiful novel called Gilead where one of the central characters is a lonely prodigal son, and that book together with its companion novel Home has caused me to hear songs like this in a new way. You constantly want to tell the character, Jack, that he is loved, that he’s not worthless, and that he needs Jesus to right all the wrong in his life. His father desperately loves him, yet Jack struggles to accept grace, even after he comes home. Even though the song is more straightforward than the books (which are more complex than your average prodigal son-inspired piece), I still think the lyrics really capture the cry of the father’s heart in the story. He stands with open arms, truly overjoyed and eager to welcome the wayward child home, for no other reason but love.

Get his room prepared, because I know he’s tired

And when he gets here, I’m sure he’ll want to rest awhile

And if you need me, I’ll be out in the road

Because another child’s coming home…

Final thoughts: You can’t get much more quintessentially southern gospel than Greater Vision, and this album reminds me why I like the music so much. Griffin and Allman are churning out solid songs, and putting Allman back on tenor has given the group a huge shot in the arm vocally. Not that Kitson wasn’t a great singer, but I think I speak for everybody when I say “WELCOME BACK, CHRIS!” This album also promises good things for the group’s future from a production standpoint. Many artists are going to miss Lari Goss’s work as he pulls back for the sake of his health in the coming years, but if Gerald Wolfe’s production on this CD is any indication, Greater Vision should manage just fine. His touch is relaxed and sure.

I’m very glad to have this album, and I’m giving it 4. 5 stars. Go get it. (Unless you absolutely cannot stand southern gospel of course. Then you might not like it so much.)

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CD “Review”: Dreamin’ Wide Awake by Doug Anderson

This is not a normal album review, because I have not yet heard the album I am reviewing. It contains my thoughts on Doug Anderson’s upcoming solo album after hearing the lead single, hearing 30-second samples of the other songs, and reading complete lyrics. This gave me a good enough sense of what the project is like that I realized there were already a lot of things I could say about it. So I decided to share my impressions so far with my readers now. Naturally, this will not be quite as detailed as a regular review. However, hopefully I will still help convince people to go get it. I’m certainly planning to. Enjoy. :-)

I want to start this “review” by focusing on something that doesn’t often get discussed in CD reviews: the front cover. It’s always interesting to see what kind of “look” is chosen for the main photo. Naturally, it requires a lot of planning, time and effort, since it’s the first thing to catch a prospective buyer’s eye. For one reason or another, I am often left unimpressed by album covers. One reason is the facial expressions artists are told to wear. It seems that the new “rage” these days, even within Christian music, is to take handsome guys and tell them to stare at the camera like thugs, surly teenagers, or used-car salesmen—sometimes all three if there are several promo shots. As someone who appreciates both good-looking young men and good photography, I am invariably left tearing out my hair in clumps when faced with the disastrous final results.

Not so here. And thank goodness. Doug is just about the sweetest looking guy you can imagine, and that’s exactly how he looks on the front cover. He looks like himself—kind, friendly, and very trustworthy. In fact, that goes for all the photos chosen for the liner notes. Particularly sweet are the shots of him with his beautiful wife and two little girls. It is obvious that Doug is a family man first and a singer second, as great a singer as he is.

Now for the music: Doug told me that the style would be “pretty eclectic.” I would broadly categorize this project as pop with country overtones. A couple tracks feel like they’d be at home on the latest Rascal Flatts, while others are more like your typical adult contemporary fare. The country flavor doesn’t surprise me, since Doug has expressed a strong liking for the genre. Country done right is a good thing, so from my perspective, this is a good thing.

The song selection, I will be honest, was a pleasant surprise. I was hopeful that “Jesus is Holding My Hand” was indicative of the rest of the project’s quality, but at the same time I wondered whether it would be. Although not every song on the album rises to the same level, the selection is solid overall with several standouts.

So let’s break it down:

1. “Jesus is Holding My Hand” (Rowell/Wills) has been a great choice for the first radio single and probably would have been my pick as well.  The lyrics are simple and moving, and the melody is sweet. For anyone going through a troubling time, this song carries a message that is sure to bring comfort. Doug’s delivery is characteristically warm and tender. I would say that this is the highlight of the project.

In fact, I liked this song so much that I felt like giving it my own spin on the piano. You can download an mp3 of my rendition here. (For those of you unfamiliar with Rapidshare, see a few helpful tips here.) [Update: I've decided to switch to 4Shared, which is much simpler than Rapidshare. Now all you have to do is simply click on the link to go to a page and hear the mp3 streaming.]

[Further thoughts after hearing the album: Even after hearing all the songs all the way through, I remain convinced that this is still easily the best.]

2. “Smile it Through” (Tharpe) is a bouncy gospel tune that will probably have you tapping your toes in spite of yourself. As the title implies, it also addresses the topic of walking through troubled times, though obviously with a far lighter touch than the last track. Of particular note here production-wise is the b-3 Hammond—very cute! This song features a guest appearance by Jamie Dailey of Dailey & Vincent.

[Further thoughts after hearing the album: This song was an instant favorite with me, and Doug was clearly having a ball. You can even hear him chuckling at the end. I like how they made this song continue seamlessly into the next one.]

3. “Some Say” (Haase/Haun/Lindsey) is another catchy song, but a different kind of catchy. This is 80s catchy. Come to think of it, it’s actually rather reminiscent of Steven Curtis Chapman’s younger days. It describes the various ways Jesus is seen by non-believers, and the lyrics really hit the mark. They sound all too familiar. You will constantly see people who describe Jesus as “a great teacher,” or somebody who left us with some nice morals, or somebody who meant well, but as C. S. Lewis says, he has not left that option open to us. He did not intend to.

4. “Closer” (Haase/Haun/Lindsey) strikes me so far as one of the project’s weaker moments. It has a swaying pop/jazz sound to it which doesn’t seem to complement the emotional lyrics. And heartfelt as the lyrics are, they lean a little too heavily on stock phrases like “feel so alone,” “beat of your heart,” “sadness…madness,” etc. This combined with the style of the instrumentation and the background vocals all keep it from having the impact it could.

5. “Only Here For a Little While” (Holyfield/Leigh) is one of those straight-up country tunes I mentioned, and it’s sounding like a definite highlight that should be one of my favorites on the project (it’s one of Doug’s, incidentally). The lyrics open by describing a funeral which gives the singer a new perspective on the brevity of life. He resolves to live every moment to the fullest, unlike the dead young man who was always “puttin’ off until tomorrow the things he should have done.” It’s an inspiring message that will encourage you to treat every day as a gift and an opportunity to carry out God’s work in this world. This track features a guest appearance from the rest of Signature Sound. (By the way, I could be wrong, but it sounded from the sample like Tim Duncan was singing the bass part. If so, this would be the very last thing he ever recorded with the group. I will have to confirm that when I get the whole thing. [Update: I asked Ernie, and he told me that the bass singer on this song is Matt Fouch of Soul'd Out Quartet.])

[Further thoughts after hearing the album: The production is really awesome on this one, with a sparkling harmonica part. Just one more reason why this is one of the best cuts on the album.]

Gonna hold who needs holdin’, mend what needs mendin’

Walk what needs walkin’, though it means an extra mile.

6. “That’s How Much I Need a Savior” (Lindsey/Wood) is another definite highlight (and another favorite of Doug’s). Good things happen when you have Joel Lindsey and Tony Wood in the same package, and this song is no exception. The thought-provoking lyric explores the magnitude of our sin and our need for redemption. I think songs like this are important, because in a world of “feel-good theology,” there can be a tendency to downplay things like sin and guilt. But to do so undermines the very purpose of the cross. As this song says, our faults, failures and mistakes could fill rivers and oceans. It is only by the grace of God that we are made new. This song features a sweet guest vocal from Charlotte Ritchie.

I thought this was previously unrecorded, but I just discovered that it was first done by the new trio Beyond the Ashes.

[Further thoughts after hearing the album: This track features some of my favorite production on the CD. The acoustic guitar and strings have a very tender, graceful sound together.]

That’s how much I need a Savior

To take the guilt that brings me to my knees.

7. “A Savior Saves” (Garinger) makes three highlights in a row (yet another favorite of Doug’s…) The 6/8 tempo gives the music an uplifting sound that matches the assurance of the lyric. The only misstep in the lyric is the line, “It’s just who he is.” That falls a little flat. But it wouldn’t stand out so much if the rest of the lyrics weren’t so good. This track features a guest appearance from the Collingsworth family.

Every beat of His heart pleads forgiveness

And every line of His scars offers grace.

8. “I Love That About Him” (Black/Rowell/Smith) is something of a guilty pleasure. Musically, it’s very catchy and fun to listen to, with a gospel twist. But the lyrics… well, if I can borrow an analogy from Simon Cowell, it’s a little like putting eleven spoonfuls of sugar in my coffee. They teeter rather too close to a “Jesus is my BFF” mentality for my preferences. But admittedly, it should make for great repeat singalongs in the car when nobody’s watching…

[Further thoughts after hearing the album: Thinking about the song's main hook, "He loves that about me/I love that about him," it struck me that the thing about a song like "Take My Life," which also discusses trusting and surrendering to God, is that this is what we aspire to be like. It's not always what we are like. To say, "This is what I'm like, and he just loves that about me" is number one a bit simplistic and number two comes off unintentionally like self-congratulation. To make an analogy, suppose I'm a housewife, and I do things for my husband that are really good housewifely things, like ironing and folding all his shirts, going to a lot of trouble to prepare his favorite meals, etc. How would it sound if I went around talking to my friends about our marriage by saying, "My husband and I have such a great relationship, and he loves that I do x, y and z for him. He just loves that about me." Wouldn't that sound kind of odd, even if I then also went on to describe the ways I love my husband? I'm not saying anyone meant for the lyric to sound like that, this is just some food for thought after further consideration on my own part.]

9. “I’ll Take What’s Left” (Haun/Lindsey) is another touching ballad about redemption. Anyone with a painful past should be able to relate to this song and be comforted by it.

[Further thoughts after hearing the album: This is easily one of the project's prime cuts. It has a classic piano and a really heartfelt delivery. Just beautiful.]

10. “Dreamin’ Wide Awake” (Haun/Lindsey) finishes it off with pure country twang. It’s reminiscent of “Sundays Are Made for Times Like These.” Joel Lindsey and Wayne Haun have beautifully captured the story of Doug’s life, and his delivery radiates contentment. This is the sound of a very blessed man. My only quibble with the lyric is a curious grammatical slip: One line reads, “I wouldn’t trade a kingdom for my two girls and my wife,” when taken literally, this is actually saying the opposite of what it’s intended to mean. Of course, the intent is obvious.

I’m standing here in showers of sweet blessing

When the best that I deserved was a drought.

Closing thoughts: This album will definitely be a home run with folks who have followed Anderson’s work with Signature Sound, and that is a large part of what it was designed to be. Those who enjoy his energy (“He Made a Change”) will find energy here (“Some Say,” “Smile it Through”), and those who love his delivery on a sweet ballad (“Thank God for Kids”) will find many similarly sweet moments here (“Jesus is Holding My Hand,” “Only Here For a Little While,” title track, etc.). But this project could also be appreciated by non-SG/inspo fans. Granted, CCM fans who go for the really heavy, thudding stuff might be disappointed, but folks who appreciate a gentler, more substantial and old-fashioned kind of CCM could definitely get into this. I would certainly love to see it reach a wider market than just SG. There may not be anything by way of song selection that Informed Critics would call “groundbreaking” or “creative,” but if you’re like me you don’t really care about that kind of thing as long as it’s good music. Lord knows this is several notches and then some above your typical K-Love mush.

Vocally, Doug sounds very, very comfortable on this project. This is his style and his kind of music. As I discussed in my review of Wes Hampton’s solo album, it’s vitally important that a soloist find a stylistic niche that fits him well and brings out the best in his voice. In Wes’s case, there were some great moments, but overall the project fell short of what it could have been because the production tended to utilize a wall-of-sound CCM feel that overpowered his voice. But Wayne Haun has given Doug’s voice the perfect setting while still leaving that voice front and center. (As you can see, he was also involved in the writing process for nearly half of the songs.)

The bottom line is that Doug Anderson is  one of the best Christian vocalists on the road today, and I would put him against anybody winning awards in CCM right now. He’s one of the most critically respected baritones out there and easily my personal favorite. He certainly has fully deserved his Dove nomination for Male Vocalist of the Year. Will his solo career skyrocket on a Michael English level? Only time will tell, but at the moment my take is that he could certainly have a successful solo run, yet still belongs with Signature Sound. This is not to take anything whatsoever away from his extraordinary talent, but I just think Doug is at heart a quartet man. However, I look forward to following him wherever God chooses to take him.

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Filed under 4.5 star, CD Reviews