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.