Category Archives: 4 star

CD Review: Just Sing, by Amber Nelon Thompson

Amber Nelon Thompson Just Sing

Amber Nelon Thompson is one of gospel music’s most talented, consistent, and consistently pleasing singers.  Her versatile voice can evoke female greats from Sandi Patti to Alison Krauss to Carrie Underwood as needed. Just Sing is her first full-length non-independent ADULT solo album. (Thanks to David for catching my forgotten first-draft error that it was her first, then informing me that another album from 2000 actually was put out by Daywind as well.) A 4-song EP was released ahead of time and previewed four tracks for this project, which have now been combined with six more. I did not listen to the 4-song EP, so these are my first impressions of all ten songs.

  1. Just Sing: I suppose I’ve heard worse icebreakers. This one is relatively cute, although Bill Gaither’s stuttering cameo and the heavily computerized spoken-word exhortations to “Sing along” were a tad annoying.
  2. He’s Making Me: I like this lyric’s play on the phrase “making me.” The word “making” means pushing or demanding, but it also means forming, creating. This song explores where those two meanings find their union in God’s firm, yet formative work in us.
  3. Another Time, Another Place:  A classic old CCM duet. Amber nailed her Sandi Patti impression. As for Michael English on the Wayne Watson part… I’m trying really hard not to be snarky here, but suffice it to say Amber is so much clearer and more listenable that it just becomes distracting at a certain point. While Michael is breathing his way around the melody, Amber is just, well, singing it. I have to wonder what this would have sounded like with Riley Clark, Andrew Goldman, Wes Hampton, or any number of other talented young singers. For that matter, Wayne Watson himself is still sounding good pretty good these days by comparison.
  4. Be Thou My Vision: Amber is joined by her family here, so it’s been suggested that this should have been reserved for another Nelons hymns album. But I can’t complain about its inclusion on this project. The arrangement is tasteful, richly layered and haunting.
  5. What Do You Say?: This song has a weak melody, and the bridge doesn’t show off the most pleasing aspects of Amber’s voice. She leaps up an octave and begins belting out the lyrics, but the high range combined with the choppy tune gives her voice a strained, shouty sound. This distracts from the meaning. Bluntly put, heart-tugging stories about cancer patients need to be complemented by melodies that keep you listening long enough to get invested in them.
  6. Without Your Love: Ah, now this is a duet I can get into: Amber plus Joseph Habedank. Joel Lindsey’s golden songwriting touch is apparent on this tune. He can write a perfect inspirational pop ballad. He’s the king of “Good Schmaltz”: songs like a chocolate cheesecake, on the sweet side, but melodies so rich you want to sink your teeth into them again and again.
  7. Grateful: This is the Keith Urban-ish single. Country instruments, pop vocals. Nothing too deep here.
  8. God is Always Good: Really nice MOR with a classy 90s feel. Sort of like something Scott Krippayne might have written and recorded back in the day. One thing I like about it is that the arrangement isn’t pushed to overblown heights. It reaches a nice little peak, then quietly draws to its conclusion without muscling its way through a bridge and two key changes to get there.
  9. Give it to Jesus: A power ballad that wouldn’t feel out of place on American Idol, but in a nice way. While Amber does get to show off her chops and her range on this one, the melody actually goes somewhere, and she stays in vocal control the whole way. This track gives us a sense of what Amber might have gone on to do had she capitalized on that golden ticket. (For those of you who are unfamiliar with the story of what happened there, click here.)
  10. Falling: A lengthy string quartet intro gives way to a series of single piano notes. The complex arrangement and carefully crafted lyrics actually reminded me of some of David Phelps’s solo work. The lyrical theme is the juxtaposition of our perspective with God’s: “We see… you see…” The “falling” hook concludes the chorus: “But even when we see life falling apart, you see life falling in place.” The strongest  line is “We see our Savior forsaken, you see Easter’s dawn.” The force of this line is accompanied by an unexpected twist and lift in the melody. There was only one bit that needed work, and it actually comes right before that last line: “We read a story so tragic, seem too far gone.” The phrase “seem too far gone” doesn’t really make sense. The only possible antecedent is “we,” yet the lyric has shifted from talking about our story to our reading Jesus’ story.

Final thoughts: This album could be divided into radio-friendly contemporary country on the one hand and nostalgic MOR material on the other. The country tunes include some of the album’s biggest highlights, packing a good Carrie Underwood-like punch. At the same time, they include the album’s weakest moments. The MOR material makes up the solid, consistent center. Throw in “Be Thou My Vision,” which is neither but stands out on its own, and the album as a whole tips toward my good side. I want to hear Amber wrap her voice around more good songs some time soon.

Prime cuts: “Be Thou My Vision,” “Give it to Jesus,” “Falling”

Rating: 4 stars

15 Comments

Filed under 4 star, CD Reviews

CD Review: Happy People, by Ernie Haase & Signature Sound

Everyone’s favorite hip retro southern gospel quartet is baaaaack with another CD/DVD, coming soon to a Christian bookstore near YOU (pre-order). This is me NOT commenting on the album cover’s color scheme! Spoiler: I couldn’t resist forever, but you’ll have to read the whole review to get to the part where my will breaks.

So… what are you waiting for?

Continue reading

2 Comments

Filed under 4 star, CD Reviews

CD Review: A New Chapter, by the Jim Brady Trio

Image2The Jim Brady Trio is one of the hottest new acts in southern gospel, and with good reason: Jim comes off a staggering twelve-year run with the Booth Brothers besides being a prolific songwriter for other groups, his wife Melissa is also a prolific writer and vocal coach, and Tim Parton is well-known for his tenure as Legacy Five’s pianist/producer. With so much experience and talent in one place, good things are bound to happen. The release of their debut album is especially poignant in the wake of Lari Goss’s death, since this was one of the last projects he worked on. Today marks its official drop date, and you can head over to iTunes for your own copy. But first, have a gander at what I thought of it. Continue reading

8 Comments

Filed under 4 star, CD Reviews

CD Review: Pursuit, by the Ball Brothers

Ball Brothers, Pursuit

The Ball Brothers are one of southern gospel’s youngest and most progressive groups. Consistently thinking outside the box, they serve up a uniquely tight, pop-flavored harmonic blend that recalls GoFish or the Backstreet Boys more than your typical southern gospel men’s group. They built their career as four blood brothers, but since then they’ve replaced two, including brother Stephen, who tragically had to bow out due to early onset hearing loss. Fortunately, Andy Tharp and Chad McCloskey have seamlessly slipped into the groove, and anyone who didn’t know any better could easily think all four are related. Their fresh, youthful appeal has many fans wondering if it’s only a matter of time before Ernie Haase signs them to StowTown Records, since he played a large part in giving them their first exposure. Click below the fold for my thoughts on their latest release, Priority. Continue reading

5 Comments

Filed under 4 star, CD Reviews

CD Review: Measure of Grace, by The Taylors

Measure of Grace

Measure of Grace is young family group The Taylors’ debut release on Ernie Haase and Wayne Haun’s label Stowtown Records. The fresh-faced foursome is continuing Stowtown’s recent trend of putting family groups on their roster. From left to right, they are Suzanne, Christopher, Leslie and Jonathan. Stylistically, they can evoke the Collingsworth Family, the Easters, or the Hoppers while still retaining their own identity. Now they’ve enlisted the talents of some of the best songwriters in the business (Haun, Lindsey, Jim & Melissa Brady and more) for an all-new collection of songs. Without further ado, here are my thoughts on this upcoming offering:

Likes

*Opening track “I’m Committed to You Lord” is a highlight right out of the gate from Wayne Haun and Jeff Bumgardner. Very classy but kind of kickin’ inspo in the vein of the Collingsworths’ “I Could Never Praise Him Enough.”

*Leslie Taylor is featured on highlight “I Tremble.” Wayne Haun and Joel Lindsey once again deliver a blissfully melodic, B-3 Hammond drizzled, richly theological meditation on worship and the cross. (And I just realized that I kind of made it sound like an ice cream sundae. Oh well, food analogies have always been my thing.) With the exception of one cringey line, which I’ve marched out and shot under “Dislikes,” this is the best song on the album.

Let me not forget this temple

It’s transformed into a throne room

And through your name, my soul is ushered in

So let me come to you in wonder

Let my heart still pound like thunder

At the way your grace has found me once again

*Speaking of Leslie, she’s the glue that holds the group together vocally. Her rich country tone compares favorably with Sheri Easter. Continue reading

7 Comments

Filed under 4 star, CD Reviews

CD Review: Into His Presence, by the Perrys

The Perrys - Into His Presence

Into His Presence is the Perrys’ debut effort with Wayne Haun and Ernie Haase’s new label Stowtown Records. It’s also their first offering of new music since Tracy Stuffle’s stroke now over a year ago January and the subsequent departure of lead singer Joseph Habedank. However, David Ragan has been proving that he is more than capable of picking up where Joseph left off. His resonant, expansive voice is the glue that holds this new lineup together. To me, he and David Mann are cut from the same cloth (speaking of, sympathetic shout-out and best wishes to Mann, who just came off the road after discovering that his throat had been invaded by mold spores!) Tracy’s son Jared, who has an agreeably smooth low tone, is filling in on most of the bass singing for now, although Tracy makes one special guest appearance. Below the fold are my comments on this new project. Continue reading

2 Comments

Filed under 4 star, CD Reviews

CD Review: Drive, by Doug Anderson

Drive

After a Dove award-winning solo debut, plus another table project, EHSS baritone Doug Anderson is back to treat his fans with a collection of all-new songs. The better part of them are contributed by Wayne Haun and/or Joel Lindsey, and predictably these are among the best songs on the album. As per usual, click on to read my thoughts in candid Likes/Dislikes format. Continue reading

12 Comments

Filed under 4 star, CD Reviews

CD Review: Cathedrals Family Reunion

For the first time ever, the 80s and 90s lineups of the Cathedral Quartet have come together, along with the men they currently sing with, in one of the largest tributes to the legendary group yet. With top-notch production values and legendary singers like Mark Trammell, Gerald Wolfe and Danny Funderburke still bringing it to the table, it really was never possible for this to be a bad project.

I really wanted to write a full-fledged, detailed review of this album. As it is, this review will be formatted a little differently from normal because I’m writing it on the fly, without time to really soak in the album fully.  However, I’ve enjoyed reading others’ take on it so much that I thought I might as well toss my hat in the ring and share some thoughts and extra commentary, based on what I’ve heard so far. There’s also a little poll at the end to gauge reader interest in the project after reading my thoughts.

This is the list of songs selected:

1. Blood Washed Band
2. We Shall Be Caught Up
3. Wedding Music
4. We’ll Work
5. O Come Along
6. I’ve Read The Back of the Book
7. Yesterday
8. Can He, Could He, Would He
9. Oh, What A Savior
10. He Made A Change
11. Somebody Touched Me
12. Search Me, O God
13. Champion of Love

First, I love the concept—bringing together a choir of all the Cathedrals legacy groups for the first time. The brand new track “We’ll Work,” plus scrap-iron combos on selected songs with the young basses getting to test their chops on Younce features are also excellent.

And yet, ultimately it doesn’t seem to offer much that’s fresh. For one thing, both Signature Sound and the L5/MTQ/GV/Funderburk gang have each done their own tributes already. So it’s not like this new project is offering the only recent recording of Funderburk or Trammell on one of their signature Cathedrals tunes. Moreover, Signature Sound’s tribute was more musically creative (which admittedly worked better on some tracks than others) and covered a broader swatch of the quartet’s work. 

You might argue, “Why is it supposed to be fresh? It’s a family reunion of Cathedrals singers singing Cathedrals songs!” It’s not really the production I have a problem with. I actually like the classic feel in this context. (My personal favorite is the sweeping, all-stops-pulled-out feel on “Blood-Washed Band.”) However, I do think the songs chosen could have been more varied. The reliance on very well-worn hits like “Can He Could He Would He,” “Champion of Love,” “Oh What a Savior,” and “He Made a Change” doesn’t really do justice to the Cathedrals’ rich catalogue.  I do appreciate the inclusion of a few songs like “We Shall Be Caught Up,” “Bloodwashed Band” and “Oh Come Along,” but there just weren’t enough picks like that. There are many overlooked gems just waiting to be pulled out and dusted off, and with all the Cats legacy heavyweights in one place, this could have been a golden opportunity to revive some of them for a new audience.

As I was thinking about this, I started making a list, and here’s what I came up with. (Note: I am actually pulling some of these from a very old e-mail conversation I had with Daniel Mount, where we put together our ideal Cathedrals tribute collection.)

Continue reading

8 Comments

Filed under 4 star, CD Reviews, Music Commentary

CD Review: Here Comes Sunday, by Wilburn and Wilburn

Wilburn and Wilburn - Here Comes Sunday

Wilburn and Wilburn made some waves when they came on the gospel music scene a couple years ago. Son Jordan’s youthful drive and talent combined with Jonathan’s boundless energy and soul created an exciting sound. Their official debut Family Ties was filled with stellar cuts like “A Cross Became My Saving Grace,” “Devil Be Gone” and “You’ll Still Be There,” garnering critical acclaim all ’round (including 5 stars from yours truly). Now they have an album of new material to share with the world of gospel music. Here is my review of this sophomore effort.

Continue reading

1 Comment

Filed under 4 star, CD Reviews

CD Review: Nothing But Love, by Brian Free & Assurance

I’m going back to the time-saving “likes/dislikes” format I used with a previous review. I may begin adopting this more frequently. Enjoy.

Likes:

* “Calvary’s Cry” (featuring Brian Free) is a worthy addition to the ever-growing ranks of “cross songs.” With a lyric that strives successfully to steer clear of cliches and a rich musical composition, it’s a standout project ballad.

* “I Want to Be That Man,” co-written by Lee Black and Brian’s son Ricky, is as good as many classic BFA favorites and offers a chance for Brian to soar vocally. With a strong lyric in the vein of “Find Us Faithful” or “A Man You Would Write About,” it’s a perfect fit for the group and will make a powerful live number. Lee shared a little bit about the inspiration for this song with me:

 I guess there were several things inspiring us…  we wrote the song in June of last year after Brian had recently lost both parents (Ricky’s grandparents) in the span of less than a year, Ricky and his wife were expecting their first child in a little over a month, and I was thinking about my four children.  We were talking about how grateful we were for a Christian heritage and the desire to leave that kind of legacy to our own kids.  So we were definitely thinking about our fathers, our grandfathers, and our children. 

* “Revival” is the most musically interesting number on the album. It’s set in a minor key and moves at a pretty brisk country clip. The production sounds fresh and provides a welcome change of pace. The lyrics are a well-written plea for God’s spirit to move in the Church, at a time when many souls have grown lukewarm or cold to Him.

* “Guard Your Heart” deals with spiritual purity, which isn’t a “stock” topic like the cross, heaven, or prayer.

Dislikes

* “Nothing But Love” is a good peppy opener, but it felt almost too light and fluffy, particularly for BFA.

*The loud track to “I Will Be Praying” makes the song a bit of a chore to listen to, even though the lyric is quite well-written.

*A number of these songs were musically and/or lyrically reminiscent of previous BFA tunes, except not as good. I couldn’t shake the “I liked this better when it was called [fill-in-the-blank]” feeling when listening to songs like “It’s Quite a Valley” (cf. “Goodness and Mercy” or “If It Takes a Valley”), “If the Lord Says Do It” (cf. musically and lyrically with “God Will Close the Door”), or “There is Power” (cf. lyrically with “Turn the Page”). None of the new ones are bad per se, just less creative and memorably crafted than we’ve heard from BFA before. Even “Guard Your Heart,” which I praised lyrically, felt like a lesser musical cousin to “Remind Me of the Cross.”

*The obvious hymn-bridge insertion for “There is Power.”

*The deliberately distorted/over-programmed vocals at the beginning of “You Can Be a Bridge.”

Final verdict

This is a good solid project, but it’s not on par with recordings like Never Walk Alone, Live In New York City, or It’s So God!. It feels a little phoned-in by comparison, although there are definitely some stand-out moments. But stylistically, it delivers exactly what fans of BFA have come to expect, and I expect it to do well.

Rating: 4 stars.

Review copy provided.

3 Comments

Filed under 4 star, CD Reviews