Category Archives: 4 star

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

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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

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CD Review: Angel at the Crossroads, by High Road III

Angel At the Crossroads

Sara Davison, Kiley Phillips, and Anna Grace Kimbrough, the ladies of High Road III, burst on my radar when they performed their original song “High Road” at NQC the other year. I thought to myself at the time, “These ladies are going places!”  Angel at the Crossroads is their sophomore release, and judging by the heavyweights involved in the production (Ben Isaacs, Bill Gaither), it looks like the rest of the industry is sitting up and taking notice too. The album was recorded at Ricky Skaggs’ studio in Hendersonville, TN, with all the instruments played by the ladies except drums (Greg Ritchie) and banjo/mandolin (Andy Leftwich).

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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

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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

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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.)

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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.

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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.

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CD Review: The Right Time, by the Great Adventure Gospel Band

Our friends the Garms Family are BACK with yet another homegrown CD! Once again, a review copy was graciously provided for me. After listening to it, I can wholeheartedly recommend that you add it to your Christmas collection.

Let’s start with some stand-outs: The opening track is a crisp little bluegrass skip through “Angels We Have Heard On High.” It starts slower and then picks up speed without warning. I think the effect could have been improved with a small pause between the two sections, but it’s a fun piece anyway. Second comes a big stand-out, the Little Adventurers’ take on “Little Drummer Boy.” The instrumentation is minimal but tasteful—nothing but piano, accordion, and (naturally), Sam’s drums. (Dad plays accordion so smoothly I mistook it for a stringed instrument before reading the liner notes!) As always, the LAs’ uncanny ability to harmonize with each other at such a young age shines brightly on this track.

Third is a classic Mosie Lister song called “At the Right Time.” I was unfamiliar with it before hearing this rendition. It’s a great Christmas tune that more groups should cover!

The completely acapella “Dona Nobis Pacem,” a number for the ladies’ trio, may well be the best track. It’s a surprising, yet effective choice. The blend is very pure. Very short and very sweet. One thing I might have tweaked is that a final “Amen” could have been more effective than repeating the word “pacem” again.

The one track I probably would have left off is the recitation “Jesus and Santa Claus.” Although it’s cute, it distracts from the flow of the music (especially immediately following “Dona Nobis Pacem”). However, it’s nice to know that the Little Adventurers aren’t under any illusions about the reality of Santa Claus. ;)

Also acapella is the whole family’s rendition of “Ring Christmas Bells,” which features some impressive and complex harmonizing. One thing puzzles me a little about the lyrics, namely that they replace the “Merry, merry, merry, merry Christmas” with “Riiiiiiiiiiiing, Christmas bells,” which seems to flow less smoothly. Here’s a live performance:

The LAs carry a sweet version of “Away In the Manger” which interweaves both known melodies. Taylor gets a feature on the meditative “What Child Is This.” Her rendition is impressive, but it could have been better with somewhat clearer enunciation. Big brother Ben gets a solo feature on “The First Noel” but sounds most comfortable when providing a warm lower anchor for the family blend on numbers like “Ring Christmas Bells” or the lovely “Silent Night.”

Two other brief numbers are a bluegrassy instrumental version of “God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen” and a closing acapella refrain of “Go Tell It On the Mountain.” I’m told that this arrangement has since been fleshed out. Hopefully somebody will catch a video of it soon.

The song selection for this album was exceptionally good, and the instrumentation was just right. Vocally, the Garms family may not yet be on the same level as other family groups like the Browns or the Collingsworths, but with three talented little voices still developing, their future is undoubtedly bright. I should give young Jayme Garms a mention here, as she may be, for her age, the most talented member of the family (with the possible exception of Caleb). Her tone is very even and clear, and she has perfect pitch. In general, she sings the high harmony in Little Adventurers trios, but she is also quite capable of solo singing. She is featured on “Silent Night.” And as we know from the last project, she is a budding songwriter as well.

This project is definitely a step up from their debut _Thank You Lord_. To reflect that, I will give it a half-star more than I gave that album, landing at four stars. Merry Christmas you guys! Nice job!

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CD Review: Summer Rains Have Gone, by Channing Eleton

Channing Eleton is one of the premiere pianists in southern gospel, but I was first introduced to him through his music video of “Up On This Ridge.” It was smartly produced and gave me an excellent taste of the folk/country fusion Channing has created with his vocal work. I also caught an outstanding piano solo from him during NQC this year and noted the fact that he played with no backing track. He allowed the piano to speak for itself, and it was classy.

So after reading this review of his new project by DBM, I knew I had to check it out. So I did. While I enjoyed it, it didn’t quite live up to my expectations. On the one hand, I was blown away by Channing’s incredible musicianship and versatility, as he plays most of the key instruments on the project as well as writing or co-writing four of the songs (plus, of course, singing). I was also impressed by the creativity of the project. Channing is definitely branching out from typical SG and working to offer something different and fresh. At times this sounds like Bruce Hornsby meets Michael Card—no exaggeration. And yet, some of the songs just didn’t connect with me at all, while a few of the standouts in terms of song selection didn’t mesh with Channing’s voice. It’s a perfectly serviceable voice, a rough, down-to-earth country baritone, but the problem is that it just doesn’t always click with the songs he picked.

Ultimately, I came away glad I’d given it a spin but thinking about what could have been. But now to get specific with a track-by-track.

1. Days: I said Bruce Hornsby, and I wasn’t kidding. Think “The Old Playground.”  The lyrics aren’t particularly remarkable—a pleasant meditation on getting one’s priorities right in life. But it’s all about that piano. It’s all about that B-3 Hammond. It’s all about that beat. And it’s all about the magic they’re making together.

2. The Harvest: Any “harvest” song is always going to get compared in my mind to the Imperials’ classic “Lord of the Harvest.” That song is so good that it makes it unfair for other good songs with a similar theme, like this one. However, while I admit that this isn’t as good as “Lord of the Harvest,” it is well-crafted in its own right. My main beef with it is that the tune doesn’t have that much to it, something I actually noted with several of these tracks. But the arrangement is classy and tasteful.

3. Up On This Ridge: Arguably the best track on the album. Everything comes together perfectly here. The song itself is good, it fits Channing’s voice, and the instrumentation is sterling. Instead of describing it in detail, I’ll let you watch its music video:

4. Is This Not the Land of Beulah: I must shame-facedly admit that this apparent classic had slipped under my radar before I encountered it on this album. The arrangement is delightful, carried by a willowy hammered dulcimer and fortified by accordion. The interesting arrangement helps to make up for the fact that this is a very long song with many verses, the kind of thing that would normally bore me. It clocks in at nearly six minutes. Because of its length, it may not be a track that gets repeated a lot by me, but I have great respect for the musicianship it displays.

5. Song and Dance: In a surprising move that nonetheless shows excellent taste, Channing opts to cover an Andrew Peterson song. Believe it or not, devoted AP fan as I am, this was one song I hadn’t chanced upon yet. It’s signature Andrew Peterson, which means the lyrics are intricate and beautiful, and the melody meanders somewhat. It paints a picture of the psalmist David sitting on his throne, chuckling over the memory of Goliath and preparing to pen a fresh ode to God as all nature sings around him. Eleton’s arrangement takes a Celtic approach, featuring some lovely pipe work. Once again, the production leaves absolutely nothing to complain about, but the song selection isn’t quite as strong as it could have been. While I like this song, it doesn’t rank among the very best Peterson has written. The melody is a little weak even for him. I would have preferred to hear Channing’s take on a song like “Lay Me Down.” Still, bravo for a song choice that’s unexpected and fresh.

6. Looking to Jesus: This black gospel classic features some rompin’ musicianship. Channing gets to demonstrate his piano chops on an instrumental bridge. This is obviously a comfortable niche for his slightly rough vocals. As is typical of this kind of song, the melody is pretty repetitive, but the arrangement is so good I consider this to be a highlight.

7. Creation Song (Glory to the Lamb): In yet another surprising but pleasing move, Channing covers a Fernando Ortega song. The song itself is gorgeous, but while I enjoy the arrangement, I must admit that I much prefer Fernando’s original. His voice fits the song much better than Channing’s. However, as with Andrew Peterson, I give Channing mad props for going outside the box and picking music from a great artist whose work doesn’t even border on southern gospel.

8. As We Wait: This song is pretty boring, if I’m being honest. I mean, there’s nothing wrong with it, it’s a nice worship tune, but nothing really grabs me about it. It might hold a little more interest for me if somebody like Twila Paris was singing it.

9-10 Just This Song: This is in two parts, a fully instrumental piano prelude and the song itself. The prelude is lush, understated, and gorgeous. The song, unfortunately, is a snoozer. It meanders musically and suffers from cliched lyrics. I just couldn’t stop thinking about all the vastly better songs I had heard that dealt with the same theme, particularly the Imperials’ “One More Song For You.” Plus Channing’s delivery is flat and sleepy, but there’s not much to work with anyway. Listening to the song and its prelude back-to-back only reinforces the fact that Channing is an utterly brilliant musician, but his singing and writing skills are merely competent.

As you saw, there were several cases where I found myself saying, “This song is okay, but there’s another really similar song that’s much better,” and so on. It may have been less of an issue on a project with a couple more tracks, but at nine songs plus a piano interlude, weak or average cuts are harder to afford. And yet the production is so good that the album as a whole is hard not to like. The end effect is definitely a “whole greater than the sum of its parts” feeling. As DBM says, it takes immense talent to wear so many hats on one recording and produce something quality that’s worth listening to, which this project definitely is. It’s just that it could have been great instead of simply above average. I hope that Channing produces another project with the same top-notch level of musicianship displayed in an even better crop of songs.

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