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?
* “One of These Mornings” is an ear-grabbing, Dixie-flavored opener similar to previous Signature Sound ice-breakers like “Someday.” Ernie is really good at digging up obscure, traditional gospel tunes that are almost impossible to find and blowing the dust off of them for a new audience. Also, Cathedrals fans will love their use of the same “Shout, shout, shout, shout…” back and forth that Ernie had going with Glen Payne on “Hard Trials.”
* “Angels Everywhere” — Apart from the opening track, this was the first song to pass my “I’m not (really) listening” test. Oh, maybe I haven’t explained this yet. Typically, when I first get a new album to review, I relax and listen to it while doing some relatively low-maintenance task. This lets me keep one ear on the music while also doing something else constructive. If a song stands out enough to make me stop what I’m doing and give my full attention to it, odds are good I will finger it as an album highlight. As usual, it was the B-3 Hammond that did the trick. Ernie, you should co-write with Dianne Wilkinson more often, cause this is a bubble bath for my ears! Swingy and schmaltzy in the very BEST sense of schmaltzy. Here’s a rehearsal video with just the guys and Wayne on the piano. (So you’ll have to buy the song if you want to hear the B-3 Hammond.) Also, a surprisingly strong lyric that doesn’t sentimentalize the work of God’s angels.
* “Joshua Led God’s Children” is a delightful little Vep Ellis creation with a fantastic walking bass line. The band is impeccable on this one. And just when you think it’s run its course, they kick back in with some great guitar work before the chorus is encored.
* When I saw the song title “Love Walked In,” I was mildly disappointed to realize they weren’t covering the Gershwin tune (say, that’s a neat idea—they’ve done Broadway, they should do Gershwin next!) but this new song is quite good. It uses several biblical illustrations of God’s “walking in” to save the day, set to a pleasingly bluesy arrangement. I like the group best when the production is more stripped down and acoustic, allowing the spotlight to shine on their vocals.
* “Soldier Going Home”: This country-tinged big ballad won the 2011 Singing News/Solid Gospel Songwriters contest. It was originally submitted as “Another Soldier” by David Pike. Since then, Joel Lindsay has been added as a co-writer. Maybe Lindsay thought the song could be made even better and worked with David to tweak it.
Regardless, I’m not exaggerating when I say this is easily one of the best songs Signature Sound has ever recorded. It choked me up, and I don’t get choked up. Paul Harkey knocks it out of the park for the first few verses until the key change, when Doug Anderson takes it over for this verse:
There’s been sickness, there’s been pain
But a soldier never does complain
When he’s a soldier fighting to go home
This old world tries its best
I will never stop to rest
‘Cause I’m a soldier fighting to go home…
I’m going to come down kind of hard on a few lyrics from this album, so be it said here and now, this is a great lyric, and I only quoted a small part of what makes it great.
* I realize a song with a title like “Happy People” isn’t going to be “Piano Man,” but I had a problem with the recurring line, “God’s people are happy people, happy all of the time.” How do I say this in a roundabout way… no. Now, I’m not denying that loneliness, anxiety, depression, etc., have a spiritual element. And I’m not denying that a relationship with Christ does give us assurance and hope and even joy (which is not the same thing as happiness), even when life is conspiring against us. But you can’t possibly capture that in the musical and lyrical equivalent of a soap commercial.
* The ballad “Jesus Changed Everything” is a better treatment of this theme, but it still has some clunky writing. For example, this line falls into the classic blunder of shoving a verb down to the end of a sentence JUST to force a rhyme: “The bitterness that I once knew, the anger that inside me grew…” It was awkward when 21-year-old Paul Simon did it in “Sounds of Silence” (“Fools, said I, you do not know, silence like a cancer grows…”), and it’s still awkward today. So lest anyone accuse me of showing favoritism towards my favorite songwriters, yes, I critique everybody.
Also, is it wrong that when I hear the line, “So my broken heart came to him with empty hands,” I have this mental image of a heart walking along looking sad because it has hands, and they’re empty… never mind. On to the next bullet point.
* “It’s Good to See the Sun” is a re-recording of a vintage tune from one of their table projects. I think they included it more for the cute way they now stage it live (Wayne plays accordion, they lay out an Old World dinner spread with checked cloth, fruit, baguette, etc.), than for the song itself, which is just okay. My thinking is, if you have a creative staging idea for an old tune, that’s great, go for it. On the DVD. But on the CD, fill that spot with new material.
* The album closes with a cover of the Gaither Vocal Band tune “I Do Believe.” This has a strong chorus, and the original arrangement starts soft before gradually building towards a triumphant climax. However, this arrangement has no buildup or warning for the sudden, loud fanfare of drums breaking in for the big finish. I would have preferred them to either keep it mellow all the way or stick to the pacing of the original. The way this is paced, it’s just awkward on the ears, especially for any listeners who’ve never heard the song before and aren’t expecting a loud finish.
* “Thank You For Saving Me” is much better paced, but also seems to be straining too hard by the end. While Devin gets to show off a nice powerful range, this arrangement throws the kitchen sink at you, then goes out and buys a new kitchen sink so it can keep throwing kitchen sinks at you. Sometimes that works, but in this case it was repetitive enough that my ears just got fatigued.
* The wardrobe and decor for the cover could have been worse. Still, that couch… and those pants Doug’s wearing… and those socks Doug’s also wearing… and that tie Ernie’s wearing… But hey, at least Ernie wore a normal suit instead of that, that, that flowered jacket thing.
I know, I know. Fashion should be a statement, not a question.
Closing thoughts: Signature Sound’s strengths have always been rich vocal arrangements, smart reboots of old classics, and good showmanship. Their weaknesses are a tendency towards too-thick production and too-thin songwriting. While they’ve struck gold through the years with original songs like “Til We Fly Away,” “Come Make a Place,” “Sometimes I Wonder,” and now “Angels Everywhere” and “Soldier Going Home,” their new material can be a hit or miss prospect. It sometimes lapses into sentimentality on the slow end and pure cheese on the upbeat end. This project encapsulates both their strengths and their weaknesses. While I could wish that such talent and showmanship would collide with great songwriting more often, I can still find lots to like about it. If you’re a fan, you’re going to buy it no matter what I say. But even if you’re a casual listener, you should still check out at least several of these tunes individually.
Prime Cuts: “Soldier Going Home,” “Joshua Led God’s Children,” “Angels Everywhere”
CD rating: 4 stars
Here’s a preview for the DVD:
Review copy provided. A positive review was not required.