CD Review: The Favorite Hymns of Fanny Crosby, by Ernie Haase & Signature Sound

Fanny Crosby is the most prolific hymn-writer in church history—so prolific that no matter what sort of hymns project an artist records, one or more of her tunes is bound to find its way onto it. So, Ernie Haase & Signature Sound reasoned, why not go all the way and just devote a whole album to nothing but Fanny Crosby tunes? This is a natural choice after they were included on a project putting some of her unpublished lyrics to new music (which I did not review, but you can hear samples from here). Haase also announced in a press release yesterday that they are planning to dig even further into her unpublished catalogue to write future tunes. This comes as welcome news to me, since, quite frankly, a lot of the music from other artists on the New Hymns project struck me as flat and uninspired. Haase, together with Wayne Haun, were a couple of the only people who seemed to “get it.”

But, for now, we have this project of old favorites to enjoy, and it’s a nice treat to tide us over while we wait for new tunes. Not content with by-the-numbers treatments, Signature Sound has worked hard to offer some original musical ideas, while still respecting these classic hymns. Here are my quick takes on each arrangement:

1. Blessed Assurance: Perhaps Crosby’s most covered tune, but Haase & Co. are up to the challenge of injecting some fresh life into it. The pace is slowed down for a deep southern-fried, bluesy take, anchored by Paul Harkey’s rumbling bass. Grandma might not be quite sure what to make of it, but as for me, “There’s a dobro and lots of B-3 Hammond” is all I need to know.

2. He Hideth My Soul: Oh good, somebody heard that I ordered more B-3 Hammond! But even without all the wonderful little touches from the full band, this arrangement could easily be an acoustic live number that brings the house down with nothing but four voices and a piano.

3. I Am Thine O Lord/Draw Me Nearer: This arrangement is mellow, but it keeps a steady beat going in the background. Devin McGlamery takes the lead, but I would have advised him to keep the vocal a bit simpler. The gentle accordion and guitar behind him don’t quite mesh with the runs he’s trying to do.

4. Jesus Keep Me Near the Cross: This beautiful lyric gets an almost lullaby-like treatment. I especially like the use of the pennywhistle. However, I’m less drawn to the use of spoken-word recitation for one of the verses. It’s nothing personal, it’s just that unless your name is George Younce or Hank Williams, I will most likely tune out when the singing turns to talking.

5. Pass Me Not: I can’t fault this arrangement, though from a pacing perspective, it may have been better to break the slowness with an upbeat number here. Once again, the accordion is used to subtle, tasteful effect behind close harmony. Newcomer Dustin Doyle gets a silky-smooth step-out.

6. Praise Him! Praise Him! After dropping some Celtic hints earlier in the project, this arrangement gives Miss Crosby a full bells-and-whistles Irish makeover. Well done, lads! Is it wrong to imagine the boys singing this lustily in a pub with foaming drinks in hand?

7. Redeemed, How I Love to Proclaim Him: This fast-paced, nu-folk arrangement offers a foot-stomping, banjo-plucking good time (complete with “Heys!” in the background). It might remind younger listeners of Imagine Dragons in a rootsy moment. Older folks will just be clapping along and having a good time. Something for everyone!

8. Tell Me the Story of Jesus: This track continues the nu-folk flavor (again, if you follow some newer music, think OneRepublic’s “I Lived”), bringing the project to a close. Lyrically, it’s a nice touch to place this at the end of the album.

Eight tracks is a curious length for an album. I’m sure Signature Sound had their reasons for not including more, but I would have been interested in hearing more of their ideas, perhaps on a couple more vigorous tunes like “Redeemed.” As it is, this project is heavily skewed towards slower songs, which is not a bad thing, it just makes it a less than balanced full-album experience. But it’s more creative than the average hymns album, and it will offer some excellent live moments.

Rating: 3.5 stars

Prime cuts: “He Hideth My Soul,” “Redeemed,” “Praise Him! Praise Him!”

CD Review: The Inspiration of Broadway, by Signature Sound (with J. Mark McVey)

The Inspiration of Broadway

This project finds southern gospel’s most inventive quartet trying on yet another hat: Broadway. They are aided in their efforts by acclaimed tenor singer J. Mark McVey, who is best known for his performance as Jean Valjean in Les Miserables. It’s been available from their site for a while, but it was only recently released to retail. I’m choosing to feature the album cover they designed while Doug Anderson was still with the group, because (thankfully!) his vocals have been preserved even though the cover has been re-done for retail with his replacement, Dustin Doyle.

It’s been interesting to watch Ernie Haase market this album to Signature Sound’s fan-base. On the one hand, I think a number of these classics will find an audience among the same folks who like their brand of gospel music, which has already borrowed from a show tunes tradition. On the other hand, the group has stressed in advertising the accompanying tours that these are not gospel songs, just to make sure that nobody who’s out of the loop will be surprised or confused.  This seems like a smart way to ensure that everyone is happy and gets their money’s worth. Myself, I’m always up for a collection of good music, and I’m always up for Wayne Haun’s producing ideas. If anybody can meet the challenge of selecting and arranging Broadway tunes that are recognizable, accessible, and adaptable for an all-male ensemble, it’s Wayne. And if anybody can meet the challenge of singing those arrangements, it’s Signature Sound.  But did I agree with every selection? Read on to find out. Continue reading “CD Review: The Inspiration of Broadway, by Signature Sound (with J. Mark McVey)”

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

CD Review: Aim Higher, by The Browns

Aim Higher   -     By: The Browns<br /><br /><br /><br /><br />

The Browns have gone through a few lineup shifts, beginning with two sisters and two brothers, then down-sizing to four voices after the older sister got married, then enjoying her return along with her husband, Nick Trammell. But for their last couple projects, it’s back to just mother Shelly, daughter Michaela, and brothers Adam and Andrew. The three younger siblings enjoy a strong blend, and they also please crowds with their dynamic violin trios. Aim Higher is the family’s second release with Stowtown Records, set for official release this Friday.

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CD Review: Blueberry Pie, by Lizzy Long

Blueberry Pie

Lizzy Long may not be a familiar name to southern gospel listeners, but she’s achieved notoriety on the bluegrass circuit through her work with the likes of Earl Scruggs and Little Roy Lewis. This is her first solo album. Her voice is probably most comparable to Tammy Wynette, but it’s very much her own. It’s pure and rich and keeps your ears coming back for more. Long herself co-wrote a number of the songs for this project, together with Wayne Haun, Joel Lindsey, Lyn Rowell, and others. For the most part, it resides firmly in country/bluegrass territory, with a couple of detours into Broadway and schmaltz inspirational. Click on to read my track-by-track review.

Continue reading “CD Review: Blueberry Pie, by Lizzy Long”

CD Review: Freedom, by David Phelps

Summer has officially begun for me, and I’m excited! I have many plans, but writing more is certainly among them. I decided to kick it off by answering a request from some readers to review David Phelps’s new solo album, Freedom. I poked some fun at the album cover a couple weeks ago, but people wondered if I was actually going to comment on the music. So, for the first time in a long time, here’s my track by track take on the project. As you all know, I’m unfailingly honest in my reviews. So I’m anticipating that some Phelps Phans may read some of my feedback and get upset, even though I’m preparing to compliment many things about this album. Be it known, therefore, that I intend to monitor comments closely. With that out of the way, let’s talk about the music!

Continue reading “CD Review: Freedom, by David Phelps”

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

CD Review: Stay, by The Old Paths

STAY album cover

The Old Paths Quartet may not be a household name even among fans of southern gospel music, but they have built a reputation as one of the most consistent groups in the industry. Last year, they garnered some well-deserved extra attention with their big ballad “Long Live the King.” With Stay, available today, they offer the same solid vocals their fans have come to expect, paired with new songs mostly penned by Dianne Wilkinson and Rebecca Peck. Click below the fold for my thoughts. Continue reading “CD Review: Stay, by The Old Paths”

CD Review: Ready to Sail, by The Erwins

Ready to Sail   -     By: The Erwins<br /><br /><br /><br /><br /><br /><br /><br /><br /><br /><br /><br /><br /><br /><br />
L to R: Kristopher (age 18), Keith (age 22), Katie (age 14), Kody (age 20)

The Erwins are the latest signees of Ernie Haase and Wayne Haun’s Stowtown Records venture. Ranging in age from 14 to 22, this fresh-faced foursome has been making some waves in the southern gospel world of late. I will admit that when I first saw the brothers alone in a showcase slot at NQC a few years back, I thought they were fine, but they didn’t seem like wave-makers to me at the time. Well, with some time to polish their craft and with the addition of baby sis Katie, they are now turning more heads, including mine. Add some memorable new songs and the sure-handed production of Wayne Haun to the mix, and the Erwins are Ready to Sail.

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CD Review: Still, by the Booth Brothers

From Southern Gospel’s most popular trio comes their first major release in several years. While this album isn’t available at digital outlets like Amazon or iTunes, the balance of original to cover material qualifies it as more than a table project. (Pick up your own copy at their website here.) It also offers listeners a first look at new baritone singer Paul Lancaster since long-time member Jim Brady took his leave. So without further ado, let’s see what I thought of it!

Continue reading “CD Review: Still, by the Booth Brothers”