CD Review: Family Ties by Wilburn & Wilburn

With a mid-term and a couple papers out of the way, I’m rewarding myself by reviewing  father/son duo Wilburn & Wilburn’s Daywind debut. Enjoy!

Wilburn & Wilburn have been turning heads since they first formed. Jonathan’s name recognition has allowed them to come strong out of the gate, and so far the quality of their music has more than matched the quality of their teeth (sorry, had to to get that in there—no harm meant!) Their first project of covers (as well as some independent work Jordan’s done), point to a variety of stylistic influences that includes contemporary Christian groups like Phillips Craig & Dean. Their version of “When God Ran” remains my favorite. On Family Ties, they explore country, bluegrass, black gospel, and even a little blues. Vocally, of course Jonathan is one of the all-time greats, and his son Jordan is following right along. Both of them are versatile vocalists who can sing pretty much anything you put in front of them. Jordan’s voice is somewhat similar to his dad’s, but lighter in timbre and a bit more adaptable to a pop style—comparable to Joseph Habedank. He caught my attention right away as a young vocalist to watch, and he turns in fantastic work on this project.

Family Ties boasts a great crop of new songs. Southern gospel needs good new material, and there’s plenty to go around here. Combine that with the stellar vocals and production values, and you have a record that belongs in any SG fan’s collection.  Here’s a song-by-song breakdown (including links to some live performances):

1. It’s a Shore Thing: This Ronny Hinson tune is a sunny, relaxed opener that moves along at a satisfying mid-tempo clip. As the title implies, it’s full of sailing metaphors. Perfectly workable song, though I confess I prefer “Sail On” along similar lines.

I’ve bailed a lot of water, I have patched the sails

My bow’s been crushed and battered, but faith has stood the gale

2. Jesus Will: Jordan takes the lead on this comforting ballad, a Dianne Wilkinson/Jerry Salley collaboration. He delivers the encouraging lyric with a blue-eyed earnestness that’s touching. The country violin, which figures prominently in nearly all of these songs, is used to sweet effect.

Jesus will still keep his promise

Never to leave us alone.

He still sends His blessings down on us

And Heaven will still be our home.

3. Devil Be Gone: Written by Wilkinson and Kelly Garner, this fast-paced, minor-key country/bluegrass piece is a huge album highlight. The production is absolutely top-notch. David Bruce Murray commented that his favorite moment was the instrumental interlude (which features some brilliant interplay between the fiddle and Gordon Mote’s crisp keys), and he could have used even more. I independently came to exactly the same conclusion. That interlude wasn’t nearly long enough. Not that the lyrics leave anything to complain about either. It’s a rousing tell-off of the Father of Lies.

You’ve tempted and you’ve tried me, it’s gone on long enough.

I’ll put on God’s whole armor now, it’s time to call your bluff.

Ya act like I’m defeated, but I’m saved and sanctified.

Now Jesus fights my battles, you can run but you can’t hide.

4. Mama: Yep, it’s a sappy Mama song. The kind of thing you’re supposed to either love or hate. I like it. Good sappy. 🙂

Mama, ain’t it just like you to make light of all you’ve done

Make yourself out to be the lucky one.

Oh Mama, this time I’m gonna have to disagree.

You’re the best there is, and God gave you to me.

5. You’ll Still Be There: Another new Dianne cut, and another big fave. This is pure mid-tempo bluegrass, a trio of Jonathan, Jordan and some other singer I can’t identify who sings above them—a female singer, I think. More mouth-watering production, this time a savory blend of mandolin, acoustic and electric guitar, and upright bass. Jonathan sings the melody and turns in some delightful singing. It’s a pleasure to hear him discover his inner twang. The song itself is classic and has a timeless, well-worn feeling.

When the last friend I’ve trusted has gone and done me wrong

Oh so wrong, Lord

You’ll still be there when the rest have come and gone.

6. A Cross Became My Saving Grace: Dianne teamed up with her young some-time collaborator Joseph Habedank for this excellent new piano ballad. Jordan carries it beautifully, with harmony support from Dad and a little choir stuff towards the end. There’s a smooth, mellow quality to his voice that makes it very easy to listen to. The song’s melody is gorgeous and manages to flow naturally while also being a little fresh and creative. The chromatic work in the chorus is actually a bit tricky. Lyrics are rock solid, great theology. I think this would make a really good radio single. It’s like very gentle pop—a little bit outside of standard SG, but not drastically so. The production is low-key and spot-on—piano backbone with subtle guitar and upright bass accents. Without a doubt, this is the strongest ballad on the project and perhaps my favorite overall.

There was a crucified, resurrected Savior and Redeemer

Sent for people just like me, lost and so abased.

I heard about Mount Calvary and the blood that my Jesus shed there,

And that’s the day a cross became my saving grace.

7. I John: This is one of only two covers on the project. It’s sung by a quartet of Jordan, Jonathan, Gene McDonald and Shane McConnell (not 100% sure on that). Jordan sings lead and shows off his upper range. The four voices all blend superbly. My favorite part was the second verse where Jordan and Jonathan trade off vocal licks. They literally recorded a little speaking part for Jonathan when he comes in, “Aw, move over there, son.” Kinda cheesy maybe, but it’s cute.

Well John declared that he saw a man

He held twelve bright stars in his right hand

Well his eyes flashed like the burnin’ sun

Old John got scared and he wanted to run

8. Things I’ve Never Done: Southern gospel rock—which isn’t really all THAT rocky. Not that much to distinguish this song from other SG heaven songs, except that it’s got a little more sizzle to it. It emphasizes the fun side of heaven with images of kicking off our shoes and tearing down the streets of gold, singing at the top of our lungs in the heavenly choir, gabbing with Paul and Silas, and literally forgetting worry and pain. It’s a fun song.

Have you ever wondered what it’s gonna be like

When you get to heaven and see all the beautiful sights?

Some may stand and wonder while takin’ in the view

Let me take just a minute to tell you some things I’m gonna do…

9. Family Ties: Smooth country ballad. Kevin Williams’ acoustic and Aubrey Haynie’s fiddle guide it along. As has been remarked, the song is perfect for the duo. It was co-written by Dianne Wilkinson and Rusty Golden. It’s sung from the perspective of a father hoping to be the best dad he can be as he passes on the passion for Christ that his own parents gave him. Appropriately, Jonathan takes the lead. I hope they single this one.

Sometimes when I think of my past

And how Mom and Dad made the memories last

I can see what I want to be in my family’s sight

Teaching my kids all the things they should know

Living and loving as I watch them grow.

And I hope one day they’ll say

“Daddy did it right.”

10. Let’s All Go Down To the River: The other cover tune. This classic country number gets a foot-stompin’ black gospel-flavored treatment here. Jonathan explores his soulful side with a rich vocal. It starts off with him and the choir doing a slow “Shall We Gather At the River” tag, then it kicks into higher gear. It’s got a great beat, and the fiddle, piano and electric guitar all dance through it with sparkling energy. I really like just about everything about this cut.

Jesus is the man at the river

And He washes all our sins away.

Well, He can save your soul

If you give Him control.

Be ready for that judgment day.

11. I Ain’t Giving Up On Jesus: Haven’t I heard this one somewhere before? Oh that’s right, it’s a blues song, and all blues songs sound the same! All kidding aside, this one really is rather repetitive, even though the down-to-earth lyrics are well-crafted. Musically, it’s just playing on the same short melodic line over and over—a lot like Steven Curtis Chapman’s “The Walk”, except with even less variety. I get tired of it pretty quickly, and it’s probably my least favorite on the album even though it’s well done for what it is. Better live than studio.

Hard times can shake your spirit.

Hard times can make a grown man cry.

Some folks wanna cuss their Maker,

I say just give Him time.

Closing thoughts: Family Ties isn’t just “good for a debut.” It’s just plain good. There’s a who’s who of studio musicians involved on this project: Gordon Mote, Kevin Williams, Aubrey Haynie, Greg Ritchie, and more. Producer Ben Isaacs brings it all together with great skill. But the best production values can’t save a poor song. Fortunately this project is full of good songs, even if some are a little more memorable than others. There are a few weaker cuts. I could have used a couple more ballads on the level of  “A Cross Became My Saving Grace.” David Bruce Murray has also made a good point that “there’s a surprising scarcity of actual duet arrangements. Most of these songs are mixed as solos with the other chief group member’s vocals buried in the mix with a few other faceless background singers.” This doesn’t bother me as much as it bothers him, but I can see why it might be cooler for the duo to explore what they could do with just their two voices. It would give them a bit more individuality. But as the project stands, there’s not much to complain about from my perspective. There’s something for everyone here.


Radio single picks: “Devil Be Gone,” “A Cross Became My Saving Grace,” “Family Ties”

Rating: 5 stars.


CD Review: Let It Be Known, by the Booth Brothers

Within the last few years, the Booth Brothers have sky-rocketed to the top tier of southern gospel music. Though Michael and Ronnie have been at it since they first started out with their dad in 1990 and began steadily building a fan base, the group has enjoyed its greatest popularity in the years since Jim Brady came on board as the third vocalist, bringing his exceptional singing and song-writing talents with him. In the mid-2000s, a string of radio hits like “River Keeps A’Rollin,” “He Saw it All” (their breakthrough hit, penned by Daryl Mosley) and “Welcome to the Family” propelled them forward. And they haven’t looked back.

But recently, Michael Booth decided to take the group in a new direction with the album Declaration. Though their trademark smooth, pleasing harmonies remained constant, the song selection was a dramatic departure from their usual country/gospel fare. Suddenly, they were covering Steve Green, the Gettys, and Sovereign Grace. Michael explained that it was part of his new vision to communicate as much scriptural truth as possible through each song they selected. Of course, the group had plenty of biblical songs in their repertoire already, but doctrinal content hadn’t always been at the top of the priority list. Declaration announced that things were changing, and critics raved over it. Well, some did anyway. Others dissented that the album’s big, almost theatrical sound was over the top. Although I enjoyed it (even giving it a glowing review of my own at the time),  I also sympathize with the dissenters, perhaps somewhat more now than then since I’ve had time to reflect. It was an exciting experiment, and some of the arrangements worked beautifully, but from the perspective of where the group naturally fits stylistically, the over-arching sound was too heavy for them. Because at the end of the day, they’re still a country/gospel trio, albeit better than most. And when a country/gospel trio tries to “do” an orchestral Broadway sound, it just doesn’t feel natural, just like it wouldn’t feel natural for Alison Krauss to try to “do” Whitney Houston. Still, many people, including me, applauded Michael for being willing to think outside the box in order to choose the best material possible.

For those of us who hoped Michael would be able to maintain his new standards for lyrical excellence in a more musically accessible form, Let It Be Known is the album we’ve been waiting for. Lari Goss is still at the helm, and some trademark “Gossian” orchestration still finds its way into a few cuts, but overall, the epic sweep has been traded for a more familiar, down-to-earth feel. Gone are the five and six-minute monster ballads, replaced by much shorter tracks (of which half are under three minutes). But don’t be fooled. This is not a fluff project, although the brothers do allow themselves to lighten up here and there. The biblical truth these songs contain may be communicated more quietly than before, but it is no less clear or thought-provoking.

1. First John: This brief acapella intro follows in the same vein as the brothers’ take on “The Gospel Song” from Declaration. It’s a simple, lovely setting of 1 John 3:2-3. Very classy. Guys, I know it’s short, but please add this to your concert repertoire. Thank you.

2. See What a Morning: (Watch a live performance here.) The Booth Brothers are the second southern gospel group to cover this Getty/Townend piece. It was first covered in SG by the Irish trio Revelation. The Gettys themselves have two versions of it, one from their debut In Christ Alone and one from the 2nd installment of New Irish Hymns, a collaborative series Kristyn has done with other female Irish singers. I like the version from New Irish Hymns the best of the two (listen here), and it may still remain my favorite version overall. But Lari Goss puts a creative spin on it here that is very refreshing. On reflection, it really isn’t that hard to come up with the reinvented rhythm, but perhaps that’s what makes it so enjoyable. It makes you wish you had thought of it, except you didn’t. It moves much faster than the original, which removes any trace of tedium from the song’s multiple verses. There’s also a very nice extra bridge with a snippet from “Lo, In the Grave.” All-in-all, a lovely cut which would have fit nicely on Declaration as well. The Brothers have taken to opening their concerts with this. It’s a great  way to catch people’s attention from the first note. [Correction: According to Wes Burke’s recent concert review, they actually like to use it for closing the first half.]

3. She Still Remembers Jesus’ Name: (Watch a live performance here.) I wouldn’t have placed this number right after “See, What a Morning,” because the two songs sound so different that the immediate transition feels odd. But this is a very tender story-song about a woman who suffers from Alzheimer’s, yet, as the title says, still remembers Jesus’ name. Though the faces and names of family and friends are alien to her, she knows every word to “Rock of Ages,” and she can still quote John 3:16. There are people who have actually seen this kind of thing happen to real loved ones with Alzheimer’s, and as Michael Booth says when he sets this up in concert, that truly can only be a gift from God. He speaks from personal experience because his grandmother suffered from it shortly before she passed away. I’d like to quote a little from what Michael said in the video I linked to, because he says this so beautifully and well:

When the Bible speaks of the heart, it is speaking of the core of our being, the substance of who we are. And though the mind may be failing, from the depths of who that person is, Jesus is coming from him and out his mouth, when everything else has failed.

The gently soothing country setting is typical Booth Brothers, with a warm lead vocal by Ronnie. However, I have to admit that as much as I enjoy this song, it doesn’t seem to possess the same timeless quality as “Ellsworth,” which deals with the same topic. (And by the way, you can see Michael off to the right in that video, nodding very appreciatively at around 4:51 as Jason Crabb finishes.) That song has a haunting, delicate touch that isn’t quite captured in the same way here. I think it’s partly because while “She Still Remembers” is careful to spell everything out in the lyrics, the greatness of “Ellsworth” lies in what it leaves unsaid. “Ellsworth” provides glimpses and snapshots where “She Remembers” provides methodical narrative. That extra heart-tugging feel seems to be lacking musically as well. But it’s sweet, it’s tasteful, and it’s definitely going to hit home for a lot of people. It’s already circulating on SG radio.

4. He’s So Good To Me: This track is practically over before it’s started, clocking in at just under two minutes. At first I just wrote it off as up-tempo filler, but upon re-listening, I’ve decided that it’s an enjoyable little number. They’re doing all kinds of little things with the harmony to keep it fresh and fun. Of course it isn’t a huge standout, and perhaps a more substantial fast song would have been better, but it’s just fun.

5. When You Bow At Jesus’ Feet: Honestly, this is probably my favorite song on the whole thing. Jim Brady simply doesn’t disappoint, and he has turned in one of his finest pieces yet here. Contrary to what the title might imply, this is not a song about heaven. It’s an invitation to the sinner to come and surrender to Christ: “Grace and mercy now are waiting, when you bow at Jesus’ feet.”  The melody is gorgeous, although I wonder if anybody has noticed how closely the chorus resembles Gordon Mote’s “Wounded Hands.” Not that I’m complaining, it’s just rather striking. Jim takes the lead and sings it flawlessly (of course), and except for a quiet key change half-way through, there really isn’t much musical drama here. There’s no orchestra, no choir, no Moment with a capital “M” when all the stops are being pulled out and everything is ending on a huge note. And I love it. It works, mate. It works.

6. Since Jesus Came: A very cute up-tempo number with a classic jazz feel that strongly recalls a group like the Andrews Sisters. The tongue-twisting lyric combined with the music and the style of the vocals (right down to the “Doo-doo-doo- doos”) all contribute to the resemblance. Compare with a number like “Nice Work If You Can Get It.”

7. Masterpiece of Mercy:  (Watch a live performance here.) Jim Brady and Rodney Griffin teamed up to pen this lovely meditation on grace (first cut by the regrettably short-lived trio Statement of Faith), which uses the common metaphor of God as the artist and the sinner as His masterpiece. I love the progression of key changes in the first verse—one change for each stanza. It goes together with the step-by-step description of the Artist’s work: First, He starts with the “dirty canvas” of a sin-blackened heart. Then, He “turns His light” upon it and begins to wash it clean. And then…

When all the stains were gone, He started painting

With colors that I’d never seen before.

Then with joy He was ready to display me

To show the world what the cross was for.

The chorus describes the canvas as “a holy place” once the Artist has redeemed it, which is a beautiful way to express the imputation of God’s righteousness to a saved sinner. The second verse continues by saying that the Artist is not finished with his masterpiece yet: God will continue to shape and perfect us until He’s ready to take us home. This is a perfect example of a very low-key song that communicates the gospel beautifully and effectively.

8. Let It Be Known: The title track is a solid piece of writing. The 6/8 feel recalls “I See Grace” from Declaration. However, the instrumentation doesn’t have as much of a cinematic sweep. But it’s sure to carry you along just the same. It was crafted by the team of Jim Brady, Barry Weeks and the prolific Sue Smith. No complaints with lyrics or music here. It’s a stirring call for Christians to proclaim the good news of Jesus, set to a great melody, with a great vocal arrangement. One of the best songs on the album. This should go to radio and become a live concert staple.

9. The Master’s Table: This haunting ballad by Rebecca Peck has a bit of a minor feel. I like the gentle use of the electric guitar—it brings an 80s flavor to the mix. Smooth, smooth production and delivery, leaves the listener wanting to come back for more. The one weakness is the line, “We fellowship together” (referring to a person’s meeting with God while studying Scripture). I know, I know, it’s a common bit of “Christian-ese,” but still… Anyway, this really is a very impressive track, definitely a standout.

10. Bread Upon the Water: (Watch a live performance here, together with an acapella hymn medley, which comes first.) This brings back childhood memories of wearing out Mom and Dad’s vinyl Imperials records. I would run around and sing along with all my favorites— “Trumpet of Jesus,” “Old Man’s Rubble,” “First Morning in Heaven,” and many more. This is one such favorite, a classic which never really gets old. The Gaither Vocal Band’s 2006 cover quite honestly didn’t even touch the original, but fortunately this comes closer. It captures much more of the original’s energy and spirit. This is particularly felt in the preservation of the backup echoes on the first verse: “Now don’t you waver (don’t you waver). Keep on living (keep on living),” etc. It may seem like a small detail, but you really miss it on the GVB version. There was no attempt in either cover to duplicate the shredding electric guitar solo we all remember from the original’s musical bridge, but its absence is handled much better on the Booth Brothers’ version. The bit of electric guitar that the GVB did include in the middle was so pathetic that it only served to remind us just how far superior the original was. The Booth Brothers do away with a musical bridge altogether, opting for an immediate key change instead. Smart move. Either do it right, or don’t do it at all. Of course, the Booth Brothers have no Armond Morales, but Jim Brady sings the second verse very well anyway (and showcases an impressive upper range—he actually hits some of the same notes Wes Hampton hits on the GVB cover, bar the very highest, of course). Obviously no cover is ever going to surpass the original, but this is a fun spin on it which should go over well live.

11. What About Now?: This track’s intro alone is about a minute long. It’s a tastefully executed guitar duet, with a folk/classical sound that almost brings to mind Angelo Badalamanti’s haunting soundtrack for The Straight Story (compare with “Rose’s Theme”). In fact, it has such an other-worldly air that when the song itself kicks in, it feels a little awkward. But I like the creativity, and they try to keep the guitar in the forefront for the first part of the song to maintain continuity.

This song was written by Jim Brady, Barry Weeks, and Tony Wood. Past experience has shown that it’s virtually impossible for any two of those writers to put their heads together and not come up with something good, to say nothing of all three working in tandem. It’s pretty clear that Michael specifically requested this one, because it’s basically a Paul Washer sermon condensed and set to music. It challenges the listener to examine his walk with Christ and ask himself what kind of fruit he is bearing here and now, rather than assuming he is saved because he prayed a prayer long ago. I think the message is powerful and convicting. At the same time, this track feels a little off to me, and I can’t quite put my finger on why. I applaud Michael for wanting to convey this message in a song, but lyrically and musically, it comes off a little slow, a little cumbersome. But I’ve got to hand it to the authors: This was probably a doozy to write, so the fact that they pulled it off successfully at all is impressive.

It’s no surprise that Michael takes the feature. What is surprising is that it’s the only full one he gets on the whole album (though he does step-outs on a couple others, most notably “See, What a Morning”). Perhaps in his humility he thought the project would be better if listeners heard more of Jim and Ronnie and less of him, but he turns in a fine, controlled performance here. As for the production, I really like the restrained approach, right up until the surprise key change where the orchestra kicks in. To be honest, I don’t think I really want the orchestra at that point, even though I understand that it’s meant to provide a climax. I thought the song was getting along just fine without it and would have liked to see if they could create a musical high point without falling back on the big drums and strings.

Having said all that, I think this will make for an impressive concert moment. I look forward to watching Michael set it up. Even though it’s not my favorite on the project, it may be the most important, and it could well be the one that impacts the most people.

Outro: The melody of “First John” is simply reprised with “ooooooos” in place of the lyrics, and as others have noted, it’s a neat way to tie the project together and create a unified feel.

Closing thoughts: While grand orchestration can be effective, it doesn’t necessarily do lyrics a service to cover them in layers of production gloss. This project gives its songs room to breathe, and the results are balanced, simple and satisfying. Listeners looking for spiritual nourishment will walk away from this project well filled. My hat is off to Michael for pushing the group to the next level like this, and to Jim Brady and the writers he’s working with. If the Booth Brothers continue to put out projects this strong, they could well become my very favorite artist in the field.

Prime Cuts: “First John,” “See, What a Morning,” “When You Bow at Jesus’ Feet,” “Let it Be Known,” “Masterpiece of Mercy”

Review copy provided.

CD Review: George Younce with Ernie Haase and Signature Sound

Some voices are what you might call cookie-cutter voices—if you’ve heard one, you’ve heard them all. Not George Younce. You could peg that voice a mile off. Why? Because even when George wasn’t talking to you, he was talking to you. His voice was like that of an old friend—warm and welcoming. In the words of Statler Brothers bass Harold Reid, “It said hello to you.” And once you heard it, you never forgot it.

This project features ten of George’s best solo performances from his post-Cathedrals years. With one exception, they have been given entirely fresh instrumentation, and Signature Sound has recorded full quartet backup vocals on each cut.

I wish that I had George’s original arrangements handy so that I could compare them with these new ones, but from what I can hear after scouring around for samples, Signature Sound has preserved the flavor of the originals without directly copying them—which no doubt is exactly what they were aiming to do. And what arrangements! Dear readers, here is my assignment for you: Read my review, then buy this album as soon as it comes out. Once you have heard it all the way through, taking time to appreciate each nuance, I want you to say out loud to yourself three times, “Wayne Haun is a genius. Wayne Haun is a genius. Wayne Haun is a genius.”

Got it? All right then. On to the review.

Love Was In the Room: Hear that? That’s the sound of my keyboard calling me to come pick out the piano part on this new arrangement. “Come on…you know you can’t resist…come on…” The gentle, cascading ripple of piano notes that flows through this cut is a lovely twist on the more guitar-driven sound the Booth Brothers gave it. Signature Sound also adds some variety in the vocal arrangement as they sing behind George. Ernie mentioned in his recent interview with me and Daniel (conducted when I was still New SoGo Fan) that he got to sing a duet with George on a song, and this is the one. They sound great together, but then they always did.

Lyrically, this song has always reminded me of, interestingly enough, a Keith Green song called “Your Love Broke Through.” They both use the metaphor of the stone being rolled away to describe the act of God’s love reaching a sinner. It’s certainly a striking and effective image.

I’ve had trouble deciding whether overall I prefer the Booth Brothers’ version or this version, and really they’re both so beautifully done that I can’t decide. I do think that the Brothers’ reworking of this song on the album 9 was a marked improvement over their own original, so to make it fair I would have to pit that new version against this new version…which means it’s a score draw. The Brothers bring a unique sound, but so, obviously, does George.

(Oh yes, and my keyboard is happy now because I went and found the piano intro on this cut. Insert contented sigh here.)

At the Cross: The excellence continues with this haunting take on a classic hymn. I was immediately struck by the spareness of the acoustic guitar here as it fingers its way over some dark, rich chords. There is one surprising twist in particular that I do know was not on the original: Basically (for any music theory geeks who might be reading) imagine that you’re in the key of A, and you’re walking down the melody for the line, “And did my Sovereign die?” However, instead of landing on the V7 right away, you suddenly change key and play a G major on the word “die.” If you play an instrument, try it out. I’m actually starting to play this arrangement on my keyboard too. It sounds so good that I would recommend Wayne adapt this for solo piano and play it at Signature Sound concerts. It would make a beautiful, quiet moment in the vein of what Roy Webb used to do with “Softly and Tenderly.”

I find it fascinating to see how many different directions one can take with a hymn. On one hand, this hymn has been done a la GVB powerhouse, complete with David Phelps histrionics…er, I mean gymnastics. Yet here it barely rises above a whisper.

George’s voice aches with sad beauty. Also worth noting is the fact that Ian Owens’ voice comes through particularly clearly here, and his upper register is so smooth that you might briefly mistake him for George in places.

Beyond the Sunset: Because George’s only appearance on this track is a poetic recitation, Signature Sound carries all the vocals. If you had any doubts as to how well the new lineup would gel, they should vanish away once you hear this cut. The group sounds as good as ever. This would be a natural for inclusion in live concerts.

I Know Who Holds Tomorrow: This track begins with an answering machine message from George to Ernie—a priceless little bit of history, and a great way to set up this song as George tells Ernie, “Don’t worry about nothin’.” This message returns at the end.

The new soundtrack complements George’s voice absolutely seamlessly here. One could almost forget that this is a completely fresh instrumentation. As with the last track, we hear a good bit of Signature Sound as they carry the chorus. They sound like they could be on the radio in the 1950s. It’s an utterly beautiful sound.

Room At the Cross: This has always been one of my favorite “harmony hymns.” It was one of the first hymns for which I learned the alto part when I was developing an ear for harmony as a little girl. So of course the harmonies are very rich on this one, with some lovely and surprising chord shifts. Listening to this arrangement, it’s difficult to imagine how it could possibly get by with nothing but generic BGVs. What the full quartet sound adds can’t even really be described: It must be experienced.

Suppertime: This song holds a special significance for Signature Sound, because it was the song they sang with George for his final NQC appearance. Obviously George’s voice sounds much stronger and more confident here. I never get tired of hearing him sing this. Also, he’s pretty much the only singer from whom I can tolerate a mid-song recitation. Anyone else just leaves me impatient to get on with the music, but George compels me to listen, like he’s having a conversation with me.

The piano accompaniment on this track is worth noting. It almost seems like they were trying to capture a Roger Bennett sound, because the piano really reminds me of the way he used to approach a country number. Another subtle little thing I noticed (and maybe this is just a coincidence), is that the very first few notes of the intro are identical to the beginning of the chorus for the Perrys’ “I Will Find You Again,” which Wayne co-wrote. I don’t know whether that was pure chance or not, but it stands out enough that I just wondered.

You’ll Get Your Reward Some Day: This was the only upbeat song chosen for the project. Literally every other track is low-key. So naturally, it’s the project’s first radio single. It’s also probably one of the few new soundtracks that really gives away its age. It sounds great, but you can tell that it’s been given a modern update. A driving electric guitar works to smashing effect with a growling b-3 hammond and some irresistible piano licks. The end result is hard-hitting, gritty, and oh, so catchy. Once again, you might do a double take as Ian’s voice falls on the ear like a young Younce himself.

Journey’s End: Note to self: Must go work the piano out on my…oh wait, I guess I’ve said that a few times already. I love this song. I had never heard it before, but the first time I heard it I thought, “SCORE!” What gorgeous lyrics and music. If I had to pick a single favorite off this project, this would be it. Impeccable delivery and instrumentation.

This song is so moving that I vote the guys just start singing it in concert. They don’t even need to try to bring in George’s voice—just introduce it as a song George used to sing and have Ian carry it.  As with “At the Cross,” this is another example of an arrangement that’s simply too good not to be incorporated into live concerts. It is also a song that deserves to be revived.

Sometimes This is Heaven To Me: This is the only track on the project that was not given a brand-new instrumental and BGV treatment. It was lifted directly from Signature Sound’s debut album Stand By Me. It was the last song George recorded. Ernie and Joel Lindsay beautifully captured the bittersweet emotions of a man in the sunset of his life, longing for heaven, yet humbly asking for “just a little more time” to linger with the beauties of this world. I once heard of a great analogy to this which used the image of a mother and son in prison, where all the little boy has known is the inside of the prison cell. His mother paints beautiful pictures of the world outside on the walls where they are imprisoned, and the little boy literally can’t imagine what real trees, grass, or sky looks like. His mother’s paintings are so beautiful that he can’t believe her when she tells him that the real world is so much more beautiful than what she can paint for him. It’s the same for us: Like George, we think, “This world is beautiful in its own way, and the fellowship I have with the ones I love is so sweet it almost feels like heaven to me.” And yet we know that heaven is beyond our comprehension. But in the meanwhile, we should receive the blessings God has for us here, with a thankful heart. In the immortal words of Rich Mullins, “There’s so much beauty around us for just two eyes to see/That everywhere I go, I’m looking.”

Silent Night: I’m a little confused, because it said that this performance was “previously unreleased,” and yet I found what seems like the identical thing on a compilation album called A Season To Remember: Christmas Favorites. However, it was never on one of George’s own projects that I know of, and perhaps that’s what was meant.

Mannheim Steamroller will evermore hold the definitive version of this carol in my mind, but I must say that Wayne’s new arrangement is simply superb. The piano is simple, yet subtly haunting. Its interplay with the strings is just gobsmackingly gorgeous. The chords at the end are almost goosebump-inducing, as the arrangement ends on a vibrant, unresolved fadeout. Curiously, George makes a small lyrical slip in one verse (singing the line “glory streams” as “glorious streams”), but he communicates the lyric in his classically memorable, inimitable style.

Closing thoughts: Daniel Mount has already reviewed this project. As somebody who has collected the originals for these songs, he has recommended this as a must-have. Coming to it with fresh ears as somebody who had only heard George sing a few of these songs, I can unhesitatingly offer my own recommendation from the other end. The instrumentation is fresh enough to catch the attention of someone who doesn’t even primarily listen to gospel music, yet sounds as though it could have been that way all along. Therein lies the genius of Wayne Haun. Also, as even I can tell from snips and snatches of the originals, there’s no comparison between the formerly canned BGVs and Signature Sound’s warm, hearty four-part singing.

I may not be a producer, but I sure do think like one, and I get warm fuzzies just lapping this stuff up. The three tracks that most inspire me as a musician are “Love Was In the Room,” “At the Cross” and “Journey’s End,” but really the whole thing is a masterpiece. Some may have a few quibbles with the song selection, e.g. the inclusion of a Christmas carol like “Silent Night,” or the inclusion of “Sometimes This is Heaven To Me” instead of another rare track from a solo project. I really don’t mind, because it’s good music any way you slice it (and besides, “Heaven To Me” is a logical choice since it was recorded as George’s farewell song).

If you love gospel music, you shouldn’t think twice about picking this up. And if you’re new to the genre and looking for a place to start, this album is a quiet jewel. It shines with warmth, tastefulness, and something else…love.

I hereby raise my glass to Wayne, to Ernie, and to StowTown—long life to it, and may much more fine music be made! *clink*