This page is a collection of old gospel music reviews I contributed to another site before starting this blog. They have been organized in order from most recent to oldest. While my musical tastes have shifted considerably since my days as a gospel music critic, these are a nice capsule of a period in my life when I got to know some great folks and got to hone my writing skills in the process.
A Tribute to the Cathedral Quartet (DVD), by Ernie Haase & Signature Sound
As great of a “sound” as Signature Sound has always had, Ernie has always thought visually with the group. It was not a CD project that launched them into the stratosphere but a video—five years ago with their self-titled Gaither DVD. They were already on their way up, but 2005 was the year things really began accelerating for them. Since then, they have found some detractors, but at the same time they have found a large and loyal fan base.
Much as I enjoy the group’s music and sound, my favorite moments from the group have mostly come when they settle down for something classic and classy like “Lovest Thou Me” or “Since Jesus Passed By.” Of course I wouldn’t be without the high energy of “Trying to Get a Glimpse” or “Stand By Me,” but in terms of presentation and delivery, the group shines best when they do it low-key. They have proven time and again that their famous “choreography” is a dispensable part of what they do.
When approaching this tribute project, Ernie knew that classy was the way to go, and now that I’ve seen the finished product, I can say that it has paid huge dividends. This could quite possibly be their best video since the early days of Stand By Me Live. The set is majestic without being ostentatious, the wardrobe couldn’t be more tasteful (matching blue pin-stripes), their hair is combed ( ), and virtually all of the numbers are delivered “flat-footed” with minimal choreography.
Yet while the importance of these things cannot be stressed enough, obviously what drives the project is the songs and the music. So without further ado, let’s watch how this concert unfolds…
“Wedding Music”: The concert opens with lights down and a live band introduction playing variations on “Here Comes the Bride.” The group has taken to using this clip as an introduction for their concerts on the tour, and it works well to open up the night. “Here Comes the Bride” was chosen, of course, because of the title of the opening song.
The crowd applauds and stands when the quartet makes their appearance, and the lights go up when they begin to sing. This introduction provides a marked contrast with something like Get Away Jordan, where the guys run out on stage with big smiles and bring the microphones into place with their feet. None of that here: They just step forward and sing.
The crowd responds immediately at the beginning of Tim’s solo, and he delivers it with great confidence. Ernie nails his tag at the end just like old times with the Cats. Just a smooth performance and a natural choice for an introductory number.
At this point they moved directly to “Step Into the Water,” which was easily one of the best performances of the night. Every single member is in peak form here. Tim does some awesome improvisation even beyond what he does on the CD—the descending “Yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah” bass line going into the final chorus sounds exactly like George.
I mentioned that Doug and Ernie’s duet was a treat to listen to on the CD, but it’s even better to watch. The two of them together on stage are absolute vocal dynamite. They’re like sparring partners—they sharpen each other as they work together. They’ve known each other longer than any other two members of the group, and it’s obvious that they are good friends both on and off the stage. The addition of Devin on the last line of the verse then makes an awesome triple punch—love the way they draw out the word “eternally.”
The group’s trademark choreography makes a small appearance towards the end of the performance with a few hand motions. Nothing over-the-top, it just works well with the song.
Generally on their previous DVDs, Ernie has paused after two songs for a speaking segment. Here they just keep going, and next up is “Boundless Love.” My thoughts on the “boom, boom, CLAP” rhythm at the beginning remain the same, but it is admittedly a great attention-getter and draws the audience in from note one. Dianne Wilkinson said they had her hooked right away.
This is a dynamic song and a dynamic arrangement, and watching all four guys work together on it is like watching a well-oiled machine. And then at the key change, everything just explodes (in a very good way!) as Ernie begins to belt it out. Moreover, the “stomping” rhythm is going away right about now, and that actually makes audience participation easier because the “clapping” rhythm comes more naturally. Ernie then takes it up yet another notch and continues to nail it, even going higher than he did with the Cathedrals. Also notable is Wayne’s piano work—it can be easy to overlook Wayne because he’s not the sort of performer who draws attention to himself, but he forms an integral part of what’s happening on stage.
When you’ve got a good thing going, keep it going, and they do so here with several encores. Everybody stands up for the first encore, and the guys keep up the energy level all the way through. This is a fantastic live number that should become a concert staple for the group. The song is an instantly recognizable classic, and it never fails to get a crowd excited and on their feet.
After eliciting a standing ovation three songs into the night without a single word spoken, Ernie pauses for a few brief words and then sings “I’m Gonna Live Forever.” Then Ernie does group introductions, and he runs through the joke about Devin that the last name “McGlamery” means “albino porcupine.” Interestingly enough, this is the only moment of the night that is even remotely corny. This project is pretty much entirely free of the standard forced humor/recycled jokes that have become part of the stereotype of gospel music. Given the venue and the occasion, this feels appropriate.
Ernie talks a little about the Stamps-Baxter school of music, George and Glen’s history there, and the group’s own recent concert for the students to set up “Old Convention Song.” Tracey Philips takes the piano, and she truly is an expert at what she does. Ernie even calls for a repeat of her intro (though I’m not sure whether he really did forget to sing the first time or had planned the repeat in advance). The instrumentation on this song was completely live, which gives the performance extra charm.
The next number, surprisingly, is “Oh What a Savior.” This song is generally placed at the end of Signature Sound concerts and videos, so the fact that it was placed fairly early in the program this time was a clue of what was coming later! Before the song, Ernie talks about his first concert with the Cathedrals, singing this song. George Younce told part of the story on The Best of the Cathedrals, but it’s fun to hear it from Ernie, partly because he adds details like the fact that Gloria “prayed the sweetest prayer for him,” but Bill didn’t pray for him at all. Tsk, tsk.
Then Wayne kicks off the song on the piano, and they sing the first verse and chorus with nothing else backing them up. I really like the way Wayne handles the accompaniment here—it’s very tasteful, yet there’s a sense of coiled up energy there as well to emphasize the words “He… gave… his... life’s blood…” Ernie starts off a little breathy, but his vocal gains strength as the arrangement builds. The drums join in to punctuate the climactic moment, and he nails it, as ever, with power and practiced ease. You can hear Timmy singing “Oh yeah” under his breath at that moment. “Oh yeah” indeed! For the last chorus, the live band is still front and center, but you can hear the strings and brass soundtrack kicking in too for added drama. I really liked the fact that they started off “bare bones” with just piano, then gradually built off of that. Something else I noticed and appreciated about this rendition was that it was all on the stage—zero stacked vocals. But it still sounded great. More of this, please. As a matter of fact, I am going to go out on a limb and say that I cannot detect a single stack throughout the concert. They may have been used without my knowledge, but in that case it was done very sparingly, to the point where I for one could not hear them.
Some people might dispute the inclusion of yet another version of this song on the project, since the group has recorded it so many times before. But the night really wouldn’t have been complete without it. It never gets old, and it belonged here. (Just ask the people who were there!) And yet, it is to Ernie’s credit that he deliberately did not make it the focal point of the evening—he clearly wanted the focus to be on George and Glen.
“Wonderful Grace of Jesus”: Ernie brings Wayne onto the stage and introduces him as the producer/arranger. A humorous moment ensues when Wayne tries to give every member his note… including Timmy, which doesn’t quite work. Fortunately Timmy managed to find his note too.
There’s nothing like watching a talented group sing acapella live, standing in one place, with no stacks or extra studio gloss. For this reason, I much prefer the DVD version to the CD version: The vocals sound much warmer here (but still outstanding).
In a rare moment of mischief, Timmy tugs on the shoulder of Doug’s suit-jacket during the upward modulation on the word “me.” Doug is unappreciative, which is funny to watch. Interestingly, they appear to end up in a higher key than where they end on the studio cut. The performance earned them another standing ovation.
From here they go directly into “Sinner Saved By Grace.” My thoughts on the arrangement and the vocals remain the same from my review of the CD. Doug’s solo sounded somewhat different from his studio delivery, but it was just as good in its own way. For Doug, singing seems as easy as breathing in and out. He’s such a natural on the stage, and you can always count on him for an exciting performance. I’ve nicknamed him “dependable Doug” because he never seems to have an off night. This solo was good enough to elicit applause even before the first chorus got underway.
Devin’s solo also went over well with the audience. He absolutely nails his tag on the line, “Now I live and breathe in freedom.” It’s a great experience to watch the arrangement build in excitement through the key change to the high ending. Ernie nails his note at the end very powerfully. All things considered, this performance is a definite highlight.
“Yesterday”: Ernie sets up this song by talking about how so many things have changed, even within the Cathedrals family. George, Glen and Roger are all gone, and even one of George’s daughters has passed away. Yet with all these changes, George’s own words reiterate the simple, timeless truth that “Jesus will never, ever change. Jesus is always the same.”
Devin’s step-out is even richer than on the CD, and brief as it is, it’s one of the night’s stand-out solos. The blend as a whole is just gorgeous, particularly on the last line.
While the guys sing, a slideshow plays behind them with snapshots of some of these heroes of the faith, on and off the stage. Some of the photos are recycled, but some of them are fresh, and they are all beautiful. Combining this song with these shots is very effective and only enhances the poignancy of the experience.
Watching this performance together with the slideshow, it really came home to me that this encapsulates everything I love about gospel music. There is much more going on here than just an excellent performance of a sweet song. It reminded me of a comment I read from somebody arguing that gospel music needs to be more progressive. The artists at a Homecoming he had recently attended seemed to him to be “holding onto some great moment in the past.” He said this to imply that they needed to let go of the past and “come forward” into the present.
But really, how long is the present here? Every second that passes becomes a part of the past. And if we let go of the past, exactly what are we left with? We must hold onto these “great moments.” Even as we live from day to day, looking towards the future, we must never, ever forget to turn and look back, often. As I watched this video, I felt like I was being given a window into the past, and it seemed just as close as the present—in a way, even closer. At the closing phrase, “the same,” the glorious sameness of God came into clear focus like never before… and in the middle of it all those two old men, George and Glen, sitting together and singing their hearts out to Him. In one sense, they are no longer with us, and yet thanks to God’s unchanging, unfailing love, they are with us still. He is “the same” indeed. Praise Him.
Here the group takes a brief break from Cathedrals songs and does an Influenced set. Ernie sets it up by talking about a conversation he had with George and Glen about the “good ole days” of early-morning radio shows—funny story. All the performances are enjoyable. “My Heart is a Chapel” is especially fun because the guys deliberately put a twang into their vocals to mimic that old-time radio sound. Ernie is obviously enjoying himself immensely, and the harmonies are (as usual) flawless.
Next is “Swinging On the Golden Gate,” which is best enjoyed live. Doug is in tip-top vocal form and delivers the goods. It’s also humorous to see Timmy get “knocked” on and pushed around by Ernie (they’ve done the routine at concerts, but it’s more enjoyable to see it up close). At the end, they throw in an encore of the final breakdown. This is probably the moment of the night when the guys most “cut loose,” but even so it doesn’t seem obtrusive or over-the-top. The band is in peak form here too: Kevin looks like he’s tearing it up on the electric guitar. After this number, Ernie pauses to introduce the members, including David Griffith on bass and Zak Shumate on drums. Speaking of Zak, this guy was on cloud nine all night long, and it showed. He just exudes fun and youthful energy with every move he makes. It puts a smile on my face whenever the camera cuts over to show him at work. He really adds a lot to the video—wouldn’t be the same without him. Just watch him go at it on “Boundless Love!”
But the icing on the cake is “Walk With Me.” This has become a bit of a “second-tier signature song” for Ernie, after “Oh What a Savior.” For this one, they brought out the “big gun” on the piano—Bill Gaither himself. There’s some interaction with Bill before the song, but it looks like some of it was edited out for the DVD. Eventually he sits down and begins “managing expectations” about how incredible he is going to be, inviting Wayne and Tracey to sit back and get schooled. Plus he’s sure to throw in the mandatory gospel history lesson, talking about how Hovie Lister used to direct from the piano with the Statesmen. (I’m getting deja vu, because I could have sworn he gave that same lecture on another video…) Anyway, Tracey and Wayne are unimpressed, to say the least, and partway through they give him a five and a zero respectively (on a scale of one to ten). But the performance is pure perfection, and Ernie delivers one of the best vocals of the night. Bill predicted that the crowd would go crazy, and sure enough, it got a standing ovation, good enough for an encore. Favorite moment: When Ernie picks up his microphone and starts edging towards Bill with it. “I’m following you.” Priceless! I’m still sorting out my personal top five performances from the video, but this one is a must-include regardless.
“Can He, Could He, Would He”: Remember the sousaphone? Here, we actually get to SEE it, and it’s played by none other than Wayne Haun himself! I must confess that I have a (pernicious?) desire to break into the Veggie Tales theme song whenever I watch this video. Wayne looks just like Larry the Cucumber. Tracey comes out from behind the keys to play a clarinet, which is fun to see. Devin takes the lead and makes me smile with the enthusiasm he brings to his part. At the end, the guys walk in a circle around the intrepid sousaphone player, and at the very end, the camera zooms in on some little kids who are also dancing in a circle in the front of the audience (invited to come down beforehand). It’s a very cute touch that definitely enhances the performance.
“Mexico”: This number epitomizes just how big a difference the visual element can make on a DVD when compared with a CD. When I listen to the song on the CD, all I can think about is how inherently dorky it is. But all the extra stuff that’s going on in the DVD makes the number fun and enjoyable to watch. We have Wayne playing a marimba in the back, Tracey on maracas (is there any instrument they can’t play between the two of them?) and some downright hilarious sombrero business. Obviously, everything must have been choreographed ahead of time, but it is still funny to see the guys snickering at Ernie’s pink sombrero while he asks, “What color’s mine?” Then of course he takes it off, reacts and says, “Somebody’s gonna get it.” It’s all the guys can do to get through the rest of the song without laughing. The last part of the song is inter-spliced with footage from a Cathedrals performance (with their own sombreros), and it makes for a fun side-by-side watch. Ultimately, this song ends up being sort of a parody of itself, but that’s probably the whole point.
After this number, Ernie introduces his old mentor and first boss Squire Parsons to sing his signature song, “Beulah Land.” He sets up the song by talking about the pivotal role Squire played in “grooming and polishing” him for ultimately fulfilling his dream of singing with the Cathedrals. It’s a touching moment and a classy move on Ernie’s part.
“God Delivers Again”: Great, great song to watch live. Timmy and Ernie knock their step-outs out of the park, and Wayne sparkles on the piano. They also throw in some vocal embellishments not on the studio version, like holding out the chord on the word “flee” and throwing in some “Whoa-oh-whoas” to give the chorus extra punch. This performance was encored and got an enthusiastic audience response.
Then Zak immediately kicks it off on “He Made a Change.” Some might dispute the inclusion of this song, since Signature Sound has already recorded it, but given its significance as the Cats’ last #1, it makes sense to me. How does this version compare to EHSS’s previous one? Well, the main difference is that the sound is less polished, but there’s a reason for that: They’re relying exclusively on a live band. Trading in the original cut’s slick brass and piano for an “earthier” percussion and guitar-driven sound, this version makes up in chemistry what it lacks in polish. Bits of gospel-flavored organ can be heard sprinkled throughout for added flavor. It’s a great experience to watch the band “jam out” here. This gives you a pretty good idea of how the guys and their band sound live and in concert. I can’t decide which of the two versions I prefer—each is great in its own way.
But once again, what ultimately seals it is the visuals. After an introductory chorus, Ernie pauses for a word about Cathedrals songwriters and invites Joel Lindsey and Dianne Wilkinson to stand up in the audience (and Miss Dianne, if you’re reading this…you looked great that night!) This makes for a really nice, classy moment. And since Ernie is talking about how every great quartet needs great songs, Joel’s presence is doubly appropriate given that he’s penned the group’s own best original, “Calvary Answers For Me.”
Then on the second chorus, Ernie motions the band to pull back while they sing sotto voce, and Tim’s bass line is very prominent. Some great banter ensues at this point between Tim and Ernie. The look on Timmy’s face at the end of the song is absolutely priceless! Tim generally keeps his thoughts to himself, but here he loosens up a little. As quiet as he usually is, he does have a bit of a twinkle in his eye. Another standing ovation for this performance.
Next up is “Moving Up to Gloryland,” and this is definitely one of those “better live” kind of songs because it’s just so funny to watch Ernie and everybody else do the “moo-hoo-hoo-hoo-hoovin” part. And yes, I do mean everybody else. Look for special appearances from various band members and, best of all, Timmy (big crowd response on that one)! The audience itself gets a turn at the end.
One of the most moving moments of the night was when Ernie went down into the audience and introduced family members of the Cathedrals—brothers and sisters, widows, sons and daughters, and even grandsons. As people who were there will recall, a major highlight came when George Younce, Jr. offered an impromptu version of “The Laughing Song.” The resemblance to his father’s voice is quite striking—Timmy gives him a thumbs-up, from one bass to another. After rolling a clip of George himself singing the song, Ernie takes a few minutes to share some stories. He tells them very well, especially the one about how Glen drank a can of Sprite and thought he was getting a shot of caffeine (!)
Ernie then introduces the song “I Thirst” by talking about how that song held special significance for George as a former alcoholic. It’s one of the most moving songs on the project, and this performance is beautifully done. Wayne’s piano work complements the vocals perfectly.
Next is “Champion of Love.” At the beginning, an old-fashioned microphone is lowered as George Younce’s recorded voice begins the spoken introduction. This microphone is then pulled back up when his part is over. It’s an interesting bit of stage business, and for people who enjoy the song, George’s spoken intro provides a nice added touch.
Wayne of course takes the lead and handles it very well. Whether he’s writing, playing, or producing, Wayne brings a lot to the world of gospel music, but here he proves that he can sing as well. Ernie sits on the piano bench until the last chorus (per Cathedrals tradition), and the audience stands when he bursts in on the climax. Afterwards, he embraces Wayne and verbally presents him to the crowd. I look forward to hearing Wayne’s voice on more material in the future. I doubt this will be the last we hear from him.
Wayne is back at the piano for the next song, “Plan of Salvation.” What can I say? A beautiful song, and well-loved too—the crowd began applauding the moment they recognized it. Timmy’s solo is very potent, and it’s a treat to watch Kevin Williams smiling in the background as Tim sings. Ernie gives him the “OK” sign afterwards: Bravo Timmy! This is one of those quiet, hidden highlights of the project, and I already anticipate coming back to it again and again.
Then comes the focal point of the evening: “We Shall See Jesus.” Ernie talks a bit about how they had planned to “stay away from” this song, because it was Glen’s song. But as Ernie quite rightly says, that wouldn’t be what Glen himself would want. He would be the last person to want the song to die with him. A couple old photos of Devin with Glen are put up on the screen as Ernie talks about how Glen was Devin’s hero. It’s great to see how even at such a young age, Devin knew who his heroes were and was proud of it. Not every kid is that unabashed about his heroes, but Devin clearly was, and it’s beautiful to see him at twelve singing next to that great man.
Ernie tells him to “paint the picture,” and that he does. As great as this song is to listen to, it is so much more powerful to watch it unfold live on stage. Devin begins singing, and Dianne Wilkinson herself is already wiping tears away before his solo is finished. Everybody nails the second verse, and then…Devin turns around and introduces the man himself: Mr. Glen Payne. Some people thought that it might have been better or generated a bigger response if the group had chosen to sing the song without the video of Glen for the tribute. I disagree. On the tour, yes, it makes sense to let Devin carry the song. But here it was completely appropriate. And what a moment it was! I did not pre-order and get the project with Kleenex, but let’s just say that if I had… I would have been reaching for them when Glen came on screen. And it’s not just seeing Glen, it’s seeing his wife and family in tears as he sings. I defy anybody to watch this and not be deeply moved. Even Devin is shedding tears as he turns away from the screen.
Glen stays with them through the remainder of the song, and it’s hard to describe just how powerful that is. When people lose a loved one today, too many of them turn to empty means of comfort like letter-writing, or worse, to the occult, to give themselves a feeling of communication with the person. Yet Glen’s presence through video with the group as they sing provides a powerful reminder of the communion of saints without any such desperate measures. We as Christians do not need to convince ourselves that Glen is alive—we know that he is alive. He was with the group that night in more ways than one. Yes, we will see him again one day, but in the meanwhile, we have the assurance that he is living still.
At the actual concert, there were a couple more numbers at this point: a medley around the piano and a video of George and Glen singing “Search Me.” However, “We Shall See Jesus” was such a climactic high point of the evening that it was a smart pacing decision to cut those other songs and make it the penultimate song on the DVD. My only disappointment is that the Gaither medley was not at least included as a bonus feature—that was one number I had been looking forward to seeing. Ah well.
Ernie simply announces the final song by saying that George always told him to “leave ’em happy,” and that’s what they’re going to do. Without further ado, they launch into that wonderful classic, “This Ole House.” Timmy promised me not to goof on this one a few weeks before the taping, and of course he didn’t. (Incidentally, it was Timmy’s solid, rich tones that first drew my attention to this group. I just wanted to hear more of that bass.) A flawless performance, and the crowd stood throughout. Obviously Tim steals the show, but Doug’s step-outs are also spot-on. Zak gives it his all on the drums and does a magnificent job. Ernie takes it home and knocks the last note all the way into left field. This is one of the performances that most makes me wish I had been there to see it in person. The Cathedrals used it to open their concerts, but it works just as well in its own way as a finale—a barn-burner in the truest sense.
Finally, “Boundless Love” is reprised, which is the perfect way to cap off the evening. The quartet bows and takes their leave, leaving a very happy audience indeed.
Minor quibbles about the song selection aside, it’s hard to see how this DVD could have been any better. I might have wanted more B-roll and perhaps some more bonus features (a performance of “Life Will Be Sweeter” is the only bonus on the video), but other than that…terrific. On their Gospel Music Today interview at the NQC, Ernie said that a lot of the group’s high energy has just evolved naturally from their personalities. However, I appreciate the fact that they reined in some of that ebullience for this tribute project, out of respect for the classic style of George and Glen. This gives the DVD a sophisticated feel that would just be lacking otherwise. Wherever Ernie chooses to take the group in the years to come, it would be great to see them continue in this vein, with this style—still bringing a high energy to the table, but with balance and restraint. Yes, obviously that look was right to honor the Cathedrals, but there is a true sense in which this is the real Signature Sound too. And given their increasingly more classic-styled wardrobe since the Get Away Jordan era, it leads one to wonder (hope?) whether perhaps there is a trip to the local Salvation Army headquarters in their near future, at which point the two-toned penguin shoes, striped socks, and assorted other “colorful” accouterments will mysteriously and permanently disappear. (Tongue-in-cheek…kinda. But keep the matching suits. )
At the end of the day, Ernie can be very proud of this project, not only as the master-mind behind its conception but as one of the voices that brought it to life. He was in outstandingly good form on the night this video was taped, and you could almost see him rediscovering his youth as he sang. There was an extra vigor and strength to his singing that really recalled those “glory years” with the Cathedrals. He held nothing back, song after song, and he nailed it every time. This night should go down as a personal tour de force for him. To say that he has “still got it” would be an understatement. His emcee work that night was also very classy and tasteful—at each point he said exactly what needed to be said, no more, no less.
Bottom line: The CD was strong enough for a 4.5 star rating, but it cannot compare to the live experience. These performances are so strong, and the DVD is so beautifully edited, that I would recommend it over and above the studio project. If possible, get both, but if you can only get one, make it the video. You will not be sorry.
A Tribute to the Cathedral Quartet (CD), by Ernie Haase & Signature Sound
(4. 5 stars)
Eight years ago, Signature Sound released their debut album. At the time, George Younce had these words to say about them and about his experience as he listened to the project:
So many memories came rushing in as I realized that this is the “sound” and the style of songs Glen and I always insisted upon down through the years as the “Cathedral Quartet.”
…It is evident that the goal of this quartet is to remain faithful to their “High Calling,” to their gospel roots, and to the audiences for which they will be privileged to sing.
Though this is just their first project, I think you’ll agree that the “Signature Sound Quartet” definitely has that “signature sound,” and with the Lord’s help, these young men are destined to be a positive force in this industry for years to come.
For this young, promising group, George’s words would be amply borne out, as they went on to rise very swiftly to the upper echelons of the genre. Now eight years later, they have paused on the journey to look back and pay their respects to George and Glen. These men were honored in their generations and were a glory in their days. Their legacy lives on through the men who served with them. With their own groups, they continue the ministry today, as they continue to render thanks and honor to the memory of George and Glen. They are a privileged few, for they can close their eyes and remember these two old men—with hope in their hearts and a song on their lips.
This is a great trust, and as George’s son-in-law, Ernie has carried a special responsibility with him through the years with his group. Yet he and they have carried that banner with class and excellence. With this project, they have not only paid worthy tribute to the Cathedrals legacy, but they have also set a new standard for themselves. There are moments that especially stand out, but as a whole, it remains remarkably consistent across its 19-song span (plus two bonus cuts). The result is both a wonderful trip down memory lane for those who remember the Cathedrals and a perfect introduction for those who are discovering this music for the first time.
So let us begin…
Wedding Music: This is a very classy way to kick off the project. It’s a low-key number, but it’s a perfect opening song. The simple strumming of an acoustic guitar sets the stage for a tasteful re-visitation of this classic, creating an air of expectation for what lies ahead. “Is that wedding music I hear?” Understated and smooth.
Step Into the Water: As the Cathedrals’ longest-running #1 hit, this song was an obvious pick for the project. It’s just a great song, with a terrific message in the lyrics. I have always especially loved verse one: “It’s time we the people stand up for what is right/It’s time we squared our shoulders back and raised our swords to fight.” Amen! Sometimes I think the church tends to slip into “group hug” mode without remembering that we got a war going on. God is raising up an army indeed!
This arrangement remains very true to the spirit of the original but adds a few twists. There is some tasty banjo strumming in the background which gives it a bit of a country flavor. Doug and Ernie’s duet on verse two is a real treat. Their voices complement each other superbly. At the end of the song, an extra refrain is added that works perfectly to tie it off—a great example of how to give a classic a new touch without detracting from its power.
Boundless Love: This song provides the project’s most unusual moment, and that’s the “We Will Rock You” rhythm that kicks it off and continues in the background for the first part of the song. It’s fresh and creative, to be sure, but it’s generated mixed reactions. My verdict is that while it’s a fun idea, it creates a musical clash of worlds that doesn’t quite work, aesthetically speaking. There’s a very literal sense in which that rock rhythm gives a downbeat feel to an upbeat song. The effect is even more noticeable when listening with headphones. It’s simply too heavy for its musical context. But after the second verse, that rhythm fades away, and it is then that the arrangement really takes off. At that point, we’re back to that country/gospel rhythm of “clap, clap, clap, clap” instead of “boom, boom, CLAP.” It fades back in briefly later, but by then it’s too late—the song has already moved beyond it. Overall, this is an excellent arrangement, and it is best appreciated live with several encores. Like many of these songs, its full flavor only comes through on the DVD, because the live energy just adds so much.
I Thirst: This is the project’s first single, which is a very nice touch considering that it was not the best-known song off of its original project (the stellar High and Lifted Up). The arrangement is handled tastefully and gracefully, different from the original, but without losing the golden touch. They begin with an introductory acapella tag. Doug then takes the lead on the first verse and communicates the poignant lyric very effectively. Ernie takes over on verse two after a key change. The closing harmonies are hauntingly rich. This version may not replace the original, but it stands on its own as a lovely piece of music.
This Ole House: This concludes the first rough “quarter” of the album, and so far the guys are batting a thousand. Once again, this version doesn’t stray far from the original, but it is somewhat different. The lush, sweeping orchestral feel of the original has been replaced to an extent by a brighter, jazzier sound—sparkling piano, bits of electric guitar, and some big band brass. However, the country/western fiddles are such an integral part of the song that of course they could not leave them out. On the transition into “When the Saints,” they briefly switch to a cute marching-band feel, even throwing in a parade whistle (!) The song ends with great energy. Tim Duncan does an excellent job with this arrangement. Nobody can communicate the lyric like George, of course, but Timmy is a natural and the song suits him very well.
Champion of Love: This arrangement has generated a lot of buzz because of the decision to give pianist Wayne Haun the main feature, a nice historical nod to Cathedrals pianist Gerald Wolfe’s breakout performance. While the lyrical metaphor comparing Jesus to a prizefighter may not be to everyone’s taste, Wayne does a good job carrying this rendition. He’s no Wolfe, but he possesses a clear tone that’s easy on the ears, reminiscent of Wesley Pritchard. As for George’s spliced-in intro, it was obviously designed for live performances, therefore it makes a little more sense there than on the studio cut. But in any case, kudos to Wayne as he continues to establish himself here as a capable vocalist in his own right.
I’m Gonna Live Forever: This is a lesser-known number, but Ernie probably decided to cover it because of his nostalgic ties with the Talley era of the group. It’s a catchy little ditty.
Can He, Could He, Would He: This arrangement starts with a strumming banjo and moves into a fun “New Orleans street band” sound. Devin takes the lead for most of the song (obviously having a great time), with some moments from Timmy as well. The vocals overall are tight and smooth, and the production is really cute. Of particular note is the sousaphone, which is even more fun to watch on stage (see upcoming DVD review).
Wonderful Grace of Jesus: Fantastic arrangement, following the Cathedrals original pretty closely with a few tweaks. The addition of Wayne Haun as a vocalist to make the group into a quintet prompts the question of just how much they could do with this configuration. For example, might they perhaps choose to tackle some Glad arrangements? I could definitely hear them covering material like “You Put This Love In My Heart” and “Just As I Am.”
Sinner Saved By Grace: This arrangement had to grow on me a bit, but honestly you can’t lose with this song. The production has a bit of a pop flavor, and the vocals also have a somewhat contemporary sound. Doug delivers a beautiful solo on verse one. Devin’s solo on verse two could stick closer to the melody and still be effective, but he also does well. The orchestration is very well done on the chorus in particular—it brings out the dynamics of the song. There’s a key change at the end that happens very quickly but lifts everything up to a new level. Bottom line: It just works.
An Old Convention Song: This arrangement follows the original almost note-for-note, both instrumentally and vocally. However, they throw in a funny twist on the verse about other styles of gospel songs. The phrase “country flavor” has a country flavor, and the “modern sound” sounds, well, modern! The vocals are deliberately distorted for a brief moment, poking some light fun at that pretentious, “weird for the sake of being weird” kind of music. But we quickly return to the comfortable familiarity of the old convention song.
Perhaps they could follow this number up in concert with an actual convention song (maybe an impromptu rendition of “Give the World a Smile?” )
Mexico: As popular as this song is, the tribute could probably have managed to limp along without it ( ), but it is fun to watch on the DVD (see upcoming DVD review for more details).
God Delivers Again: This is a “hidden gem,” and it’s one arrangement on here that I can unhesitatingly say is better than the original. The production is superb, as the piano and b-3 Hammond start things off with a bang. The piano remains a solid anchor throughout, and the b-3 hangs around too. The vocals are also great: Timmy nails verse one, and Ernie’s solo on verse two packs a terrific punch. He communicates the triumph of the lyric wonderfully. I feel like shouting “Yeah!” or “Amen!” or something similarly exclamatory after he sings it. If this don’t pull you out of bed on a discouraging Monday morning, nothing will. This is also a terrific live number.
Life Will Be Sweeter Someday: Obviously a large part of the magic on this number when the Cathedrals did it was Roger Bennett’s inimitable piano turnaround. While there’s no attempt to duplicate that here, this is still a very enjoyable cut. The piano is replaced by a guitar in this version. It’s more laid-back than the piano, giving the arrangement a relaxed, bluesy sound. Fun to listen to.
Moving Up to Gloryland: The wonderful thing about tiggers, is tiggers are wonderful things. Need I say more? Moo-hoo-hoo-hoo-HOO-vin!
Plan of Salvation: This is a truly lovely rendition of a simple, beautiful song. While the group did it live for quite a while (including the version off their self-titled DVD as a bonus cut on Get Away Jordan) this is the first time they’ve done a studio version. It’s definitely a highlight of this project. I love how the piano part is given just a little bit of a fresh sound without losing any of the beauty of the original. The original was more distinctly country, while this has a somewhat more delicate touch. The strings also add a lot—very warm and evocative. Great stuff. It’s high time they pulled this nugget back out and started re-introducing it into their repertoire.
We Shall See Jesus: Expectations ran high about this arrangement—who would take the lead? Would Ernie let Doug handle it, toss Devin into the deep end, or perhaps take the arrangement in a different direction altogether? Well as everyone knows by now, Devin steps up to the plate for this one, and I must admit he exceeded all my expectations. I was in the audience when they debuted this song live. It was unplanned, but Ernie decided to call it at the last minute. Needless to say, it was an incredible moment and generated probably the biggest response of the night.
Amazingly, Devin already had improved significantly by the time he gave that performance from when he first cut his part in the studio. However, he does a beautiful job here, and the rich timbre of his voice shines through very handsomely in the first verse especially. The harmonies in the minor modulation are then handled beautifully, a little bit different from the original but still preserving that haunting, eerily lovely sound. Ernie’s piercingly sweet tenor really stands out here.
Then Devin takes the climax and delivers it very powerfully, although he brings even more power to the table today. As everybody knows, the group has taken to using a video of Glen Payne for the climax, but I’m glad that they still let Devin take it all the way sometimes. He truly is capable of doing the song justice, and that is saying a lot. Perhaps they could perform the song with Devin singing right up through the climax on a future DVD, thereby giving us both versions in high quality video.
I cannot fail to mention the orchestration, which is wonderfully dramatic and has a strong Lari Goss feel, right down to the woodwinds. Wayne should be very proud of his work here, because it is simply magnificent. I consider it to be just as good as the original in its own way.
Yesterday: A personal favorite of mine, and I guess Ernie and I have something in common, because he’s cited this as a favorite as well. The instrumentation has a gentle sway to it, almost like a slow dance. The strings are used particularly well, and there is some light electric guitar work that also finds its way into the mix. Vocally, this rendition takes a different approach from the original bass feature. The first verse is sung in unison, and Devin sings the second verse. His solo is rich and full. He really hits his sweet spot vocally when he sings in this range, with this style.
The message of the song never gets old, and they couldn’t have treated it more gracefully. The harmonies are absolutely gorgeous. Everything about this rendition comes together just right.
Gaither Medley: This concludes the “main body” of the project. These are all Gaither songs the Cathedrals recorded, and they include “Gentle Shepherd,” “Something About That Name,” “I Will Serve Thee,” and “Jesus, We Just Want to Thank You.” Signature Sound has also recorded all of these songs except “Jesus, We Just Want to Thank You.” All four are beautifully braided together here and served up very tastefully. The production is spot on—once again, strings and guitar make a great combination. For the final song, George’s spoken prayer from the original Cathedrals cut is included in the middle, which is a very, very nice touch. Everybody needs the reminder of these simple words. I know I do.
This medley, or at least parts of it, would work great for the group to use as a live number around the piano. This would really capture the “Cathedrals spirit.”
Included at the end are two bonus tracks, “Oh What a Savior” and “He Made a Change,” which are the live performances from the DVD taping. While I might have wanted a couple more never-before-recorded arrangements of Cathedrals classics, obviously both tracks are excellent. I’ll be saying more about them in the DVD review.
Final thoughts: The Cathedrals’ catalogue is such an embarrassment of riches that even a 20-song project could not do it full justice. The emphasis with this project was on the more instantly recognizable numbers from that catalogue, with a few hidden gems in the mix. This means that die-hard Cathedrals fans who own every record the group ever made may not find everything they are looking for here. Truth be told, even I, a relatively new fan, might have suggested some changes in the selection. But the fact is that you can’t please all the people all the time, especially with a project like this. All things considered, Signature Sound has done an exceptional job, and there’s really very little to gripe about here, for anyone. However, I look forward to seeing which songs they go back and grab for future projects. I’d love to hear their takes on the likes of “Hard Trials,” “Even So, Lord Jesus Come,” “High and Lifted Up,” and “When the World Looks at Me.” It would also be great if Ernie revived some of his own features with the Cathedrals like “Death Has Died” or “I Want to See Jesus.”
Vocally, the group as always delivers at a very high level of quality. Tim Duncan continues to prove why he is one of southern gospel’s best-loved basses. He received quite a few features on this project, and he handles them all superbly. While George may have been the more versatile singer, Tim brings a quality of his own to the songs that allows his versions to stand on their own wonderfully well. Doug Anderson has several features on this project (“I Thirst,” “Sinner Saved By Grace”), but interestingly there aren’t any new songs that he carries all the way through. Perhaps that’s natural, as for this project it makes sense to spotlight George and Glen’s counter-parts, Devin and Tim. Nonetheless, Doug really shines where he is featured, and like everybody else I always love hearing him sing—on just about anything, really. Wayne has said that he’s always getting requests for “more Doug songs.” Wayne, the people have spoken, and I hereby and forthwith toss in my own bid: More Doug songs! More Doug songs! More Doug… Okay, I’ll stop now. But a Doug feature on “When the World Looks at Me” could be a potential tear-jerker… just sayin’!
Some wondered whether the group’s trademark seamless blend would alter significantly with the addition of Devin this year. After seeing them in concert, I have to say that although Devin does bring a different dynamic to the group, that “signature sound” is still there. The only thing I would say, speaking as somebody who listens to a wide variety of vocalists, is that whatever talent a singer has, it is best realized when he allows it to speak for itself. Devin obviously has a certain stylistic flair that he enjoys and has fun with, and there’s nothing wrong with that. But at the end of the day, he could do no better than to follow the example of his own hero, giving the natural beauty of his voice its clearest, cleanest possible expression.
As for Ernie, he has retained a remarkable amount of clarity and strength for a tenor at this point in his career. And incredibly, he sang virtually every one of these songs even better completely live on the DVD. He is a true professional—a tenor’s tenor.
For whom would I recommend this project? Honestly, for anybody who loves good songs and good gospel music sung well. Whether you are a Cathedrals fan, a Signature Sound fan, both, or just a newcomer to the genre looking for high quality music, this album will not disappoint.
A Man Like Me, by Wes Hampton
Wes Hampton is the reason I (NewSoGoFan) am a gospel music fan today, and it all started with Steve Green. But I’m getting ahead of myself.
Flashback to fall of 2009. I’m sitting in a waiting room and pick up a Gaither Homecoming magazine, which happens to be the GVB Reunion issue. At this point, I know practically nothing about the Gaither Vocal Band or gospel music. But I’m immediately engrossed by the personal glimpses into the individual members’ lives. I am surprised to discover that Steve Green, one of my musical heroes, was a member of the group. As I read on, I come across what Wes had written about the experience of getting to meet Steve at the reunion. Even though I didn’t register Wes’s name, the story stuck with me because it was just so cool. “I gotta remember that kid,” I thought.
Fast-forward to January-ish of 2010. I’m on a Steve Green kick, and I’m really digging into his repertoire in-depth for the first time. While daisy-chaining on Youtube, I come across a video entitled “Wes Hampton sings with Steve Green.” A little bell rings, and I wonder, “Could that be the young guy I read about in that magazine? Let’s check it out.” And I did. And I was blown away. I couldn’t believe how good Wes was—to stand there toe-to-toe with Steve and more than hold his own.
That video was the starting-point for further daisy-chaining as I discovered the Gaither Vocal Band. Wes’s powerful delivery on “A Place Called Hope” from Give It Away made it one of the first gospel songs to really catch my ear. Eventually I found my way to some videos from the Reunion, and that sealed it for me. I had officially become a southern gospel fan. From there the rest is history. I discovered other great singers like Guy Penrod and Ernie Haase, to say nothing of great singers of the past, like Glen Payne. But it was Wes who opened the door.
So, it was with great pleasure that I took up the task of reviewing his first solo album for this blog. After becoming a fan of Wes, I began wanting to hear even more of him than I was hearing from his work with the vocal band. Apparently others have wanted the same. So Wes has offered up this project in reply. I think his fan-base will be more than happy with what they find. Without further ado then, let’s take a look at the album itself. First, let’s look at…
The songs: Wes said in an interview that when he began getting the demos for these songs, it was the lyrics that really struck a chord with him. And in some cases, like “Sweet Surrender,” he read just the first couple lines and instantly decided that he wanted the song, just for the message in those few words. After even one listen through the album, it’s obvious that Wes placed the lyrics front and center. I will resist the temptation to quote copiously from multiple numbers, but I will simply say that these are powerfully written songs. Virtually all of them are well-crafted, thoughtful pieces that manage to avoid common CCM cliches. The title track is particularly strong in the lyrics department, a refreshingly honest self-portrait that may cause some soul-searching on the listener’s part:
A man like me
Says one thing and does another
A man like me
Holds a grudge against his brother
A man like me
Thinks a promise can be broken
Just as easy as a glass on the floor…
But in the words of the chorus, there is “hope for everyone,” because God’s arms reach “even for a man, for a man like me.”
After a glance at the writers’ names, I wasn’t particularly surprised to see that Cindy Morgan was a contributor on one of the album’s most poignant lyrics, “Find Me.” Faithfully following the principle that good things usually happen wherever Cindy Morgan is involved in the writing process, this song is sure to leave a lump in some throats, particularly parents’. A sample:
Find me in the little things
When life is turning upside down
Find me playing in the yard
Cheering on my boys’ touchdown
Find me when I want to run
And I’m afraid to face the dark
When I’m brave enough to think that I can light the world
With just one spark…
Another lyrical gem is “Heal the Wound,” to which prominent singer/songwriter Nichole Nordeman contributed. This song recalls some of her own better moments and is a deeply thought-provoking look at grace—and remembrance. “Heal the wound,” it asks, “but leave the scar.” This is a profound truth—we need the scar to remind us of God’s redeeming love and our unworthiness. Powerful stuff:
I have not lived a life that boasts of anything
I don’t take pride in what I bring
But I’ll build an altar with
The rubble that you found me in
And every stone will sing
Of what you can redeem…
“If Sunday Had Not Come” stands out on the album because of its slightly “darker” sound. A minor-key piece, it simply asks the question, “What if Sunday had not come?” Interestingly, it leaves it at a question with no resolving answer—yet that feels right somehow. This is another piece that should provoke some thought.
Probably the album’s most powerful moment is a cover of the recent worship song “Jesus Saves.” Co-penned by David Moffitt and Travis Cottrell, it’s already been covered in southern gospel by the Lefevre Quartet. Not having heard LQ’s studio version, I cannot offer a fair comparison of these two versions. However, I can say that I absolutely love Wes’s version. I had not heard the song before hearing it on this project, and the power of the lyric absolutely knocked my socks off. The flow of the poetry is so natural, so right, and more, fresh. Worship music tends to suffer from sloppily crafted lyrics full of endlessly recycled cliches. This lyric is not only technically excellent and correct, but it is stuffed with rich doctrine. And Wes delivers it to perfection, ending on a high note worthy of David Phelps.
And of course, I could not leave a discussion of the songs without mentioning the closer, a studio cut of “It is Well” with Steve Green. I was elated when I found out they were getting into the studio to do this, because (as I talked about in my introduction) the video of their duet had started everything for me. Vocally, this arrangement appears to be pretty much identical to the live performance. The accompaniment is kept very simple and lush—a piano and a cello. But it’s absolutely perfect (then again, you can’t expect any less when Gordon Mote and John Catchings are in the same package). Although the polished studio version lacks some of the raw energy and power of the live performance, it is pure pleasure to listen to and is probably my favorite track on the entire album. Steve and Wes have a truly lovely blend, and their treatment of this classic hymn may be the best I have ever heard.
Now let’s move on to…
The sound: Stylistically, this album is much more CCM than SG. In fact, I could hear many of these tracks being played on my local CCM station. Whether or not listeners think that’s a good thing will depend on their own personal preferences. Honestly, I would say it works better in some cases than others. Sonically, some of the up-tempo tracks (e.g. “One Day,” “Hands,” “New Day,” title track) seem to run together, because they share that trademark blend of drums/electric guitars that defines the CCM sound. This means that even though the lyrics are above-par pretty much everywhere, the style in which they are couched is sometimes a distraction.
However, this is not always the case. The gorgeously lush piano strains of “Because of Love” set off the tender lyric beautifully with a rich chord progression, moving from minor to major to minor and finally ending in major. “If Sunday Had Not Come” is also piano-driven and is set to a distinctive, hauntingly lovely waltz tempo that stays with you long after the music ends. The confessional “Sweet Surrender” is particularly sparing, led by the elegantly simple sounds of an acoustic guitar. And as already noted, “It is Well” features nothing more than piano, cello, and a little percussion. “Heal the Wound” packs somewhat more punch but still relies on a largely acoustic backbone of guitar and piano, complementing rather than intruding upon the powerful lyric. “Jesus Saves” of course gets a soaringly anthemic treatment, but it takes its time to build and only really explodes at the climax.
The fact that the project’s most effective moments tend to come where “flesh-and-blood” instruments are being used indicates that Wes might do well to consider a somewhat more stripped-down approach in the future—peel back the electric guitars and leave the piano, acoustic guitar, etc. to speak for themselves. And yes, I admit that I’m an acoustic nut (see this review if you really want to plumb the depths of my acoustic nuttiness) but in my opinion, lyrics are best communicated when they are not fighting to be heard. For his faster material, I could definitely see Wes successfully working with the kind of down-to-earth, folk-rock sound displayed in the early work of an artist like Bebo Norman (his album Ten Thousand Days shows this style at its best).
And finally, a word on…
The vocals: Wes has definitely matured as a vocalist since he first began singing with the GVB, and this album shows it. In my opinion, this is some of his best vocal work so far. He shows excellent versatility, communicating a quiet ballad like “Sweet Surrender” and a sweeping epic like “Jesus Saves” with equal ease. “Jesus Saves” is particularly impressive because the first part of the song showcases a richness in Wes’s lower register that he rarely gets to display, while the climax has him soaring through the roof with a high B natural in full voice. And of course, he delivers his performance on “It is Well” to perfection, once again displaying the fullness his voice has acquired over time and experience.
However, I feel once again that the CCM style is a bit of a hindrance in some places, because not every song on here really shows what he can do vocally. The fact that he sounds most in his element when delivering something like “Because of Love” or “It is Well” indicates that this kind of pure gospel or inspo style would enable him to harness the full extent of his vocal capabilities and would just be a better fit all round. I’d love to see him go further with this style and perhaps even cover an old Imperials song or two on a future project—like “One More Song For You” or “I’d Rather Believe In You.” And some good old-fashioned southern gospel singin’ sure wouldn’t hurt either. To put it in a nutshell, Wes is a singer’s singer, but even singers’ singers need to have a classic style for their voices to reveal themselves in full splendor.
Conclusion: There’s no question that Wes is one of the finest young tenors in gospel music today (Steve Green himself told me Wes was “amazing” when I saw him in concert last May). His voice is warm, tender, vibrantly youthful, clear as a bell and just plain beautiful. Although this album could have been better, it is an impressive first effort. Wes fans will want it because it’s Wes, but everybody should find something to like here. Wes wanted the lyrics to be the main focus and definitely accomplished this goal. Hopefully he will keep this focus on future projects while simultaneously refining his musical approach so as to complement the lyrics even better. Meanwhile, this project has enough gems to be worth having on its own merits.
Acoustic Sunday, by Kevin Williams
I love acoustic music. I must confess, there is a small part of me that’s a little disappointed when I listen to something with banjo/fiddle, etc…but then also an electric [fill-in-the-blank]. It may be good music…but it’s not acoustic music.
I don’t know about anybody else, but for me, there’s something just so tremendously satisfying about the sound of unplugged instruments jamming away. It just hits the spot. There’s nothing quite like it. The only thing that could make it any cooler would be if they were jamming on a beloved hymn of the church… oh yes, and if Buddy Greene were on harmonica. With Jeff Taylor on the accordion, naturally. And if you had a fiddle and a mandolin, played by one of Nashville’s finest bluegrass musicians… maybe somebody like Aubrey Haynie.
Oh wait a minute. That is this album.
Needless to say, my mouth was practically watering by the time I downloaded Acoustic Sunday to iTunes. My musical palate was more than satisfied by the feast that awaited my listening pleasure.
So let’s dig in, shall we?
Nothing But the Blood: Like an old friend, Kevin’s guitar immediately kicks in, picking out a light, shuffling intro before launching into the melody of this classic hymn. Some delicate percussion sets a companionable middle tempo, and then the sweet sound of Buddy Greene’s harmonica is added to the mix around 40 seconds in. Kevin finishes out the chorus, then Buddy takes over the melody, improvising and dancing around it as only Buddy can. For the third verse, guitar and harmonica trade off pieces of the melody. Buddy gets the last word, letting the last chord linger and hang deliciously in the air before Greg Ritchie’s brushes bring things to a crisp close.
My Savior’s Love: Clapping guitar and percussion set the backdrop to a delightful fiddle intro for this arrangement. Kevin then plays the first verse and chorus as Aubrey’s fiddle sways gently behind him, sliding back to center stage for the second verse. Kevin makes sure he doesn’t go unnoticed however, spinning out some lovely backup licks towards the beginning of the chorus. Kevin takes the melody back on verse three, this time an octave up. For the chorus melody, he hops back down an octave while the fiddle harmonizes above him. This creates a wonderfully light, sweet effect. The chorus is then repeated with Aubrey and Kevin sharing the melody. And then we’re back where we started, with an outro as delightful as the intro.
Blessed Assurance: The tempo slows down a tad for this one. As with many of these tracks, it sounds like Kevin stacked together two or more tracks of himself on guitar to enrich the sound. It’s a lush, thick sound, sweeter for the simplicity of the melody. Somewhere around 50 seconds, the warm, expansive tones of Jeff Taylor’s pump organ are added to the mix, making it still more rich. Then, suddenly, Jeff switches to accordion to carry the melody for verse two. But then the pump organ returns to the background for the chorus as Kevin takes the melody back. The organ is the last thing we hear at the fadeout, bidding us a warm goodbye. This is one of the tracks I find myself re-visiting most often.
Pass Me Not: Unquestionably one of the most poignant tracks on the record, this arrangement is very simply done. Kevin’s gloriously rich Taylor sets the mood, with a touch of mandolin in the intro. The mandolin then returns to carry the second verse and chorus, and the interplay between the two instruments is just achingly lovely—the golden warmth of the Taylor and the sweet, minty freshness of the mandolin mingle perfectly.
Leaning On the Everlasting Arms: Now we’re really getting into serious jam territory. Kevin and Buddy go toe-to-toe on this one. (No offense Kevin, but I think maybe Buddy won…) All kidding aside, this track is just dripping with juicy, bluesy goodness. Anybody reading this who’s watched the Together video—featuring both the GVB and Signature Sound—might remember a comedy segment where Jeff Easter kept trying to play this hymn on the harmonica and Kevin kept interrupting him. Eventually, he was allowed to proceed, and the hymn was performed with the audience singing along. Well, this arrangement is like a dressed up version of that arrangement sans singing. The tempo is the same, and the basic concept is the same, with harmonica prominently featured. Buddy takes it away on the second verse—I can almost see him smiling behind those glasses as he expertly caresses that little instrument. But Kevin’s guitar has something to say too, laying down a crisp rhythm behind Buddy with one layer and doing some engaging improvisation of his own with another. On the third verse, he plays the melody with a blues tweak that’s pure joy to listen to. This whole arrangement is just a feast for the ears and one of my favorites on a project stuffed with goodies.
His Name is Wonderful: We’re back to mellowness with another guitar/mandolin duet similar to “Pass Me Not.” As with that arrangement, Kevin takes the first verse, and Aubrey takes the second. The mandolin is even more prominent in this arrangement, and I love the way it keeps drizzling through in the background even when the guitar is the main instrument. Lovely stuff.
Higher Ground: This guitar/fiddle duet has a wonderful swing to it. It’s so deliciously light and effortless—like a walk in the woods when the leaves are falling. The intro features a great sliding harmony lick which crops up later in the arrangement as well. Guitar and fiddle take turns with the melody. I’m particularly taken with the fiddle on this track—breezy, lazy, butter-smooth. This arrangement feels like an autumn day—not too warm or cold, crunching leaves underfoot, woodsmoke in the air, and a foaming glass of cold cider.
All Hail the Power of Jesus’ Name: The mandolin kicks off another mid-tempo number similar to “My Savior’s Love.” As always, Kevin starts off the song but has the arrangement switch to the other featured instrument for verse two. The mandolin just sparkles on this track. Kevin suddenly changes key for verse three, then changes key yet again for verse four—beautifully done. Terrific arrangement all round.
I’d Rather Have Jesus: Another mellow cut. Kevin plays the first verse all by himself, but when we get to the chorus, Jeff Taylor creeps in almost unnoticed on the accordion, then takes the second verse. I’m not positively sure, but it sure sounds like there’s a tiny bit of mandolin that slips in part-way through Jeff’s solo. But I don’t hear a mandolin anywhere else on the track, so it’s probably Kevin fingering out some high notes on the guitar. Kevin takes the second chorus while Jeff fleshes out the sound behind him. For a song that generally gets a pretty dramatic treatment when sung, this is a wonderfully understated, low-key arrangement.
At Calvary: Back to jam territory. I don’t have a favorite off of this record, but if I did, it would probably be this one. From the get-go, you know it’s going to be an exciting track. Percussion, fiddle, and guitar all come in together on the intro. Kevin plays the first verse simply enough, but you can hear the fiddle restless for attention in the background. Aubrey comes sliding in for his second-verse feature, done to perfection (naturally) while Kevin throws in some licks underneath. The third verse has a particularly stripped-down feel as Kevin plucks the melody instead of strumming it while the fiddle pants behind him. A fuller sound returns for the chorus. But then suddenly, Kevin’s all alone. As percussion and fiddle gradually join him in the background, he cuts loose on a deep blues rampage that’s probably his finest moment on the record. It’s a terrific moment. Then all the instruments turn around and dive back into the chorus for the finish, giving the fiddle the last word with a sweet wrap-up.
Amazing Grace: Another guitar/harmonica duet. Kevin gently picks out the tune for verse one, rushing nothing, just letting each note quietly drip from the Taylor and linger—sweet, familiar, timeless. Then good ol’ Buddy comes in on verse two, equally slow, gently bluesy. They change key for verse three, and Kevin adds some light strumming under the melody to give it just a little bit of a swing. Another key change, and Buddy takes over once again while Greg Ritchie adds a bit of percussion in the background and Kevin picks out some laid-back blues riffs. Things end as quietly as they began, Buddy’s last note melting away into the smooth batter of the guitar.
Softly and Tenderly: And the album comes to a simple close, with this hymn of invitation. Nothing but guitar and accordion. Kevin starts off with just one guitar, very lush and understated. Then for verse two, I believe he switches to two layers, one for underlying strum, one for picking out the melody. Jeff Taylor’s accordion also slips into the background on the second verse. He then plays verse three as a solo. It never ceases to amazes me how he can get an accordion to sound so beautiful. To me, it almost sounds like a harmonica on the higher notes. This is just a gorgeous arrangement, and like “Pass Me Not,” may even make you a little misty-eyed if you just sit quietly and let it sink in.
Conclusion: In what promises to be a banner year for A-list groups like Signature Sound and the Booth Brothers, Kevin has put together what I would venture to say may be one of the best albums of 2010. A sweeping statement, but, in my opinion, a fair one. In the course of writing this review, I’ve listened to every track at least three times, some as many as eight, ten and eleven. And it still hasn’t gotten old. Not only did Kevin do all the guitar work on each song, he also put together all the arrangements. Each one brings out the best in the musicians he chose to work with, and they sound like they could just as well be playing on their back porch as in the studio. Kevin said they wanted to capture that “intimate feel of having 3 or 4 musicians just sitting around drinking coffee and playing music,” and while the project obviously wasn’t literally recorded live, they more than succeeded in capturing that tight-knit, spontaneous sound. It’s at once refreshingly simple, yet subtly rich. It is, in a word, beautiful.
Now all Kevin has to do is record another project just like this one with all the same musicians, but this time bring in Gordon Mote on the piano and Ron Block on the banjo…maybe throw in a little dobro too! How ’bout it, Kevin?
Declaration, by the Booth Brothers
I loaded up my iTunes library with this album expecting great things after reading the exceptionally thorough mega-review of it that went up here and on multiple SG blogs some weeks ago. I’m pleased to report that I was not disappointed. I had recently begun to discover the Booth Brothers’ music but had only heard a small handful of songs by them. At this point, the general consensus appears to be that this is the album to have for new and old fans alike. As a new fan, I concur. What little I’ve heard of their music aside from this album is easily surpassed here. I predict that it will become a landmark project, not just for the Booth Brothers, but for gospel music as a whole.
Now…on to the breakdowns!
A Higher Throne: I thought it was a classy move for the guys to begin the album with something by Keith and Kristyn Getty, who’ve been making a splash recently as pioneers of the new hymns movement in the Church. While the Gettys have produced stronger efforts, this is still a good song. As Daniel pointed out, Lari Goss has definitely taken this version several notches up from the original by re-vamping it for a full orchestra. The melody isn’t as exciting as it could be, but the lush majesty of the orchestra helps to make up for that in this version. The key changes are expertly handled and lend some welcome musical variety to the piece. The climax makes you feel like you’re almost ascending to the throne room—terrific harmonies. This cut lets you know right off the bat that this isn’t going to be your average SG album.
God Did It All: The piano almost caught my ear more than the big orchestra on this track. It’s a key instrument in this arrangement, laying down some beautifully rich minor chords at the beginning. As for the song itself, I like it, though I feel like it takes a little long to really get going. This is largely a musical issue, but it’s also partly because the second verse seems lyrically stronger than the first. But it’s a wonderful lyric overall with a powerful chorus. My favorite bit of lyric comes from the second verse: “God sent his own Son here/Redemption was won here/By blood streaming down from a cross.” As for the encore, I think it makes the song longer than it needs to be. The key change is great, but I feel like it should have been woven into the song direct instead of being tacked on at the end like that. This would kill two birds with one stone by at once shortening the song and making it more musically interesting. At this point though, I definitely agree with Daniel that they should cut the encore if they release it to radio (though it wouldn’t be my first pick for a radio release anyway).
I See Grace: This is where the album really begins to pick up the pace. A chiming electric guitar (which continues to provide a rhythmic backbone throughout the song) leads into a vibrant mid-tempo number. It’s mainly carried by the strings in pulsating, 6/8 time. There’s a real freshness about this one from beginning to end. Exciting music, powerful words. The second verse is particularly well-written, and as others have noted, the song’s defining lyric is the last two lines of said verse: “Those who have come through unbearable loss/Not defined by the past, but defined by the cross.” Jim Brady co-wrote the song and carries the lead for it as well. I’m very impressed with his vocals on this cut in particular and just with his voice in general. He’s a real anchor for the group, easily their most powerful singer. Memo to Michael: If Jim asks you for a raise, give it to him. For that matter, give him anything he wants that will keep him happy and in the group. He may not be a bro, but he’s a keeper.
The Gospel Song/Before the Cross: This is one of only a few tracks where I have literally turned right around and hit repeat after listening through it once. A blend of two songs, it is an absolutely stunning cut, easily my pick of the album. The acapella harmonies on the first song are truly breathtaking and very tricky to pull off in places—some of the chords are so counter-intuitive that it must have taken a lot of practice to get them just right. And the song is incredible, but then again, that goes for practically everything with Bob Kauflin’s name on it. Interesting that it’s called “The Gospel Song”— probably a deliberate bit of humor since this song is about as un-gospel as it gets. And yet it is a “gospel song” in the sense that it presents the gospel. I love the way the last line, “By His death I live again,” is held out in a prolonged suspension…and then resolved. It’s the perfect musical complement to a lyric about life after death. It’s like stepping out into the warm sunshine after the rain, or waking up in the morning to hear your dad whistling after a bad dream.
Some gentle instrumentation kicks in right at the end of “The Gospel Song” for a seamless segue into “Before the Cross,” a product of Sovereign Grace Ministries. I’d heard some other stuff from Sovereign Grace and was underwhelmed, but “Before the Cross” is truly lovely. Michael said they were looking for a good song about the wrath of God, and they certainly found one here (although as we’ve discussed elsewhere on this blog, he had to venture outside of SG to find it). This song is just stuffed with great doctrine. While it recognizes God’s wrath, it points the way to Jesus as our high priest, our intercessor who pleads for us. And the melody flows along beautifully—I believe it was none other than Bob Kauflin who said that the trademark of a good melody is that you can remember it and you want to remember it. I believe this one qualifies on both counts. And it’s all wrapped up with Lari Goss’s special production touch. The first verse and chorus is quietly done, with a woodwind instrument (pennywhistle?) adding some Celtic flavor. There’s a beautifully low-key guitar solo between verses, but I love how the orchestra suddenly swells at the end of it to take the song to a new level of power. The guys trade off individual lines, but Michael is the main vocalist featured on this cut, and he does a great job with it. He’s not the most powerful tenor ever, but this song plays to his strengths. There is a clarity and a purity to his voice that really shines through here, especially on the high falsetto ending…really, the only good word there is “wow.” Vocally, the brothers’ work on this one reminds me of the old Phillips, Craig & Dean. Similar harmonies, similar sound.
All Over the World: This is the first of two back-to-back Steve Green covers on this album. I generally don’t go for stuff with a “world music” flavor, so I’ve never really been able to get into this one. But the lyrics are thoughtfully done, and some of the Spanish guitar work is exceptionally dexterous. However, I feel like the melody is too random—it jumps all over the place without much of a clear direction. I’d probably peg this as the weakest track on the album. But it’s more sophisticated than your average up-tempo SG song, so it was probably chosen on purpose for that very reason.
We Believe: Ponderously slow, but then it was ponderously slow when Steve did it too. I’ve always liked this song, but at the same time, I’ve always thought it took kind of long to unfold. However, this version has grown on me with repeated listens, and even while none of these guys is the vocalist that Steve is, each has a beautiful voice in his own right, and this track really showcases that. I like the way they have each vocalist individually sing “I believe,” then change to “We believe” when they all come together.
As slow as it is, this is a powerful song. Once it gets going, it packs a punch, and the brothers do a great job building up the excitement. I thought it was interesting that they added some extra lyrics at the end—sort of a re-cap of all the verses. I think the song is long enough as it is that they could have left that off, but it’s a nice idea.
Really the only flaw in this arrangement is the electric guitar that keeps cropping up towards the end of the song. Don’t ask me what it’s doing there, but it’s the piece that doesn’t belong. Interestingly, I didn’t have the same feeling with “I See Grace.” Perhaps that’s because the guitar was used more sparingly there—it filled in the holes instead of interrupting the orchestra.
I Still Believe In the Church: Cool jazz for a hot day. The intro to this song makes me think of popping open a soda can in 90 degree weather. This one had to grow on me, but now it’s one of my favorite tracks on the album. Love those jazz harmonies! I counted a total of three key changes throughout the song—all handled with incredible smoothness and dexterity. And the lyrics are terrific—a very honest, down-to-earth look at the Church. Basically, yeah, she’s a mess, but God still wants her and loves her. And as hopeless as it seems at times, she’s still doing good work. This lyric sums it all up: “Well she’s been through the flood/And she’s been through the fire/Not always what she should/But she’s still his desire.”
Now excuse me while I go grab a lawn chair and take this one outside with me (along with that soda can and my coolest pair of sunglasses). I’m lovin’ it.
Then I Met the Master: This song appears to have been done to death. But I’m a New SoGo Fan, remember, so this was actually the first recorded version of this song that I had ever heard. To put it technically…wow. Ronnie’s tone is so rich and fits this song like a glove. And the arrangement is just epic—it really takes you on a journey, from the minimalist acapella opening to full, climactic orchestral splendor. Hearing this arrangement unfold is like watching the sun rise—first, a thin yellow sliver pushing its way up into the cool morning. Then the light grows gradually brighter and richer as more of the sun reveals itself…until finally it’s just hanging there, warm, golden, and radiant. That’s what this arrangement sounds like, and I can’t describe it any better than that.
This is the Day/I’m Gonna Keep On Singing: I found the intro to this one a bit jarring after the last song—vigorous drums and guitar announce another up-tempo number. But it’s very enjoyable and easy to get into. Obviously it’s not on a level with the true gems of this album, but it’s a fun detour nonetheless. Only thing is, it’s ungrammatical in one place… “I will lift up mine eyes to which cometh my help.” I thought at first that it had to be “to whence cometh my help,” though I’m not sure if that’s even quite right, but their own site lyrics have it written as “which.” Oops.
Absolute Peace: Nice music, sweetly sung, though I prefer the Collingsworths’ “Fear Not Tomorrow” along similar lines. Lyrically, that song is definitely stronger. But this is a soothing listen. Musically speaking, it’s very similar to Signature Sound’s “Reason Enough.” The melody even begins the exact same way.
In Christ Alone (medley): Even though the concept of putting the two “In Christ Alones” (the Getty song and the Michael English hit) together is nothing new, I like the fact that the brothers take several steps away from the Phillips, Craig & Dean arrangement and make it their own. They sing the first three verses of the popular worship song, then conclude with the chorus of the CCM hit.
Goss’s production here is exceptional. I love it that he doesn’t immediately go into the same riff everybody else uses as an intro for the worship song. It’s a unique arrangement, perhaps my favorite version ever of this song (though Steve Green’s is right up there too). I was actually getting a little misty-eyed the other night just listening to the beginning of this cut again—the sheer beauty of what Goss has done with it can’t quite be captured in words. Just one small detail that caught my attention: At the intro, a woodwind instrument (clarinet?) plays a small scrap of the melody from the CCM “In Christ Alone” right before they start singing the Getty one. Then at the very end when they’ve just finished the chorus of the CCM one, that same instrument plays a bit of melody from the Getty one. See, it’s little details like that…they show a true master’s touch.
Vocally, everybody nails it. Ronnie Booth gets the main feature and does a terrific job with the first verse of the Getty song. But Michael really steals the show with a high power note at the climax in the second “In Christ Alone.” That part of the song just screams for somebody to nail it, and Michael knocks it out of the park.
I thought it was interesting that they never got around to the “No guilt in life, no fear in death” verse. I like that verse a lot, but I think they made the right choice to leave it off. The track would have felt too long otherwise. This is the perfect way to close the album, and I don’t see how they could make it any better.
And I won a pre-release copy in the contest, so I can’t offer a full analysis of the bonus track, which is the Booths’ arrangement of “Statement of Faith.” I have heard the song though, and my impression of it is that it would neither add to nor take away from this album.
Radio Picks: I See Grace (these aren’t in any particular order except that this should go to radio first, ASAP), I Still Believe in the Church, Before the Cross, In Christ Alone
Conclusion: This album was a very ambitious experiment because it was such a departure from this group’s usual sound. The fact that it was such a departure makes it all the more impressive that they succeeded. Sure, it’s a little cumbersome in places, and sure, you can tell that they don’t generally sing this style of music, but it’s a noble effort. Really, the very fact that I could write an entire review of my own while largely avoiding overlap with an eight-page mega-review indicates the quality of what we’re dealing with here. It’s a multi-faceted tapestry of music that only grows richer with repeated listens. Incidentally, I’ll be interested to see whether they continue to pursue this sound on future projects or go back to something more comfortable, but less innovative.
Now, regarding the complaint that it’s too ballad-heavy: I think I agree with Brandon that it’s almost impossible to listen to this whole album in one sitting. It’s like trying to force yourself to eat five pieces of pecan pie all at once—rich, good, but almost too rich. Too much to try to stuff down in a hurry. The general consensus seems to be that the brothers should have evened out the mix better with a couple more up-tempo songs. Myself, I’m not sure that more up-tempo stuff would necessarily have improved things. The big ballads are all wonderful and belong here for a reason (and some of the lighter pieces they did include were less good than the “biggies” anyway).
I’ll say this much though—it might have helped if they had made some of them less “big” by simply shortening them. This is most true of “God Did It All,” but they could have done the same thing with other songs like “A Higher Throne” and “Then I Met the Master” by either (a) doing the key change(s) sooner, or (b) just not doing as many (or in the case of “We Believe,” stopping the song where it stopped before instead of adding extra lyrics). This would shave off at least a minute and possibly more from each song, thereby easing that feeling of being overwhelmed on the part of the listener. And in some cases, like “Before the Cross,” they hit the balance just right—not too short, not too long. I’d say they might even want to use that song as a model for themselves on future big ballads. So that’s my two cents on the song selection from a listening perspective.
Now, from a song-writing perspective, I thought the song selection was brilliant. Not only did Michael go outside of SG for a lot of these songs, but he went to some of the finest songwriters in the Church today—writers like Keith Getty and Bob Kauflin. And when he went to cover CCM, he didn’t just go with any kind of CCM, he picked one of the most consistently excellent artists in its history—Steve Green. Not to mention that the CCM “In Christ Alone” is notably above-par for its field. Yet at the same time, they’re far from abandoning their SG roots, whether they’re breathing new life into an old classic (“Then I Met the Master”) or introducing fresh material from the likes of Dianne Wilkinson or for that matter their own Jim Brady. (As a side note, I find it interesting that Jim was working with Tony Wood on “I See Grace,” because I’ve lost count of the number of great CCM songs with Tony’s name on them.) All of which is to say that I can tell Michael was committed to finding and choosing only the best for this project. What he has accomplished is a challenge to fellow SG artists to think outside the box. I trust and hope that others will soon follow his example.
The vocals: Honestly, if you had told me before I listened to this album that the Booth Brothers were cutting a record made up almost entirely of dramatic, heavily orchestrated ballads, I would have had my doubts as to whether their voices were up to it. They had struck me as smooth, rich, easy on the ears, but not the power ballad types. More country than inspo. This album was a pleasant surprise for me. Each guy steps up to the plate very impressively here. As I said, it’s not their usual style, and I still feel like they’re a little overwhelmed by the orchestra at times, but overall they more than hold their own. “The Gospel Song” in particular really shows what they’re capable of—more of the same, guys, please? Like, maybe, an entire acapella album perhaps…?
I’m not one to throw away a compliment. This is fast becoming one of my favorite albums, not just in SG but in any genre. If you don’t have it yet…go get it! Go get it even if you’re not a fan of southern gospel. Shucks, just get it if you like good music. Guaranteed satisfaction, or Scott Fowler will give you your money back. Right, Scott?
Influenced II, by Ernie Haase & Signature Sound
(3. 5 stars)
The first thing I noticed when I got home and opened my copy of Influenced: Spirituals and Southern Classics was the design of the CD. They’d literally designed it to look like an old-fashioned record—handsome black grooves and all. It put a smile on my face—just a nice, classy touch. The liner notes are nicely put together as well. There’s a classy new group shot on the back cover with a note from Wayne Haun, then musician and songwriter info on the inside. Lyrics would have been a nice addition, but musician info was certainly a must for this sort of project, so I’m glad they included it. It’s just a cool thing to know exactly who had those sweet banjo licks or that killer fiddle solo, even if I don’t know the name from Adam.
Now without further ado…on to the songs!
- The Bible Told Me So (featuring Devin): This is a cute, up-tempo way to get the project going. They always open their concerts with this song, so anybody reading this who’s seen the group recently knows that it’s an Ecclesiastes paraphrase: “There’s a time to laugh and a time to cry/A time to live and there’s a time to die, etc.” Nothing heavy, but it does its job as a nice intro to the record and to Devin’s voice. Tight, polished harmonies as usual.
- Who’ll Be a Witness? (featuring Tim): I love how this begins with just a creeping bass and finger-snapping. I do think the whispered “witneeeeess” is a bit distracting. But I like the sudden switch from the initial lean rhythm backbone and unison singing to full instrumentation and harmony. This song isn’t my favorite spiritual—it doesn’t have much of a tune and drags somewhat. But the guys do a good job with it. You can tell they’re having a lot of fun, and for me as a listener, that enhances my own enjoyment of it. Tracey Phillips’s piano work is impeccable and easily steals the show.
- If God Didn’t Care (featuring Devin): I just really like how this one flows. It’s a slow, swaying piece with a bit of a Cathedrals sound. I like the precision of the vocals. Devin delivers a very smooth, rich performance. All the guys sound great on this track as a matter of fact. Ernie handles some very high harmony with his usual ease and confidence, Timmy provides some great “basement work,” and Doug and Devin flesh out the sound beautifully.
- That’s How Rhythm Was Born (featuring Ernie): This was the probably the most unusual cover choice for the record. For a change, the guys picked something originally done by a female group—the Boswell Sisters. But astonishingly, they make it sound like it was written for them. Just one more piece of evidence that these guys can literally pick anything they like and make it their own. Appropriately, the production on this song has a very strong 40′s feel. The classic, tight-knit band sound and the various instrumental improvisations make me feel like I’m sitting in on the Boswell Sisters’ own recording session. But that’s the idea, of course. The highlight of the song is when Glen Duncan cuts loose on the fiddle during the musical bridge. I was immediately reminded of Joe Venuti, a popular studio violinist in the era this song was pulled from. What with one thing and another, this song literally inspired me to go pull out my collection of Bing Crosby & Andrews Sisters duets—it sounds that authentic. Of course, the lyric makes reference to banjos, so the production wouldn’t be complete without some dexterous pickin’ in the mix—listen closely at the end for some sweet descending licks. Interestingly, I feel like this song actually loses some of its flavor done live, mainly because they’re working with a limited live band, so the more colorful bits of production (banjo, fiddle) get lost in the process.
- It’s Good to See the Sun (featuring Ernie): Nothing ground-breaking here, just a nice, slow, mellow piece about enjoying the sunshine of life while you have it. Although it’s arranged to sound like an old song, the lyrics suggest that it’s something newer. It is in fact co-penned by Haase, Haun, and Lindsey. Once again, Tracey Phillips provides the glue that holds the band together, expertly setting the mood with some delicious chords at the intro and closing with a lovely, tumbling waterfall of notes. Recommended listening on a lazy summer’s day.
- Walk Over God’s Heaven (featuring Doug): I guessed from the samples that this was going to be a favorite before I ever heard it. I was right. The main instrument is (I believe) an electric guitar, and man, it just takes it away. I love how it never plays the same lick twice—it’s tweaked a little each time to keep things interesting. And then I love when the upright bass takes over at the end—too sweet! And the b-3 organ spices things up beautifully throughout. Doug is obviously having a ball (as are all the guys) and does a great job. So I think I’ve got this straight now…we’re gonna walk in the shoes, shout in the robe, and dance in the crown. Sounds good. Let’s crank up the volume and hit the road! If this ain’t driving music, I don’t know what is. Roll down the windows? Sure, who’s gonna stop me? I mean the guy next to me is blaring his heavy metal or whatever at 200 decibels, why not blare some good gospel back at him?
- My Brother’s Keeper (featuring Devin): Another smooth ballad. I like the acapella “ooooos” to kick it off—bit schmaltzy, but what the heck, I’m a sucker for schmaltz. Lyrically, it’s your typical “my brother is every man” lyric, but I like how it turns around at the end: “Today I’m my brother’s keeper/But tomorrow he may be mine.” Makes you think a little bit. Oh yes, and I’d say this is definitely Devin’s strongest feature on the project. He’s comfortably within his range and sounds very natural and confident, with a nice, full-bodied tone.
- Old-Fashioned Love (featuring Ernie): Well, even good projects deserve a little filler…honestly, this is the only track I didn’t import into my iTunes library when I got the CD. This features the famous kazoo solo, which has become the centerpiece of a comedy routine so popular that it’s literally spawned a new product in the EHSS store—plastic kazoos! But let’s be honest…while the routine is very funny done live, the song itself is rather forgettable. And the kazoo…well let’s just say it doesn’t help. Again, makes a good comedy routine, but once you remove the live element, the end product leaves something to be desired.
- Let It Go (featuring Tim): I just love songs I can relate to with my own personal life experiences. I love songs that meet me where I am. Case in point, this irresistible little number reminding us to let go of our grudges before we blow our tops. I fondly recall an incident from my early driving years…like a good citizen, I was making a right turn into the nearest available lane. I couldn’t possibly be in anybody’s way—or so I thought. That thought went right out the window when some idiot turned left into the exact same lane, forcing me to practice my defensive driving skills (read: slam the brakes) to avoid an unfortunate scene for all concerned. So you can imagine how moved I was when the following lyric from this song caught my ear: “Somebody at the traffic light/Was turning left as you turned right/They cut you off and drove from sight/So where’s that golden rule?” I couldn’t believe it—God surely must have inspired the writer to write this just for me. It just spoke to my heart. I’m getting a little teary-eyed just thinking about it. Excuse me while I go grab a tissue or two… Okay, just kidding. But let’s just say it struck a little close to home!
- It’s My Desire (featuring Devin): This is the “listen to our new lead” number that Ernie’s taken to having Devin sing at each concert. I like the song—though it does come off as a slightly inferior version of “I’d Rather Have Jesus.” But Devin does a nice job with it. Interestingly, they leave off the key change after the first verse when they do this one live. Listening to the studio cut, I can see why—Devin does sound a little strained after the key change. But he finishes strong, and the backup harmonies are just right—they accentuate and complement Devin’s work without being overpowering.
- His Name is Wonderful: I pronounce this the gem of the project. It’s completely acapella, which accentuates the harmonic interplay of the vocals. It starts in B flat, which happens to be the same key in which the group has taken to doing “Wonderful Grace of Jesus.” They throw in an unexpected chord shift at the end of the first “almighty God is he”—they hold out a four-three suspension, but instead of immediately resolving to the one, everybody else holds his place while the baritone steps down from a B flat to an A flat for a momentary key change to D flat. Only then do they collapse back to the one for the rest of the chorus. I’m not sure if I’m entirely on board with it yet, but it’s a neat twist. There’s some great moving harmony second time through the chorus, and this time they all change key to D flat together and stay there for the rest of the song. The ending is just gorgeous—wonderfully lush, intricate chords. I can’t say enough good things about this arrangement. I hope they do more acapella work of this caliber on future projects. As of yet, they’ve only begun to dip their toes into it, but here’s hoping they continue to explore this sound. Frankly, I’d like to see them do an entire record acapella one of these days—perhaps an all-hymns project reminiscent of the Cathedrals’ Worship His Glory.
Conclusion: Comparing this project to something like Get Away Jordan or Dream On is like comparing soft chalk to bright marker. As with Influenced I, the guys obviously worked hard to create a deliberately vintage sound. Though the production is crisp and full, there’s a down-to-earth, spontaneous feel to the instrumentation (and the vocals for that matter). It’s precise without being glossy. It doesn’t feel “slick” or “packaged.” I haven’t yet figured out whether they recorded their vocals on only two microphones like they did for Influenced I. Cover art aside, I suspect they may not have, but even if they didn’t, they did an excellent job capturing that same style they were aiming for with I1. However, I think this project is a little tighter since they dropped the whole radio show concept from the first volume (which was cute, but disrupted the flow of the songs somewhat). Plus, if you don’t count the intro, outro, and “poetry corner” track from I1, you’re getting one more song for your money—11 versus 10. So for those reasons, I might give this sequel the edge over the first project, but I’d have to listen to more songs from the first one to be sure.
Ultimately, if you’re looking for big ballads with powerful, deeply moving lyrics, you won’t find them here. This is a pretty light, easy-listening album. But that’s exactly what it was intended to be. It’s not a landmark project, but it’s a solid, enjoyable collection of songs that not only serves as Devin’s major debut, but also showcases the group’s maturing sound. This album is further proof that all “boy band” comparisons are yesterday’s news. It’s the work of a seasoned quartet who’s discovering that sometimes less is more. Until their next big project (which is of course the Cathedrals tribute CD/DVD combo), fans of the group will find plenty to keep them satisfied here in the meanwhile.