Christmas Favorites #4: The Season of Love, by 4Him

I know the twelve days of Christmas officially are about to end, but I’ll try to get up to five before the week is out so I can’t say this year’s installment of the series was a total flop.

We’re moving right along with the one and only Christmas album by one of my favorite groups: 4Him. I didn’t enjoy everything 4Him put out, and I only really enjoyed about half the group’s voices individually, but dang, they had a great sound all together, and they did have some terrific songs. I want to thank my friend Wes Burke for putting me on to this Christmas project. “I’m telling you, their Christmas album is pure gold,” he whispered in my ear. (Well, not exactly… it was in an e-mail, but you get the idea.)

The Star On Top: Without question, the star on top has to be “Strange Way to Save the World.” Yes, the lyrics are somewhat confused because they don’t convey Joseph’s Jewish perspective on the Nativity very accurately (see this post for further details), but the music is so beautifully written and the song so touchingly delivered that it’s rightfully considered a Christmas classic. It’s definitely my favorite Mark Harris feature. It has been covered by many artists, including several within southern gospel.

Golden Rings:

“Little Drummer Boy”I’ve already put a rendition of this carol into the “golden rings” section for another album (Buddy Greene’s). I really think it’s hard to go wrong with it. Andy Chrisman takes the lead on a crisp, clean rendition. It starts off with percussion only but swiftly segues into some classic synthesized 80s grooviness, a sound that delightfully pervades the entire album (being that the 90s hadn’t had enough time to recover from the 80s when it was released). Signature 4Him.

“White Christmas” — This is a fresh twist on the familiar carol. Mark Harris starts off crooning at a jazzy pace, but after the first verse, Andy takes over and the harmonies just explode in a doo-wop kind of style that takes things to a whole new level. Watch a live performance here (filmed some years later when they had better haircuts). [Edit: The link is broken and has been removed.]

“A Night to Remember” — Just a great 80s sound on this one, saxophone and all. Mark Harris takes the lead on it. Like all the 4Him guys, he was really in his vocal prime right around this time period. There’s just a little extra tone in his voice that he doesn’t quite have anymore. This original tune is a blast to listen to, and it moves surprisingly into a little “O Holy Night” part-way through (the lead shifting momentarily to Chrisman). I never thought “O Holy Night” could sound good with a jazzy saxophone, but the little snippet of it that they worked in amazingly does here.

“Do You Hear What I Hear?” I’ve always thought this carol was a little boring. Plus, it doesn’t really make sense. But the 4Him guys absolutely light it up. Seriously, this arrangement takes off like Marty McFly on his skateboard and doesn’t let up. It builds up to an almost black gospel breakdown. The backup harmonies are fantastic, and Marty Magehee really does a great job taking the lead. Even though he’s the member whose voice fits least comfortably in my ear, he always had a lot of natural talent, and he was surprisingly able with this sort of number.

“God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen” — Much like “White Christmas,” this is a doo-wop twist on an old favorite. It starts out with traditional acapella, but the melody is quickly syncopated, to pretty funky but cool effect. It may not be my favorite version of this carol, but it’s different and, like most of the album, fun to listen to.

Stocking Stuffer:

“In Your Care” — Andy Chrisman could sometimes be a little rough on his voice, but on this album he showed how good he was at singing ultra-sweet and ultra-clear. This song is a prime example of that. It’s sort of been lost in the shadow of “Strange Way to Save the World,” but I would argue it’s very nearly just as good. It’s beautifully written from the perspective of Jesus:

Sleep, Mary, sleep. I will be there soon
Entering earth through your precious womb
My child, oh my mother of earth
Give me the gift of birth…

The second verse is spoken to Israel, praying they will know He is their King (of course they wouldn’t). The recurring theme is that Jesus was entrusted to ordinary, earthly people who made the choice to either embrace him or crucify him. The idea comes full circle at the end when Jesus turns it around and tells Mary “You’ll be in my care.” She was both child and mother, both protector and protected. I think the one misstep in this song is the repeated use of the phrase “Please be aware.” Awkward. But other than that, very nice.

Stale cookies: A jazzy carol mash-up including “O Little Town of Bethlehem,” “It Came Upon a Midnight Clear,” “Away in the Manger” and “Silent Night” simply fails to inspire in any way. And the opening title track would be virtually intolerable were it not for the smart harmonies which kick in around the bridge to rescue it from being…

The Coal in the Bottom: “Hold On to Christmas.” Think “The Christmas Song,” except even sappier.

This project was released right around the same time as albums like Face the Nation and The Basics of Life. If you’re like me and that’s your favorite era of 4Him, you will greatly enjoy the sound of this CD. It embodies everything awesome and cheesy about that barely-out-of-the-80s-90s-sound that we all love, even if we don’t always want to admit it.


Borrowing: “Holy of Holies” by Truth

Andy Chrisman

Anybody remember the group Truth? I see that hand! Well, Truth came before I was born and (eventually) went before I knew they existed, but now the wonder of digital media allows me to enjoy their music (well, some of it anyway… 😉 ). Recently I dug up a classic 80s oldie from them featuring none other than James Andrew (“Andy”) Chrisman of 4Him (who made up the male half of Truth’s roster for an exhausting three years before they spun off and took off on their own). When I was a little tyke, my ears would always perk up when a 4Him song featuring Andy came on the radio. His clear voice is so distinctive I could recognize it immediately. I remember getting particularly excited whenever my local station would play “Where There is Faith,” both because it’s a great tune and because Andy just sounds flat-out good on it. It was one of my favorite songs before I was even old enough to understand how good it was.

Later I listened to more of 4Him’s stuff and got familiar with the other guys too (especially Mark), but Andy has always remained my favorite. I guess I’m just a sucker for clean-cut dudes with pure tenor voices (see also Wes Hampton, Steve Green, et. alia). At his very best, I have difficulty imagining a purer one than Andy’s. What’s unfortunate is that he didn’t always take care of it that well. One moment it would be sweet and angelic, like liquid gold, but the next moment he’d be deliberately roughening it up, sometimes practically tearing his throat out. So even though he’s a great tenor, one of Christian pop’s all-time finest, I wouldn’t rank him as highly as some of my other favorites because he suppressed the full beauty of his gift. (I was discussing this with Wes Burke recently and discovered he feels exactly the same way.)

However, “Holy of Holies” is definitely one of his absolute best vocals, recorded when he was in his early 20s. I didn’t embed his live performance with Truth because he plays up the rock angle and growls waaaaaay too much. His studio vocal may not have as much “oomph,” but it’s MUCH cleaner and is the version I’ve chosen to embed here. (By the way, I can’t seem to find out the name or release date of the project this originally came from, so if somebody out there knows, please leave a comment. I know it had to have been between 1987 and 1990, but I don’t have anything more specific. Update: Ha! I found a recent tweet from Andy Chrisman where he mentioned the date, and it was 1988. My, my, only 22…)

The production obviously wears its age on its sleeve, but it’s a classic song and seems tailor-made for a southern gospel translation to me. At one point, I was leaning towards a Brian Free & Assurance interpretation. It seems to fit their style, and Andy is Brian’s favorite singer anyway, so that would make it doubly fitting (though Brian is virtually incapable of growling, which is just fine and means good things for the longevity of his voice). But at the moment I’m thinking I’d really like to see what Wes Hampton could do with it. Some of Andy’s high notes here actually remind me of Wes. Only thing is, it might not quite mesh with the GVB’s current sound. But supposing he were to record another solo album? ‘Twould be a highlight, yes?

Reverse crossover: A Man You Would Write About

I’m kicking off a new series with this post: the reverse crossover. It’s the same basic idea as Daniel’s “translation” series. Take a song that’s not in SG, and imagine how it could work if a southern gospel group gave it a go. Today’s candidate is “A Man You Would Write About.”

4Him has already had a cover or two in southern gospel. I recently mentioned “Basics of Life,” and their Christmas song “Strange Way to Save the World” has been done by a couple groups, including N’Harmony (great rendition, by the way—watch here). Fascinatingly enough, there was even one song they had thought about cutting, but Brian Free & Assurance got to it first (that would be the excellent “Man of Sorrows”). [Update: Brandon has pointed out that the song was actually done first by Joel Lindsey’s group David’s Heart. However, it had been under consideration for 4Him before they disbanded, at which point Brian picked it up.]

All of which is to say that SG fans might recognize the name “4Him” even though they are a CCM group. Their songs lend themselves to strong harmony singing, which is why they’ve worked so well in a gospel context.

However, I personally have not found all that many of their songs that are really solid all the way through from a lyrical perspective. Some of them have pieces that are great, but other parts that are just cheesy and fall flat.

But this song is a notable exception. It’s very simple, but the lyrics are great all the way. It also features some awesome singing from Andy Chrisman, who was always my favorite in the group (despite his brief flirtation with a horribly long and floppy haircut):

I’ve thought for a while that somebody in SG should do this one. My first thought was Brian Free & Assurance, since they’ve been compared to 4Him.

But recently, another possibility has come to mind, and that’s the young up-and-coming group Beyond the Ashes. They’ve already been noted for their “progressive” style, and they actually sound rather like 4Him—more so even than BFA, I would say. The blurb for their new album even jokingly called them “3Him.”  They have a potent blend, exceptionally powerful for a trio. They are somewhat breathy—a bit of an acquired taste, and I think they could probably tone down the “soul” on some of their stuff, but I believe they could deliver this song with the punch it needs. Anthony Facello could take the lead and do a great job with it.

They have already covered a Point of Grace song with “Yes, I Believe.” If they can cover a girls’ group, 4Him shouldn’t be too much of a stretch. 😛

But what do you think?