Half CD Review: In Good Hands by Declaration (EP)

This will be a short CD review for a short CD. Tonight I saw the Booth Brothers in concert and found out that there’s a young trio named Declaration who’s been traveling with them and opening for them for quite some time now. I’d never even heard of them before, but I was very glad to make their acquaintance. Michael Booth has co-produced two of their latest projects, and they were selling half of one of them for only five bucks. Apparently five out of the ten songs aren’t finished yet, so they’re releasing the other five in a limited EP. So I picked it up.

Personnel include Joshua Horrell on tenor, Kasey Kemp on lead, and Jake Sammons on baritone. The five songs featured on this EP are “Come to the Water,” “I Call it Home,” “In Good Hands,” “I’m Too Near Home,” and “Try a Little Kindness.” Three Two of them are new. (Obviously “I’m Too Near Home” and “Try A Little Kindness” are covers, and I just found out “I Call it Home” is also an oldie.) At the concert, they said Mosie Lister gave them the song “Come to the Water.” I’m not sure who penned the title track, but it may have been Jake Sammons, who writes some of the group’s material.

The main thing that I think is going to jump out at people about Declaration is their striking resemblance to the Booth Brothers. I’ve heard trios with various good blends, but this group’s blend is the most similar to them that I’ve ever heard. It’s not exactly the same, and their individual voices have their own quality, but all together, you could flip some of these songs on for a few seconds and literally not realize it wasn’t the Booth Brothers if you weren’t paying attention. A few more seconds would make it clear it was somebody different, but they’re obviously aiming for that same sound and style: smooth, warm, and easy to listen to.

I said that the similarities lay mainly in the overall blend, but there are individual similarities as well. Jake Sammons (at least I think it’s Jake), turns in a vocal strongly reminiscent of Ronnie Booth on the warm, tender highlight “I Call it Home.” That song is easily my favorite from what I’ve heard so far. I don’t think anyone else has recorded it, but it’s got that “been around forever” feel to it. [EDIT: Well, thanks a lot southerngospelhistory. I always check that website to see if a song is old or new, but I guess it’s incomplete. Brian has just informed me that this is an old Squire Parsons song.] The tenor also has a “Michael-esque” smoothness when harmonizing. Actually though, he really reminds me of Soul’d Out Quartet’s piano player Michael Howard (who as we know can also sing).

I’ll be saying a little more about the group when I review the concert. For now, let me recommend that you check them out. I’ll see if I can provide thoughts on the rest of this album when it comes out in full. They’re definitely off to a good start, and at this point they just need more time, more experience, and more new songs. If Michael continues to work with them, I think we can expect good things.


Courageous: My First Impressions Review

These are my thoughts on the movie Courageous, which I just watched in the theater. I’m writing them down quickly before I forget. There’s no way I could say everything I’d like to say about this film, but I’d like to hit on a few things if possible. Bottom line is, this was an excellent movie, and I’d encourage all Christian families to go watch it. It’s a movie Christians can be proud of on all levels.

Now for a short breakdown.

The story: The story really had five main characters, so it was a lot for the filmmakers to juggle. They did it skillfully and movingly. I cared about all the characters and was genuinely interested in their stories. Each character was different, and their stories were interwoven well. There were some things in the story that I saw coming, but other things I was definitely not expecting. Suffice it to say that while the movie ends on a very encouraging note, it’s not a perfectly happy ending for everybody. This movie tackles themes like irreversible tragedy and corruption head-on in a way that none of their previous films have. For example, in Facing the Giants, the main characters face infertility, but at the end they’re blessed with a child. In this film, a character loses a child, and even though he heals and becomes stronger, there’s no heavenly intervention to bring her back. Things like this give the film depth and a sense of realism.

The writing: The writing was signature Kendrick brothers, yet more mature than before. Sure, there’s still a “salvation moment,” a slightly artificial ceremony built around a set of  fatherhood “resolutions” penned by one of the main characters, and a mini-sermon at the end. There’s nothing wrong with any of these things, and they all have their place in the film, but the film’s best moments come when the characters are just being themselves—praying, weeping, joking, grappling with their past, worrying about their future. This film also had a racial mix of characters (Caucasian, black, Hispanic), which gave the script variety and flavor. (Some of my favorite lines came from Javier, who alternates between English and Spanish.) Once again, they achieved a terrific balance of humorous moments and tear-jerking moments. The humor was truly, screamingly funny, and the sad moments were truly gut-wrenching. This is without a doubt both their funniest film and their most moving film.

The directing: The brothers are slowly but surely learning the art of showing versus telling. There were many moments in this film that could have been made overly heavy with clunky dialogue and exposition, but instead were handled with a light, subtle touch. The loss of the child was handled with special excellence. Although there is some dialogue centering around it, much is left to the viewer’s imagination, and some scenes require no more than a few shots or a few lines to convey the family’s anguish. There is a conversation between the father of the family and his son that’s made all the more acutely painful by its understated, unemotional nature. In the case of a different character, we catch only glimpses of his reconciliation with his family and hear no dialogue. The camera tells it all. Again, watch for a lot of moments like this.

As for the action, it was heart-pounding and well choreographed. There were fast-paced scenes that were very complex to plan and film, ranging from a car-jacking to a chase to a shoot-out, and they were pulled off beautifully.

The acting: Unlike Fireproof, which revolved around a single professional actor who was the anchor (Kirk Cameron), this film requires multiple actors to share the load. Alex Kendrick makes a repeat appearance in a leading role and has obviously matured since his work in Facing the Giants. Not only is he a gifted writer and director, but he has also grown into a very capable actor. He bore a lot of the film’s emotional weight and delivered convincingly. Ken Bevel returns from Fireproof to play a similar all-good-guy character and turns in yet another great performance. And without giving too much away, there’s a complex character who wavers between good and evil, very well portrayed by Kevin Downes (the film’s sole pro actor). But I have to say that my favorite performance was turned in by Robert Amaya as the Mexican immigrant Javier. He carries much of the film’s comic relief, yet also has some moving moments and really makes you love his character. He’s honest, hard-working, almost innocent, yet full of life and mischief. I hope to see him make a repeat appearance in their future films. There was also some solid work from the actors who portrayed the gang villains, as well as a boy who gets himself tangled up with them. The wives of the main characters also deserve a mention. All things considered, there wasn’t a single performance in this film that had me squirming in my seat. Everyone stepped up to the plate and did well. Even the actors with bit parts did well.

This film was excellent in every respect, and I highly recommend it. It surpassed my expectations, and it may surpass yours. With each new film the Kendricks make, they build on their past successes and improve in every area. With a bigger budget than ever to work with, this is undoubtedly their most sophisticated effort yet. I understand that it’s already outsold some major films in ticket pre-sales. In fact, at the moment it’s leading Fandango sales. I hope to see it gross even more than Fireproof. It deserves every penny. It carries a message that needs to be spread—a clarion call for Christian men to take a stand for God and their families. I hope it has the kind of impact on fathers in the Church that Fireproof had on marriages. Most importantly, I hope its clear gospel message will draw souls to Christ.

Go see it. And bring a friend.

CD Review: Part of the Family, by The Collingsworth Family

The Collingsworth Family has been turning heads in the industry over the past few years, and with good reason. They’ve cultivated an incredible blend which has only become stronger and fuller as the four kids grow and develop. Add to that Mrs. Collingsworth’s virtuoso piano playing, as well as the older girls’ prowess on the violins, and you have what may be the most musically talented group in southern gospel. I was privileged to see them live in concert last year, and I can tell you that if they are ever in your area, it’s a show you don’t want to miss. (Oh yes, and Mr. Collingsworth plays trumpet too.)

Part of the Family is their StowTown Records debut, and it’s arguably their most mature project yet. Their sound has always been primarily a blend of gospel and old-fashioned inspo, with dashes of country and jazz, and this album continues in that vein. Wayne Haun is at the production helm as usual, contributing his arranging talents and a couple of new songs.

1. God’s Family (Lanny Wolfe): The CD begins appropriately with the song from which its title is taken. Lanny Wolfe’s material always fits the Collingsworths like a glove. (I’m still waiting for them to discover “The Sounds of His Coming,” which is one of his lesser-known pieces but in my opinion his best.) The lyrics and music are somewhat schmaltzy, of course, but the Collingsworth Family has a way of taking these kinds of songs and delivering them in a fresh, un-schmaltzy way. It’s sure to be a concert favorite.

2. Tell the Mountain (Kenna West/Lee Black/Sue Smith): This new mountain-flavored ballad is one of the best cuts on the project. Phil Jr. takes the lead, and it showcases how much his voice has matured even in the past couple of years. A few other people have already made comparisons to Doug Anderson on this number, and I definitely hear that resemblance as well (pay special attention to the line “God is with you, and you’ll overcome” — the way he holds out “overcome” sounds exactly like Doug). I would say that he’s developing into a light baritone. Much like Anderson, he has resonance in his lower register, yet also has a flexible upper range. As for the song, it’s a very uplifting message of encouragement for people who are dealing with struggles in their lives. It reminds us that whatever the “mountain” is, and however big it is, and whatever it tries to tell us, we’ve got something to tell back to it: Our God is even bigger.

3. Joy Unspeakable (Caleb Collins/Wayne Haun): This has a similar feel to “Bottom of the Barrel” from The Answer.  It’s a vigorous, up-tempo country/jazz number (listen for some great keyboard work). The Collingsworths always do this sound very well. I could see this song working as a concert opener to get the crowd good and warmed up.

4. Jesus is All I Need (Marty Millikin): This is a mellow Kim Collingsworth feature. Lyrically very predictable, but very comforting and easy to listen to.

5. Nothing’s Worrying Me (Jerry Kelso/Marty Funderburk): Think of this as the bluesy, easy-listening jazz counter-part to “I Know” from The Answer.  I personally love this style, and eldest daughter Brooklyn handles it with a smooth class that’s hard to resist. While references to the bad economy peg the lyric as modern, the music has a deliberately old-fashioned feel. It actually sounds like the kind of thing Ernie Haase & Signature Sound might sing.

6. I Pray (Lyn Rowell/Wendy Wills): This new offering from the authors of “Jesus is Holding My Hand” features Olivia, the youngest at 13. Her voice is still developing, yet she already shows great promise. She has a sweet tone and sings low notes with great clarity. If you compare her voice with clips of big sister Courtney at the same age, the resemblance is very striking (so don’t be surprised if she turns out to be a Courtney clone when she’s done growing). I really like the laid-back feel of the arrangement. It’s a simple song, simply accompanied with acoustic guitar. A very good way to introduce small children to the power of prayer… and remind the grownups who may have forgotten.

7. At Calvary: Kevin Williams and his friends recorded an instrumental version of this hymn last year that was so creative and incredible it made me wonder if I’d ever appreciate a normal rendition of it again. But the Collingsworths won me over right away with their characteristically powerful, dynamic arrangement. Much like “I Want a Principle Within” from the last project, it takes the listener on a journey, changing keys multiple times and featuring multiple vocal combinations. I especially enjoyed the ladies’ trio on verse two and the sibling trio featuring Phil Jr. on verse three—more proof that Phil Jr. has become quite capable of pulling his weight in a dramatic piece.

8. I Found it All (Helga Kaefer/Wayne Haun): This is one of my favorite new songs on the project. It’s, like, sooooo Wayne Haun. The chorus goes like this:

I found it all
When I lost everything
And gave my life
To serve a risen King.
I found the truth
That I’d been looking for.
I found it all
When I found the Lord.

Middle sister Courtney takes the lead and delivers a pure, honest vocal. My only nit-pick is that I think the production could have been scaled back a bit and actually made it even more powerful. But no matter. It’s a sweet cut. If anybody remembers the old AC Christian radio hit “Can’t Live a Day Without You,” this is thematically a little like that, except better-written, and without the pop bombast.

9. Just Another Rainy Day (Cindi Ballard/Daryl Williams): If I’m not mistaken, this features the sibling trio of Brooklyn, Courtney and Phil Jr. It’s a hand-clapping, foot-stomping, house-bringer-downer (is that a word?) I’ll eat my hat if that’s not Gordon Mote on keys, and there’s all kinds of fun stuff going on with the B-3 Hammond (you’ll remember that’s my weak spot), the guitar, and the bass. And the lyrics contain great wisdom: “If God says ‘Build an ark,’ it won’t be just another rainy day!” Believe it or not, think Brian Free & Assurance on this one. It’s got that same kind of slightly progressive drive to it. Expect them to encore this at least twice in concert.

10. Praise You (Bill & Gloria Gaither): Brooklyn takes the lead on this low-key Gaither cover. The instrumentation is very similar to the GVB version of “Home Where I Belong.” I felt like I had heard the song somewhere before, then I remembered it was one of two unreleased Vocal Band tunes Wes Hampton recently shared that had been on the table for the last lineup but never got put on a project of theirs. I love the way Wes sings it in that clip, but I think it fits the Collingsworths even better. We’re treated to a great duet between Brooklyn and Phil Jr., as well as some work from the ladies’ trio and the Phil Sr., Kim and Brooklyn trio.

11. That’s the Place I’m Longing To Go (Robert Batton): Like “I Can Pray,” this song relies on an acoustic backdrop. It’s carried very tastefully by guitar and mandolin, and it’s a beautiful project highlight. You’d never know it was a new song unless you looked at the date. It sounds like it could have been around for decades. With vivid imagery, it evokes a picture of heaven as a place where nobody is orphaned, hungry, or mourning for the dead.

Where no tears will ever fall, where death angels never call
Where the crepe never hangs on the door,
Where the hungry never cry, where we’ll never wave goodbye,
That’s the place my soul is longing for.

12. The Resurrection Morn (Bill & Gloria Gaither): Bringing things to a majestic close is this old Gaither piece. I believe they themselves have done better with this theme on a piece like “These Are They,” but hey, it’s Bill and Gloria, and it’s the Collingsworths. Hard to nit-pick.

Closing thoughts: Although the Collingsworths’ sound is better than ever, this project doesn’t take too many liberties from a creative standpoint. As a dyed-in-the-wool traditionalist who dislikes change, I’m not really complaining. Grandma’s apple pie never gets old, even though she uses the same recipe every Christmas…because it’s Grandma’s apple pie! The same is true of the Collingsworths—who would even want them to change?

From a song selection standpoint, there’s honestly nothing here that really leaps out at me, even though there’s nothing I dislike either. It’s simply a very good, enjoyable, consistent listen. The new material is very solid, but I still don’t think they’ve found that one Hit with a capital “H.” As for how it compares with The Answer, I would probably still cite that project as my favorite because the songs were a little stronger/more memorable, but this one is tighter and more cohesive as a whole.

The production is quality as always, and they continue to show themselves wonderfully adept at a variety of sounds. This may be the first project I’ve heard of theirs where certain songs actually remind me strongly of another group (like Signature Sound on “Nothing’s Worrying Me” or BFA on “Just Another Rainy Day”). They are in expert hands with Wayne Haun, and he always brings the best out of them. I’ll never forget the chance I had to chat with him a bit at my first southern gospel concert last year (seriously, it was like meeting the President or something—actually, just kidding, that’s an insult to Wayne). Anyway, I had just recently listened to The Answer, and I told him that I loved the way he let the family be themselves, yet complemented and supported them perfectly for what they were doing. He does the same here. I especially liked the more stripped-down feel on several of these numbers, because it really allows their full talent to shine. It makes me wonder what an entirely acoustic (or even acapella) Collingsworth project might sound like.

Bottom line: The bottom line is that if you’re a Collingsworth Family fan, you should buy this project. And if you’re an SG fan who hasn’t heard of this group… you are seriously deprived, and you should buy this project.

StowTown, you’re three for three—first the George Younce project, then Doug Anderson’s debut, now this. Keep going.

Review copy provided.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

When all the stains were gone, He started painting

With colors that I’d never seen before.

Then with joy He was ready to display me

To show the world what the cross was for.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Review copy provided.

CD Review: Re:Creation, by Steven Curtis Chapman

As my readers may or may not know, new music from Steven Curtis Chapman drops in a few days (August 9, to be precise). It’s called Re-creation (or Re:creation, depending on how you read the cover—I think it’s meant to be a little joke). The full album was “leaked” to Rhapsody before the release date, so I just listened to it yesterday. Wanted to share my take on it for anyone who’s interested, even though I know I usually stick to reviewing southern gospel music here. New music from Steven Curtis Chapman is a significant enough event that I feel it deserves some attention even on a southern gospel blog. 😉

This project contains five new songs, a hymn cover, and eight old songs Steven chose to go back and “re-create,” many of which carry new meaning for him after grieving the loss of his daughter. Let’s talk about the new stuff first. I should say right from the outset that if you have heard the first single, “Do Everything,” and are unimpressed, DO NOT judge the rest of the album based on that song. It’s a sweet sentiment, but let’s just say not one of his better moments. It is musically uninspired, monotonic to the point of verging on hip-hop, and blends disappointingly well with the rest of the radio-ready, cookie-cutter CCM that’s circulating at the moment. MUCH more satisfying is the second new song on the project, “Long Way Home,” which was written and performed on the ukulele. Steven took up the instrument recently and fell in love with it, so naturally he wrote a song on it. The result is a poignant delight, if I can describe it that way. It’s a delight, because it sounds delightful (there’s even a little whistling in there). As Steven says, “You can’t not smile when you play the ukulele.” Yet it’s poignant because the lyrics carry a poignant, sad hopefulness with them. It is the bittersweet anthem of a weary pilgrim.

The song “All That’s Left” is a thoughtful meditation on love, with some hat tipping to Paul in the bridge (“Love endures all things and believes all things and hopes all things…”). It’s hard for Steven to write a bad song, and this one is solid, but it seems to lack that extra something to move it from “solid” to “great.” Perhaps it’s the music, because the lyrics are pretty powerful. At any rate, it would have made a much better first single than “Do Everything.”

Another new song, “Meant To Be,” was first released in conjunction with the VeggieTales Christmas movie It’s a Meaningful Life, which focused on adoption and actually featured the voice of Chapman’s second adopted daughter. It is vintage SCC and one of the best new songs on the project, with a flowing 6/8 groove that recalls “Remembering You” and heart-warming lyrics addressed to the child who was “perfectly, wonderfully, beautifully meant to be.” You can go behind the song with Steven here and watch the music video here.

Finally, the last new song, “Sing Hallelujah,” isn’t even really a full song. It’s more like a chorus which is used to close out the project. We’ll come back to that later. For now, let’s move on to the re-created songs. Honestly, some of the self-cover choices were a little surprising to me. I had expected to hear new versions of songs like “My Redeemer is Faithful and True,” or “God is God,” or “His Strength is Perfect,” all songs Steven himself has named when talking about old material he goes back to now. However, I think there was less of a focus on those songs, because an album full of covers like that would have resulted in a tone very similar to Beauty Will Rise, a gut-wrenching project of songs inspired by Maria’s loss that came out a couple years ago. Instead, he pulled out more cheerful, hopeful numbers like “The Great Adventure” and “Heaven In the Real World,” to express the new hope he’s finding on the journey as this wound heals.

And guess what? It actually works really well. Sure, a few songs wouldn’t have been on my must-do list (“Live Out Loud,” “Dive,” “Magnificent Obsession”), and some of the re-creations work better than others (the new version of “Dive” just flat-out doesn’t work, and “The Great Adventure” also seems to have lost something in re-creation), but Steven continues to demonstrate that he’s one of the few artists who can “reinvent” himself and actually still make good music. He even got me to enjoy one of his more annoying songs for the first time (“Live Out Loud”). A non-masterpiece it remains, but the clapping, stomping folk/country facelift it gets here is just infectious. (I know, it was the B-3 Hammond. Someone must have told him that’s my weak spot—toss in a little Hammond, on anything, and I’m hooked.) And some of the new versions are positively magnificent. “Heaven in the Real World” just soars. I like it even better than the original, and believe me, it takes a darn good reinvention to get me to say that for a song I like. (It must have been the hammered dulcimer. And that banjo at the end. Dang, another weak spot.) “Speechless” sparkles with more hammered dulcimer, strings, and even a majestic touch of horns. Another cover that surpasses its original. “More To This Life” and “For the Sake of the Call” have already gotten acoustic re-makes on Steven’s Abbey Road project, but these versions are different yet again. (For one thing, the Abbey Road versions were abridged while these contain all the lyrics.) The new “More To This Life” takes a piano-led approach, and both tracks lean heavily on the cello. While both cuts are lovely, I thought “For the Sake of the Call” turned out a little too slow and weary. It’s gorgeous, but I miss the vigor of the original, or the joyful jam session feel of the Abbey Road re-make.

Steven covers one hymn on this project: “Morning Has Broken,” which perfectly captures the record’s themes of re-creation and new dawning. His oldest son Caleb (who’s formed his own indie rock band), is featured on the hymn’s second verse. His voice is different from his dad’s, yet noticeably similar, particularly on the first line—for a second, I didn’t even realize it wasn’t Steven singing. “Morning” continues seamlessly into “Sing Hallelujah,” and as short as this piece is, it may be the most beautiful moment on the album. It’s difficult not to be moved and caught up in Steven’s swelling, triumphant realization that “it’s a brand new, beautiful day.” He almost sounds like he’s weeping by the end of it, and the listener is sure to be weeping with him. If the last record proclaimed “Beauty will rise,” this is the proclamation that beauty has risen. Indeed, Allelujah.

The Bottom Line: While a project full of 10 or 11 amazing brand-new songs would obviously have been ideal for die-hard fans (that would be me), you won’t hear us complaining much over this offering. It simply does the heart good to hear Steven have fun making music again. Though lyrically it’s more hopeful than Beauty Will Rise, the raw, acoustic production is in a sense a continuation of that project. Instruments like the cello and the hammered dulcimer, which played important roles on that project, are brought back here with stellar results. Bottom line is, this record may have a few tracks I skip over, but it’s a truly refreshing listen and an intriguing foretaste of what’s to come as Steven continues to grace the world of Christian music with his presence. I recommend it to anybody who’s a fan of his and anybody who appreciates good music, period.

CD Review: The Only Way by Greater Vision

This is my first Greater Vision project ever. I’m just starting to get into the group, so my review may be a little different from the many others that have been posted. This is the opinion of somebody coming to GV’s music with fresh ears. Hopefully that’ll get you to read this even though everybody and his uncle has already reviewed the album. Enjoy!

1. He Didn’t When He Could Have Passed By (Griffin): Perfect country/gospel opener. Brisk fiddles get things going at a satisfying clip, providing a catchy setting for a thoughtful lyric about Jesus’ choices to stop and care for people’s needs when He could have let their cries go unanswered. As the lyric points out, “With every step he took, the cross was heavy on His mind.” Yet He heard the cry of the blind man: “Do not pass me by.” The second verse then makes the natural comparison to our own sinfulness and need for a Savior, who did not pass us by either.

One thing I did find somewhat odd is the repeated line in the chorus saying, “He could have passed by the little boy who had died, left him laying in the way.” I believe it’s meant to refer to the story of the widow’s dead son. But number one, he wasn’t a little boy, he was a young man (which is why his mother’s plight was so desperate—as a widow, she now had nobody to support her), and number two, he wasn’t just “laying in the way,” his body was being carried away for burial. However, this really is a fun song to listen to, and there are several key changes to keep the interest going.

2. Safe Within His Hand (Allman): A mellow Chris Allman song makes a smooth listen. It’s very leisurely overall, but Chris sings a strong and confident second verse after a key change to give it a bit of excitement. Short but sweet.

3. No Longer Chained (Griffin): This song’s historical blooper has already been noted by Daniel Mount. It uses the Roman practice of chaining a soldier to a prisoner to create a story-song about one such soldier who was saved through Paul’s testimony (which naturally leads to a convenient double use of the phrase “no longer chained”). In the very first verse, it sets the stage by having the soldier come home and tell his wife and children about meeting Paul for the first time. The problem is that this would never have happened, because Roman soldiers weren’t allowed to marry and have families.

There have been varying opinions on whether this anachronism matters, but I find it distracting. “Hugged his wife and kids and said ‘I’m home…’ ” Now I’m imagining them all around the dinner table on the day he gets saved: “So guys, what were your three good things for the day? […] That’s awesome! Well, I guess it’s my turn now…” See? It just doesn’t work. Then the bridge asks us to imagine other soldiers like him and “what they might have gone on home from work to share.” It’s all through the song. So ultimately, a good idea (probably inspired by Philippians where Paul says, “It has become known throughout the whole imperial guard and to all the rest that my imprisonment is for Christ”) with nice music and some good lyrics, but an awkward setup.

4. I Know a Man Who Can (Campbell/Davis): Insert wild cheers, whistles, and screams here. This is EASILY the prime cut of the CD. I am serious: Think twice about listening to this one while driving, because you could end up having a Holy Ghost moment on the road, and then, well, “Jesus take the wheel” and all that.

This has hitherto been Kirk Talley’s signature song, but Chris Allman has officially stolen it. Southern Gospel has many great tenors, but few with a more effortlessly clear sound than Chris. As Aaron Swain once put it, he must have found the tenor singers’ fountain of youth, because he certainly shows no signs of aging. His flawless delivery combined with flawless production (a heavenly blend of piano, B-Hammond and electric guitar), make this a touch-down moment and a sure-fire future crowd favorite.

5. He’s the Only Way (Allman/Griffin): This is a very timely song, bringing welcome theological clarity when too many people are bringing fuzziness. It matter-of-factly brushes aside all the “many roads to heaven” nonsense and says plainly, “He’s not a good, not the best, but the only way.” And it’s heaps of fun, with a great “chicken-pickin’ ” electric guitar sound. One quibble: In the second verse, it discusses Nicodemus’ conversation with Jesus and assumes that Nicodemus walked away with a complete Christian understanding of who Jesus was and the theology of salvation. This is a bit simplistic. No doubt Nicodemus walked away intrigued, with a growing realization that Jesus was not just another prophet, but he would hardly have had all his theological ducks so neatly in a row. (Incidentally, a fascinating Old/New Testament connection was recently brought to my attention regarding that passage, which I’ll probably write a post about one of these Sundays.) But overall, great lyric, and I love the 3rd verse:

Have you come by the way of the cross

Where atoning grace is found?

All of your gains been counted as loss,

Have you laid your burdens down?

You see, perfection’s required

To stay away from the fire

So call on Jesus’ name…

6. Like I Wish I’d Lived (Griffin): This is the first of three slow songs in a row, prompting some reviewers to complain that the CD’s tempo drags too much in the middle. I do have something of the same feeling and might not sit through all three before jumping around to one of the faster ones for a break. But it doesn’t seem like a huge deal. However, I’m puzzled, along with others, that this is the album’s first radio single. Yet I hasten to add that I really like the song. It’s a very poignant, simple prayer asking God to help us make up for any regrets we may carry with us from past mistakes. Plus, it’s sung by Chris Allman, and well, what more can you say?

7. But God (Griffin/LaBar): Gerald Wolfe sings this  reflective song about trials and God’s sovereignty, originally done by Legacy Five. It’s a good performance and a soothing sound, but they slow down the tempo from the original, which makes it run a little long. And even though the verses are sung in a minor key, the overall easy-listening country feel seems to clash a bit with the lyrics, which are trying to describe some pretty dark times of suffering. It’s a little hard to concentrate on a lyric like “The voice that once praised Him now groans through the tears/And questions, ‘Lord, where are you now?’ ” when an electric guitar is doing bluesy little licks in the background. Like David Bruce Murray, I might have preferred to replace this with another fast song. But Lari Goss’s strings do sound good here.

8. We Still Have to Pray (Griffin): This is one of my favorite songs on the record. The music is gorgeous, and Rodney Griffin’s voice sounds very rich. It uses the Old Testament story of Rebekah’s barrenness and Isaac’s prayer for her to make a moving illustration about waiting on the Lord. It reminds us that “even when we’re in God’s will, we still have to pray.” I thought the bridge was striking: “You’re wishing that the Lord would show you what’s in store. But He loves you way too much to let you lose your faith’s reward.” It’s just a really comforting song, a great encouragement for anyone seeking the Lord in a difficult time.

9. Eternity’s About to Begin (Allman): Injecting some welcome up-beat relief, this textbook toe-tapper begins with Chris Allman, Gerald Wolfe’s piano and the B-3 once again stealing the show black gospel style. It then picks up the pace and proceeds to hop along quite nicely, filled with imagery about the celebration that’s “waiting to begin.” The Imperials’ “First Morning in Heaven” (not to be confused with “First Day in Heaven”) is still my favorite song along these lines, but this one is enjoyable too. (Say, maybe Greater Vision should think about covering that Imperials song. It’s very Chris.)

10. Heaven Can’t Be Far Away (Hurst): If “I Know a Man Who Can” was Chris Allman’s “hallelujah, glory be” moment, this song is Gerald Wolfe’s. They’re covering themselves here, having first recorded this song 18 years ago. Gerald still knocks it out of the park today. Even in the studio, he can barely contain his excitement as the song ramps up to the climax. He practically takes you through the gates of pearl with him. Classic, classic stuff.

11. Another Child’s Coming Home (Allman): With all the songs that have been inspired by the prodigal son, somehow the theme never really gets old. This Allman-penned closer is a quiet, understated addition to the “prodigal son catalogue.” There’s a beautiful novel called Gilead where one of the central characters is a lonely prodigal son, and that book together with its companion novel Home has caused me to hear songs like this in a new way. You constantly want to tell the character, Jack, that he is loved, that he’s not worthless, and that he needs Jesus to right all the wrong in his life. His father desperately loves him, yet Jack struggles to accept grace, even after he comes home. Even though the song is more straightforward than the books (which are more complex than your average prodigal son-inspired piece), I still think the lyrics really capture the cry of the father’s heart in the story. He stands with open arms, truly overjoyed and eager to welcome the wayward child home, for no other reason but love.

Get his room prepared, because I know he’s tired

And when he gets here, I’m sure he’ll want to rest awhile

And if you need me, I’ll be out in the road

Because another child’s coming home…

Final thoughts: You can’t get much more quintessentially southern gospel than Greater Vision, and this album reminds me why I like the music so much. Griffin and Allman are churning out solid songs, and putting Allman back on tenor has given the group a huge shot in the arm vocally. Not that Kitson wasn’t a great singer, but I think I speak for everybody when I say “WELCOME BACK, CHRIS!” This album also promises good things for the group’s future from a production standpoint. Many artists are going to miss Lari Goss’s work as he pulls back for the sake of his health in the coming years, but if Gerald Wolfe’s production on this CD is any indication, Greater Vision should manage just fine. His touch is relaxed and sure.

I’m very glad to have this album, and I’m giving it 4. 5 stars. Go get it. (Unless you absolutely cannot stand southern gospel of course. Then you might not like it so much.)

CD Review: Thank You Lord by Great Adventure Gospel Band

The southern gospel world was first introduced to the Garms family through this video of their youngest child, Caleb, with Legacy Five. 7-year-old Caleb stole the show with his easy charm and stage presence, making a couple members of the group uneasy about being able to keep their jobs in the long run (particularly Glen Dustin, when it was revealed that Caleb aspires to be a bass!)

Some time later, the entire Garms family became contributors to southerngospelblog.com, and their posts have become regular high points. When I discovered they were a traveling gospel band, I checked out the sneak peek of their debut album and was delighted at what I heard. They graciously provided a review copy at my request, and today I bring you my thoughts on this fresh project from the Great Adventure Gospel Band.

The CD was independently produced with technical mastering and mixing handled by Ben (age 20), the acknowledged techno-whiz of the family. Ben also provided all the guitar work (acoustic and electric), as well as some banjo and electric bass. Vocalists include Mom (Kris) and Dad (David), Ben, Taylor (age 19), Leesha (age 16), Sam (age 11), Jayme (age 9), and of course Caleb (age 7). Mandolin is provided by Taylor (with some contributions from Uli, another sister who doesn’t tour with the band), dobro by Leesha, piano by Kris and Taylor, violin by Jayme and Taylor, harmonica by David, and percussion by David and Sam. A few songs are completely handled by the female trio of Kris, Taylor, and Leesha, while others are completely handled by the trio of “Little Adventurers” (Sam, Jayme and Caleb).

The style ranges from straight-up southern gospel to bluegrass to folk. Here are some highlights:

“Leaning On the Everlasting Arms”: This features the female trio, who offer a very refreshing vocal blend and put a few twists on this familiar hymn. Leesha sings lead and sounds mature for her sixteen years, Taylor sings high harmony, and Kris sings alto. Ben provides some exceptionally smooth bass support as well. Perhaps this is a good indication of what Caleb will sound like in fifteen years or so!

“Wonderful Time Up There”: This is a father/son duet between David and Ben with backup from “the girls.” David sings the lead, but Ben really steals the show as we get to see his bass singing in full action on the familiar classic. He’s probably the family’s most polished singer at the moment. Kris also shines on piano. Really fun stuff, and it’s almost over too soon.

“Were You There”: Everybody shines on this folk-flavored arrangement of the dramatic spiritual. Ben’s haunting acoustic guitar provides the backbone for the instrumentation, but 9-year-old Jayme also plays an impressive, Celtic-sounding lead violin, with Taylor playing harmony violin. The little ones sing the first verse very movingly, Taylor sings a poignant solo on verse two, the female trio handles verse three, and the whole family sings the triumphant final verse. One minor quibble: My understanding is that the final verse changes the “it causes me to tremble” line to “I feel like shouting glory.” Here, it’s “tremble” all the way through.

We’re treated to some extra violin interplay as the arrangement closes. This cut is a major standout for sure. Great harmonies and production.

“Poor Wayfaring Stranger”: This is the most pure folk cut on the whole album, sung by the female trio. Their vocals here have that raw, hard-to-describe feeling that’s characteristic to folk music. It’s like something from the “O Brother Where Art Thou” soundtrack—unpolished, untouched, and appealing for precisely that reason. Definitely not a southern gospel sound, so it might have to grow a little on those who are unused to folk/bluegrass. But I think it fits the mood of the song perfectly. There’s an extra bit to the arrangement at the end which sounds pretty cool, with some ethereal effects added to the ladies’ voices. However, the sudden New Age feel does seem to clash musically with the earthiness of the rest of the arrangement. It’s a neat sound, just a slightly odd genre shift.

“Beautiful/Beautiful Savior Medley”: The female trio sings the first song in the medley, alternating between unison and harmony. Harmonizing with each other seems to bring out the best in their voices, and they do some of their best singing on this cut. The family resemblance among their voices is very strong. Then “Beautiful Savior” is sung by the whole family in simple, lovely acapella to finish the disc.

Also worth mentioning is that one song on here was written by a little adventurer! Jayme Garms is apparently a budding songwriter as well as singer/musician, and she wrote “I Need You Lord” when she was only seven. The song might not seem particularly remarkable by itself, but when the age of the author is taken into consideration, it’s rather impressive. A very simple, jangly folk tune, it follows a lyrical progression obviously inspired by Pilgrim’s Progress, as the singer asks for help to remove his burden, is told to go to the cross, and finds it taken off there. It will be interesting to watch as Jayme’s writing talents continue to mature. Other songs include “Lord I Want to Thank You,” “Bigger Than Any Mountain” (sung by the Little Adventurers), “He’s Still Working On Me” (ditto, and a great one to play for little kids), and “Power In the Blood.”

Southern gospel fans will definitely find much to enjoy in the song selection, even though some of the songs and arrangements sound more bluegrass/folk than gospel. It’s also worth checking out for its impressive production values. Even though it was mixed in a home studio, this does not sound like a cheap, shoestring project. And of course, fans of family harmony will be charmed by the range of ages represented here. Even the younger kids already have a striking grasp of harmony and blend. Their youthful contributions make this project especially appropriate for families with small children. But it truly is a CD for all ages. Definitely recommended. Hear clips and buy it here.

Book review: Counterfeit Gods by Tim Keller

“The living God, who revealed himself both at Mount Sinai and on the Cross, is the only Lord who, if you find him, can truly fulfill you, and, if you fail him, can truly forgive you.” — Tim Keller, Counterfeit Gods

This is a first for southerngospelyankee: a book review! I don’t intend to do very many of these, but since someone recommended this particular book to me recently, I thought I would check it out and share my thoughts.

In our world today, there are many things striving to draw our attention away from God. Sometimes they are obvious, sometimes subtle. And often, they are things which may not intrinsically be wrong, but if perverted, they become idols. In this brief book, Tim Keller walks his readers through the various shapes and forms an idol can take in our world today while combining his observations with stories from Scripture. Chapter titles like “Love is Not All You Need” and “The Seduction of Success” make it clear that Keller is prepared to challenge common assumptions of pop culture.

Some of the illustrations Keller chooses for his various points include the story of Zacchaeus (money), the story of Naaman (success and prestige), and the story of Nebuchadnezzar (power). In a number of cases, these work very well. The re-telling of Naaman’s story is particularly well done, as is the closing account of Jacob’s wrestling match with God. However, there are other cases where he strains too hard for the application and ignores surrounding context. One example is the story of Jacob and Leah. Keller looks at the passage where Leah hopes to gain Jacob’s love by bearing sons and concludes that her desire to be loved was an “idol” she let go of only after having Judah. He contrasts her statements after bearing each son before Judah, which all involve her husband in some way, with the statement for Judah: “This time I will praise the Lord.” He concludes that this means God worked a change in Leah’s heart, resulting in a “breakthrough” for her. While that makes a nice, tidy illustration for Keller’s purposes, it is unfortunately not accurate.

For one thing, Keller is either missing or ignoring the fact that the entire passage is a series of word plays on the names of Leah’s sons. One son is named Reuben, which means “see, a son” (as in “Look! I have a son…see?”), when Leah greets his birth by saying, “It is because the Lord has seen my misery.” When Simeon is born, Leah declares, “Because the Lord hath heard that I am not loved, he gave me this one too.” “Simeon” means “hearing.” It goes on and on. When you get to Judah and realize that “Judah” means “praise and thanks,” suddenly it doesn’t stand out so much anymore. But the real killer is that Leah wasn’t “reformed” after having Judah at all. She and Rachael continued to compete with each other, sometimes in very strange and even bizarre ways. Also, Keller misinterprets the part where it says Leah stopped having children to mean that she never had any more, when it’s actually only a temporary pause. She had three more children later.

Keller tends to fare better when he remains in the present time, offering stories from his personal life experience and soberly commenting on the decadence of our surrounding culture. He is spot on with many of the things he says in this context. I found the section where he discusses the idol of success particularly insightful. He observes that many stars crave success because it gives them a feeling of self-worth. But because God alone can fill that void, they find themselves continuously feeling empty, and the cycle starts all over again as they keep pushing for more success to fill themselves up again.

The influence of C. S. Lewis is apparent throughout as Keller quotes generously from Lewis’s writings to support his own points. Keller himself is no Lewis, but Lewis has obviously had a very healthy effect on him, and it gives the book added substance. Keller also makes good use of familiar stories like The Lord of the Rings and Chariots of Fire. I had never really considered the fact that Harold Abrahams is making an idol of his running, but that is exactly what it is. Keller quotes from a scene I had forgotten where Abrahams’ girlfriend asks, “You love running?” and he responds wryly, “I’m more of an addict.” Abrahams runs to prove himself and satisfy his own desire for success. Keller could have gone on to discuss that Eric Liddell provides the natural contrast to this attitude by running for God, but he uses only the Abrahams illustration.

Unfortunately, Keller does make a false step when he tries to talk about “political idols” in the section on power. He takes a good general point (that ideologies can take on the form of an idol as easily as things like money and pleasure), and then tries to imply that conservatives are no different from liberals. With the tone of a chiding parent who tells the children that “they’re really both to blame,” Keller makes vague, relativistic generalizations that no discerning observer of the current political landscape could take seriously. He solemnly warns each side not to “demonize” the other, because it’s not good to view our opponents as “evil.” As a fairly reliable supporter of the pro-life and pro-marriage causes, Keller himself ought to know better. There is indeed much evil in the left, and there are evil people representing it, including our own President. That may not sound comfortable and diplomatic, but the truth is rarely comfortable and diplomatic. Meanwhile, Keller is only nudging the Church in a direction it’s already been taking for years, to its own detriment.

This combined with the book’s various instances of exegetical carelessness is enough to keep it from a perfect score, but  on the whole, it contains enough good, solid insight that I’ll give it 3.5 stars. It’s well-written, accessible to the average reader and capable of generating good conversations about this important topic, one which is too often overlooked in the Church. However, for those who haven’t already read it, I would recommend Lewis’s The Great Divorce as a more imaginative and profound look at the same subject. And I have a feeling Tim Keller probably would too.

CD Review: Havin’ Church Live in California by the Bogg Family

David, Kelly, and Odie Boggs are a mixed trio from Ohio. Davy and Kelly have been involved in ministry/evangelism for a decade, and now they are joined by their grown daughter, who has cerebral palsy and a stirring testimony. Ben Isaacs is Davy’s first cousin, and he has produced their last few projects, which gives them a more polished sound than the typical regional group. Last year, they recorded their first live project in California. Says Davy about the song selection:

We sing mostly in church services rather than more formal concerts. Many of the good songs that groups write and record are tailored more toward a concert setting. They are very enjoyable to listen to and the lyrics are scriptural but they do not translate well into a worship services for us. We really have a hard time finding songs that work in a church setting. Therefore we end up doing a somewhat eclectic mix of old and new drawing from a wide variety of gospel music that has influenced us. Our background includes, bluegrass, Hymns, soulful mountain singing (similar to black gospel in many ways), 70’s CCM and of course heavy doses of southern gospel. You will find traces of all of this when we sing and minister and on this project.

This is a good summary of what you can expect to hear on this album. It has a raw, untouched sound that’s simultaneously exciting and worshipful. Percussion, bass, and piano (played by Kelly herself) were recorded live with organ and electric guitar dubbed in later by Jason Webb and Kelly Back. There are thirteen songs in all, interspersed with some “preachin’ ” from Brother Davy. Davy weaves the themes of the songs together with Scripture and will frequently make a connection between the last song and the next song. It sounds like nothing was abridged or edited out. Davy said that given what they have read about “the death of the live album,” they attempted as much as possible to leave the concert as it was, with minimal vocal fixes after the fact.

Although there was obviously wonderful chemistry between the Boggs and their audience, some aspects of the project may not translate as well to a private listening experience. For example, some may want to skip through the audio tracks to get to the music. Also, some tracks (“Ain’t Gonna Give Up Medley,”  “Never Would Have Made It,” “Miracle Man”) are enjoyable but long enough counting encores that I’m generally ready to move on before they’re finished. But despite a few weak moments, there is a lot to like on the project.

The group’s sound is very authentically SG, with Davy’s voice providing a rough, sturdy anchor for the blend. At times they recall the style of the Collingsworth family, while other times they have a soul-tinged sound reminiscent of the Crabbs. Kelly’s piano playing is tasteful and restrained. She is equally capable with a jazzy sound, e.g. “I Want to Thank You,” “Made Up Mind,” and a thoughtful ballad, e.g. “There is Power In the Name” and “I’d Rather Have Jesus.” Indeed, the latter is a definite highlight of the project, along with “The Solid Rock,” both of which she carries with her clear voice.

Daughter Odie sings alto, and she carries “There is Power” as well as their signature song “I Don’t Have a Prayer Without You.” Both are moving songs, and Odie introduces “I Don’t Have a Prayer” with some powerful words about having faith in the middle of her struggle with cerebral palsy.

Odie’s testimony is probably the highlight of the spoken portions, but Brother Davy brings many good insights into the Word and the Christian life between songs. I found his introduction to “Everything Is Gonna Turn Out Right” particularly meaningful, as he frankly rejects the “prosperity gospel” and presents the true message that Christians are not promised a life free of pain or trials, yet can live with hope and courage. The Boggs themselves are a living testimony of this truth.

The production is surprisingly strong for a regional album, and as mentioned before, this is the work of Ben Isaacs. Live and studio instrumentation are seamlessly blended together for a simple, yet rich sound. Kelly’s piano work is frequently enhanced and complemented by Webb’s organ, and Back’s guitar lends added texture to nearly every song. Also worth mentioning is the extra effort that was put into the liner notes: They provide color photos, complete lyrics, and full songwriter/musician information.

Vocally, the Boggs family are not the most polished group you will hear. But they don’t set themselves up to be. Davy says candidly in the acknowledgments, “We have never sounded as good as we would like.” However, they are making the very most of what they have, and you will enjoy their sound if you like country/gospel family harmony. It’s refreshing to hear a live project with this much spontaneity, and I would invite other artists to take notice. The listener feels like he is there with the audience, and you can hear the emotion behind every word Davy, Kelly and Odie sing. It may be rough around the edges, but it’s exactly what a live album should be: an experience.

Review copy provided. A positive review was not required.

CD Review: George Younce with Ernie Haase and Signature Sound

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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