Thursday, December 20, 2007

The Phantom Tollbooth’s Rock Doc goes Certified Gold for Christmas

Certified Gold, Incense & Myrrh
Artist: Dr. B.L.T. featuring Tommy Isbell and Other Artists (
Label: Frosty Rock Records (Independent)
Length: 24 tracks/76:15

Leave it to The Phantom Tollbooth’s Rock Doc to come up with one of the most original Christmas recording of the season. How do I describe it in just a few words? It’s raw, heartfelt, inventive, thoughtful, fun, reverent and all over the map musically.

If you are tired of homogenized Christmas songs that all start to sound the same, you might find this singer/songwriter collection to be just what the doctor ordered. Folk, alternative, pop, country, rock, rap and exotic programmed rhythms are all employed to honor "the baby king" and celebrate the trappings of the season. Amazingly, there are only a few covers on this generous offering of 24 songs.

Most of the tracks tend towards minimalist production and simple arrangements that marry guitar strumming with country, rock and folk influences. When they come together, as on "Brand New Christmas Song," it helps spread that Christmas cheer that this Rock Doc would no doubt prescribe.

In "Certified Gold, Incense and Myrrh," the opening song, Dr. B.L.T. sets the stage for the remainder of the CD by offering his music as a gift to the Christ child. He shows himself to be a clever songwriter with the play on words in "Between Iraq and a Heart Place," a song that wishes US troops in Iraq a Merry Christmas. It’s a touching song, one that they would appreciate, knowing that they are not forgotten. "Christmas 4 Two" is a quiet, love song that eloquently expresses a desire to celebrate the season with one’s spouse.

The laugh out loud song of the CD is "You’re Not the Kinda Ho that Santa Had in Mind (Original County Rock Version)." The doctor tells a story that deals with a serious subject in a funny way. There is also a (New Rap Edition) of the song. Both versions are done equally well.
"Dear Johnny (Won’t You Help Me with My Christmas CD) is an affectionate ode to Johnny Cash that has a little of his trademark sound.

The wide variety of songs demonstrates how versatile Dr. B.L.T. is musically. The whimsical nature of the music and lyrics, the number of songs and their interesting titles, are all somewhat reminiscent of Sufjan Stevens. The stripped-down sound of many of the tracks fits well with the unpretentious vocals. He’s at his best when he ruggedly combines folk, rock and country influences. If you are not afraid to try something a little offbeat, you might enjoy this homespun blend of wit, wisdom and worship.

You can stay tuned to the Rock Doc and his songs by checking out his writings each month at The Phantom Tollbooth. He often helps to answer readers’ questions with a song and also shares his gift of music in his "Single Servings" column.

Monday, December 10, 2007

Christmas brings out the best in Michael W. Smith

It’s a Wonderful Christmas
Artist: Michael W. Smith
Label: Reunion Records (
Length: 11 tracks/39:52 minutes

Christmas brings out the best in some artists. It’s true of Jeff Johnson, and after listening to It’s a Wonderful Christmas, I believe it’s true of Michael W. Smith.

This is Smith’s third Christmas offering and it’s filled with wonder from the opening notes that mimic the sound of a child’s music box. The intricate and vibrant orchestration could be the perfect soundtrack for some enchanted Christmas performance. Images and memories spring to mind as the music brings to life the glory of the season.

It alternates between quiet, beautiful sounds and the fuller, majestic sounds that you would associate with a symphony. Known for his pop rock and more recently his praise and worship music, this is the symphony side of Michael W. Smith that we heard on Freedom (2000). But this release outshines his previous foray into the wonderful world of orchestration.

It may have helped that this was recorded at London’s famous Abbey Road studios using four different choirs and a 67-piece orchestra. But more than anything, if God shines in all that is fair, Michael W. Smith shines here as a composer, musician and vocalist. All but one song—a quiet and gorgeous instrumental of "What Child Is This"—are original compositions by Smith. These compositions overflow with creative vitality, and Smith sings in a strong but tender voice. It must be the magic of the season.

It’s no wonder that Smith is extremely satisfied with the outcome. The depth in the music and lyrics give it a timeless quality. That’s not to say that you won’t find songs with a pop sensibility.

The opening "Christmas Angels" sets the stage by combining all the varied elements heard throughout the CD: choirs, orchestra, Smith’s piano playing, pop energy, quiet and crescendos. It’s all here in one song.

"Christmas Day" is a beautiful duet with American Idol’s Mandisa. The lyrics, written by Wes King and Cindy Morgan, evoke a multitude of images associated with Christmas. It ends with the thought: "Let’s light a candle / For peace we pray / Oh merry Christmas / It’s Christmas Day."

Another comforting lyric is found on the final track, "All Year Long," on which Bonnie Keen, formerly of First Call, provides a heavenly-sounding harmony vocal. The song is like a benediction that concludes with these words: "If trouble finds you, this is my prayer / May peace guard your heart and make you strong / And I wish you love, the kind to last / All year long."

The excellence of It’s a Wonderful Christmas lays to rest any question of whether Smith needed to do a third Christmas recording. This may be the best of the three, and it’s one of the best Christmas offerings of the year. It showcases a different side of Smith, one that highlights his ability as a composer. It’s also highly original; you won’t find too many Christmas releases like this.

This may be the mother of all Christian music collections

Songs 4 Ever
Artist: Various
Label: Time Life (
Length: 10 CDs with 150 songs

I want to say “Wow,” but that’s a different series of collected faith-inspired music. Produced by Time Warner, and part of the Songs 4 series, this may be the mother of all Christian music collections.

Just the size alone makes it noteworthy: 10 CDs with 150 songs spanning three decades of Christian music in a box that opens from the top with a back hinge. Even the box makes me want to say, “Wow!” It’s the right word, but the wrong series. Think Songs 4 and to elaborate on the word Ever, we have a classic collection of timeless Christian music.

This comprehensive grouping ranges from the work of early Christian music pioneers like Larry Norman, Keith Green, Phil Keaggy and the 2nd Chapter of Acts to those like Amy Grant, Michael W. Smith, Rich Mullins, and Steven Curtis Chapman, who are widely recognized today. It also brings us to the present with songs by Mercy Me, Casting Crowns, Chris Tomlin and Third Day.

What makes this unique is the combination of Praise & Worship with some of the biggest and most popular songs in the history of contemporary Christian music. “Butterfly Kisses” by Bob Carlisle takes its place right next to “Shout to the Lord” by Darlene Zschech. Steven Curtis Chapman’s “The Great Adventure” is side by side with Michael W. Smith’s “Draw Me Close.” Audio Adrenaline’s celebratory “Big House” gets equal time with Brian Doerksen’s “Come, Now is the Time to Worship.” With only a few exceptions, you get the original version of a hit song.

Delirious? is known for many wonderful recordings but one of their best remains “Shout to the North.” The simplicity combined with the more acoustic sound of this early recording make it a delight. With so many covers of Praise & Worship songs, it’s a joy to go back to the first take.

Despite the criticism of what is known as CCM, this huge collection shows just how good it can be. One could argue with some of the choices, but with any collection like this there are some weaker selections. Overall, it’s a strong collection and will make an excellent gift for any fan of Praise & Worship songs or contemporary Christian music.

Kudos to Time Life for giving us a collection that right down to the box will be hard to top. How about another set that unearths and focuses on the classic work of pioneer Christian artists?

Saturday, November 24, 2007

Dreams of a Christmas Night captures the beauty and wonder of the season

Dreams of a Christmas Night EP
Artist: Jeff Johnson & Brian Dunning
Label: ArkMusic (
Length: 4 tracks/14:57 minutes

Imagine making your way through snowdrifts to a tiny concert hall. Among flickering candles, you listen closely to a small ensemble performing songs that sound contemporary but recall Christmas songs rooted in another time. The proficiency of the musicians and the intricacy of the pieces warm your heart despite the chill that lingers over your tired frame. There’s magic in the air as piano, flute, acoustic guitar, violin and cello seamlessly weave a pattern befitting a Celtic knot.

Jeff Johnson and Brian Dunning’s music have a way of transporting you to another time and place. Their Christmas offerings are always enchanting. I would be glad if they did one every year, even if it was only a few songs, like this four song EP.

This is an excellent companion to the earlier Stars in the Morning East: A Christmas Meditation (2005) and A Quiet Knowing Christmas (2001)—both full-length recordings. You could liken them all to chamber music with a Celtic and contemporary flair. Johnson’s website contains even more quality Christmas music, but these three are the best.

This EP continues the trend begun on Stars in the Morning East of a more organic, less is better approach. Piano and keys, flute and accordion set the stage for a supporting cast that for the most part is found on the previous releases.

Unlike the two other recordings, which are all instrumental, this EP includes a song in which Johnson delivers a beautiful vocal. "Walking in the Air" was written by Howard Blake and was inspired by The Snowman, a children’s book that was made into a popular animated movie. Johnson’s vocal takes flight over keys, flute and viola.

As on previous outings, Johnson and Dunning resurrect and provide fresh arrangements to lesser-known carols. In this case it’s "The Waits Song" and "Noel, Noel, Voice L’Enfant." The latter includes some ethereal sounds that are like an angelic chorus. They follow Dunning’s booming bodhran.

"Down the Chimney" is an original song, and the most Celtic-sounding. It includes a couple of Johnson’s favorite collaborators: Derry Daughtery on acoustic guitar and Greg Williams on percussion.

The songs on this EP glide and weave intricately like a sled making its way through trees on snow-covered hillsides. Once again Jeff Johnson & Brian Dunning have given us a recording that captures the beauty and wonder of the season. Their music is conducive to recapturing that childlike sense of awe that often eludes us as we grow older.

Monday, November 19, 2007

This is not a book about how to pray. It’s about living the Christian life.

Ain’t Too Proud to Beg (Living through the Lord’s Prayer)
Author: Telford Work
Publisher: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company
Pages: 252

In Ain’t Too Proud to Beg, Telford Work shows how the Lord’s prayer relates to our living as Christians. He writes, "First, we ‘live through’ the Lord’s Prayer in the same sense that, say, America lives by the American Way. The Lord’s Prayer is the Lord’s way; its agenda is the right agenda for the Father’s children. When we pray it, it trains us in the way of the Lord Jesus, which of course is the only true way to live (John 14:6)."

The author continually looks through this prayer as a means of grappling with current moral dilemmas. Chapter one seeks to answer the question, "What is the character of the God that we worship?" In the wake of 9/11, Work is troubled by the thought that the God of biblical faith bears an uncomfortable resemblance to the God of Wahhabi Islam. This God of judgment may not be the kindred spirit and soulmate that we imagine. Witness the language of many of the Psalms, which record the struggle of people trying to come to grips with what God does and what He doesn’t do.

One of the highlights is that the author often resorts to God’s triune nature in his search for answers. He likens it to a rule of the Christian faith: "Every good answer to every question about God’s character appeals to God as Triune." The Trinity reminds us that God is not far off. We can address God as Father because the same relationship that Jesus enjoyed with the Father is now ours through the Son. Jesus not only prays for us, He prays with us as we say, "Our Father." His frequent insights about the Trinity are delightful and provide welcome perspective on a neglected subject.

The book is also a valuable addition to existing literature on the Kingdom of God. The book is divided into two halves: the first dealing with the coming of the kingdom and the second focusing on the righteousness of the kingdom. Underneath these broad headings, the author tackles all the subjects raised in the prayer. He takes a philosophical essay approach rather than being strictly expository or devotional.

Every page is packed with information and insights. This is not Christianity light. I found myself getting a little lost at times through the inclusion of contemporary studies that provide background and perspective. But this is the work of an associate professor of theology at Westmont College in Santa Barbara, California. Even if at times I found myself in unfamiliar territory, it’s what one would expect from someone who has the experience of years of academic study. He does a fine job of showing the implications of this prayer in our contemporary setting.

Every Christian could benefit from considering the generosity of spirit advocated in "Generosity Under Pressure: or, How to Win in November No Matter What," which is one of the three sermons found in the concluding "Amen" section of the book. It’s profoundly helpful and relevant as we head into another election. Work writes, "Our task is a kind of inaction: not to backslide into our old lives of frenzy, anxiety, alienation and resignation." He’s not saying that we shouldn’t work for change as the Spirit leads; only that we should not lose our focus. Christ has freed us so that we don’t have to be dragged back into the world’s way of living.

I appreciate the broad perspective and the unconventional analysis of this familiar passage of Scripture (Matthew 6:9-13, Luke 11:2-4). It’s a book that is better read slowly or repeatedly. It will be helpful to anyone who is serious about living the Christian life.

Friday, November 9, 2007

Steve Bell’s new backup band is an orchestra.

Symphony Sessions
Artist: Steve Bell
Label: Signpost Music (
Length: 14 tracks/59:13 minutes

In June of 2006, Canadian artist Steve Bell received a call that would take his music in an unexpected direction. The Winnipeg Symphony Orchestra (WSO) wanted to know if Bell would perform with them in the fall of that year.

On November 17, 2006 Bell performed a concert of his music with the WSO at Winnipeg’s Centennial Concert Hall. The CD liner notes tell the story: "The combination of Steve’s lyrical style, a world-class orchestra, Mike Janzen’s imaginative, textural orchestra scores and a sold out, enraptured house made for an evening none of us in attendance will soon forget."

This studio recording captures the freshness of a live performance. The same players perform the same songs in an effort to bring this special experience to a broader audience.

Mike Janzen has done a superb job of writing the orchestration, which includes creative introductions to each song. He also excels in his piano playing.

The song selection includes some of Bell’s best songs. They alternately showcase the depth of Steve’s writing and highlight his worshipful side.

One wonderful example of the latter is "The Wellspring," which combines a baroque sound with words of adoration to God. It’s on par with what you would hear in Handel’s Messiah.

The violin adds to the beautiful poignancy of the instrumental "Moon Over Birkenau," inspired by a visit to a former Nazi death camp.

Cello and sweeping strings are such a pleasant addition to the light pop of "This Is Love," a paraphrase of the prayer of Jesus recorded in the seventeenth chapter of John’s gospel.

There is a yearning and tenderness in the quiet "Even So Lord Jesus Come."

The orchestra adds to the drama of Bruce Cockburn’s "Lord of the Starfields." It helps the song reach new highs and adds subtlety to the quieter moments as it does throughout this CD.

It’s not all orchestra. The core group of musicians consists of: Steve Bell – guitar, mandolin and vocals, Gilles Fournier – bass, Mike Janzen – piano, and Daniel Roy – drums and percussion.

This is a first class performance. If you ever get the chance to see one of Canada’s finest perform live, don’t miss the opportunity … even if he is without his new backup band.

This is worth getting just for the lengthy interview

Open House Christmas EP Limited Edition
Artist: Jaci Velasquez (
Label: A’postrophe Records/Word Distribution
Length: 4 tracks/42:00 minutes

For those who enjoy interviews, Jaci Velasquez’s honest reflections on her life the past two years may be the biggest reason for getting this. Musically, we haven’t heard from her since 2005’s Beauty Has Grace.

After going through a divorce, Velasquez has spent the last two years lying low and seeking to discover who she was apart from her music. In an interview that lasts for just over 29 minutes she describes what she went through after the breakup with her first husband: the response from the CCM industry, her depression and counseling, and a brief move to London where she attended school for a semester.

On the brighter side, she communicates the grace of God as she tells of the new things that God is doing in her life. This includes meeting her new husband (Nic Gonzales of Salvador), their decision to start a family (she’s expecting!), the healing she experienced in her relationship with God and her earthly father, and her excitement over a new record due for release in the Spring of 2008.

Having been through one of the toughest experiences that anyone could ever go through, her desire is that the new record would bring hope and healing to those who are going through hard times. "You can be happy," she would say to those who feel like they will never see better days.

She goes into great detail about the meaning behind several of the tracks on her 2008 release. The producer is Mark Heimmerman, the man behind her first three recordings and some of her most popular songs.

Chris Bevins who plays keyboards and adds programming produced this three song EP. Nic Gonzales makes his presence felt on acoustic and electric guitars and BGV’s.

It starts off lively, with a piano-driven pop rendition of "It Came Upon a Midnight Clear." This is followed by the dramatic "Quiet Christmas Night (Gloria)" an original Christmas song. A razor-edged guitar propels an anthem-like chorus on which Jaci’s voice soars. This is the best song, but Velasquez sounds as good as ever on each track.

The last song, "Auld Lang Syne," has programming at the core, which gives it a more modern sound. I give her credit for recording verses that are normally only heard on New Year’s Eve and at the end of the movie, "It’s A Wonderful Life." This Scottish song credited to Robert Burns reminisces about friendships and fond memories. I’m glad to finally have a recorded version.

If you are a fan of Jaci Velasquez, you will want to add this to your music collection. The interview whets your appetite for her next release, which sounds like a must-have for those looking for solace in their suffering.

Image: Nic and Jaci - God heals the brokenhearted.

Monday, October 29, 2007

A philosophical look on the impact of environment on religion

The Luminous Dusk (Finding God in the Deep, Still Places)
Author: Dale C. Allison Jr.
Publisher: William B. Eerdman’s Publishing Company
Pages: 178

In The Luminous Dusk, Dale Allison Jr. throws “modest light upon some current conditions that most of us seldom consider.” He points out that though we may be products of our environment, we help make that environment. “Our convictions, however much they may be thought of as the conclusions of arguments, are often heavily indebted to environmental factors we fail to perceive because we are too close to them.”

In his introduction, which by itself is worth the price of the book, Allison seeks to account for the modern tendency to disbelieve in God. He argues convincingly that our “seeming secularization correlates directly with a growing physical separation from the so-called natural world.” We have moved indoors, and the more that we have done so, the less some of us have been inclined to believe.

Our disconnect from the natural world has produced a corresponding loss of wonder. The wonder that our ancestors felt at the lights of the heavens has been replaced by a host of artificial images.

Our insulation from nature has made us more self-sufficient and less dependent on God. In the past people were more vulnerable to the elements and often equated them with God. Now it seems that only cataclysmic elements are able to break into our world. Even then we tend to look for help from others more than we do from God.

Allison’s point is not that experience of the natural world generates faith. “But surely it can encourage a psychological orientation favorable to some brands of religious faith; and this suggests the correlative possibility that reduced experience of the natural world might do just the opposite.”

My sister, who happens to be a Christian, was approached some years ago by a local newspaper on a question that the paper was putting to local residents. I can’t recall the exact question, but the gist of her answer was that she thought people needed to spend more time outside. As I read Allison’s introduction I thought of my sister’s comment. Here is the theological basis for what my sister knew to be true. Being indoors and being exposed to a host of artificial environments and images of our own creating has changed us. Allison makes the case that we have suffered for it.

As I read this book, I felt like I was sitting at the feet of a scholar of Christian and classic literature, who was sharing riches from his storehouse of knowledge. In reading books by Christian authors, it’s not often that I feel a sense of wonder being rekindled within me, but I found it here in unfamiliar subjects, intellectual honesty and scholarly analysis. The impression that the author is not jumping to preconceived conclusions on a topic is refreshing.

Allison delves deeply in a philosophical way into a number of subjects. This includes the impact of technology on religion, a treatise on light and dark and its implication on finding God, and the impact of artificial environments on the imagination. There is also a profound lament on diminished Bible reading. Happily, the end of books is not approaching. One chapter deals with the need for role models rather than celebrities so that we become more than we are rather than just being content to mirror the culture.

The theme that runs through the book, including the last section that touches on prayer, is a shutting out of sensory overload and the many distractions that compete for our attention. If we shut out the lights of this world and the fires of our own making, we can find God in the dark. It’s hard to argue against the notion that the darkness of stillness and silence is conducive to experiencing God. This is what many of our forefathers discovered and Allison eloquently encourages us along the same lines.

Brad Stine’s truthful humor hits the mark as he rails against political correctness

"Wussification" DVD/CD
Artist: Brad Stine
Label: Right Minded Records
Length: 19 tracks/91 minutes

If you were to see Brad Stine in a short video clip, you might take him to be a loud, macho guy who likes to rail about whatever he is talking about. He’s not a timid Christian. He speaks forcefully and is not afraid to touch on controversial subjects.

For those who don’t know him, Brad Stine has been a vulgar-free, in-your-face type of comedian for the past 18 years. Seven years ago he "came out" as a Christian, letting the world know where he stands.

That gets to the crux of this particular DVD. Wussification is what happens when people refuse to take a stand. With political correctness gone amok and a pervasive fear of causing offense, no one wants to speak out about what’s right and wrong.

But that is what Brad Stine does so well on this DVD. He’s not afraid to speak the truth even if it offends. "The truth is supposed to offend," he tells us. With great animated expression, he makes us laugh at the craziness and superficiality in our world (and in our lives) as he walks us through a variety of subjects.

Whether he’s talking about the differences between men and women, sports, Jesus and the Pharisees, Barney vs. Captain Kangaroo, legalism, "We Say Toot" (he argues that "fart" is not a dirty word), or France, it’s all motivated by a desire to communicate the truth. He may be a bit brash at times, but that’s just his personality and zeal. His heart is in the right place.

He has a good word to Christians about being real with outsiders so that they take more of an interest. He speaks plainly to fellow believers (his "tribe") about becoming free of the legalism that keeps us in bondage. If the Bible doesn’t address it, we should not substitute its silence for rules of our own making.

Near the end he shares his story of how God led him to move from California to Nashville, which seemed like the death of his dream to make it in the movies. It’s a powerful illustration of the reward of being obedient to God’s call. It was only after he moved to Nashville that his career took off. He’s now appeared in three films, written two books and this is his fourth audio/video release.

Thursday, October 25, 2007

Warm, relaxed and inspired, this feels like home

Songs of the Season
Artist: Randy Travis (
Label: Word Records
Length: 13 tracks/43:20 minutes

Randy Travis makes himself right at home with these songs of the season. This feels as warm, relaxed and inspired, as you would hope for the holidays to be. It’s fitting that the first song is "(There’s No Place Like) Home for the Holidays."

Listeners will be comfortable with a fine mix of carols and classics done in that country style that has endeared Travis to so many. It may be the richness of his voice that is the most inviting, as he sings each song as though it were written for him.

After the often-covered "Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas," there is a wonderful sequence that focus on the spiritual side of Christmas. It begins with the classic "O Holy Night," which is led by a few simple guitar chords. The vocals are subdued allowing one to be quietly moved by the thoughts in the song.

Then comes a soulful rendition of "Go Tell It on the Mountain" that features a gospel choir. "Labor of Love," written by Andrew Peterson, is destined to be a classic. This song paints a realistic picture of the circumstances surrounding the birth of Christ.

It was not a silent night
There was blood on the ground
You could hear a woman cry
In the alleyways that night
On the streets of David's town

"O Little Town of Bethlehem" is a personal favorite. I first heard Travis perform it with just a guitar on an episode of "Touched by an Angel." The original performance was a highlight, as is this equally beautiful version of a sweet song.

Repeatedly with every song Travis shows how well he can adapt a song to his simple, straightforward style. The vocals are beautifully understated, never overly dramatic, which could lessen the appeal.

The lighthearted "Nothin’s Gonna Bring Me Down at Christmas Time" is a delight.

When he makes a small change to an arrangement, as he does on "Joy to the World," it sounds fresh. It’s the best take that I’ve heard on the song in a long while. It’s enough to make one wish that he had taken more chances.

His deep voice is perfectly suited for "The First Noel." The CD closes on a strong note with an excellent version of another modern song, "One King."

This could become a modern classic that will be enjoyed for many years to come.

Acoustic-based, light country recordings of mostly classic Christmas songs

The Star Still Shines
Artist: Diamond Rio (
Label: Word Records
Length: 12 tracks/38:48 minutes

Together since 1984, The Star Still Shines is country group Diamond Rio’s first Christmas release and their first project on Word Records, the group’s new label. They may be a stranger to much of Word’s customer base, but not to the rest of the music world.

The band achieved major success in the 90’s performing a mix of modern country, traditional bluegrass (especially with respect to their harmonies) and a hint of rock and roll. Their 1991 self-titled platinum debut was the forerunner for a series of number one and top ten hits.

This release features pleasant acoustic recordings of mostly classic Christmas songs done with a light country flavor. It’s a little light on spiritual content with only three of twelve songs dealing with Christian themes. This consists of two carols, "O Come, O Come Emmanuel" and "Hark! The Herald Angels Sing," and the title cut, which is an excellent original song that will most likely get significant radio time.

The classics are well-done and include "Christmas Time is Here"—a song many know from "A Charlie Brown Christmas." The CD ends with an instrumental from the same program.
In addition to the title song, the group shines on "Christmas Times A Comin’," a bluegrass gem. This is so good that I wished they had incorporated more of this style.

Throughout the CD the most delightful bits are the scattered instrumental solos and interludes that make the songs more distinctive. It’s a pleasure to hear the mandolin and the other acoustic instruments. The vocals and harmonizing are strong and fit well with the music.

It will be more than a little interesting to see what they do on future Word releases. Will they delve more deeply into explicitly Christian themes like they do on the title song? It would be great to hear more of their bluegrass side.

This is a fine introduction from a talented band to Word’s customer base.

Variety Abounds on One Wintry Night

One Wintry Night
Artist: David Phelps (
Label: Word
Length: 15 tracks/54:45 minutes

One Wintry Night by David Phelps has tremendous variety, but finds its unity in the Christmas theme and Phelps’ impressive pipes.

It starts with an a capella version of “O Come O Come Immanuel” that has some jazzy background vocals. “The Singer” starts without a pause, and surprisingly sounds like Queen with its combination of pop, rock and opera. Then before you can say, “shades of Carman,” we are into a hip-hop flavored version of Handel’s “Hallelujah Chorus.” This comes with lyrics that Phelps wrote to make it a complete song.

Then comes the dreamy, island sound of “Blue Christmas,” an Elvis Presley song that rarely makes it way on to Christmas recordings. Another infrequent visitor to Christmas recordings is “If Christmas Never Came.” This is a haunting version led by a music box and done with sparse instrumentation.

The jazzy a capella of “Santa Claus is Coming to Town” is straight from the Take 6 playbook. The hopeful “If Everyone Believed” has a slight punk rock edge. “Hark the Herald,” the chorus being a spin-off of the better known hymn, is an energetic pop/rock song.

Phelps easily alternates between quiet ballads and pop songs like the dramatic “One Wintry Night.” The title presumably comes from the book of the same name by the late Ruth Bell Graham. The song is one of six originals—the rest being a mix of classics and favorites.

This is a diverse collection but it’s meant to be a unified work. Phelps notes that “we tried to approach it as a solid record that just happened to have Christmas as its theme.… It really is a concept project.” He believes that listeners will get more out of it when they listen to it straight through.

The quiet, beautiful moments are shared with the powerhouse vocals of this former Gaither Vocal Group member. Phelps’ dynamic range and Monroe Jones’ production make for a seamless flow.

Fans will want to get this, but the sometimes overly dramatic inspirational style, often associated with CCM, lessens the appeal. It’s a great effort, but more simplicity might have made it better.

Monday, October 22, 2007

Jump5 say hello one last time before they say goodbye to nine years together

Hello and Goodbye
Artist: Jump5
Label: Slanted Records
Length: 10 tracks/30:58 minutes

What drew me to Hello and Goodbye was Jump5’s rendition of The Beatles’ classic "Hello Goodbye." It’s a fitting choice for a farewell recording from a group that has sold more than 1.4 million units, which includes four studio albums and two gold videos.

Fortunately their breakup won’t be providing fodder for the tabloid and rumor mills. Having been together for nine years, the members of the group just felt that it was time to move on. This release and a farewell tour will close this chapter of their lives so that they can go their own ways.

It all makes the inclusion of "Hello Goodbye" so appropriate. Previous group member Libby Hodges joined in on the song to help Jump5 say hello one last time before saying goodbye. It’s difficult to improve on a classic, but this is a likeable and admirable version that has the pop edginess that is typical of the group.

This is followed by a beautiful piano-driven "I Surrender All." This song, which is the most moving, is also fitting. As they go forward, it’s a way for each member to acknowledge their surrender to the One that has brought them this far. The future is in His hands.

It’s a bittersweet recording with other scattered references that reflect on their journey. It has all the energy and playfulness of their past efforts, but it’s a little sad knowing that this is their last.

It’s somewhat disappointing that this goodbye is so short with only 10 tracks, including two versions of the song "Fly" and an update of a previous song, "Throw Your Hands Up ’07."

Despite the brevity of the release, one of the pleasant surprises is an a capella version of the "Star-Spangled Banner," which closes the CD. Fans also have had something to cheer about with the lead single "Shoot the Moon,"—written by the same team that wrote the number one single "I Got Nerve" by Miley Cyrus—playing on Radio Disney.

In the end they are leaving in the same way that they came, with trendy teen pop filled with hopeful, encouraging and God-honoring messages. Say Goodbye to Jump5. May each of them be able to say hello to the new things that God will do in their lives.

Saturday, October 13, 2007

Meaning can be found in everything, even in a video that tells the story of a rock band and a founder’s descent into madness.

The Pink Floyd and Syd Barrett Story (Deluxe Edition)
Available through: MVD Visual (
Time: 203 minutes

The Pink Floyd and Syd Barrett Story is a documentary that traces the development of Pink Floyd from its earliest days when it was led by Syd Barrett, lead vocalist, lead guitar player and initially the principal writer. His innovative nature helped to pioneer the band’s early psychedelic sound. Sadly, his use of LSD and other drugs may have exacerbated an undiagnosed medical condition that led to his demise and inability to continue with the band after 1968.

After one weekend in particular, in which he may have overdosed on acid, it was evident to the other band members that Barrett had changed. The once ebullient bandleader looked the same, but it was as if he was no longer there. As band member Roger Waters wrote in "Shine on You Crazy Diamond":

Remember when you were young, you shone like the sun
Shine on you crazy diamond
Now there's a look in your eyes, like black holes in the sky

One of the most touching moments of the film is the display of some black and white photographs taken of Barrett by a friend after Barrett had moved back home to live in his mother’s basement. Syd still looked the same but his face says so much. You can see the pain and sadness. It’s almost as if he’s thinking, "I know I’ve lost it but I don’t know how to be whole again."

As hard as it may have been for the band to go through Barrett’s dysfunction—and they tried to help—it makes me want to be more compassionate towards those who suffer. It reminds me of the story that F. W. Boreham tells of a meeting between J. J. Doke and Mahatma Gandhi.

On the wall of Mr. Gandhi’s office hung a beautiful picture of Jesus; and the moment that Mr. Doke’s eyes rested upon it, he felt that he and his new friend were bound by a most sacred tie. "I want you," he said to Mr. Gandhi, "to consider me your friend in this struggle. If," he added, with a glance at the picture on the wall, "if I have learned any lesson from the life of Jesus it is that one should share and lighten the load of those who are heavily laden."

"How I Wish You Were" was another song that the band performed in remembrance of Barrett. How I wish he could have been helped toward wholeness. Perhaps he found some measure of peace in his life. Questions arise and this film wisely chooses not to try and answer them all.

Instead we are given a fascinating and tragic account of a tremendously artistic individual. But it’s done in such a way—and this is clear from the short written bio included as a bonus feature—that this is a tribute to Barrett’s life and his brief but influential musical legacy. It’s intended to celebrate his accomplishments.

The focus is on Barrett but along the way you also learn much about Pink Floyd through interviews with band members and many others. Perhaps we can also learn much about ourselves. It’s an overused cliché, "but there but for the grace of God go I" seems applicable. It may be a thin line that separates any of us from losing, to some degree, our hold on reality. Mental illness may be more common than realized, especially now, given the state of the world. We are fortunate if we can go through this life with a healthy sanity.

There are a number of brief video clips of the band performing, and the film is peppered with early Floyd and Barrett music. Some of the latter comes from the two solo albums that Barrett recorded after leaving the band.

The second DVD contains extended, unedited interviews with band members and solo performances of a few Barrett songs performed by other individuals.
More could be said about Pink Floyd after Barrett’s departure, but this DVD captures the lasting influence that he had on the band. This is a must-have for the Pink Floyd fan that can appreciate a documentary.

A wonderful likeness of Barrett and the psychedelic nature of the band’s early sound are beautifully captured on the front cover artwork.

John Michael Talbot returns to what he does best on his 50th

Living Water 50th
Artist: John Michael Talbot
Label: Troubadour for the Lord (
Time: 11 tracks/44:09 minutes

How does an artist commemorate his 50th recording? If you are John Michael Talbot, you record an album that encompasses the music of your entire career but sounds like something new.

On Living Water 50th, John Michael lays aside the electric guitars heard on his last two releases to return to his contemplative music. His unique folk/classical style arrangements coupled with orchestra and chamber music lends a dignity and elegance befitting such a milestone.
It sounds fresh even though it incorporates the elements heard on past releases—classical guitar, chants, rich harmonizing, orchestration and quiet, simple songs alternating with ones that are more intricate and triumphant.

The orchestration adds beauty to the quieter songs and majesty to the celebratory ones. Several contributors, including producer Billy Ray Hearn and orchestrator Phil Perkins, make it work even better than what has been heard on previous efforts. The brass heralds a king, the percussion booms like a cannon and the violin whispers some forgotten story.

You won’t find a "hit song" like you might on some of his earlier recordings. These songs have more of classical and liturgical feel, with most of the words coming straight from Scripture with only minor adaptation. The depth of the lyrics, arrangements and sounds give it more of a timeless feel that will hold up to repeated listens.

Being liturgically-challenged, I suspected a pattern to the overall work but wasn’t sure what it was until John Michael clued me in. In the liner notes he writes: "We begin with a song of praise, move to a ‘Kyrie’ as a time of repentance, followed directly by a "Gloria" celebrating the forgiveness God gives us in Christ." The pattern will be familiar to those acquainted with liturgical forms of worship. It shows once again how much thought John Michael puts into every aspect of his recordings. It makes them a pleasure to review.

When I think about his music, I realize that he is able to do something that few artists can do so well. His very manner of singing conveys gentleness—one of those fruits of the Spirit that seem too rare in our day. It gives one a sense of peace and comfort.

Congratulations John Michael on reaching such a momentous milestone. Thank you for bearing so much fruit in your ministry of music.

A Worship Album for the World

Dreams & Visions
Artist: Mary-Kathryn (
Label: Rhythm House Records
Time: 10 tracks/49:52 minutes

On Dreams & Visions, her fourth release, Mary-Kathryn has created a worship album for the world. God-breathed but somewhat generic lyrics, a strong and beautiful voice, world music influences, soft pop/rock and a heart that seeks to unite people combine to produce an album that anyone looking to connect with God through music will enjoy.

The first song, “Incense of Praise,” with its opening sitar and Hugh Marsh’s electric violin flourishes, set the stage for a song that envisions people of all nations worshipping before the throne of God. It’s strong rhythm, exotic instrumentation and a brief interlude of singing in the spirit make it one of the outstanding tracks.

Another highlight is the alternative rock sound of “In Your Time,” which includes a barely audible reading of Isaiah 60 toward the end. The power and beauty of Mary-Kathryn’s voice is particularly evident on the hymn, “My Father’s World.” “You Are There,” which includes an answering male background vocal, is reminiscent of Fleetwood Mac.

Though many of the songs are directed toward God, they also convey comfort as in “Flying Toward the Sun,” which speaks of unconditional love. Mesmerizing and soothing are two words that come to mind in connection with Mary-Kathryn’s music.

It’s a delight to hear Hugh Marsh’s violin on several songs. His brother Fergus joins him on Chapman Stick and bass. The out of the ordinary instrumentation and production scattered throughout give this album a unique sound.

Though this might be a little too “new age” for some, it provides a broad appeal making it accessible to those of varied persuasions.

Saturday, September 29, 2007

Subtle but distinctive country flavor makes this more than just another recycling of praise and worship songs

Songs 4 Worship: Country
Artists: Various
Label: Time Life (
Time: 16 tracks/73:03 minutes

Since its debut in 2000, the Songs 4 Worship series has sold more than nine million units. On this recording the series unites country music stars with some of today’s best worship songs.

The CD consists of first-time performances (except for Rascal Flatts) of four original compositions and thirteen praise and worship songs done in a light country style. This includes a few soulful gospel tracks.

The performances are excellent; the only downside being that many of the songs are now overly familiar. The pedal steel guitars, when present, are toned down. The artists give slightly understated performances of songs that can sometimes be overly dramatic, which makes these versions sound fresh. They have a broad appeal. You don’t have to be a country music fan to enjoy this CD.

There are many wonderful moments. Charlie Daniels does a rock version of "Awesome God" that gives new life to this contemporary classic. It opens with the sound of a lone fiddle playing the chorus.

"He Ain’t the Leaving Kind" by Rascall Flatts is modern country at its best. Such a strong performance leaves you wanting to hear more from this multi-platinum group. This is the song they performed at the 2007 Academy of Country Music Awards show to honor the victims of the Virginia Tech shootings.

When I think of Ricky Skaggs, I think of bluegrass, but "We All Bow Down" is a beautiful, worship ballad. It’s a memorable song that he performed at the dedication of the Billy Graham Library in North Carolina.

Trinecia Butler renders an inspired version of "How Great Is Our God," and The Wilsons, a three-sister group, reinvent the "Doxology" with their stirring a cappella harmonies.

This collection highlights the special relationship that has long-existed between country and gospel music. The subtle but distinctive country flavor heard in the songs makes this more than just another recycling of praise and worship songs.

Thursday, September 20, 2007

Messianic praise and worship with a wonderful pop sensibility

Self Titled
Artist: Meha Shamayim "From the Heavens"
Label: Galilee of the Nations Music (
Time: 15 tracks/60:22 minutes

Not since Lamb, the music group that pioneered a Messianic pop sound in the 1970’s, have I heard Messianic praise and worship that I have enjoyed so much. This new pairing of Roman Wood and veteran industry producer, Leonardo Bella, have more than a little in common with the former duo, who helped shape the early sound of contemporary Christian music. Meha Shamayim’s beautiful harmonies and melodies, lyrics drawn from Scripture—sung alternately in Hebrew and English, and a joining of pop, folk and Jewish styles of music are all reminiscent of Lamb.

They distinguish themselves with minimal, clean production, a definite nod towards sixties and seventies music—including harmonica and retro guitars—and a wonderful pop sensibility along the lines of Sufjan Stevens.

They may be at their best when they let their Jewish roots shine through on sparse arrangements like "No, Not I." The words, taken from a poem by a Rabbi, are wedded to a simple Hebrew-flavored tune played on guitar and mandolin. "No, Not I" has a catchy, repetitive chorus that lingers in the memory.

"Sweet Child of Mine," though fuller in sound, is sung tenderly with simple acoustic backing that is augmented by slide guitar. Sung from God’s perspective, the soothing music conveys a comfort worthy of the God of all comfort.

The recording ends on a dramatic note with the anthem-like "Sound the Great Shofar." The song fades to the sound of a woman’s delicate background vocals, which is then followed by the sounds of a Shofar. It reflects upon the group’s name—Meha Shamayim or "from the heavens" is a reference to the place from which Messiah will return to Jerusalem.

A bonus track, the single version of the song "Glorify," follows after a brief pause. The original version opens the recording.

The CD comes with a brief companion DVD that introduces the group through short studio clips and interviews.

There’s something refreshing about the perspective and music styles of Jewish believers. They bring uniqueness to a pop landscape often dominated by sameness. This is an excellent debut, and if this group is at all reflective of the current state of Messianic music, it warrants further exploration.

Monday, September 17, 2007

A riveting late sixties documentary that weaves music, culture and politics together in an artful way

It was 40 years ago that a film rocked the British public and shocked their sensibilities. Most of the mass television audience dismissed pop music as bubblegum—something they didn’t take seriously. But that would change with the premier of a BBC film that first aired after the traditional station sign-off.

In All My Loving, his first major movie, now acclaimed director Tony Palmer introduced to a public enamored with "Top of the Pops," artists that previously had no television exposure. It was John Lennon, whom Palmer had met some years earlier, that insisted that artists like Jimi Hendrix, Cream, The Who, Pink Floyd and Frank Zappa needed to be on TV.

Here was a group of musicians who took their work seriously and in so doing were redefining pop, extending its boundaries and changing the culture. Willing to break with convention to wake people from apathy, the revolutionary nature of their music and actions could not be ignored. The film opens and closes with a pointed line from the song "Yellow Submarine" by The Beatles, "As we live a life of ease / Everyone one of us has all we need."

Being glad for someone like Palmer, who took them seriously, the artists share candidly about the music of their time and how they hoped to change the world. Along the way we get snapshots of rare performances and interviews plus scenes from the cultural and political realities—some quite disturbing, including a man being shot in the head and another who was set on fire. We get behind the scenes with The Beatles, Donovan, Eric Burdon and most of the previously mentioned artists.

This is an accurate and riveting look at the late sixties that weaves everything together in an artful way, which makes it an extraordinary piece of filmmaking. It was the forerunner of the many rock films that would follow.

The performances by the artists are mostly brief but raw and rare. Hendrix performs "Wild Thing," and The Who are shown at the end of a song destroying their equipment. Pink Floyd is captured in a swirl of psychedelic colors on "Set the Controls for the Heart of the Sun." At the end, the film features an extended live performance by Cream that serves as a plea for people to open their hearts. Even today this remains an eye-opening documentary of a generation that sought change.

Ironically, it almost never made it off the shelf. The BBC was reluctant to show it, given its controversial nature. It sat for six months until inquiries prompted its airing. It was deemed too political to be shown in the U.S. Images of social upheaval and war are intermingled throughout, and scene changes are sometimes marked by the sound of a gunshot.

In January 2007, to mark the 40th anniversary of the film, Jon Kirkman interviewed director Tony Palmer. The 40-minute session, which is full of insightful commentary and colorful stories, is included as a bonus feature. It adds wonderful perspective and is a valuable addition to this groundbreaking film. It is now available on DVD.

Move over Hannah Montana and High School Musical 2 and get a ready for a blast of pureNRG

The enormous popularity of artists like Hannah Montana and programs like Disney’s High School Musical 2 show that there is more than a small market for a trio of teens performing self-described pop with an edge. If their explosive dancing and singing could be harnessed, there would be sufficient power to produce Hannah Montana and have multiple showings of High School Musical 2.

What may set this threesome—all in their early teens—apart is a serious desire to share their faith and influence people toward God. But it’s not as though their dancing and singing is just a vehicle for evangelism. In the song, “Footloose,” one of two music videos on the DVD, it’s obvious that their purpose is also to entertain and have fun. This is a revved-up version of the Kenny Loggins song with a little bit of sass.

With veteran producers, Rob Hawkins and Mark Hammond at the helm, their music doesn’t take a back seat to the message. The group hopes that their sound will have an appeal beyond their own age group and be a bridge to people of all ages. I enjoyed the brief clip of them singing “Thy Word” in the studio and was impressed by the quality of the other snatches of songs.

Carolyne, Jordan and Caroline have each been dancing and singing since the age of three or four. With a clearly defined mission statement, that includes promoting Christian values and being role models for their peers, these young people are headed in the right direction.

The bonus features include the group answering frequently asked questions, giving short, somewhat scripted testimonies of their faith—not an easy thing for anyone, but each of them are remarkable self-possessed. They also take us by camera into their Cribs (older generation read “bedrooms”) to learn more about their lives. Another segment is a behind the scenes look at the choreography behind the music video “What If.” This song is not to be confused with the Nichole Nordeman song of the same name.

This is a well-produced introduction to pureNRG that young people will enjoy. Expect to hear more from this talented trio.

Friday, August 24, 2007

The Grand Weaver - Ravi Zacharias

Zacharias shows us how to see and experience God’s hand in every situation.

The Grand Weaver: How God Shapes Us Through the Events of Our Lives
Author: Ravi Zacharias
Publisher: Zondervan
Pages: 200

Imagine each area of your life as a thread that God uses to fulfill the design he has in mind for you. "His design for your life pulls together every thread of your existence into a magnificent work of art. Every thread matters and has a specific purpose." Zacharias goes on to remind us that "God holds the threads; you hold the shuttle. Move it at God’s behest, and watch the making of something spectacular."

That’s the purpose of this book: to keep us moving from a threadbare existence to a tapestry that reflects the beauty and glory of God. Zacharias assures that this is God’s ultimate end. "We will be ‘re-created,’ and all the threads of our earthly life will come together for the design that we will experience in heaven. Every tribe, every language, every moment, every pain, every sorrow will come together in the consummate pattern of God’s design."

In each chapter Zacharias unravels specific threads vital to every Christian: uniqueness, disappointments, calling, morality, spirituality, will, worship and destiny. Regardless of the topic, the theme remains the same: "seeing the designing hand of God and his intervention in our lives in such a way that we know he has a specific purpose for each of us and that he will carry us through until we meet him face-to-face and know ourselves completely."

But he asks, "How can you see the divine intersection of all that shapes and marks your existence, whether it be the heart-wrenching tragedies that wound you or the ecstasy of a great delight that brings laughter to your soul? How can you meet God in all your appointments and your disappointments? How can you recognize that he has a purpose, even when all around seems senseless, if not hopeless?"

It begins when we "accept the wonder and marvel of one’s own personality, however flawed or ‘accidental,’ and place it in and trust it to the hands of the One who made it." Zacharias reckons that as one of the greatest achievements in life.

Chapter 2 focuses on three practical steps to make the pattern of God’s work more visible. The first step involves the heart. God looks for tender hearts that He can imprint. The second involves the mind. We must learn to trust that God is in control and believe that He has a purpose for our lives. Last but not least is the importance of the cross. It was said of F. W. Boreham, a man Zacharias considers a primary influence, that regardless of where he started, he made his way to the cross, and that is precisely what Zacharias does here. "How much more can we understand suffering when we see it through the eyes of the One who defines good and evil, comfort and suffering, and who went to the cross to deal with it? Is this not the only way we can understand and cope with our own suffering? We must see the world of pain through the eyes of Jesus, who best understands it not merely as pain but as brokenness and separation."

Though known for his defense of the Christian faith, this book is more devotional than theological. It’s not a doctrinal exposition of the sovereignty of God or a book about finding God’s will for your life. Rather, Zacharias covers the various areas of our life that may need adjustment so that we can see and experience more fully God’s hand fulfilling the unique destiny that He has in mind for us.

He expertly handles a subject that probably few have made so practical. Zacharias makes it personal by sharing stories and insights gained from years of experience. There’s a wealth of wisdom on every page. As is the case with writers like C. S. Lewis, G. K. Chesterton and Malcom Muggeridge (a few favorites of Zacharias), it may take more than one reading to apprehend all the treasures. Christian leaders looking for nourishment or some morsel to pass on to their hungry flocks will find plenty to satisfy themselves and others. Hope is communicated to all.

Zacharias covers so much ground that sometimes the threads of his writing seem to hang together loosely, but he weaves it all together by continually returning to his theme. Some parts are challenging. It’s often illuminating and always encouraging.

This is not Ravi Zacharias the apologist, defending the faith. It’s Ravi Zacharias, serving as a friend, beckoning us onward.

Zacharias is always worth reading, but this may be among his most important books because of the subject matter. What could be more valuable than seeing and experiencing God redeeming every aspect of our broken lives?

Sunday, August 19, 2007

The Far Country - Andrew Peterson

Andrew Peterson is one of my favorite artists. I think he's underrated, and I'm not sure why. Maybe it's because he started out with folk-leanings, but his last major release, The Far Country, featured more rock.

After hearing this recording for the first time, my sister commented how much Andrew reminds her of the late Rich Mullins. In the following review, which I wrote shortly after its release, I traced the parallels between Andrew and Rich.

I like the artwork on the album cover.

Andrew Peterson directs our attention from the far country to our home in heaven.

Andrew Peterson makes it easier to bear the loss of Rich Mullins. Since Rich left in a whirlwind and chariot of fire, Andrew may come closer than anyone to catching his mantle. The poetic and whimsical verse, the otherworldly view, the storytelling, and the acoustic rock sound are all here.

It’s what makes The Far Country worth repeated listens. For now we are in the far country, but heaven is our home, and we long for it. The life that awaits us more than makes up for death and loss. This is the theme that emerges.

One song that captures some of this is the "Queen of Iowa." The inspiration came from a woman that was a big fan of Andrew’s music, who was dying of a number of AIDS related illnesses. Her church was generous enough to fly Andrew and Ben Shive out to perform in her living room. Andrew sings of seeing her, "She was as pretty as a flower in a crystal vase that lights up the room as it withers away." Though dying she was more alive than those around her, and Andrew knew that he would never be the same. It’s a touching and beautiful song.

"Lay Me Down," is Andrew’s "Elijah," the song by Rich Mullins that so fittingly eulogized his life. Andrew sings, "When you lay me down to die, I’ll miss my boys, I’ll miss my girls / Lay me down and let me say goodbye to this world / You can lay me anywhere but just remember this, when you lay me down to die, you lay me down to live." It may be somewhat ironic for a song about one’s passing, but the music, which includes some stellar electric guitar, makes me feel more alive. It’s a song that makes you want to sing and dance on the inside if not outwardly.

"Little Boy Heart" has a Bruce Hornsby energy with its sound and piano work. It’s no accident since Andrew acknowledges his admiration for his work. The title conveys a little of the adventure in the lyrics. It’s enough to make one long for a revived sense of childlike exuberance and wonder.

"Mystery of Mercy" features beautiful hammer dulcimer work that would make Rich proud as Andrew asks a somewhat different question, "My God, my God, why hast thou accepted me?"

As a single person who has struggled with relationships, when I read that "For the Love of God" was written for a dear friend, "who was terrible with relationships," it made me want to laugh. The honesty was refreshing. Andrew promised his friend that if he ever married, which seemed unlikely, he would write this song. He says, "What little I know about love between a man and a woman is in this song." It’s a great song that would be a meaningful addition to any wedding.

"More," written with critically-acclaimed folk artist Pierce Pettis, is about heaven and fittingly closes the recording. It’s a masterpiece of pure folk.

I liked the sparseness that I heard on Love and Thunder, Andrew’s previous release, but the slightly fuller sound on this recording is likely to appeal to more people. The music is more cohesive with less fluctuating between the extremes of sparseness and fullness. The electric guitar is a little more prominent, providing more of a rock edge to a few songs. The bluegrass heard on the last recording is absent. Most songs are a blend of mid-tempo folk, pop and rock. The production, musicianship and artistry are all top-notch.

Since I discovered him on his Clear to Venus recording, Andrew Peterson has been one of my favorite artists. If you are unfamiliar with his music, The Far Country is a great place to get to know him.

There will never be another Rich Mullins, but Andrew Peterson directs us toward home in a way that makes it a little easier to live in the far country. This is a look to heaven that alternates between hope, yearning and joy.

Tuesday, July 17, 2007

Bob Dylan: The Golden Years 1962-1978

This documentary, covering Dylan’s start in music to his conversion to Christianity, brings two DVDs together into one package: Tales from a Golden Age: Bob Dylan 1941-1966 and After the Crash: Bob Dylan 1966-1978.

Interviews with Dylan, more footage of him performing and the use of Dylan’s own music are the only things that could have made this collection better. But since this is an unauthorized documentary, we only get a few seconds of Dylan performing at the Isle of Wight and with Johnny Cash on the second DVD. The background music sounds like Dylan but is not performed by him.

Aside from these minor drawbacks, Dylan’s life and career are fleshed-out by a variety of music critics, friends and fellow musicians. Hailing from the U.K. and U.S. they provide much more than dry analysis. We get warm reminiscing from people who appreciate Dylan’s work. In addition to showing how vital he was in shaping modern music, we see his humanity and the influences that molded him. The critics expertly dissect his every album.

What intrigues me is how much they see. Their work is utterly fascinating. Like prophets they amplify the message of the songs. This is especially helpful when dealing with a person as mysterious as Bob Dylan, who can keep everyone guessing.

The narration, editing and video of this British production are excellent. You don’t have to be a fan to appreciate the production quality and the insightful analysis. Why Dylan would not contribute and authorize these documentaries is a mystery. He’s not portrayed in a negative light, and this serves as a tribute to a productive career that continues to this day.

This leaves you wanting to know the rest of the story. Let’s hope for more installments.

Tuesday, July 10, 2007

Johnny Cash: The Man, His World, His Music DVD

This DVD shows Johnny Cash during the heyday of his career in the late sixties. I want to say it shows him "in his prime," but that is a matter of debate. Even though he was not at the height of his powers physically, the series of recordings that he did at the end of his life with producer Rick Rubin is among his best work. This production highlights that phase of his career when he and June Carter Cash were riding the wave of hit songs that made him a household name in country music and beyond.

Raw concert performances of a number of those songs, including "Ring of Fire," "Daddy Sings Bass," "Folsom Prison Blues," and "Jackson," are found along with rare recordings of lesser-known songs. This includes a couple of gospel songs and some guest appearances, that include a solo performance by Carl Perkins on "Blue Suede Shoes" and a duet with Bob Dylan. Cash and Dylan clearly warm-up to each other, smiling as the song progresses from opposing microphones. It’s enjoyable throughout the DVD to see a healthy Cash singing in such a strong voice.

Footage of Cash backstage, on the road in a motorhome, and interacting with family and friends is also provided. Cash comes across as a down-to-earth guy who relates well with ordinary people. He doesn’t try to impress, and never postures for the camera. It’s an unadorned look with no narration or graphics.

The music is country with a little bit of folk and gospel. The sound and picture quality is a little more than acceptable, but the content is historic. This is the music that made him famous.
The varied settings—a prison performance, a concert on a reservation, a trip to Wounded Knee, a song sung at home, or in the woods with a wounded crow, provide moving moments in the life of a man, who despite his success was humble and kind to others.

This is a must for the Cash collector and worth exploring for those looking for a mix of documentary and performance from the early life of a music legend.

In an interview on the DVD, Cash says, "Singing seems to help a troubled soul." This DVD provides a glimpse of the many people and the man himself who were helped on their way through the singing of simple songs about everyday life.

Monday, July 2, 2007

Real - Jake Smith

Add Real by Jake Smith to the list of strong debuts on Rocketown Records. Formed in 1996 by Michael W. Smith and Don Donahue, the label has been responsible for the first recordings of Chris Rice, Ginny Owens, Watermark, and Alathea plus some other excellent albums, including Exodus, the worship project that became their best-selling title. This small family-like label has a knack for finding and introducing great talent.

This is equally true on Smith’s impressive offering where he seamlessly fuses a variety of styles (rap, funk, blues, pop, rock, soul) into what the label calls soulful, groove-based pop. It’s an apt description for this New Orleans native who turns tight arrangements, polished production and smooth vocals into a sound of his own that exudes energy and plenty of variety.

"Get Up" the opening song is carried along by a subdued rap that breaks into a joyous chorus that encourages us to get free from what holds us and "get ready for so much more." On "What I Plan to Do," without warning, a shameless piano takes off on a brief excursion through Dixie-land jazz.

In the straight-ahead pop/rock of "Breakdown" Smith addresses a troubled soul: "How can you say it’s better not to speak at all." Holding "it all inside" and saying "you’re fine," when "it’s just pretend." He speaks as a concerned friend when he warns: "You’re headed for a breakdown." The beautiful falsetto and the otherworldly vibe heard on "Run" are reminiscent of Coldplay at their best.

The production combined with excellent vocals and musicianship make it all work together for a cohesive sound.

It’s apparent from the lyrics that Real is full of honest reflections about life from a Christian perspective. The references to God and faith are subtle giving this crossover potential. What makes it rewarding are the optimism and hope that find their way into these songs.

This is a triumph not only for Jake Smith but for Rocketown Records in giving us another great debut.

Sunday, June 10, 2007

Stars in the Morning East—A Christmas Meditation

I was glad to discover that Jeff Johnson was releasing another Christmas recording because they are among my favorites of his work. Stars in the Morning East—A Christmas Meditation is the latest in a string of exceptional Christmas offerings that he has either produced or recorded. The list includes, Centerpoint - Poetry & Music for Christmas (1990), The Spirit of the Season (1994), One Wintry Night by Jerry Read Smith & Lisa Maria Smith (1998) and A Quiet Knowing Christmas (2001). As good as the past recordings have been, this surpasses the earlier ones and rivals A Quiet Knowing Christmas.

Stars in the Morning East is similar in sound to its predecessor. Violin, viola, cello, flute, guitar, bass and piano combine with more innovative sounds for a wonderful blend of traditional and contemporary styles. The spotlight is on the acoustic instruments that at times are allowed to stand alone or with minimal support. As usual with Johnson’s recordings, the production is outstanding, providing crystal-clear sound.

Though Johnson’s soaring and sweeping keyboards provide background throughout, it’s a delight to hear his gentle piano playing. Nowhere is that more in evidence than on the hauntingly beautiful "Coventry Carol," which is framed at beginning and end by mournful cello solos.

The recording opens with Barry McGovern’s reading of the poem "A Christmas Childhood," where the recording gets its title. The reading segues into one of two original compositions by Johnson and Dunning. The rest of the tracks consist of a few popular ("Sing, We Now Of Christmas," "Morning Has Broken" and "In The Bleak Midwinter") and a number of lesser-known carols.

As in past efforts, the traditional melodies serve as starting points for delightful musical improvisation. Classical-sounding music seamlessly gives way to creative and energetic hybrids of Celtic, folk and alternative sounds.

Jeff Johnson may be at his best when it comes to instrumental Christmas recordings. His ability to produce music that not only inspires but evokes a sense of childlike wonder, awe and mystery has given us a recording that is worthy of the season. Quite simply, it will be hard to find a more beautiful and artistic Christmas offering.

Wednesday, May 23, 2007

Because He First Loved Us - Cheri Keaggy

Before we last heard from her on Let’s Fly (2001), Cheri Keaggy had become widely know in Christian circles for adult contemporary and inspirational music. She gained immediate attention through her Charlie Peacock produced debut, Child of the Father (1994). Some of her songs fit the praise and worship format, which led to the release of: There is Joy in the Lord: The Worship Songs of Cheri Keaggy (1999). But aside from the Very Best of Cheri Keaggy in 2006, it’s been a long wait for something new.

Where has she been? "Over the last few years I’ve been marinating in all kinds of stuff, just trying to listen to God’s voice and be obedient, trying to parent intentionally and grow in my relationships," said Keaggy. "The Christian life can be quite an adventure! These songs are pieces … of that."

Because He First Loved Us opens with one of the strongest songs. Inspired by John Bunyan’s The Pilgrim’s Progress, "Stay to the Middle" makes a series of contrasts between fear and faith. "Fear creeps in to keep you frozen / Faith says pray and move ahead / Fear says you will always be broken / Faith knows that broken things can mend." Deliverance is found in keeping to the middle of the path.

The music on this song and some others has a slight alternative or rock edge, which adds to the appeal. Producer Tom Hemby does an excellent job of providing a clean, organic sound with a touch of creativity.

Though this is the first release on her own label, Keaggy keeps to the style that has brought her to this place. Fans of her earlier recordings and adult contemporary pop will enjoy some of her best work.

Cheri wrote all the songs with the exception of Carole King’s "You’ve Got A Friend," which is included as a bonus track. This has always been a great song, and here it’s done as a duet with country singer Marty Roe of Diamond Rio.

Uncle-in-law Phil Keaggy contributes a couple of short guitar solos on "This is the Love." As good as he is, he’s not able though to steal the spotlight from Cheri, the Hemby brothers, and the other fine musicians and contributors, including Tom Howard, who adds strings.

Cheri’s songwriting ability is evident throughout. A good example is found in the piano-driven "Restored (The Grindstone Song)." Though it deals with a weighty subject, it has a light, whimsical feel. "I’ve been living against the grindstone / Where nothing is sure but the Lord / For He gives us the treasures of darkness / Where faith’s greatest riches are stored / And in ways that are quite unexpected / I have learned a most humbling truth / That a faith that has never been tested / Is just growth that is long overdue."

The quiet and beautiful, "The Reason I Stand Tall," marvels at God’s love for us as one of a kind individuals. Her Christian perspective is ever in the forefront and God’s love and grace are a constant theme.

Cheri is blessed with a beautiful voice and is an accomplished songwriter. This is a return to the adult contemporary/inspirational music that has defined her career.

Wednesday, May 9, 2007

The Beautiful Ache - Leigh McLeroy

What is the beautiful ache? In her book, Leigh McLeroy defines it as “that fleeting pang that reminds us of home. Not the home we’ve always known—the home we’ve never seen. The ache pierces and pries open the heart but doesn’t nearly satisfy it. It whets the appetite but doesn’t begin to fill it.”

She elaborates on common desires and their corresponding hardships by weaving together personal stories and Biblical narratives. Each chapter highlights a specific area. The need for belonging, the difficulty of trusting, the hardship of labor, and the pain of grief are just a few of the topics covered.

These insightful and devotion-like thoughts challenge, find humor and move to tears. Her mature and balanced perspective is especially evident in “The Ache for Healing.” She uses a John Piper quote to make her point: “It is fitting that a child ask his father for relief in trouble. And it is fitting that a loving father give His child only what is best. And that he always does: sometimes healing now, sometimes not. But always, always, what is best for us.”

Though this is not a book directed towards single people, I appreciated her perspective, as a single person, in the area of relationships. It’s heartbreaking to see, from a woman’s point of view, the unfulfilled desire for lifelong companionship. In the “Ache of Expecting” she reflects on the advice given by a friend. “It is no small gift to find another who is like you and whose presence is so comforting and right that even the most ordinary moments are enriched by it. Better still is when that one whose presence is life-giving to you comes and means to stay. Emmanuel. God like us. God with us. Forever.”

McLeroy recognizes that longing can enrich our lives. “This is the now and the not yet. Because here we taste only a little of the treasure that is ours. Because it’s the very longing that makes the eventual receiving truly sweet.” Though waiting can be hard, this book finds beauty in it as it points to better things, those that are eternal.

Monday, May 7, 2007

Michelle Tumes

This takes you through Narnia’s wardrobe into a world of enchanting beauty.

At last Michelle Tumes has given us the proper follow-up to her acclaimed first recording. Listen (1999), the Charlie Peacock produced debut, was widely embraced for its creative fusion of pop and classical influences. Her talent for songwriting and layered vocals were also a highlight of the multi-artist Streams (1999) project, which was intended to reach those who suffer from depression. Two subsequent releases on Sparrow records, were a departure from the unique Enya-like music that made Listen so popular. Each of these saw Tumes drifting more into adult contemporary pop/rock, which is often characteristic of artists in the CCM realm.

After releasing Dream (2001), Tumes disappeared from the music scene, until the release of Lost in Wonder: Voices in Worship (2005), a collaboration with Susan Ashton and Christine Denté on contemporary worship songs.

Now with this self-titled release on her own Levantar label, Tumes has given us everything that her first recording was and more. This is Michelle Tumes at her best: excellent songwriting, haunting multi-layered background vocals and plenty of strings that highlight majestic and sweeping music that flows together from song to song. There’s an elegance and beauty that surpasses even what is heard on Listen. It’s this style that sets her apart even from Enya.

In this effort she moves away from guitar-driven adult contemporary pop/rock. Guitars, when heard, are submerged into a mix that highlights piano, strings, and some programmed percussion. A sprinkling of Latin song titles and phrases adds another dimension to her poetic songwriting.

If ever a recording deserved to be associated with the Chronicles of Narnia, this is it. This takes you through the wardrobe into another world. It has that magical quality that evokes the grandeur of mountains, the rolling of thunder, the color of flowers and the beauty of mists that hang over silent and still pasture lands.

Much of that is captured in the lovely "Break Through." In the introduction to the song Tumes writes, "I love the imagery of someone riding through rain and mists to save a heart that has hardened with the burdens of life." This song reminds me again of the elevating power of excellent art. It’s not hard to imagine the hero of a story riding on horseback towards a castle with this as a soundtrack. It’s a pleasure to listen to these moments of inspiring beauty that are scattered throughout this release.

"Lovely Day" matches an upbeat tempo with a cast your cares on God attitude. This is especially good medicine for the melancholy.

Tumes closes with the reflective "Hold Onto Jesus," a song Tumes wrote when she was only 17, but still captures her sentiments today. "When your heart is crying, / your world is dying / You’ve got to hold on to Jesus / When your life has had enough." It’s just Michelle and her piano.

It’s obvious that Michelle’s break from the treadmill of producing recordings each year has rejuvenated her faith and her music. She and husband and co-producer Doug Higgins have given us her best album yet. It was worth the wait to get something that is this excellent.

Monday, April 23, 2007

Speak to Me - Geoff Moore

Veteran music artists are sometimes overlooked in favor of newer ones. It’s a mistake to not consider the experience of someone like Geoff Moore, who has been making music since 1984. Much of it was with his rock band The Distance. In 1999 he went solo with the release of Geoff Moore, and the last time we heard from him was 2002’s A Beautiful Sound.

Seasoned artists reflect a maturity that can only come with time. That alone makes Speak to Me worth checking out.

Despite the use of some cover songs, Moore’s wisdom is reflected in the songs that he helped write and in his choice of music. He is a singer-songwriter at the height of his powers. An organic, roots-rock sound (reminiscent of Bruce Springsteen and Bob Seeger) works well with lyrics that reflect a lifetime of walking with God. These songs touch on many aspects of the Christian life. There’s the brokenness and passion of the title song and the world-weary hope of heaven in "When I Get Where I’m Going," which includes guest vocalist Christy Nockels.

"Your Day" may be the best of all. An echoing guitar leads a melodic adult contemporary sound marked by lyrics that are full of confident expectation and faith. "If I find victory or pain / If it’s in sunshine or driving rain / I will trust you and do the next thing." Moore admits that the last phrase comes from a favorite thought from Oswald Chambers, "When faced with uncertainty and unsure what to do next, he (Chambers) encourages us to ‘trust God and do the next thing.’" This is the ultimate start-your-day song.

Over the years a number of artists have recorded songs about our obligation to the poor. Petra’s "Hollow Eyes," Michael Card’s "Distressing Disguise," and the Randy Stonehill/Phil Keaggy classic, "Who Will Save the Children," are a few that come to mind. We can add to the list "Every Single One," another poignant reminder: "In a world away from luxury / Is where I found prosperity / Where greater love laid down His life / For the orphan and the widowed wife." It springs from the many years that Geoff has worked with Compassion International. The song is graced with beautiful violin playing. A more electric and programmed version is included as a hidden track.

Moore does excellent covers of two familiar songs: "He Knows My Name," a duet with Kendall Payne, and an acoustic "This Is My Father’s World."

"So Long, Farewell (The Blessing)" is a raw and musically raucous goodbye song. That same spirit of musical abandon comes through on the chorus of the title song. Loud and furious, they lack some of the distinction heard elsewhere on the recording.

The album closes with the tender and beautiful "Erase," a plea to be more like Christ. "Erase all the distance between us / replace all the space with Your presence."

Moore’s maturity shines through every aspect of this release. His first Rocketown Records recording shows that experience is worth a lot.

Monday, April 2, 2007

Music Inspired by Amazing Grace

I wonder why so many "inspired by" recordings are not produced in response to the material that supposedly serves as the basis for their inspiration. In the case of movies, why not let the artists view the film prior to its release, and let them craft songs built around scenes, themes or the ideas presented. There may be some reason why this isn’t done—it may be hard to write enough original songs, or maybe it’s difficult to let the artists see a film prior to its release. If the problem is the latter, why couldn’t those contributing songs be given something in written form? It may not be as inspiring, but it at least provides a starting point for creating a song.

This is not to knock Music Inspired by the Motion Picture Amazing Grace. It’s a fine collection of hymns by a variety of talented artists. It seems a shame though that only the song "Amazing Grace" performed by Chris Tomlin has any direct connection with the movie. John Newton, the author of the hymn, had a relationship with the key figure in the film, William Wilberforce.

Tomlin does what many of the artists do with these hymns, and a little more. In addition to a different arrangement, he takes the risk of adding some new verses to a classic song, and pulls it off admirably. Nichole Nordeman does the same with equally impressive results on "Just As I Am." Tomlin’s subdued playing and instrumentation reinvents and adds a touch of grace to one of the most popular songs of all time.

Jeremy Camp’s strong masculine voice is the perfect complement for music that thunders around the verses of "It Is Well." It’s a strong performance augmented by the background vocals of his wife Adie.

This is one of several remarkable duets, the next featuring Shawn McDonald & Bethany Dillon on "All Creatures of Our God & King." It starts off with an ethereal vibe but the vocals get a little cluttered with the programming that ends the song. Another song that suffers from programming is "Fairest Lord Jesus" by Natalie Grant.

It’s a challenge for artists to take such familiar songs and make them sound fresh. For the most part, these interpretations succeed in making these hymns sound new. The best results here are the songs that are acoustic and less complicated like the title song.

Another brilliant example is "Rock of Ages" by David Crowder & Marty Stuart. It begins and ends with a delightful acoustic instrumental that sounds like some wonderful Christmas recording. David Crowder continues to record impressive music.

The medley "My Jesus I Love Thee / ‘Tis So Sweet" by Bart Millard (of Mercy Me) starts and ends with the sounds of an accordion. The music is a relaxed blend of contemporary and pop sounds. Though the title of the song does not show this as a duet, the voice of Derek Webb is unmistakable. He is a great addition to one of the best songs on the recording.

A light country version of "How Great Thou Art" by Martina McBride is also excellent and closes the recording.

Two black gospel songs are included, but with orchestration and more production, they don’t fit as well with the many songs that lean toward acoustic pop or rock. They are well done and they do add variety, but like the songs that make use of programming, they feel a little out of place.

This is a strong collection of hymns done in a contemporary style. It won’t appeal as much to those who favor more traditional renderings.

Gospel - Joanne Cash

Many people may not know that Johnny Cash has a sister who has 27 recordings, an acclaimed autobiography (My Fears Are Gone) and performs continually in helping to perpetuate the Cash legacy. Gospel by Joanne Cash is an appropriate name for this career-spanning collection of original and gospel songs done in a country music style.

Cash sings like a veteran that is well-suited to this style of music, but the twangy pedal steel sound heard so often makes this less appealing to a broader audience. She could have benefited from the type of production that Rick Rubin gave to Johnny’s last recordings, which transcend country music. Some of the music sounds a little dated, like the heavy synthesizer on “When He Comes.”

On the plus side, there is a charm to these old hymns and gospel songs that simply present fundamental truths. Among the highlights are duets with her brother on “Lower Lights” and “Softly and Tenderly.” “Lower Lights” includes one of two spoken work introductions by Johnny Cash. His voice is a little weak, but it still sounds good on these never before released songs. One of the more outstanding cuts is the Johnny-penned “Meet Me in Heaven,” which was one of the last songs that he and Joanne sung together before the passing of Johnny’s wife, June Carter Cash.

“Glory, Glory” and “Cotton, Popcorn, Peanuts and Jesus” are autobiographical in nature, the first dealing with brother Jack Cash’s death and the second being a reflection on Joanne’s simple life growing up. She also does some rousing versions of “I Was There When It Happened” and “I’ve Got Jesus In My Soul.”

Her motives for this release are certainly praiseworthy. “My main purpose in this music is to win the lost and uplift the downtrodden,” Cash says of Gospel. “I don’t think we have much time left before Christ comes again and I want to be everything I can be for Jesus. I’ve seen so many people try and build their kingdom in music, but I don’t worry about any of that earthly gain. When you let God do it, that’s when the real effectiveness happens.”

Joanne can stand alone, but Johnny’s songwriting and performances add value. Lovers of traditional gospel and country music can’t go wrong with this collection.

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