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.

Rock Gets Religion - Mark Joseph

Christians making music for the many rather than the few Rock Gets Religion: The Battle for the Soul of the Devil’s Music Auth...