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.

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