Saturday, December 27, 2008

Mombacho - Mike Janzen Trio & Friends

A collaborator with Steve Bell indulges his passion for jazz

Mombacho
Artist: Mike Janzen Trio & Friends (www.mikejanzen.ca)
Label: Signpost Music
Length: 12 tracks/77:12 minutes

My introduction to Mike Janzen comes through Steve Bell. Janzen’s classical-tinged piano playing and his orchestration on Bell’s Symphony Sessions is impressive and indicative of his talent.

On Mombacho, his sophomore release, Janzen is indulging his passion for jazz. For someone like me who has limited exposure to the genre, it’s like listening to someone sing in a foreign language. But superb craftsmanship, the warmth of a live-feel and the technical precision of a studio recording make this inviting even for the uninitiated.

This jazz evolves through plenty of improvising. It’s energetic, vibrant (not somber) and creative.

The piano-playing is like a swollen stream darting here and there on its meandering journey. I enjoy the short, odd-sounding bass solos. It’s not often that you hear them. They sound like something unhinged, twisting in the wind.

Crisp-sounding drums are also allowed brief moments of abandon. All the instruments celebrate the freedom of liberation from simple pop and rock structures.

The sound is gloriously organic with no synths or overwrought production. It is keyboards, bass and drums with occasional sax and other support. The use of organ on a couple of songs and its use as the only keyboard on the title song add interest.

Most songs extend beyond five minutes. Janzen is the primary composer with collaboration from the others. Three notable covers: "Mrs. Robinson" (Simon and Garfunkel), "All the Diamonds" (Bruce Cockburn) and "God Put a Smile on My Face" (Coldplay) get a jazz makeover.

“Masaya” and “All the Diamonds” are the only tracks with vocals.

Janzen is a master of music, who makes this a fun listen and something different.

Thursday, December 11, 2008

Where We Were - Kerri Woelke

A slice of Americana from Canada

Where We Were
Artist: Kerri Woelke (www.kerriwoelke.com)
Label: Signpost Music
Length: 14 tracks/50:51 minutes

Singing to a karoke machine in her early years and learning to play guitar in a dorm bathroom were just the beginning for Kerri Woelke. She spent years refining her skills in Canadian bands Dirty Old Hank and Gretchen before switching to a singer/songwriter mode. Today she is an Artist in Development with Canadian indie label Signpost Music. Where We Were, her sophomore CD, follows her self-titled debut. Since September 2008 she has been on tour with Steve Bell.

Students of relationships take note. With a folk, country and roots oriented style of music, Woelke often sings about demise between people and the hope of renewal. “I’ve danced with lots before / but never felt so bruised and sore / is it possible to love like this,” she asks on “Last Dance.” In the next stanza she wonders if “this love we’ve lost” can “be found again.” On “Sweep” we hear her resolve after a breakup. “I’ll just sweep / clean up the mess you made of me.”

But don’t get the wrong impression. This is not all about “suffering here below,” to borrow a phrase from an old hymn. Something magical takes place on “Take a Chance.” Only a woman could write such an inviting and vulnerable song. “Take a chance / take a chance on me,” she sings in a childlike voice. This sounds like something that one of Sufjan Steven’s background singers would make. The music is sparse with exotic instrumentation including a banjitar, which is found on a number of songs. Vibes and a quiet bass clarinet make this the perfect soundtrack for a modern day fairy tale—a show like Pushing Daisies could work this into an episode. This song alone makes the CD worth having.

As she continues with, “This is my little love song out to you / I know you thought we were through / and now I’m left here loving you,” my heart melts, and I bask in the sweetness. Songs like this are the reason why I listen to music. They sweep away the gathering gloom, and suddenly the world seems a brighter place.

No synths, light production, and lots of acoustic instrumentation that meshes well, make for a pleasant, organic sound throughout the CD. Often the tone of her voice and some use of pedal steel guitars give this a light country feel. But there is also blues, gospel, and even a little Johnny Cash influence. I could imagine June Carter or the man in black singing some of these songs.

“What Would it Take” and “Tonight I Am the Wind” lean toward alt-folk and are favorites. On the former she intrigues by asking, “What would it take for me to be / happy in my own skin.” The music is acoustic picking accompanied by a low-sounding distorted guitar, reminding me of Katie Herzig. In the latter song you can hear the solace in her voice, “Any peace that I might find / comes in the valleys where I hide / I pass through landscapes turned to dust / carrying pieces of my past.” Here she sounds like a woman at peace.

I’m partial to her folk side, but the rootsy feel and her strong voice make the entire CD appealing. Nothing but good will come from her continued collaboration with Steve Bell and Signpost.

Saturday, December 6, 2008

Devotion - Steve Bell

Singer/songwriter worship with a Taize influence

Devotion
Artist: Steve Bell
Label: Signpost Music
Length: 12 tracks/59:24 minutes

Steve Bell has recorded many inspirational and praise-oriented songs, but Devotion marks the first time that he has created an album for use in worship settings. But unlike his other recordings, Bell has not written any of the songs. Most are by Gord Johnson, whom Bell acknowledges as one of his greatest influences.

Johnson recently started to write simple but elegant songs that were being used in their Winnipeg church. “These contemplative song-prayers have so often gently led us into the presence of the Holy that several of us felt we needed to offer them to the wider worshipping community,” writes Bell in the booklet that comes with the CD.

Don’t get the idea that everything is quiet. The CD opens with “Almighty God,” which explodes with background vocals from Bell and Carolyn Arends and rock that hasn’t been heard in awhile on a Steve Bell record.

The music styles vary. “The Lorica” is as light and catchy as a Celtic reel. “Praise the Father, Praise the Son” has a strong melody and a full-bodied sound. There’s even a gospel and blues-influenced communion song (“Embrace the Mystery”). “Who Condemns You Now” has few words and a sparse sound that includes an English horn.

This is one song that strongly shows the influence of Taize worship on Johnson's writing. Taize music reflects the contemplative nature of an ecumenical and monastic community founded in France by a man known as “Brother Roger.” This style often uses simple phrases from the Psalms or other parts of Scripture, which are repeated as an aid to meditation and prayer. Some lyrics on this release have a little more depth, but they all mirror this style, which is growing in popularity.

Bell dresses the words with acoustic picking and creative musical interludes. Producer Roy Salmond’s ethereal guitars and synth work give some tracks a more ambient sound. One can find similarities with the recent releases of Jeff Johnson, who has also been inspired by Taize worship.

“Gone is the Light” is one example of just how good the result of this influence can be. It’s a haunting reflection on our brokenness and Christ’s suffering. It’s part of a song cycle that is somewhat liturgical. It starts with a view of God’s attributes, which segues into our need for the redemption spoken of in this song. It then shifts to a celebration and nurture of the new life within, followed by the closing “Benediction.”

The cover is a hoot, with Bell looking like a Jewish rabbi chasing his hat that is being blown by the wind. He sees it as a picture of his relationship with God, who he continually pursues but “playfully (maddeningly)” remains just beyond reach.

Devotion is an enhanced CD that contains printable lead sheets and lyrics. This has everything needed to use the material in one’s own setting. The enhancements also include a video of Bell performing “Deep Calls to Deep” with the Edmonton Symphony Orchestra.

Even though I can appreciate contemporary praise and worship, I find this type of music more appealing. It merges Bell’s acoustic singer/songwriter bent with songs that are simple enough to facilitate worship that gets beyond words and music.

Jesus spoke of those who worship in spirit and truth. If the Church has been strong on the truth side, this could help balance the scales by inspiring more worship in spirit.

The originality and creativity on this CD make it one of Bell’s best recordings. Don’t be surprised if it gets a Juno award, the Canadian equivalent to a Grammy.

Tuesday, November 18, 2008

The New Conspirators: Creating the Future One Mustard Seed at a Time - Tom Sine

Challenged by an imaginative view of what the Church can be

The New Conspirators: Creating the Future One Mustard Seed at a Time
Author: Tom Sine
Publisher: IVP Books
Pages: 304

When I asked to review The New Conspirators by Tom Sine I thought I was getting a critique of the emergent church and its related expressions. I had just finished a book that was extremely critical of reimagining the church, and I thought that I was getting another that might validate or modify the concerns raised in the first book.

I quickly discovered that Tom Sine is not only sympathetic to a new kind of church life but is a key player. This book is like a primer for the emerging, missional, mosaic and monastic movements. He introduces the dominant thoughts of each group and some of the most influential people. Those already immersed in this worldview may not find a lot that is new, but the material is so comprehensive that it is a valuable resource for those on either side of these issues.

This book is well-written, but it is not formulated as a defense of these movements. It does not delve deeply into doctrinal concerns and does not provide an in-depth Biblical basis for what is taking shape.

The focus is on encouraging people to adopt a lifestyle that is consistent with the manifestation of God’s reign here on earth. Sine sees his book as an invitation to a simple but radical lifestyle when he writes, “This book is an invitation to a part of something ‘really, really small,’ a quiet community that is destined to change our lives and God’s world. We will particularly focus on what God is doing through the emergent, missional, mosaic and monastic streams of the church. But we are all invited to the join the creative edge by more fully discovering how God might use our mustard seeds to be a part of this conspiracy of compassion and hope.”

In many ways this is a challenging read. Anyone reading this with an open mind will have to think hard about the repeated call to examine whether our way of doing church and living the Christian life has been shaped more by our consumer culture than we may have realized. It’s ironic that in some areas these new forms of Christian expression seem to be more aware than their critics of how the church and the lives of Christians have been shaped by the world.

There is much here that is praiseworthy. The book is particularly strong in advocating a discipleship that encompasses our entire life rather than just segments of it. The author shows how believers can develop statements of calling to help them live more intentionally. The idea is to live in the reality that God’s new order is here now and breaking into our world.

The author frequently touches on issues of global concern, and it’s amazing how relevant it all is to our current situation. It’s as if he was peeking into the present when he wrote this book. He accurately portrays some of the discouraging challenges that the church and the world face today. It’s probably the most sobering part of the book.

Whether you view these new expressions of the church with suspicion or are an enthusiastic participant, this book is worth reading for the ideas and realities that are presented. Christians must grapple with these concepts and decide which way to go.

Hopefully, those leading these movements will be willing to engage their critics rather than just dismiss them. It’s understandable that they have no desire to go about doing church as usual. But for the sake of truth, being accountable to other members of the body of Christ, and for the sake of those they lead, they should carefully weigh criticisms and be open to dialogue with their opponents.
On the other hand, it would be a mistake for critics to say these new expressions are all wrong. How many of us, and how many of our churches, are all right or all wrong? We might like to think we are right all or most of the time, but pride deceives us when that is our attitude.

Whether these movements are faithful in doctrine and practice to the standards of Scripture will remain a source of debate. How much better it would be if both sides could respectfully speak the truth in love. It shuts down communication when people resort to derogatory comments.

It might help if we look for what’s good and right in each other’s words. I wasn’t looking to find fault, and I discovered truth worth considering.

Billy: The Early Years (Official Motion Picture Soundtrack)

Surprises abound on this tribute to Billy Graham’s early years

Billy: The Early Years (Official Motion Picture Soundtrack)
Artist: Various
Label: Essential
Length: 12 tracks/37:04 minutes

You might imagine that the soundtrack for a movie about one of the greatest evangelists that has ever lived would be full of inspirational songs from popular CCM artists. If you thought that way, you are in for a big surprise. Billy: The Early Years is dominated by country artists—including many that I was not familiar with or had never heard of—performing mostly stripped-down acoustic songs. Except for the last three tracks, which are hymns, creative original songs dominate this release. The sparse production gives both the hymns and the new songs a fresh sound.

The only CCM-sounding song is “Amazing Love” by Michael W. Smith and Melinda Doolittle. This is a decent song, but it doesn’t fit the style of the rest of the release. Another curious addition is “In Dreams” by the legendary Roy Orbison. This is not as good as some of his songs like “Pretty Woman,” which have become popular in recent years. It’s one of three love songs.

The love songs pay tribute to Graham’s early relationship with his wife Ruth. Her own words about what she wanted in a husband are featured in “Ruth’s Prayer,” sung by Patty Griffin.

Other songs wistfully look toward heaven as in “Over the Next Hill,” a strong duet between Brooks & Dun and Mac Powell of Third Day.

Josh Turner could pass for a young George Beverly Shea on “Almost Persuaded,” the bittersweet hymn about being close to salvation but still being lost. Turner sings the song with great dignity.

“Just As I Am” starts with a choir of voices that rise above stringed instruments. Sierra Hull adds her voice midway through and at the end she alone is left singing. It’s an effective technique that wonderfully reinvigorates this hymn, which has been used to close so many Billy Graham Crusades.

Brad Paisley does an excellent instrumental guitar version of “What a Friend We Have in Jesus.”

I can’t help thinking that the Graham family would be pleased with the artistry and dignity found on each of these tracks. I like the clear annunciation of words and the sparse acoustic instrumentation.

It’s a shame that the movie has not done well. It may mean that fewer people will give this CD a chance.

I had low expectations before hearing it, but this CD was a pleasant surprise.

Wednesday, November 5, 2008

A New Hallelujah - Michael W. Smith

Singing praise to God can be exciting and inspiring

A New Hallelujah
Artist: Michael W. Smith (www.michaelwsmith.com)
Label: Reunion Records
Length: 15 tracks/69:07 minutes

You could say that A New Hallelujah (2008) stems from the release of Worship (2001), which became the fastest-selling album in Christian retail—eventually achieving platinum certification along with Worship DVD (2002). But Michael W. Smith’s (MWS) engagement with worship started long before this. Do you remember, or have you heard, “Great is the Lord,” from his debut recording Michael W. Smith Project (1983)? It was sung in churches across the land.

MWS has always had a heart for worship, but now more than ever it is being fully expressed. With this, his third praise and worship recording—Worship Again (2002) his second—Michael returns to what must be one of his reasons for being.

MWS may be too mainstream for sophisticated tastes, but he brings a dynamic and energy that wins many people over. He has the ability to make worship exciting and inspiring. He demonstrates that there’s no reason why singing praise to God needs to be dull.

The dramatic opening instrumental that starts with what sounds like a ticking time-bomb and machine-like drumming, reminiscent of the opening ceremony in this past summer’s Olympics, create a sense of anticipation. It leads right into “Prepare Ye the Way,” a song that builds in intensity toward an explosive chorus.

Two excellent songs performed with the Uganda’s African Children’s Choir follow. It shows a little of the variety in styles found here, which includes atmospheric rock, African, gospel, piano balladry, choir and congregational singing, and additional special guest performances. The latter includes, Coalo Zomorano, who sings in Spanish, and local crowd favorite, Israel Houghton, worship leader of Joel Osteen’s Lakewood Church, where this event was recorded.

The duet between MWS and Israel Houghton on “Help is on the Way,” is a standout gospel song that communicates comfort. Another highlight is the vibrant choir and congregational singing heard throughout the recording.

One drawback, and it’s characteristic of this genre, is the prolonged repetition on some songs of choruses and simple phrases. I would have enjoyed hearing the verses of “Healing Rain” and “Majesty.”

Some who prefer mostly anthem-like songs may not appreciate the more quiet and subtle moments, but this balances out the triumphant and celebratory nature of the event. You get both praise and worship. The tender “Deep in Love with You” balances the majesty of “Mighty to Save.”

There is a little more depth and creativity than what you find on the two previous releases. You get flashes of MWS’s ingenuity with arrangements and keyboards. It’s always been an asset, but perhaps not as evident on the other two releases. If I had to choose between his trilogy of worship recordings, this would be my pick. Some of the songs are not as strong, but this is more artistic.

This is worth seeing as well as hearing. The DVD is scheduled for release on March 17, 2009.

Sunday, November 2, 2008

Christmas Offerings DVD - Third Day

More than a Christmas concert

Christmas Offerings DVD
Artist: Third Day
Label: Provident Label Group
Length: 1 hour 13:36 minutes

Third Day continues to impress on Christmas Offerings DVD. Earlier this year they released Revelation, one of their best recordings. The same excellence found on that CD is featured on this DVD.

This offers a fine collection of songs ranging from Christmas classics, a few originals and some of the band’s signature songs. The latter includes wonderful versions of “King of Glory,” “Show Me Your Glory,” “Your Love, Oh Lord,” “God of Wonders,” and a rousing finale of “Creed,” written by Rich Mullins. These songs broaden the appeal, making this something that could be watched any time of the year.

Nevertheless, the Christmas element is prominent. Lead singer Mac Powell frequently encourages the audience to sing along in what the band hopes will be a worship experience. Even so, the music is what makes this a first-class Christmas DVD.

Third Day’s God-directed lyrics are accompanied by a pop/rock sound that is especially engaging on this DVD. They do remarkably strong versions of Christmas songs in their own style. The six-piece band performs against a starry backdrop with lighting and images that evoke the season.

Among my favorite moments are introductions from guitarist Brad Avery and bass player Tai Anderson. Anderson affirms that bass players can do more than generate throbbing sounds.

It all starts with an extremely well-done intro consisting of concert clips mixed with shots of band members off stage. This 2007 concert was filmed at Fellowship of the Woodlands in The Woodlands, Texas.

During the performance Mac Powell states that Third Day never had plans for a Christmas concert, but they were pleased with the results. Those who see this will also appreciate what they have done. Third Day has given us a gift worthy of the season.

Wednesday, October 22, 2008

Resurrection Letters, Vol. II - Andrew Peterson

An inspired work that further develops Peterson’s worshipful side

Resurrection Letters, Vol. II
Artist: Andrew Peterson (www.andrew-peterson.com)
Label: Centricity Records
Length: 11 tracks/42:49 minutes

Resurrection Letters, Vol. II by Andrew Peterson may be his most inspired work. If The Far Country (2005) had more of a rock edge, this is more acoustic. If Appendix A: Bootlegs and B-Sides (2006) was raw, this is more polished. The songs that deal more directly with the resurrection theme are some of most fully-developed tracks that Peterson has done. Strings add to their elegance.

This release also furthers Peterson’s worshipful side. “Invisible God” reminds me of Rich Mullins’ “The Color Green.” Peterson strings together a series of images from nature set against a haunting background. Whereas “The Color Green” has more driving force, this is quietly beautiful.

What makes “Hosanna” striking is the context. Peterson’s descriptions of depravity highlight the meaning of the word, which means “save us.” The cry does not come from a heart enamored with its own goodness.

“All You Ever Need” compares the blood of Jesus to host of obscure Biblical metaphors: the widow’s ore, the leper’s river (Jordan) and Elijah’s fire. It’s also enough to fill up every jar. At last, some fresh pictures worthy of such a lofty theme.

The song that pursues like the man it is named after is “Hosea.” This is one of Peterson’s finest songs, demonstrating that he is one of Christian music’s best songwriters. This is sung from the perspective of the prophet Hosea’s wayward wife, who is never mentioned by name. She tells the story of how her husband’s steadfast love turns her heart of stone to a rose.

Hosea’s humanity is poignantly depicted when his wife recalls how he came to her “like a silver moon with the saddest smile I ever knew.” It’s a small reflection of the strength of God’s love, which never wavers. It’s an exquisite depiction of grace.

For those who love honesty and humility—the two go hand in hand—there is “The Good Confession.” It’s a reminder that those in the spotlight struggle with the same temptations and sins common to all. It’s safe to say that this will never be the theme song for the positive confession movement. What makes it endearing is its playful candor.

This CD is so likeable that you may want to get Volume I. Alas, Volume II is Andrew being his usual creative self. It says that these songs deal with the reality of the resurrection in everyday life rather than the event itself. At the moment, Volume I is only in the planning stages. It’s hard to imagine a prequel eclipsing this, but Peterson has the gifting and ability to pull it off. This is one artist whose entire catalog is worth checking out.

Wednesday, September 24, 2008

Heart of Courage - Amy Douglas

A satisfying, ministry-minded listen

Heart of Courage
Artist: Amy Douglas
Label: MissionHouseMusic/iWitness Records
Length: 10 tracks/

On Heart of Courage Amy Douglas is equally at home singing country, inspirational and adult contemporary pop. She has the voice for each of them, and her music encompasses all three.

Her songs are pleasant, in that they soothe in music and word. The lyrics are a blend of affirmation, encouragement and challenge informed by faith. Those who want to apply Philippians 4:8 to their music choices will find plenty of truth to think on here.

In “Choices” she challenges by reminding that, “We’ll never end up where we want to be just by chance.” “Hero at Home” is a poignant country tale of a mom that must carry on while her husband fights abroad. She dedicates this CD to all the Troops, their spouses and their families. This CD would be an excellent gift for the spouses who must go it alone while their husbands or wives complete their service to our country.

I can’t help thinking of Dr. James MacDonald when Douglas prays for, “A boldness with the truth” on “Heart of Courage.” It’s a subject that the latter has preached on, making it clear that “boldness with the truth” is something that we need in our day. I think he would also applaud the rest of the chorus that asks for an “Ambition to do all that You have created me to do / Give me a heart of courage / For I’ve only one life to be / Everything You know that I can be / Give me a heart of courage.”

If conveying the reality of life in a compelling way is part of the truth that we are to dwell on, Douglas especially succeeds on the last three songs. They are among the most striking and set her apart. The arrangements are richer making the music more interesting. These are songs that musicians have fun playing. The lyrics seem more heartfelt and portray life in a slightly darker hue. This is the Amy Douglas that I want to hear.

Another noteworthy song is “Keep on Walkin’,” where Douglas sounds a lot like Susan Ashton. The encouragement to never give up is carried along by a captivating groove.

Overall, I think Douglas succeeds in producing a satisfying listen that is ministry-minded. Women in particular will find comfort and hope in this release.

Monday, August 25, 2008

Keeping it Between the Ditches: Living the Christian Life - Ray Sikes

Honest, non-religious writing about the stuff that matters

Keeping it Between the Ditches: Living the Christian Life
Author: Ray Sikes (raysikes@gmail.com)
Publisher: Ray Sikes
Pages: 201

Ray Sikes won me over right from the start in Keeping it Between the Ditches. He writes, "I’ve tried to avoid ‘religious’ writing and simply tell the truth about believing in Jesus." It’s a simple concept, but it’s what makes this book so rewarding.

Sikes goes on to tell of his frustrations and disappoints a couple of years ago when he wondered, "What I had missed out on in the ‘abundant life’ that Jesus had promised to his followers?" How many of us have felt the same way? Even though Jesus said that his yoke was easy, many Christians discover that living the Christian life can be complicated. With hope for finding help in my own life, I knew that this was a book that I wanted to read.

As I read further I could not help being reminded of Donald Miller, author of Blue Like Jazz. Sikes’ use of stories from his own life, the non-religious language and the revealing honesty are all reminiscent of Miller’s style.

It’s also obvious that he has a gift of teaching. He has a balanced perspective, his conclusions are Biblically-based and he shares the truth in love. His manner reminds me of the description of wisdom given in the book of James: "The wisdom from above is first pure, then peaceable, gentle, open to reason, full of mercy and good fruits, impartial and sincere" (James 3:17 ESV). These are characteristics that every teacher should aspire to emulate.

This book, however, is not a Bible study. Sikes is telling his story. It reminds me of a thought expressed by F. W. Boreham. No one has ever been born whose story is not worth telling. Sikes makes his own easy to read and fills it with meaning. Anyone with a heart that sincerely desires to follow Christ can benefit from the practical wisdom in page after page. The insights are on target—firmly rooted in reality.

Lines like the following, which speak of the difficulties in life, encouraged me: "Each day is an opportunity to serve God, love others, and rejoice, despite our circumstances. Even in the worst of times, there are glimpses of grace, and whatever comes my way is better than what I actually deserve."

Knowing that I write for a publication that caters to music lovers, I should add that music has been a big part of Sikes’ life. In addition to being a discerning music listener, he has played bass in Christian bands, contributed to songwriting and been a part of worship teams. Reflecting on his varied experience, he writes, "Over the long haul, the music I have loved and don’t get tired of is simply ‘real.’ It’s not so much a performance as a genuine bit of communication from one artist’s soul to the rest of us. I love three simple guitar notes that convey emotion more than a flurry of guitar riffs that are merely fret board calisthenics. Give me a ragged vocal that’s tinged with the scars of humanity instead of a pitch-perfect display of vocal prowess any day. Write an honest lyric about the love of God or even the love of a good woman, but don’t make me listen to religious platitudes or romantic cliches. I have better things to do with my time, and I’ve found that God often is found in silence and not in so much noise."

I think this observation reflects what Sikes has accomplished in this book. He provides a realistic perspective on a multitude of subjects that include: music, substance abuse, cultural engagement, sex, singleness, marriage, family, work, money, church, the Bible, prayer and more.
As a single person, I felt like I gained a more sensible view of sex and marriage. I came across unique thoughts.

I found myself identifying with some of the author’s experience in church life. He lays to rest the idea that the only way to serve God is through vocational ministry. If you have ever lived under that mindset, it can be a real burden and hindrance. His thoughts are freeing.

I was challenged by his desire to live simply and avoid the many forms of materialism. This book is worth reading for a Christian at any stage of maturity. It’s also a book that a non-Christian could pick-up and understand.

Keeping it Between the Ditches is a reminder that treasure can be found apart from well-known names, large promotional efforts and media hype. As Jesus said in one of his parables, it could be in a field, off the well-worn ways of commerce. This book is a keeper.

Monday, August 18, 2008

A Wheel within a Wheel - Southeast Engine


















As profound as Ezekiel’s strange wheels

A Wheel within a Wheel
Artist: Southeast Engine (http://www.southeastengine.com/)
Label: Misra Records
Length: 13 tracks/41:44 minutes

For those who like depth, A Wheel within a Wheel by Southeast Engine provides plenty to explore. This reminds me of a rock opera, but not in the traditional sense. The words don’t tell just one story. It’s more like a stream of introspective reflections with occasional apocalyptic images of Ezekiel making their way into songs and the intriguing cover art.

There’s none of the oratory bombast of Queen, though frequent style changes in song do give them an opera-like feel. Instead of a hyper Freddie Mercury, you get a world-weary Jeff Tweedy in vocalist and songwriter Adam Remnant. He pours out his heart and ultimately surrenders to hope, but it’s the journey that makes this interesting.

The music is an amalgamation of both old and modern. It has a little of the passion and raucousness of sixties rock—at times explosive with a few notes of discord thrown in for interest. This reminds me of the Biblical concept of meekness, which you could define as power under control. One moment contains gentle sounds, even strings. Thundering rock may be just around the corner.

It can be as unpredictable as Ezekiel’s whirling wheels. "We Have You Surrounded" is just one example. It starts off quietly and builds with hard rock rhythms before ending with a screaming guitar that sounds like an old-fashioned siren. It ends with the band playing a rough mix of power pop with some sixties background vocals. It can be diverse and raw, but it’s under control.

Lyrically, it’s a thicket of words—the loftiness of Ezekiel with the heart of a Jeremiah. It’s musings on everyday life informed by faith but avoiding clear articulation. One exception is "Oh God, Let Me Back In," which is a quiet, earnest plea for God to take the singer back.

In stark contrast, it’s preceded by one of the heaviest-sounding songs, "State of Oblivion." The sound is ragged—the band plays with reckless abandon—and the view is cynical: "Daybreak has broken and I’ve long since begun to set all my feelings aside to live in a state of oblivion where happiness is my guide where I’m in control where I’m in total control." "Quit While You’re Ahead" throws a few jabs at politicians: "tell me what I believe tell me what it is I need tell me you’ll provide it for me … I’ll mistake the lies you sell me for the truth."

For those who want to listen deeply, there is much to glean both musically and lyrically. These songs can be as simple and complex as one of Ezekiel’s wheels. Fans of alternative rock will enjoy this the most.

Make Some Noise - Krystal Meyers

Meyers makes noise that you can dance to on her third outing

Make Some Noise
Artist: Krystal Meyers (http://www.krystalmeyers.com/)
Label: Essential Records
Length: 10 tracks/36:31 minutes

Fans of Krystal Meyers’ previous recordings may be surprised by Make Some Noise. Though the cover art hints at what’s inside, it’s a stretch from the rock on the first two releases.

It starts with the opening title song, which—who would have guessed?—has a club sound. Heavy urban rhythms and infectious grooves support in-your-face lyrics about a generation called to make a difference. There’s even an interesting synth that sounds like a concentration camp siren. Could this be a metaphor for a generation not willing to be silent? An edgy (but not overly so) concept video, which will probably get a lot of airtime, can be seen on YouTube.

The lyrics to this song don’t contain any overt Christian language. Has she traded her faith to become the latest club sensation? You can forget that silly notion. Her faith is still in evidence, particularly on the more guitar-driven songs that alternate with the new sounds.

This new vibe gives the recording crossover appeal. You can dance to most of the songs, and those with more urban appeal, are more generic lyrically, lending themselves to different interpretations.

One of several relationship-oriented songs stands out. "Up to You" is a breakup song that asks, "You sure it’s what you wanna do? I’ll leave it up to you." It expresses the heartache and uncertainty of an unwanted demise in a relationship. Am I your lover or your enemy?

Producer Doubledutch loads this up with programmed tracks and dance club grooves but there are still songs that hearken back to Meyers’ previous work. Fans should give this a chance. The producer makes the alternating styles cohesive. This doesn’t sound like two different recordings rolled into one.

Meyers deserves credit for being willing to experiment. She acquits herself admirably, and Make Some Noise will no doubt attract new listeners. They may even discover her faith, which might make the risk of a new sound worthwhile.

Wednesday, July 30, 2008

Revelation - Third Day

A strong effort that includes some pop/rock gems

Revelation
Artist: Third Day (http://www.thirdday.com/)
Label: Essential Records
Length: 13 tracks/43:26 minutes

Third Day is in fine form on Revelation, their first new studio recording since Christmas Offerings (2006). With the departure of guitarist Brad Avery, whose contribution to this project is acknowledged by the band, Third Day is now a foursome.

From the opening "This Is Who I Am" the band makes it clear that this is a rock album. Don’t expect to find any praise and worship songs. Third Day rocks hard throughout the recording, but they sound best when they are in the more moderate pop/rock mode. The melodies are stronger, which makes for better songs.

The best example may be the title song, which is a pop/rock gem. It starts off as a keyboard ballad that has a beautiful chiming guitar on the chorus. The song captures the feeling of what it’s like to lose your way. The chorus is a plea for God to show one what to do. Even Christians lose their way at times. I appreciate the fact that this song and several others give voice to the struggles that are common to us all.

Another outstanding track is "Born Again," which is a duet with Flyleaf’s Lacey Mosley. She also sings on "Run to You." Sadly, the words "born again" seem to carry a lot of baggage in our society. But this is the best song with those words that I have ever heard. This is a beautifully written and performed ballad.

Today I found myself searching all these years
And the man that I saw wasn’t all who I thought he’d be
I was lost when you found me here
I was broken beyond repair
Then you came along and sang your song over me
Feels like I’m born again, feels like I’m living
For the very first time in my life.

With it’s poignant lyrics, dreamy guitar and peaceful sounds, this may be my favorite song. It’s the ultimate soundtrack for making a new start with God.

"Slow Down" is a great blues rock song. Robert Randolph adds his amazing playing to "The Other Side," but the song is not one of the most compelling.

In contrast to the songs that give voice to our fallen condition, a number of songs are written from God’s perspective, offering love, hope and comfort. The first single, "Call My Name" is a prime example. Drummer David Carr has said, "Sharing God’s love with people has always been core to us. We want to reiterate that God loves us." Lyrics like this are comforting to me. When I am hurting, it’s the simple truths that mean the most. Third Day has done an excellent job of gracefully weaving these precious realities into a number of these songs.

"Take It All" is an acoustic song of surrender. I would like to hear more of this side of Third Day.

This is a strong collection of songs that with few exceptions I took to immediately. Not having heard much of their previous work, I can’t say with authority that this is among their best recordings, but I would guess that it’s true. I would not hesitate to recommend this to Third Day fans and fans of pop/rock.

C2: Giving Movies a Second Look DVD Series

New DVD series for youth develops a biblical worldview for evaluating movies

C2: Giving Movies a Second Look DVD Series
Producers: Michael W. Smith, Seabourne Pictures & Randall House (http://www.seabournepictures.com/)
Length: 20-minute original films with bonus materials that include study guides

C2: Giving Movies a Second Look is a new small group study series on DVD. The purpose of the series is to equip young people to apply a biblical worldview to their entertainment choices.

The DVD includes an introduction by Michael W. Smith that you can view at "What is C2". He describes the content as a "movie-going experience in a bite-sized film." Each DVD contains a twenty-minute original film with bonus features including a leader’s guide that can be used for up to three lessons.

The films are ideal for a youth group. C2: Love at First Sight [Volume One] deals with romantic and true love, judging others and accepting different opinions. You can view the trailer here: Love at First Sight. C2: Relapse [Volume Two] is about addiction, grief and bioethics. You can view the trailer here: Relapse. The quality is comparable to films produced by the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association. They are well-made but not on the same level as what comes out of Hollywood.

Love at First Sight is light and funny, while Relapse makes its points through a serious drama. The latter is visually striking. Both films are entertaining enough to hold a young person’s attention. They open the door for the discussions prompted by the study guides.

The study guides are easy-to-use, well-written and provide an abundance of material and depth. They are designed to provide a filter which young people can use to evaluate movies.

This series would work well for a weeknight church or home group meeting.

Ryan Smith, Mark Cowart and Michael W. Smith founded Seabourne Pictures in 2005.

It would be helpful if this partnership or some Christian film critics designed a similar DVD series for an older age group. People of all ages need to develop a biblical worldview in evaluating the arts.

This is a good start and a helpful tool in learning to evaluate what one sees.

Monday, July 14, 2008

Bob Dylan 1978-1989 Both Ends of the Rainbow DVD

A documentary of Dylan’s most controversial decade

Bob Dylan 1978-1989 Both Ends of the Rainbow DVD
Producer: Chrome Dreams (www.chromedreams.co.uk)
Length: Main Feature - 127 minutes

Bob Dylan 1978-1989 Both Ends of the Rainbow is the third Dylan documentary in the series produced by UK-based Chrome Dreams. The first two are now part of a limited edition set titled Bob Dylan: The Golden Years 1962-1978. If you like documentaries and are a Dylan fan, you can’t go wrong by adding both of these to your DVD collection. It doesn’t get much better than this.

The DVD starts with extensive commentary on one of the most fascinating and controversial periods in Dylan’s career. It encompasses the period marked by the three recordings that made Dylan’s new Christian faith evident: Slow Train Coming (1979), Saved (1980) and Shot of Love (1981).

If Dylan’s emergence as an icon for the counter-culture in 1965 divided the hip from the unhip, his declaration of the gospel on Slow Train Coming divided the saved from the damned. Many saw this as a betrayal. Slow Train Coming went platinum, but his next two Christian recordings charted poorly in the US, which reflected the disenchantment of some of his fans. The opinion of a record storeowner that I spoke with during that time probably reflected the views of many Dylan fans. He liked the music but didn’t like the message. There was nothing subtle about it, and it was too much for many fans to handle.

What remains a mystery is where Dylan stands in relation to his faith today. One person reiterates that he has never renounced it. Dylan has chosen to keep this subject out of the limelight.

The film shows what a difficult time the eighties were for Dylan and other aging rock stars. MTV, disco and DJs took music in a new direction less favorable to rock. Dylan struggled to be successful in his recordings and performances.

Infidels (1983) was a departure from the Christian trilogy that preceded it. Dylan was once again becoming more subtle and poetic. Empire Burlesque (1985), Knocked Out Loaded (1986) and Down in the Groove (1988) charted poorly, but they contained standout tracks that are now revered as classics. The release of Oh Mercy (1989) was seen as a return to form.

The DVD feels a little long at 127 minutes, but the depth of analysis is excellent. It even provides a perspective on the politics of the time. The performance clips and appearances are brief but noteworthy, punctuating some of the highs and lows of Dylan’s career.

One of the highlights is a short segment of Dylan performing “Maggie’s Farm” with Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers. It makes you wish you could see the whole song, but this is a biography and documentary.

I think the producer gets the content right. Full performances are outside the scope of this independent review and critique. One interesting bonus is an audio interview of Dylan when he was in the most fervent phase of his Christianity.

This is a must-have for fans and anyone interested in Dylan’s music and career.

The Buck Owens Recording Studios Farewell Session - Dr. BLT

Dr. BLT gives a fond farewell to an important studio.

The Buck Owens Recording Studios Farewell Session
Artist: Dr. BLT (http://www.drblt.net/)
Label: Nu BakoSound Recordings (Independent)
Length: 12 tracks/35:47

Dr. BLT is a psychologist, a featured writer for The Phantom Tollbooth, and a recording artist immersed in the old Bakersfield Sound and its modern counterpart, the Nu Bako Sound, which is being fashioned by up-and-coming Bakersfield artists that bridge the sounds of past and future.

He has a remarkable ability to take a subject and turn it into a song. He has done this numerous times to commemorate a special occasion, or to reinforce a bit of helpful advice to an anxious or questioning soul.

On The Buck Owens Recording Studios Farewell Session he provides a fitting tribute to the closing of a landmark studio started by Buck Owens. Before closing on April 30, 2008, the studio was used by music legends like Merle Haggard, Johnny Cash and Dwight Yoakam.

It was Dr. BLT’s honor and privilege to record the last solo project before it closed. The songs are a stripped-down mix of rugged country, folk, blues and rock.

The use of brief bits of wild electronic enhancement coupled with frank lyrics reminds me a little of early Frank Zappa. Dr. BLT is not afraid to experiment, and this is especially evident on remixed versions of four of the five songs that cover different aspects of the studio’s legacy.

The CD has three extra songs. There is the lively guitar-picking heard on the opening, "Six7Eight (Prelude to Farewell)" and two bonus tracks. "Make New History" is a challenge to those rooted in the Bakersfield sound to create something new. "Buck, the Beatles and Bo" was written on the day of Bo Diddley’s death. The song includes the interesting observation that the happiest Beatles—Paul and Ringo—are the two that are still living. The Beatles and Bo Diddley were big influences on Buck Owens.

The doctor once again provides meaningful perspective on significant events.

Wake the World - Beloved

Ministry for women from another trio of ladies

Wake the World
Artist: Beloved (www.belovedga.com)
Label: Trato Records
Length: 11 tracks/44:42 minutes

Wake the World by Atlanta-based pop trio Beloved is their third recording but first to be distributed nationally. These three ladies, come from a variety of backgrounds—a former Miss Georgia and new mom that hosts a popular Christian TV talk show, a woman married for 25 years now realizing dreams that were locked in her heart, and a single woman (think unclaimed blessing) that worked previously at Forefront Records. What they have in common is their stated purpose of encouraging and edifying the body of Christ, particularly women, and to present Jesus Christ as the way of salvation to those who don’t know him.

They hope to achieve this through a variety of means: singing, songwriting, testimony, humor, and most importantly, relationship building. This happens annually at a women’s retreat they sponsor in Georgia, which has sold out the past couple of years. Their funny stories rival their songs in popularity.

Listening to this CD, it’s hard not to compare Beloved with Point of Grace, especially since the latter is now also a trio of women. Beloved are at their best when they somewhat mirror the recent direction taken by Point of Grace—a stripped-down acoustic pop with a hint of country. "River Where Mercy Flows" is a prime example that could pass as either country or Celtic.

Another gem, but in the jangly pop mode, is the Mac Powell produced "Love God, Serve Others, Share Your Story." The song simply summarizes the Christian life and has a sing-a-long chorus that will make this a concert favorite. You can hear a little Third Day in the guitar-driven production.

Having written nine of eleven songs, Beloved stumbles a little in the use of cliches on "I Dare You" and "Wake the World," which happen to be the first two songs. They recover through the rest of the recording with a combination of thoughtful lyrics and pleasant sounding music. One exception, is "You Are Good." Though it’s a decent cover of a popular praise and worship song, I would much rather hear their beautiful voices and harmonizing on another original song. I understand the need for song variation, but one pitfall of them occasionally resorting to pop/rock or contemporary worship is that they are no longer distinct.

They might do well to take their cue from Point of Grace: keep the music light and uncluttered. Let their voices shine through on songs of personal reflection as they have done the majority of the time here.

I enjoyed this. I think a lot of women will as well.

Monday, June 9, 2008

Worlds Collide - Brian Bates

Worlds Collide
Artist: Brian Bates (www.brian-bates.com)
Label: Independent
Length: 10 tracks/43:10 minutes

It’s only May but this is my most pleasant musical surprise of the year. I had no idea what to expect when I took off the shrink-wrap. I chose not to read the promotional material, and the cover didn’t give me a clue as to what to expect.

There’s no substitute for well-crafted melodies with excellent performances and that’s exactly what I found here. There’s not a bad song on the recording. Smooth and soft vocals, acoustic pop with a little light rock, and backing from some veteran studio musicians like Jerry McPherson and Steve Brewster make for a pleasant listen. For this reviewer, it’s a welcome change. This is music that distinguishes itself through subtleties rather than following the trend toward rocking harder.

To top it all off the songs are full of meaningful lyrics. Bates co-wrote most of the songs with themes alternating between finding wholeness, intimacy with God and Bates’ personal encounter with some of the neediest in the world. He and several buddies traveled to Sierra Leone to visit some villages that they had "adopted." Two of the best songs ("You Danced" and "Elijah") are reflections on his experiences. In "You Danced" he marvels at how people who have so little are still able to be joyful. It makes him long for a similar freedom.

"Elijah" is a more sobering song. It’s not about the prophet of old, but a boy whose childhood was stolen. Elijah was forced to become a soldier and commit atrocities that drove him crazy. This song is a lament for Elijah and the others like him who have suffered terribly for what they have done.

"Under," written by Joel Hanson, may be my favorite song. It’s such an inspired combination of sentiments and sounds that it could be used in a worship setting.

Every burden I’ve ever carried
I’m leaving here, I’m leaving here.
Every wound my hands have delivered
I’m leaving here, I’m leaving here.

The symbolism of water in the chorus is a beautiful way of expressing what baptism is meant to be.

Under, I’m going under
Let the water, wash over.
Let me rise up out of these old ways
Into new life, into your name.

The artistry, the introspective but broad world-view rooted in Scripture, and an eye toward social justice, make this especially appealing to those who want to see change in the world.

This CD reminds me that an artist does not have to reinvent music to produce something that is relevant and unique. It’s a rewarding experience when an artist is able to express who God made them to be through engaging songs. I took to these tracks from the opening song, and there’s a good chance that those who hear this CD will have the same experience.

I Turn to You - Richie McDonald

I Turn to You
Artist: Richie McDonald
Label: Lucid Artist
Length: 10 tracks/39:05 minutes

County and gospel music continue to intersect on I Turn to You by Richie McDonald. This is the latest offering from an increasing number of country artists recording inspirational songs.

What sets this apart is a modern country sound—a combination of guitar driven pop/rock and ballads with not even a whisper of pedal steel. Big guitars are heard on the majority of the songs.

The straightforward lyrics are what you would expect from country music, but the words are all inspirational. The repeated mention of what Christ has done on the cross is a welcome surprise. No stories of love lost and found, but plenty of comfort and a hint of challenge on songs about living the Christian life. A couple of songs focus on reaching out to others, but most relate to finding refuge in God during hard times.

McDonald wrote or co-wrote all but two of the ten songs. Having grown up in a Christian home, McDonald for the first time is sharing his faith through music. "I want to touch people with songs that really mean something to them. I want to do my best to sing songs that can really make a difference in someone’s life," McDonald says.

This CD reveals an accomplished singer and songwriter. One of the most beautiful moments is the tender "Faith." This is one of two more acoustic numbers. The chorus is accompanied by a lovely melody, "Faith gives you hope. Hope gives you strength. Strength gives you courage to go on each day. When you’re praying for answers to things you can’t change; when it’s out of your hands, you hold on to faith."

One of my favorites is "Handle With Prayer." It’s a classic country rocker with guitars reaching skyward. McDonald’s voice takes flight on a chorus that ends with the simple but memorable thought, "Life is fragile, handle with prayer."

Richie McDonald is best known as the lead vocalist for the country band Lonestar. After more than a dozen years with the platinum-selling group, McDonald and his wife felt like God wanted him to move on.

This marks his debut as a solo artist. This has a familiar country music sound, but McDonald does an excellent job of articulating his faith in a natural way that doesn’t let the music take a back seat to the message.

Wednesday, April 30, 2008

I Have A Hope - Tommy Walker

Soulful praise and worship from a gifted veteran

I Have a Hope
Artist: Tommy Walker
Label: Maranatha Music (www.maranathamusic.com)
Length: 10 tracks/47:49 minutes

A combination of factors make this a standout among the many praise and worship CDs. For one, you have a seasoned worship leader, along the lines of a Brian Doerksen, who after releasing eight live recordings has stepped into the studio for the first time with producer Ed Cash (Chris Tomlin, Cademon’s Call, Bebo Norman).

The combination of Walker’s often soulful vocals, and music that includes rhythm and blues, gospel and a little guitar-led seventies rock, make this sound different than the average contemporary worship recording.

Walker and Cash lean toward raw and uncluttered production, which makes for a warm and relaxed organic feel. The one exception is the programmed percussion on “Holy Spirit Come,” which disappears in the mix as the song goes on. Basic instruments form the foundation for well-crafted songs.

The lyrics cover a broad range of subjects. There’s the charismatic picture of revival in “Do It, Lord.” Jerusalem becomes a metaphor for the presence of God in “From Jerusalem.” It’s a cry for God to send His people into the world.

The title song is a powerful declaration of the promises of God that will serve as a lifeline to all that are needy. “I Believe, I Believe” is a simple expression of faith in Jesus that came out of a time of doubt. Simple arrangements of lyrics that are packed with Biblical truth and Holy Spirit-inspired vision keep these songs from getting bogged down.

Some tracks may not be as readily adaptable to the corporate setting, but they serve to stimulate praise. There’s an anointing that will lift hearts and impart hope. This is one of the best praise and worship recordings of the year.

Hope No Matter What: Helping Your Children Heal after Divorce - Kim Hill

This is everything a devotional for kids of divorce should be.

Hope No Matter What: Helping Your Children Heal after Divorce
Author: Kim Hill with Lisa Harper
Publisher: Regal (www.regalbooks.com)
Pages: 89

This is everything a devotional for kids of divorce should be—short, easy to understand, colorful, comforting and helpful. This is kid-friendly right down to the layout. There are free-form titles and drawings, multi-colored scripture verses, a special space devoted to getting a response to the content, and a concluding prayer that a parent can pray over their child.

This is designed for parents to read with their children. Though it was written with younger ones in mind, children of all ages, and even adults, can benefit from the content. Simple truths, like the ones found here, comfort and encourage when our hearts are hurting.

This collection of 32 short devotions is divided into eight sections. Each section represents one of the eight songs on the Kim Hill CD Hope No Matter What (2002). The CD does not come with the book, but would be worth getting because of the overlapping content.

Each devotion starts with a line from one of the songs. The first song is "Hold Me Jesus" by Rich Mullins. How could I not like a devotional that starts out with the lines from one of my favorite songs?

Stories and thoughts that Hill shared with her children in the aftermath of her divorce follow. It concludes with a verse of Scripture. All of this fills one page. On the adjacent page, there is an attractive space for children to write and draw their response to a simple activity. The book is wider than normal—7 x 9 inches—to provide plenty of space for this interactive section.

It would be easy to breeze through the book quickly, but the recommendation is two or three devotions a week.

I’m not aware of any other books like this. It’s a valuable resource for parents and children that have experienced the tragedy of divorce.

Here We Go Again - pureNRG

High energy and pure fun for young people

Here We Go Again
Artist: pureNRG (www.pureNRGonline.com)
Label: Fervent Records
Length: 12 tracks/35:42 minutes

How would I describe the music of pureNRG? How about high energy and fun for starters? But it goes deeper than this. They also share their Christian faith and communicate Biblical values to children of all ages without being preachy. But there’s more. If you have seen either of their two DVDs, you know that they like to move, as in acrobatics and complex choreography. To say that they dance is an understatement.

Here We Go Again is their second CD. They are teamed once again with Rob Hawkins and Mark Hammond who produced their self-titled debut. The title song opens the recording and is their first single. It’s a start-your-day song that through trust in God has a hopeful outlook towards the future. This affirmation of faith in God coupled with practical encouragement is found throughout this release.

One of the best songs is a beautiful cover of Nichole Mullen’s “Call on Jesus,” which the group plans to perform in concert. Another highlight is a youthful take on Matthew West’s hit song, “More.” These are excellent versions of two great songs. One of the surprises is a remake of the classic, “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough.” The new arrangement gives it a fresh sound.

On “Like,” which looks at the differences between people, and “Girls Can Change the World,” a call for girls to unite to make this world a better place, they distinguish themselves with a playful attitude and music to match. It adds up to a fun listen. On the more serious side, “Any Which Way” uses a feel-good vibe to express a desire to let God have His way in one’s life.

The song selection, arrangements, production and vocals are all strong. Parents and children have something to cheer about with such a well-made recording.

Thursday, April 17, 2008

Stars in My Crown - Jorma Kaukonen

Top-notch artistry with gentle wisdom that is quietly compelling

Stars in My Crown
Artist: Jorma Kaukonen
Label: Red House Records (http://www.redhouserecords.com/)
Length: 14 tracks/52:41 minutes

Jorma Kaukonen has come full circle on Stars in My Crown. At a young age he drew deep from the well that Rev. Gary Davis provided, a man known for his elaborate fingerstyle fretwork. Kaukonen adopted and mastered this style.

Along the way, there was more that he would take to heart. "I was fond of gospel and spirituals," Kaukonen writes in the liner notes of this CD. "My mom had turned me onto Mahalia Jackson when I was a kid in D.C., and gospel music always seemed to be a comfortable place to go."

As a founder of Jefferson Airplane and Hot Tuna, his music took him down different roads, "but spirituals always seem to help light the way," he recalls. This explains Jefferson Airplane’s recording of the obscure spiritual "Good Shepherd," when they were at the pinnacle of their career. It was one of their best songs. Kaukonen’s connection with gospel and roots music has always been an influence, but its out in the open on this CD.

"Overture: Heart Temporary," written by Kaukonen, starts it off with a stunningly beautiful combination of music and spiritual reflection. The chorus reminds us of our need for grace: "When the best you have to offer falls short of the mark, self-inflicted holes are piercing deep within your heart." As he reflects on the best moments in life, he sings, "At such a time you think you’d find, a way to show your heart. And though you’re reaching for her hand, still you walk apart." This is one of a number of songs reflecting simple but profound insights on life.

The music is acoustic, sparse and in a mellower vein, reflecting a man at peace with his maker, himself and the world around him. His sixty-six years have brought him to the place where he finds joy in expressing himself in earthy songs that have a subtle but spiritual influence.

I can’t help smiling thinking about the Lightning Hopkins’ blues classic, "Come Back, Baby." There’s something about great picking that elevates my mood, and the song contains one-line spiritual references that come out of nowhere. Kaukonen’s voice is strong, and the blues licks are amazing. He is in the groove, but this is just a sample of the finger picking that you find throughout this recording.

Hot Tuna collaborator, Barry Mitterhoff, plays on almost every song. Sorry, if you are a Jack Casady (Jefferson Airplane and Hot Tuna) fan, he’s nowhere to be found, but Kaukonen has assembled a group of musicians that would make Ricky Skaggs proud. This is right up there with the best playing found on gospel and spiritual songs. Along with those styles you get a variety of folk, bluegrass, country, blues, and even reggae.

Kaukonen pays tribute to his mentor the Rev. Gary Davis by including one of his songs, "There’s a Table Sitting in Heaven." He has also does a dramatic version of "The Man Comes Around," by Johnny Cash. The man in black would no doubt approve of this combination of spine-tingling music and spoken word.

The title song is southern gospel at its best. The CD also includes several beautiful instrumentals written by Kaukonen.

I wonder if many people of faith will hear this recording. My guess is that not many will, which is a shame, because this is a real find. It combines top-notch artistry with gentle wisdom that is quietly compelling.

Rebecca St. James: The Ultimate Collection

This collection lives up to its name.

Rebecca St. James: The Ultimate Collection
Artist: Rebecca St. James
Label: ForeFront Records (www.forefrontrecords.com)
Length: Disc 1 – 13 tracks/53:45 minutes, Disc 2 – 12 tracks/48:15 minutes

Rebecca St. James has the heart of a disciple. It’s reflected in God-centered lyrics and modern music with an edge. It’s this combination of passion for God and artistic integrity that make her a continual favorite with fans.

This 2-CD set provides a comprehensive collection of her best material. This includes "Lion," part of the inspired by soundtrack for The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion The Witch and the Wardrobe, "America," the theme song for the 2005 National Day of Prayer, and "Hark! The Herald Angels Sing," from WOW Christmas. Another bonus is "Expressions of Your Love," a duet with Chris Tomlin.

Older songs like "Pray" and "God" hold up well with their raw energy and rock. "Yes, I Believe in God" and "Here I Am" are inspired songs of commitment.

St. James adequately covers the praise and worship songs found here, but she is at her best on songs like "You Are Loved" that have a modern pop/rock sound. She’s too talented to not be devoting herself to the excellent original material that you find throughout this release.

Here We Go Again - pureNRG

High energy and pure fun for young people

Here We Go Again
Artist: pureNRG (www.pureNRGonline.com)
Label: Fervent Records
Length: 12 tracks/35:42 minutes

How would I describe the music of pureNRG? How about high energy and fun for starters? But it goes deeper than this. They also share their Christian faith and communicate Biblical values to children of all ages without being preachy. But there’s more. If you have seen either of their two DVDs, you know that they like to move, as in acrobatics and complex choreography. To say that they dance is an understatement.

Here We Go Again is their second CD. They are teamed once again with Rob Hawkins and Mark Hammond who produced their self-titled debut. The title song opens the recording and is their first single. It’s a start-your-day song that through trust in God has a hopeful outlook towards the future. This affirmation of faith in God coupled with practical encouragement is found throughout this release.

One of the best songs is a beautiful cover of Nichole Mullen’s "Call on Jesus," which the group plans to perform in concert. Another highlight is a youthful take on Matthew West’s hit song, "More." These are excellent versions of two great songs. One of the surprises is a remake of the classic, "Ain’t No Mountain High Enough." The new arrangement gives it a fresh sound.

On "Like," which looks at the differences between people, and "Girls Can Change the World," a call for girls to unite to make this world a better place, they distinguish themselves with a playful attitude and music to match. It adds up to a fun listen. On the more serious side, "Any Which Way" uses a feel-good vibe to express a desire to let God have His way in one’s life.

The song selection, arrangements, production and vocals are all strong. Parents and children have something to cheer about with such a well-made recording. There’s no sophomore slump here.

Thursday, April 3, 2008

A Place Called Grace - Carmen D'Arcy

Praise and worship with a wonderful pop sensibility

A Place Called Grace
Artist: Carmen D’Arcy
Label: Brick Street Records
Length: 11 tracks/45:41 minutes

Recordings like A Place Called Grace by Carmen D’Arcy give me reason to be optimistic about the future of praise and worship music. On releases like this, artists continue to move beyond simplistic lyrics while developing artistic integrity. Given the nature of the genre, it can be a challenge to be original. It’s almost inevitable that some songs will sound like what’s been done before, but this CD shows that worship leaders like D’Arcy are developing their own sound.

What I find appealing about this is a wonderful pop sensibility. This recording is a fine blend of praise and worship and inspirational pop somewhat reminiscent of Twila Paris, but with a more modern feel. A few songs might be right at home at a Hillsong event. Others might remind you of Natalie Grant. Though many of the songs are adaptable to the corporate worship setting, a few work best as vertical songs of inspiration.

Credit must go to Bryan Lenox (who has produced Michael W. Smith and many other top Christian artists) for making this sound so good. It sounds fresh even though some tracks are characteristic of the genre. There’s a hint of British influenced pop rock that includes some terrific hooks. While being contemporary it avoids being edgy, which would take away from the broad appeal. It’s so well-crafted and clean-sounding that those who favor more traditional types of worship may like it.

The title song is a standout with a wonderful blend of hopeful lyrics, and inspired music and production. It’s probably more adult contemporary pop than praise and worship, but it fits either format. D’Arcy gets great backing from male vocalists on this and other songs. Light strings grace this and a few other tracks. She also makes occasional use of a choir.

One of the surprises is an adaptation of the little known Joseph Addison hymn, "Spacious Firmament." It has a fresh arrangement with an added chorus. The poetic imagery is reminiscent of Psalm 19:

The spacious firmament on high,
With all the blue ethereal sky,
And spangled heav’ns, a shining frame,
Their great Original proclaim.

Th’ unwearied sun, from day to day,
Does his Creator’s pow’r display,
And publishes to ev’ry land
The work of an almighty hand.


There’s good songwriting and accessible melodies throughout. D’Arcy has a warm voice, and the music is tight with a good mix of tempos.

D’Arcy leads worship and directs the choir at the 6,000-member Grace Community Church near Indianapolis, Indiana. She is also a mother of four—their youngest adopted from Guatemala. She and her family are passionate advocates for adoption.

This is a strong first release that will be enjoyed by many.

Monday, March 17, 2008

Composing the Beatles Songbook – Lennon and McCartney 1957-1965 DVD

A wonderful analysis of one of the greatest songwriting teams of all time

Composing the Beatles Songbook – Lennon and McCartney 1957-1965 DVD
Producer: Prism Films
Distributor: Chrome Dreams (www.chromedreams.co.uk)
Length: 80 minutes plus bonus features

Music documentaries don’t get much better than this, especially if you are a fan of The Beatles. What could be better than a variety of music experts and friends of the band analyzing one of the greatest pop songwriting duos of all time?

This focuses on the formative years of the partnership that culminated in the landmark release of Rubber Soul. The film explores the early working relationship of Lennon and McCartney, which was mostly collaborative. They enhanced each other’s work to a greater degree than in later years when they along with the other Beatles became like solo artists with a backing band.

The release of Hard Day’s Night marked a significant change in the relationship. “Can’t Buy Me Love,” the first single, was clearly a McCartney song, just as “Hard Day’s Night” was a distinctly Lennon song. Instead of the two singing together, for the first time each sang separately with double-tracked vocals. It was just the beginning of a divide that would grow in time.

The analysis of their personalities as well as the evolution of their songwriting skills is what makes this so fascinating. Temperament and different backgrounds, along with varied influences were all factors that shaped their songwriting.

Bob Dylan turned out to be one of the monumental influences, especially to Lennon. After the release of The Freewheelin' Bob Dylan, The Beatles began to change musically and lyrically. One small sign was Lennon’s use of the harmonica on “I Should Have Known Better” and his use of the harmonica-holder, which Dylan had popularized.

Dylan propelled The Beatles to more serious songwriting. Here was a man that was eloquently sharing his life experiences in song. It may have inspired Lennon to write “In My Life,” one of The Beatles’ most beautiful songs. Dylan’s influence led to songs like “I’m A Loser” and “Nowhere Man” that were somewhat confessional and showed a darker side of Lennon’s life. He shocked people in 1970 by revealing that the song “Help” was autobiographical. Lennon’s discreet writing of a sexual encounter on “Norwegian Wood (This Bird has Flown)” may be another Dylan influence.

Though they had shared influences, McCartney’s development was different. One of the surprising things is just how many songs he gave away that became huge hits for other artists. Some songs didn’t quite fit The Beatles mode. His gift for melody was obvious, and unlike Lennon, who had a more narrow musical background, he had a greater range of music to draw from. His early exposure to Tin Pan Alley, jazz and show tunes provided him with the inspiration to create songs like “Till There Was You” and “A Taste of Honey.” This would lead to “Yesterday,” a modern classic, and “Michelle.” Both songs had broad appeal and gave The Beatles greater respectability.

After the release of Rubber Soul, which some critics regard as the band’s finest collaborative album, the divide between Lennon and McCartney continued to grow in more ways than one. They would both continue to be innovators, but they would not work together as closely as they once had. This is where the analysis ends.

There are plenty of rare photos and digitally enhanced performance clips, which look and sound fantastic. It’s worth having for this alone, but the interviews are excellent and often include analysis of specific songs. Like any great performance, you are left wanting more. If you are a Beatles’s fan, you can only hope for more installments.

How Great Thou Art: Gospel Favorites Live from the Grand Ole Opry


Classic songs and hymns done in a traditional country style

How Great Thou Art: Gospel Favorites Live from the Grand Ole Opry
Artist: Various
Label: RCA Records
Length: 12 tracks/46:51 minutes

Unlike another recent country release to the Christian market, this has a strong country flavor. Fiddles and pedal steel guitar, and vocals that clearly reflect a country drawl, are heard throughout.

This collection of hymns and gospel songs are mostly unadorned and performed in a straightforward manner. The simplicity puts the highlight on the vocals and melodies. With the exception of "I’ll Fly Away" performed by Charlie Daniels and Mac Powell, which is almost frentic, the songs are mostly mellow and deliberate. It helps one to truly focus on the words rather than being distracted by the music.

The lesser known songs like "House of Gold," "Family Bible," and "Where No one Stands Alone" are a little more interesting due to their being less common. On the other hand, the sparse music and the reverential tone on well-known songs like "Blessed Assurance" by Alan Jackson and "The Old Rugged Cross" by Brad Paisley are endearing.

These are all live performances that have been spliced together. There’s no indication that these performances took place at the same time, though that could be the case. You often hear the artist’s name announced and fans respond with polite applause before and after each track.

There’s not much innovation. The artists don’t try to be contemporary, but I found that refreshing. I also liked the shortness of some of the songs. It’s a welcome change from repetitive praise and worship songs that sometimes feel too long. It’s pleasant to hear performances like these that are just right in length, and soothing to the ears.

One must be a country music fan to fully appreciate this. However, if you can acclimate yourself to country, and are not tired of hearing some familiar songs, you may enjoy this. The different setting provides an opportunity to experience these classics anew.

Monday, March 10, 2008

Another Time, Another Place: Timeless Christian Classics - Avalon

Still testifying to love

Another Time, Another Place: Timeless Christian Classics
Artist: Avalon
Label: Sparrow
Length: 15 tracks/67:34 minutes

Another Time, Another Place by Avalon is a good way to revisit some of the greatest Christian songs of all time. "We Will Stand," "Friend of a Wounded Heart," "El Shaddai" and others can easily be regarded as some of the most memorable and enduring compositions ever performed by Christian artists. Here they are interpreted for a new generation by one of Christian music’s premier vocal groups.

Those familiar with the songs may be surprised at how revved-up they sound. Some have a rock edge like "For the Sake of the Call," which actually sounds better than the original. Modern production and arrangements have revitalized the songs so that they are not as sleepy as the originals might sound to today’s generation.

None of this should be taken to mean that the songs are significantly different. The excellent "People Get Ready" has the same strong gospel vibe. "We Will Stand," another highlight, features guest vocals by Russ Taff and a choir. "People Need the Lord" is as beautiful as ever. "Place in This World" is still moving after all these years. It’s also great to have a new version of "Friend of a Wounded Heart," a Wayne Watson song that is probably underrated.

Most arrangements work well. Two possible exceptions are "Thy Word" and "El Shaddai," which are more experimental in the hopes of making these familiar songs sound fresh. Some may find the prominent programmed percussion on "El Shaddai" bothersome. "Thy Word" is better with a loop that is more subdued.

Sadly, due to a heart condition and a recent vocal ailment, this will be the last recording to feature Jody McBrayer, one of the original founders of the group. Jeremi Richardson has taken his place. Janna Long, the last original member of the group, said that the group has no plans to disband, "We will continue to move forward in our ministry as long as God opens doors for us to do so."

The last track is an update of the group’s signature song, "Testify to Love." It’s a fitting conclusion, and it may be the best track on the recording.

They still have strong voices, excellent harmonizing, intricate arrangements and a modern pop sound. When you combine that with the group’s strong ministry focus, there’s a lot more testifying that they can do.

Wednesday, March 5, 2008

The Prodigal Comes Home - Michael English

A redemption story in song

The Prodigal Comes Home
Artist: Michael English
Label: Curb Records
Length: 11 tracks/44:10 minutes

The Prodigal Comes Home by Michael English is a redemption story told in song. English didn’t write the songs, but they fit his life since his fall from grace in May of 1994. One week after receiving four Dove awards following the release of Hope (1993), English confessed to having an extramarital affair with Marabeth Jordan, a singer with First Call. He returned the awards, and the fallout came quickly, including the breakup of his marriage.

By the time of the release of Heaven to Earth (2000), English could speak of all that God had done in his life, which included overcoming an addiction to painkillers. His restoration went a step further when on August 29, 2002, English married Marcie Stambaugh, the daughter of a pastor. In May of 2004 they were blessed with the birth of Issabella Grace (Bella).

English’s new life is reflected in these songs, which give voice to what it feels like to have a second chance. The lyrical content is general enough to make it possible for anyone to relate to the songs. Those struggling with different kinds of problems should find encouragement, hope and comfort. Each song is a variation on the theme of a prodigal son’s return.

Most tracks are mid-tempo in the adult contemporary style. "Sanctuary" and "A New Day" are more pop rock oriented. "The Only Good In Me" and the gospel-flavored "Have a Little Faith in Me" are among the best for their refreshing simplicity. Some of the more dramatic songs showcase English’s considerable ability.

He sings his heart out throughout this release. His voice has a pleasant touch of soul—a little like Michael Bolton and Michael McDonald. It sounds so natural. The songwriting, musicianship and production are also excellent.

This may be Michael English’s best recording. It’s a strong return.

Wednesday, February 27, 2008

Artful pop in the style of Sixpence None the Richer

Lanae’ Hale EP
Artist: Lanae Hale (www.lanaehale.com)
Label: Centricity Records
Length: 6 tracks/22:38 minutes

Lanae’ (pronounced Lah-nay) Hale’s debut is a pleasing combination of thoughtful lyrics and artful pop reminiscent of Sixpence None the Richer. She’s only 24, but her songwriting shows a great deal of maturity. Her songs deal with practical issues like the need for hope, the desire for lasting relationships, and connecting with God. What makes this interesting is Hale’s personal take on love lost and found and the challenges of living out one’s faith in the world.

Her voice ranges from sweetly sung sentiments to passionate pleas. You get the best of both on “Stay,” a blues-infused song where the intensity builds on the chorus but towards the end becomes a beautiful whispered-plea.

A simple but infectious guitar hook on “Alive Again” colors the rhythm as it does on other songs. Her sound is somewhat sparse with an organic feel, and the tempos vary. Though similar in style to Sixpence, Hale deserves credit for not sounding like everyone else.

This is a well-produced effort that is more than just the usual fare.

Tuesday, February 19, 2008

Blue sky ahead


















Love Out Loud
Artist: Jaci Velasquez (http://www.jacivelasquez.com/)
Label: Apostrophe Records
Length: 11 tracks/37:59 minutes

Coming across the following verse in my daily Bible reading: "Naphtali is a doe let loose, he gives beautiful words" (Gen. 49:21 NASB), I could not help thinking how applicable it seemed to Love Out Loud by Jaci Velasquez. Having come through a divorce, a season of depression, and the disillusion that comes when life no longer makes sense—next to death, three of the biggest "Ds" that you can experience—she’s now singing like a doe set free. It’s a picture of freedom, and her encouraging words are beautiful.

It starts off on a joyful note with "Nothing But Sky," a U2-like anthem. Clear blue sky depicts the outlook of someone who has come through the storms of life. There’s no clouds or rain in sight. The future looks bright.

"It’s Not You, It’s Me," another song that rocks, provides a healthy perspective. It’s the realization that we are the only person that we can control. People are not the problem as much as how we respond to them. If this sounds a little like therapy, you do find that element in some of the songs, but it’s not overdone. Velasquez went through a time of counseling and some of what she learned is reflected in her songs.

The message of the title song brings to mind another scripture. "Little children, let us not love in word or talk but in deed and truth" (1 John 4:18 ESV). Jaci hopes that the song will motivate others to show God’s love through service to others.

"Jesus (The Way)" is a quiet, tender song of worship. It may have an impact similar to "On My Knees," one of Jaci’s most popular songs. "My Alleluia" is a desperate longing for God to hear the heart when there are no words.

"Weightless" is one of my favorite songs. It conveys joy right from the start with a layered background vocal and a catchy piano hook that drives it. It captures the feeling of being set free from all burdens. It may bring a tear to the eye of those who long to experience this kind of freedom. Velasquez says, "There’s something that happens when you fall in line with God’s will for your life. The weight of all burdens is lifted off your shoulders." Velasquez has such a great voice for pop music, and this is a classic example. It’s pure delight.

"A Likely Story" is one that I will return to because it’s such an unusual love song. Jaci sings about her disbelief at being loved during her courtship with husband Nic. She says, "It seemed to be good to be true. Very much the way I feel about the undeserving love I receive from God."

"Tango" is rich in fiery Latin rhythms and is a metaphor for the give and take that must happen in a marriage.

"Por Escrito" is a quiet, flamingo-guitar styled duet in Spanish with husband Nic Gonzalez, frontman for Salvador.

On "Into the Light" Jaci encourages those who are down to follow her into a deeper relationship with God. A brief instrumental, "Outro," closes the CD.

This release reunites her with producer Mark Heimermann, who produced her first three recordings. He’s done an excellent job of staying true to Velasquez’s sound while modernizing it and adding touches of creativity.

There’s nothing like a personal testimony to inspire and provide hope. With Velasquez co-writing the majority of the songs, this album reflects on her life the past couple of years. It should encourage those who are going through difficult times. When you align yourself with God’s will, the clouds and rain will not last forever. There’s blue sky ahead.

Thursday, February 14, 2008

An elegant exploration of life as seen from the light

The Geography of Light
Artist: Carrie Newcomer (www.carrienewcomer.com)
Label: Rounder Records
Length: 14 tracks/51:04 minutes

The Geography of Light by Carrie Newcomer shows how elegant modern folk music can be. Storytelling, often associated with the genre, makes for a more literary style, but I like the fact that Newcomer doesn’t try to be clever in her songwriting or music. Her simplicity is beautiful.

That’s not to say that this is lacking in depth. On the contrary, this Quaker associates with theologians and authors like Jim Wallis, Brian McLaren and Phillip Gulley. The latter has written a glowing tribute to Newcomer’s artistry in the CD booklet. If any of these men were songwriters, they might write songs like the ones found here.

“Geodes” is a prime example. Geodes are mysterious rocks that are plentiful around Newcomer’s home in Southern Indiana. Though common on the outside with brown and gray exteriors, they contain a core of sparkling quartz crystals. Newcomer writes in the liner notes, “They remind me to look deeper, because often within what may appear quite ordinary is a core of beauty and mystery.” This is just one of many songs that Newcomer fills with thought that is rich and dense. Amazingly, it never sounds cluttered.

The thought behind “Throw Me a Line” is loosely drawn from chapter six of the gospel of Matthew where Jesus speaks of the futility of anxious thought. It includes the lovely line: “There’s a still quiet voice / It sounds a little like mine / Saying you’re right where you should be / It’s just gonna take time.” What a balm of peace for an anxious heart! The song is a beautiful plea for refuge in rapidly changing times.

It echoes a note of hope that is heard throughout. Even on a song like “A Mean Kind of Justice,” which casts a shadow, there is a ray of light: “There’s a goodness on this earth, that will not die, will not die / It bears all, it’s seen it all, and still it survives / And I know we have failed, but I’ve seen that we can fly.”

You can even hear the optimism in the music on “Leaves Don’t Drop (They Just Let Go).” Newcomer’s lilting voice mixes with piano notes that dance for joy.

As in the other songs, this is an exploration of life from the perspective of someone standing in the light. Newcomer avoids being trite, which is what makes this so appealing.

She admits that the music is sparser than previous efforts. The space between the notes provides breathing room for acoustic instruments that grab the spotlight. The percussion is light, and the production is clean and crisp.

Though I had not known of her before, this is Carrie Newcomer’s eleventh recording for Rounder Records. Listening to her is like finding sparkling crystals in ordinary-looking stones. She makes it seem like the winds of heaven are blowing through the stuff of earth.

The Legacy - Michael Phillips

Passing on a vision of life with God The Legacy (Secrets of the Shetlands, Book 3) Author: Michael Phillips ( www.fatherofthein...