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 (
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.

Resurrection Letters: Prologue - Andrew Peterson

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