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.

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...