Thursday, September 30, 2010

Counting Stars - Andrew Peterson

Lost in wonder at these stars

Counting Stars
Artist: Andrew Peterson (
Label: Centricity Music
Length: 12 tracks/43:44 minutes

I am a huge fan of Andrew Peterson, having almost all of his releases. Counting Stars may be his best yet and my personal favorite. What is somewhat surprising is that this is a little more acoustic and folksy than some of his recent recordings that were more rock oriented. For those who favor the latter, and want to hear Peterson cut loose, this could be a slight disappointment as the songs tend to be mellower.

The two songs that are driving, “You Came So Close” and “The Reckoning (How Long)” differ stylistically from the others in that they employ more electronic sounds and percussion. They almost don’t fit, but they do provide contrast.

Most of the songs are mid-tempo and are awash in beautiful acoustic sounds. “The Magic Hour” and “Isle of Skye” are piano-driven and bathed in minimal but gorgeous accompaniment. Perhaps Peterson was signaling this intention with the opening “Many Roads,” which starts with nothing but strings.

That’s not to say that this is sparse. Produced by Ben Shive with Andy Gullahorn, who also perform on piano (Shive) and guitar (Gullahorn), there is a rich blend of sounds. The prevalence of warm acoustic tones gives this a timeless quality.

Peterson’s songwriting is as good as ever. It’s interesting that though there are no songs written specifically for “praise and worship,” this leads me to such a peaceful place that I want to look up in wonder at the stars that are too numerous to count. The lyrics are mature and poetic communicating hope and encouragement. As he typically does, Andrew weaves thoughts and stories about family life together with lofty spiritual themes.

On “World Traveler” he surprises with lines about a personal journey, “I walked the hills of the human soul, a tender girl / I’m a world traveler /She opened the gate and took my hand, led me into the mystic land where galaxies swirl / So many mysteries I never will unravel / I want to travel the world.”

His first music video, something he promised himself that he would never do, also pays tribute to his wife. Peterson said he gets emotional every time he sees the older couples dancing in “Dancing in the Minefields.” You can watch the YouTube video here: It’s so well done that I hope he does this again.

I’m sure that a lot of work went into this, but the flow makes this feel like this is more than just Peterson striving to come up with something. The Psalmist reminds us that “Unless the LORD builds the house, those who build it labor in vain” (Psalm 127:1a ESV). God must have had a hand in this because Peterson’s labor has not been in vain. It has little of the edginess heard in some previous work, but that’s part of what makes this so inviting. God’s peace runs through it like a river. This is a masterpiece of folk, pop and spiritual reflection.

Sunday, September 19, 2010

An artistic triumph

In Feast or Fallow
Artist: Sandra McCracken (
Label: Independent
Length: 15 tracks/53:39 minutes

On In Feast or Fallow, Sandra McCracken makes hymns sound old and new. The lyrics could come out of any hymnbook, though all but one, “Faith’s Review and Expectation (Amazing Grace),” are not the familiar ones so often covered. The production and electronic sounds (particularly various keyboards) give the basic acoustic instrumentation an alternative feel that is rooted in the past but also has a modern sensibility. It’s a taste of Americana with a contemporary flavor.

It’s a masterful and unique blend that combines the talents of McCracken and husband Derek Webb. The latter makes his presence known as producer and provider of back-up support without ever being intrusive. This is one of their finest moments both individually and as a couple.

This overflows with creativity. Listeners may scratch their heads wondering how a particular sound was produced. Webb’s studio wizardry provides a quirky blend of retro and slightly off-kilter sounds. Diverse notes take their place without jostling each other or thinking it strange that they occupy the same place. They harmonize to create a sound that is both earthy and spiritual.

The music is both sparse and richly textured. It’s a tapestry of sound worthy for such eloquent compositions.

This is not a run-of-the-mill hymns recording. It’s probably not for those who just want conservative, straightforward renderings. However, those who appreciate the way an artist can create as she sees it will want to give this a try.

The opening “Petition” is a precursor of things to come. It starts with an intro, a common element on this CD, consisting of spindly synthesized sounds that seemingly bounce off the walls. Simple piano chords kick-in as McCracken begins to sing. It builds with layers of sound.

As she sings, “You raise your hand to still the storms / that rage inside my head /Revive my heart with gratitude /Love quell my doubt and dread,” the only music you hear are the warm tones of an electric guitar. The rest of the music returns like a welcome friend on the chorus.

The layers go beyond the music. The words here and throughout this release plumb the depths of theology in a way seldom heard outside of hymns.

One of the more driving songs, “Justice Will Roll Down,” with its memorable chorus and vision of equity will most likely be a favorite of many. The title song, another standout, is a folk anthem with multiple vocalists.

This is one of the best and most artistic hymn recordings ever conceived. McCracken’s previous hymn effort, The Builder and the Architect, is also excellent and worth having.

Saturday, September 18, 2010

I Have a Song - Shannon Wexelberg

Encouragement wrapped in hope

I Have a Song
Artist: Shannon Wexelberg (
Label: Discovery House Music (
Length: 11 tracks/58:38 minutes

On “Jehovah Shalom” Shannon Wexelberg sings, “In the darkness Your presence wraps around me / Like a blanket of rest that covers me.” It’s a comforting thought, one of many on I Have a Song. The Biblical worldview, winsome melodies and inspirational pop provide powerful consolation.

It springs from a season of suffering. When Wexelberg began writing in the spring of 2009 (aside from a few hymns she writes all the songs), her husband had just started to recover from a terrible motorcycle accident in which he broke 23 bones and endured three major surgeries. As she applied the finishing touches in early 2010, a devastating earthquake struck Haiti on January 12th. As she pondered these events, she could not escape a bigger reality; God is faithful and full of love. Even in tragedy there is hope. There is music. There is song.

The title track epitomizes this release. The music is basic and highly accessible, tending toward adult contemporary and inspirational. The words have depth and restrained production makes them stand out. Wexelberg is blessed with a voice capable of a gentle caress or belting-out an anthem. The song ends with a stanza from “His Eye is on the Sparrow.”

The CD includes a few hymn interludes and a complete version of “’Tis So Sweet to Trust in Jesus.” As pleasant as these are, she shines brightest on her own material. The songwriting is excellent. “Becoming” is a stripped-down, keyboard affair that conveys a longing to be like Christ in every way. You can feel the tenderness and intimacy.

Songs with faster tempos have a fuller sound and a hint of edginess. “Boundless” rocks! It’s the kind of song that makes you want to stand and pump your fist in the air. It’s a victorious declaration of the lack of limits to God’s love.

Wexelberg varies the styles and hits the mark each time. Typical of the publisher, this strikes a cautious but wholesome balance between ministry and relevance. Discovery House Publishers is known for products that feed the soul, and this is no exception. It’s a triumph for publisher and artist.

Friday, September 17, 2010

God of the Impossible - Sarah Reeves

A bright light on the horizon

God of the Impossible – EP
Artist: Sarah Reeves (
Label: Sparrow Records
Length: 3 tracks/12:10 minutes

In the firmament of praise and worship, Sarah Reeves is a bright light on the horizon. Atmospheric guitars fill the soundscape. Poetic imagery frames her importunity. One moment she leads a chorus of adoration; the next she stands in the gap as an intercessor.

On “Father’s Prayer,” she turns the prayer that Jesus taught into a compelling chorus. “God of the Impossible” puts into perspective God’s awesomeness: “My biggest storm, a drop of rain. My raging fire, a candle flame. My deepest ocean is like a puddle at your feet.” Even more amazing, He turns our brokenness into beauty.

With only three tracks, this leaves you wanting more. Reeves has yet to have a full-length release, but she has earned it with this EP and a previous one.

If her lyrics and thoughts are any indication, Reeves heart is undivided: “I love my Jesus and all I want to do is serve Him and make Him famous.” She wants to lead young people into a lifestyle of praise and worship. Despite being young, she is well on her way, sharing stages with some of the best in this genre.

Reeves is one of the featured artists in the Acquire the Fire conferences, a ministry to teens, where she will be singing these songs. Get information and tour dates at

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