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.
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