Tuesday, December 28, 2010

Wonder - Michael W. Smith

Still creating wonder

Artist: Michael W. Smith (http://www.michaelwsmith.com/)
Label: Provident Label Group
Length: 12 songs/53:54 minutes

Michael W. Smith’s Wonder, his 22nd album, combines the best elements of his recent releases: passionate worship, heartfelt pop and a touch of classical and orchestral arrangements (a la Freedom).

The opening song and first single, “Save Me From Myself,” makes it clear that this is not a praise and worship recording. It blasts from the start with a massive guitar-driven sound. The three songs that follow, however, are on par with his recent praise-oriented recordings. The downside is that the atmospheric, arena rock sound, common to artists like Hillsong, has become almost too prevalent.

Smith gets more personal on “Forever Yours” and “You Belong to Me,” which are beautifully penned and performed odes to Smith’s wife Debbie. The former is similar in content to “I Will Be Here” by Steven Curtis Chapman. Both highlight fidelity to one’s spouse. They also feature Smith’s piano playing, always a delight to hear, and his proficiency as an arranger.

“Welcome Home” wonderfully balances the grief of losing someone with the joy of knowing that they have entered their rest. The lovely melody keeps this from being overly melancholy, which makes this an ideal song for a memorial or funeral service. It exudes hope in sadness.

The title track is a whirlwind of synthesizer-led pop holding forth God’s nearness and all-sufficiency. This and many of the songs convey encouragement while acknowledging harsh realities. “I think this record can bring healing,” Smith said in an interview with Charisma. “Times are tough, and I personally believe it’s a record for our time.”

This is especially true on “One More Time” where affirming words float on a bubbling melody. Smith comes along side saying, keep on reaching … keep on moving.

At first “Leave” is like the dark side of one of the Psalms. The instrumentation is sparse, a lone acoustic guitar helping to paint a bleak picture. A young person struggles with abuse at home. If that isn’t bad enough, outsiders give conflicting advice including, Why don’t you just kill yourself? It’s from that place of brokenness that he reaches upward for help, hoping and then believing that God is there. Because it’s so different, it may be my favorite.

This recording is one of the first to use a new technology that allows songs to be cut direct to tape instead of digital, providing additional warmth and depth. “Sonically I think it’s the best thing I’ve ever done,” Smith said.

The album closes with “Take Me Over” a worshipful orchestral pop tune.

Smith’s skill as a music composer (his greatest strength) is what impressed me from the earliest days of his career. Even though he is somewhat constrained by the limitations of pop and praise songs, his brilliance still shines through. Smith’s creative flourishes keep me listening.

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Christmas on Highway 101 DVD - Highway 101

Excellent country versions of classic Christmas songs

Christmas on Highway 101 DVD
Artist: Highway 101
Uptone Pictures and Pure Flix Entertainment (www.pureflix.com/highway101)
Running time: Approximately one hour

Christmas on Highway 101 by the country music group Highway 101 features excellent pop renditions of classic and inspirational Christmas songs. These are highly accessible versions of “Joy to the World,” “Little Drummer Boy,” “The Christmas Song (Chestnuts Roasting on an Open Fire,” “Deck the Halls,” “O Holy Night,” “Six Gold Coins,” “Away in a Manger,” “Let it Snow,” “We Three Kings,” and “Jingle Bells.”

This production has the band miming studio recordings at the Great Wolf Lodge in Concord, North Carolina. The only exception is a brief live version of “Let it Snow” performed around a piano. “Six Gold Coins” is an original song that tells a story, which is fleshed-out by actors in a music video. The setting for the other songs is the lodge, which is beautifully decorated with lights, trees and ornamentation.

In between the songs, band members share brief and humorous Christmas recollections. Old home movies and scenes of Christmas lights are also woven into the stories. The tone is upbeat throughout. The band members are relaxed and clearly enjoying the opportunity to do this project.

The studio recordings sound superb, but watching the band perform to the tracks can be slightly distracting if you notice any syncing that is off. It’s well-done, but I wonder if playing the songs live would have been better.

The content does not delve much into the spiritual side of the holiday aside from the songs, which speak for themselves. It’s definitely family-friendly, suitable for all ages.

Wynonna Judd makes a curious cameo (she is seen for just a few seconds) and does not sing.

Highway 101 has been together for over 22 years, winning two CMA Awards and two ACM Awards for Vocal Group of the Year along the way. They have been on Billboard’s Country Chart more than 15 times. Best of all, they make these Christmas songs instantly likeable with a country flavor that sounds fresh.

A Place for Truth: Leading Thinkers Explore Life’s Hardest Questions

Discovering truth in a university setting

A Place for Truth: Leading Thinkers Explore Life’s Hardest Questions (http://www.veritas.org/)
Editor: Dallas Willard
Publisher: IVP Books (books.ivpress.com)
Pages: 326

Despite all the advances in knowledge, universities, with their reliance on science, at best deal uncomfortably with questions about truth and meaning. In 1992, inspired by Harvard’s motto, Veritas (truth), a small group of Harvard Christians led by Chaplain Kelly Monroe hosted a weekend of lectures and discussions at the university that explored some of life’s most important questions. That first Veritas Forum was the impetus for more than 100 universities in the US, Canada, the UK, France, and the Netherlands for holding their own forums.

Being hosted by Christians, their purpose, as summarized in part of their mission statement, is no surprise: “We seek to inspire the shapers of tomorrow’s culture to connect their hardest questions with the person and story of Jesus Christ.”

The book features presentations on a range of topics from leading Christian thinkers with varied backgrounds. The late Richard John Neuhaus, Os Guinness, Timothy J. Keller, Alister McGrath, Hugh Ross, N. T. Wright, Dallas Willard and Ronald J. Sider are among the contributors. Each chapter identifies the forum location, date, subject and speaker(s). Sometimes the format is a debate that provides a Christian and a secular position. Pete Singer represents the latter in debating, “Does Atheism or Theism Provide the Best Foundation for Human Worth and Mortality?”

This volume brings together the best Veritas lectures. It’s a delight to read such highly developed and civil arguments. Non-Christians open to a faith perspective will most likely appreciate the winsome tone and the thoughtful basis for Christian conviction. Since the presenters were addressing general audiences, the material in most cases is easy to follow and not too technical.

The openness and frankness is astonishing. Where else in our society can you find this kind of dialog? It’s a shame that rational discussion about these topics is generally not tolerated in public settings.

The Veritas Forums are obviously meeting a need in our culture that secular institutions are unwilling or unable to address. The campuses serving as hosts deserve credit for facilitating these valuable events.

Some of the speakers include their personal stories of conversion, which provides context for their thought. One of the more dramatic is given by Mary Poplin in her talk, “Radical Marxist, Radical Womanist, Radical Love: What Mother Teresa Taught Me about Social Justice.” Her quest for meaning led her to India to work alongside Mother Teresa. What this radical professor learned gave her the desire to become a Christian.

One may not agree with all of the ideas. Francis Collins supports a non-literal reading of Genesis in his attempts to reconcile creation and science. Ronald J. Sider’s holistic approach to the gospel is a challenge to find the right balance between evangelism and social action. Regardless of one’s persuasion, communication of the logic and reasoning behind the various views makes this rewarding.

Pilate famously said to Jesus, “What is truth?” However he may have meant it, this book is an excellent resource for wrestling with that question and all its implications. More often than not, it succeeds in pointing the way toward personal discovery.

Might this book even encourage a love of the truth? That is something that all can aspire to gain. If this book like the forums that it represents nurtures that in the hearts of readers, it will provide a valuable service.

Thursday, December 16, 2010

Bethlehem Skyline 2 - Various Centricity Music artists

Some great new Christmas songs

Bethlehem Skyline 2
Various Centricity Music artists
Label: Centricity Music (http://www.centricitymusic.com/site/)
Length: 14 tracks/53:47 minutes

Bethlehem Skyline 2 is worth having for the new Christmas songs created by a variety of Centricity Music artists. This is a follow-up to the original Bethlehem Skyline (2006).

With the exception of High Valley and Andrew Peterson, who each contribute one track to this CD, the other artists have two songs: a traditional Christmas song and an original composition.

The best cover is “Away in a Manger” by High Valley. The country trio fill it with warm acoustic sounds that include a Dobro. How can you not like a song with Dobro?

My favorite original is Andrew Peterson’s folksy “Long, Long Ago.” Of course, I might be a bit biased since Peterson is one of my favorites.

“Starving Artist Christmas” by Lanae’ Hale may be the best written humorous Christmas song that I have ever heard. The Downhere songs are two of the best from How Many Kings: Songs for Christmas (2009). All of the other songs appear to be unique to this release.

Me in Motion’s opening “Give It Away” is terrific. It exudes the same vitality and creativity heard on their self-titled release. Expect to hear more from this band.

Jason Gray’s “Love Has a Name” is another winner for him. He is a recent discovery for me and continues to be a favorite. I think highly of the entire Centricity roster. It’s hard to lose on one of their releases.

The covers are good but don’t move me like the new songs. The latter are so well-done, I would have enjoyed an album of all originals, but I recognize what a challenge it is for the artist. They all deserve credit for creating such great new songs.

Rock Gets Religion - Mark Joseph

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