Saturday, March 24, 2012

Clear the Stage - Jimmy Needham




“Clear the Stage” is arresting and unforgettable.  

Clear the Stage
Artist: Jimmy Needham (www.jimmyneedham.com)
Label: Inpop Records
Length: 10 tracks/38:24 minutes

On Clear the Stage, Jimmy Needham sacrifices a little of his blue-eyed soul for a more pop-oriented sound. He loses a little distinctiveness on some tracks, but retains the R&B influence that is a trademark. Writing about family life also makes his fifth studio release the most personal.

It starts with “I Will Find You,” a quick-tempo song with an equally speedy rap towards the end. Jeremy Lin, the celebrated point guard of the New York Knicks, was asked what music he listens to before a game. LeCrae was one of two artists (the other being Hillsong), that he focused on, mainly for his lyrics. LeCrae’s lightning-fast words of testimony are a highlight of this track. This is the funkiest song that Needham has ever done.

“Stay,” is a duet with Lizi Bailey on a delicate guitar-driven ballad. It’s about remaining near to God where “fears have no voice at all.”

On “If I Ever Needed Grace,” I treasure the thought that we never need God’s help more than when embarking on marriage and starting a family. It is recognizing the need to rely upon God in any and all situations.

“Daddy’s Baby Girl” is a whimsical ode to his first child. “In the Middle” was written as a comfort to Needham’s wife, who suffered through a series of miscarriages. It is a soulful declaration of unconditional love and commitment.

“The Only One,” with its emphasis on finding satisfaction in Christ alone is the ideal intro to the closing title track. It might be hard to find a more arresting and unforgettable song than “Clear the Stage.” Ironically, it is the one song that Needham did not write. Needham’s restrained vocals however, make the song his own, reflecting the brokenness that the song encourages:

Clear the stage and set the sound and lights ablaze
If that’s the measure you must take to crush the idols.

The words of the closing stanza are like a hammer:

Anything I put before my God is an idol.
Anything I want with all my heart is an idol.
Anything I can't stop thinking of is an idol.
Anything that I give all my love is an idol.

Few songs have the potential to spark revival but this is one of them. It is the cornerstone of this release, ending it on a somber note, but it can lead to that Godly sorrow that produces change.

Needham incorporates a variety of music styles that are held together by his R&B-leaning vocals. He gets co-writes from the aforementioned guests and heralded producer Ed Cash. Needham chose to have his touring band perform the songs live in the studio rather than using session musicians, which judging from their versatility and sound was an excellent move.

This may be Needham’s best and most mature recording to date, and the way he sings “Clear the Stage” is worth hearing.

Thursday, March 15, 2012

God Shed His Grace: Songs of Truth and Freedom - Twila Paris




Worth having for the two newly recorded traditional songs

God Shed His Grace: Songs of Truth and Freedom
Artist: Twila Paris (www.twilaparis.com)
Label: Mountain Spring Music (www.eonemusic.com)
Length: 13 tracks/63:32 minutes

The implied patriotic them of God Shed His Grace by Twila Paris could needlessly scare some people away. Interested persons need not worry about this being political. All but two of the songs come from past releases and deal with the struggle and fight of faith.

The newly recorded traditional songs, “God of Our Fathers” and “America the Beautiful,” are patriotic but also have a strong spiritual component. These and the rest of the tracks serve as a reminder of who God is and what His people can be in the midst of a secular and sometimes hostile environment. The comfort, encouragement and challenge are designed to strengthen faith.    

As cohesive as this collection may be, the new recordings make me long for other fresh material from Paris. The oldest tracks have a somewhat dated sound but lyrically are as relevant now as when they were originally released. One of my favorite refrains comes from “True North,” “How did we ever wander so far / And where do we go from here.”

The past material comes from a variety of recordings whose producers chronicle Paris’ history in contemporary Christian music: Paul Mills, Jonathan David Brown, Brown Bannister, Charlie Peacock and John Hartley. The latter’s work is featured on two songs from Small Sacrifice (2007). Having lost track of Paris in recent years, I was unaware of this recording. On the basis of these two songs, and my past familiarity of Hartley’s work with Sheila Walsh and on the multi-artist Heaven & Earth: A Tapestry of Worship (1999), I will be on the lookout for Small Sacrifice.

Scott Dente (Out of the Grey) and Ken Lewis provide excellent musicianship and production on the new songs. Even if you have a number of the other ones, this is worth having for the beautiful renditions of these traditional favorites.

If you can get past the older production, all of the tracks have the inspiration and substance that has been a hallmark of Paris’ music from the beginning. She crafted songs of worship before it became popular. She belongs in the Christian Music Hall of Fame, and sure enough, she was inducted in 2007.

This release makes me look forward to any future Twila Paris releases. Seasoned artists, with their maturity and perspective, have a lot to offer. They may not generate the same excitement as their younger counterparts, but I treasure their wisdom. “Wisdom” just happens to be the title of the third track on this release. We need it more than ever today, and you can find some of it here just by listening carefully. 

Thursday, March 8, 2012

Decades of Worship - Michael W. Smith




Worship is not a passing fancy for Michael W. Smith.

Decades of Worship
Artist: Michael W. Smith (www.michaelwsmith.com)
Label: Reunion Records
Length: 12 tracks/63:42 minutes

Some might think that Michael W. Smith jumped on the praise and worship bandwagon when he released Worship (2001) and Worship (DVD) (2002). It is more accurate to reckon that adoration has been part of his music from the beginning. He composed the music for “Thy Word,” made famous by Amy Grant. He is also credited as a co-writer with Grant on “Emmanuel.” His first solo release, The Michael W. Smith Project (1983), included “Great is the Lord,” which you may find in a hymn book.

That early offering of honor is now remastered and included here as a bonus track. Since I already had every other song, this is the main reason why I wanted this collection. It has been a favorite since the time I first heard it. I like the quirky synthesizer intro, which also holds the song together. Being the first of other horizontal songs that would grace Smith’s albums over the years, it is entirely fitting for it to be here. I am grateful for its inclusion.

One might think that the rest of the songs come from Worship (2001) and Worship Again (2002). Though they do make for a majority, there are a total of seven different releases represented. The only song not previously available on CD is “Awesome God” from Worship (DVD).

There is no denying that this contains some of Smith’s best moments in this genre. However, if you have a majority of these songs, it may not be worth the purchase unless you want the new-sounding “Great is the Lord,” which you won’t find anywhere else. The recording from which it comes may never get the same treatment.

Ironically, some of the material from the two Worship CDs, which are like the backbone of this release, are weighed down by repetitive phrases. This is why I favor A New Hallelujah (2008), from which two songs are drawn. The newer material highlights more of Smith’s creativity. I suppose it is a matter of taste, for I know people who prefer the Worship releases, which had a big impact when they were first released.

Wednesday, March 7, 2012

VeggieTales: If I Sang a Silly Song … (DVD)




Facial expressions, subtle humor, clever arrangements, and witty lyrics combine to make Silly Songs fun and entertaining.

VeggieTales: If I Sang a Silly Song … (DVD)
VeggieTales (www.veggietales.com)
Publisher: Big Idea Entertainment
Length: Approximately 72 minutes

The Silly Song is an essential part of VeggieTales. Expect one in every story.

What is a Silly Song? It is an uncommon innocence and goofiness in song. If there is a shortage of humor in music, the Silly Song is the exception. Children, and even adults, enjoy the craziness. Grownups appreciate the subtleties; kids the simplicity.

To celebrate this legacy of unrestrained fun, VeggieTales has released If I Sang a Silly Song … (DVD). This is a collection of fan-favorite Silly Songs from the first two decades plus the new song, “Bubble Rap.”

The theme for the latter was chosen from thousands of viewer submissions. The volume of ideas shows that the making of Silly Songs is no laughing matter.

A dapper-looking Larry the Cucumber hosts this countdown of songs in a TV studio, call-in environment. Volunteer vegetables take the calls. As for appearance, I can give Larry and friends no finer compliment than to say they have not aged in twenty years.  

Larry is not one to be at a loss for words, but don’t expect song introductions. Brief telethon interludes separate the songs.

If it is not enough just to see and hear these catchy tunes, you can switch to a sing-a-long setting, which may lead others to question your sanity when they hear you singing songs like “His Cheeseburger.” The menu allows for easy navigation to the track of your choice. A behind the scenes look at recent and upcoming releases is included as a bonus feature.

The look of VeggieTales is outstanding; the graphics and bright colors are a delight. Facial expressions, subtle humor, clever arrangements, and witty lyrics combine to make Silly Songs fun and entertaining. One drawback of isolating the songs from the stories is the loss of the spiritual values, communicated by the latter. I wonder if future songs could have more substance without detracting from their playfulness.

Regardless, this collection represents the remarkable body of work found in the many VeggieTales’ releases. New titles are now being released in the Blu-ray format, which will further enhance visuals and sound.

Monday, March 5, 2012

The Living Church: Convictions of a Lifelong Pastor - John Stott




Solid and passionate teaching on the church from a well-respected statesman

The Living Church: Convictions of a Lifelong Pastor
Author: John Stott
Publisher: InterVarsity Press (www.ivpress.com)
Pages: 180

How is it that one of the greatest Christian statesman to ever live is unknown by most of my friends and acquaintances? Even a self-professed Christian bibliophile had never heard of him. Even so, his passing in 2011 did not go unmarked. TIME magazine wrote, “One of the world's most influential and popular Evangelical figures, Anglican pastor and theologian John Stott helped transform the movement into a worldwide phenomenon. The Englishman headed the drafting of the 1974 Lausanne Covenant, which led 2,300 leaders from 150 nations to affirm their dedication to global evangelism, cementing his status as an ambassador and supporting the faith in the developing world. Indeed, his focus on earthly concerns such as poverty and social justice served as a counterpoint to more-boisterous Evangelical leaders who set their sights firmly on the afterlife. A consummate intellectual, Stott, who died July 27 at 90, wrote more than 50 books.” In 2005 when Stott was named to the TIME 100, the magazine included a tribute from Billy Graham, “(Stott) represents a touchstone of authentic biblical scholarship that ... has scarcely been paralleled since the days of the 16th century European Reformers.”


One overlooked and unique aspect is Stott’s lifelong celibacy. “The gift of singleness,” he said, “is more a vocation than an empowerment, although to be sure God is faithful in supporting those He calls.” It is rare to find this calling in the leadership ranks of the evangelical world. Stott is an admirable role model for Christian singles everywhere.  


He also appreciated the beauty of God’s creation as evidenced by his enjoyment of birdwatching. This provided the inspiration for the book, The Birds Our Teachers.


Being unknown to the average Christian in the US is probably related to Stott being Anglican and from the UK. He lacked a rock star persona but diligently went about changing the world by being faithful to his vocation.


This well-lived life informs the pages of The Living Church. Stott cover the essentials with brevity, balance and by being thoroughly biblical. A clear and simple message that resounds with weight graces every page.


Stott is a master at holding the truth in delicate tension. One example is his summation on fellowship groups: “We are anxious that the groups will not become unbalanced and degenerate into being merely Bible reading groups, prayer groups, study groups or action groups. We want the fellowship groups to be true to their name, expressing the fullness of koinonia. So we keep asking ourselves: are we growing in Christian maturity together? Are we serving the Lord, the church or the world together? Are we increasing in love and care for one another? Then we may say with confidence and joy, ‘we had good fellowship together’” (96).


Are there books that go deeper? Are there volumes that are more historical, that examine distinctive, and wrestle more with challenges? Yes, but if you want solid and passionate teaching on the basics like worship, evangelism, ministry, fellowship, preaching, giving, and impact (all chapter titles), this is rewarding.


Stott has written at least one modern classic, Basic Christianity, and this reads like another one. I also enjoyed the three historical appendices, which consists of letters that Stott wrote at different stages in his life. The last is the choice reflection of an 80 year old.


Reading this makes me realize the wealth of insight and maturity that resides in Stott’s writings. In an endorsement that graces the cover, Tim Keller writes, “I have relied on John Stott’s books for decades.” Christianity has lost a great statesman, but Christians everywhere can continue to rely on the treasure found in his books.

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...