Friday, May 24, 2013

Amy Grant - How Mercy Looks from Here

If we could only see, how it might change our perspective.

How Mercy Looks from Here
Artist: Amy Grant
Label: Capitol Christian Music Group
Length: 11 tracks/42 minutes

Scottish minister Robert Murray McCheyne said, “If I could hear Christ praying for me in the next room, I would not fear a million enemies. Yet distance makes no difference. He is praying for me: ‘He ever liveth to make intercession.’” On How Mercy Looks from Here, Amy Grant applies a similar thought on “If I Could See (What the Angels See)”: “If I could see what the angels see/behind the walls to you and me/and let the truth set me free/I’d live this life differently.” This is the first of several songs that provoke listeners to look behind what is seen to the unseen. The eyes of faith see their inheritance in Christ, and it’s not just future. Time and distance make no difference. If we can only see, how it might change our perspective. How we might live differently.

The bruised reed and the smoldering wick will find compassion and solace. This is especially the case on “Don’t Try So Hard,” which includes harmony vocals from James Taylor. The song exudes the rest that Jesus promised the weary. If I could only have one song, this is it!

Guest appearances also include Carole King supplying harmony vocals on the snappy, whimsical “Our Time is Now.” Time rushes on; “let us sing before our time runs out.”

Sheryl Crow and Eric Paslay trade lines with Grant on the gospel-tinged “Deep as it is Wide.” This takes a stirring look at what awaits the faithful.

I was eager to hear Grant collaborate with some of the artists that she has admired. A slight disappointment is having Taylor and King only harmonizing. I would have enjoyed hearing them sing a few words on their own, but I am glad for their contribution. I would like to see more Christian artists collaborating with mainstream artists. It can be beneficial to everyone, and surely God’s heart is to draw people together.

The music leans toward acoustic pop with a hint of country. Whether acoustic or electric, the guitar work is excellent. At least in part, credit goes to husband Vince Gill, whose presence is felt here in a way similar to previous releases.

Grant’s songwriting is always a strength, and it’s lovely on this CD. The somewhat rustic, laid-back music fits well with the homespun sentiments. The honesty, affirmation and love mirror the kind of support often found in recovery groups. At the same time, it is also sobering and wistful. This does not have the fanfare of earlier work, but I find it more rewarding. If the former had flashes of excitement, this is more like settled peace. This could easily become my favorite of all Grant’s recordings.

Jesus, Firm Foundation: Hymns of Worship

Remakes hymns for a new generation just as 2nd Chapter of Acts did many years ago

Jesus, Firm Foundation: Hymns of Worship
Various Artists
Label: Provident
Length: 12 tracks/51:09 minutes

When the 2nd Chapter of Acts released Hymns (1986), it became their best-selling release and received a Dove Award for “Best Praise and Worship Album of the Year” in 1987. It set the bar high for the many similar recordings that followed. What makes it somewhat unique is that it appealed to fans of both pop and inspirational music.

Now come with me to 2013 and the release of Jesus, Firm Foundation: Hymns of Worship. A number of popular artists take turns creatively remaking a classic hymn. The appeal is clearly for those who like pop/rock. Guitars are in the forefront, and those looking for more traditional interpretations are better served elsewhere. Even so, each artist is respectful of the material; in particular, when words are added to create a bridge or chorus where none existed. Purists might not like this idea, but it modernizes and adds a new element. This succeeds from start to finish in making a classic sound fresh. 

It opens strongly with Mike Donehey (Tenth Avenue North), Steven Curtis Chapman, Mark Hall (Casting Crowns) and Mandisa trading vocals on “Jesus, Firm Foundation.” It works so well that I wonder if the release could have been benefited from other collaborations. As it is, each of the other hymns is handled by a separate artist.

As much as I might enjoy the resurrection of obscure but lyrically rich texts, this is a collection of widely-known standards. These artists are building on a firm foundation.

Aside from enjoying hymn releases, I wanted to review this for the opportunity of hearing Nichole Nordeman, who has not had a studio release of new material since Brave (2005). Most likely, she has been busy with parenting. She, Matt Maher (who continues to rise in my estimation) and Chris Stevens wrote a full set of stanzas to Turn Your Eyes upon Jesus. This will especially appeal to those who feel somewhat shattered by the world (who doesn’t at times?). The lyrics repeatedly encourage listeners to turn in their brokenness to Christ. Song writing has always been one of Nordeman’s strengths, and she does not disappoint, even if the music is not as compelling. I hope she continues to enrich us with her gifts.

Michael W. Smith packs several songs worth of creativity into “All Hail the Power of Jesus Name.” This is an effective blend of styles, which showcases his skill as a composer and arranger without taking away from the song. Kari Jobe’s singing is just right on “Be Still My Soul (In You I Trust),” which makes me want to discover more of her music. The power in the original lines remains undiminished.

One of the most interesting arrangements is “Nothing but the Blood,” by Andy Cherry. It is clearly informed by the new folk sound (Mumford & Sons immediately comes to mind). It closes with a brief instrumental segment, which is my favorite part.

It would be easy to comment further on the rest of the recording. Suffice it to say that this is worth getting if you want to experience the richness of hymns in a modern setting. Like 2nd Chapter’s Hymns, it shows the value of remaking classic songs.

Monday, May 13, 2013

Anthems - Todd Ballard

Electric guitar may be anathema in some circles; it serves a higher purpose here.

Artist: Todd Ballard (
Label: Independent/Distribution by New Day Christian Distributors
Length: 13 tracks/54:30 minutes

I hope “guitar-hero” doesn’t have negative connotations. That’s what comes to mind when I listen to Anthems by Todd Ballard.

These are not anthems sung by a congregation. They may be adaptable for that purpose, but it does not matter. I relish stumbling across worship that sounds fresh. It comes from an individual that has an obvious passion for guitar rock. It’s even clear from the packaging. It twice depicts him with his axe, once hanging low by his side as he gazes pensively toward the distance. He’s like a gunslinger, firearm at the ready. The inside booklet shows it in action across his torso, his upper body and face not even visible. Electric guitar may be anathema in some circles; it serves a higher purpose here.

If you like rock but find much of modern worship less than satisfying, give this a try. It shows that subtle differences can add new vitality. This is unashamedly guitar-driven -- clean, tight and rugged -- with a little matching grit in the vocals. I could hear a little of John Schlitt (Petra) in the delivery. The lyrics lean toward singer/songwriter, and there is none of the tiresome repetition of phrases.

In contrast to the more aggressive sound, some piano-driven songs, which include strings, are gorgeous. Ballard, with the help of producer Otto Price, does all things well on this recording.

This includes a remake of “Find Me in the River,” the Delirious song. It segues seamlessly into “The One,” making the former like a beautiful prologue ushering one from the barren to the heights.

I would not have guessed that I would be so taken with a recording that had electric guitar in the forefront. Vertically-focused albums often fail to move me, so it took me by surprise when I found myself caught up in worship by the last track, “Psalm 18.” I was led along by a flow of songs that culminated in this magnificent offering of praise. It concludes with a majestic, Dave Bainbridge-like solo. Like Bainbridge, Ballard uses his instrument to glorify God. He shows a mastery that includes the restraint to know what not to play. Such control makes it seem as though his guitar is singing praises.

Anthems is evidence that guitar-driven rock can not only be a vehicle for passionate praise but majestic worship.   

Nothing is Wasted (2-Disc Deluxe Edition) - Elevation Worship

Spontaneous applause of a glorious truth is a moment to savor

Nothing is Wasted (2-Disc Deluxe Edition)
Artist: Elevation Worship (
Label: Essential Worship/Provident
Tracks: 12 songs each disc plus bonus track “Give Me Faith (Radio Version)”

What a pleasant surprise to discover that “Be Lifted High,” a song introduced at my church a couple of weeks ago is the second song on this CD. It’s a catchy song, whose source is Elevation Worship, a part of Elevation Church in Charlotte, NC.

The songs correspond to Greater, a book written by Steven Furtick, the church’s pastor. The book derives its inspiration from the life of Elisha. The songs are more general touching on discipleship and furthering the kingdom and glory of God. One need not read the book to enjoy the CD.

This is in the style of Hillsong, Passion and Jesus Culture. Think modern rock transitioning at times to quiet interludes then building to a crescendo. Male and female singers alternate on lead vocals. The former get the lion’s share, which is unfortunate given the quality of the female-led songs.

There is an excited charismatic declaration/prayer at the end of “Nothing is Wasted.” Who can fault being enthusiastic in worship? Hopefully, listeners will hear it as just one of many possible expressions. Surely, there is also a place for quiet and even dignified utterances.

A brief scripture reading followed by a prayer comes closer to this in the remake of the classic, “I Have Decided.” Even here, towards the end, the speaker becomes more ecstatic. What I found more enjoyable were moments of spontaneous applause that erupt in reaction to a truth being sung. Most notably, this happens after the end of some lines in “Unchanging God”: “The world will pass away/But the Word of the Lord stands forever.” It’s a moment to savor.

This is one of only two female-led songs. I would have enjoyed more of the tranquility found in their songs and in “I Have Decided.” I wonder if modern worship tries too hard to be relevant instead of just being whatever God wants it to be with all its varied expressions. An infusion of more originality would bring some much-needed uniqueness. It would be exciting if we were leading the culture instead of following it. Following God’s lead regardless of the cost is what “I Have Decided” is all about.

This CD is likeable, but it succumbs at times to the clich├ęs and the monotony that are too prevalent in this genre. It fails to significantly distinguish itself aside from being a quality recording that comes with studio versions of the same songs with subtle differences. 

Resurrection Letters: Prologue - Andrew Peterson

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