L5: Monuments

Monuments
Legacy Five
September 2004

There are several ways to go about establishing a sg quartet as a major player, but two primary methods come to mind: The first I’ll call the Shock and Awe approach, which involves attention-grabbing devices that create the effect of edginess or hipness and a general sense of novelty. The other method I’ll call the Patient Investor approach, which is much less flashy. In this model, the group’s owner/managers map out where they want to go (thinking in five-, ten-, or even fifteen-year increments) and how they plan to get there, and then they stick to that plan of action like a patient investor, riding out personnel changes, creative differences, and the general ebb and flow of any business cycle by relying on the underlying strategy at the group’s core. It’s interesting that in the two groups that rose from the ashes of the Cathedrals - Signature Sound and Legacy Five - each of these approaches are being vigorously road tested. Ernie Haase and SSQ have taken to Shock and Awe, while Scott Fowler and Roger Bennett have led Legacy Five down the path of the Patient Investor. And L5’s latest project, Monuments, is something like an interim report on patient investing, coming half a decade or so after L5 was founded. And from the sound of things on Monuments, L5 is doing just fine - the strategy is working.

In keeping with the Patient Investor approach, Monuments is an even-keeled, safe project, cultivating a sound that values solidly arranged songs over showy or gimmicky tunes and prioritizes vocal precision and clean, exacting instrumentation over highly stylized stuff that may grab your attention but not necessarily hold it. Stylistically, the project is diverse with several stageable songs in the mix: most notably, the catchy, jazzish “If it Couldn’t be Done”; “Raised to Walk,” an upbeat hand-clapper featuring Glenn Dustin; “Out of my Darkness,” a more traditional, familiarly pleasing, older-fashioned quartet tune; and “Calvary Reminds Me,” perhaps the project’s most powerful and well-done number.

It’s probably not coincidental that “Calvary Reminds Me” is also the showcase tune for L5’s new tenor, Frank Seamans. Seamans’ voice is unmistakable (in a good way), supple and downright beautiful. He has an obvious knack for tapping into a song’s dramatic intensity, as he does with great skill and to fine effect on “Calvary Reminds Me,” a big ballad with sweeping strings, strong harmonies, and moving moments. What Seamans’ voice lacks in sheer diaphragmatic force, he makes up for by placing tones precisely and emphasizing them expertly - a skill that essentially carries the song “You Died For Me” (another ballad with an odd but, I think, finally interesting mix of musical themes). With Seamans, L5 has achieved a highly brandable sound that could well set the group apart vocally to a degree that hasn’t yet happened for them but ought to.

The project’s other standout is Scott Fowler. His sound and delivery have improved exponentially in the years since he first joined the Cathedrals, and with this project he seems to have come into his own as a lead singer. Predictably, Fowler is the centerpiece or anchoring force of several tunes - including “If it Couldn’t Be Done” and “Unless,” a power-ballad that’s above averagely arranged and includes some more breakout moments from Seamans. Fowler turns in his best performance, though, on “Roll Away,” a fun, groovy number in which all the vocalists’ obvious pleasure in singing the song breaks through the rarified atmosphere of the studio and really rings out. “Roll Away” includes some wonderful moments of ensemble and instrumental sweetness - enough of them, in fact, that I don’t so much mind that Glenn Dustin doesn’t quite nail that last low note (though in fairness, Dustin has several nice passages on the same song and others, including “Whosoever,” and his ensemble work is smooth and soothing). But Fowler is the song’s star, clearly proving his ability to take a song and make it his own, putting his indelible signature on it with understated, classy confidence that is strongly felt and technically solid.

The copy of the project I received for review was a pre-release cut that didn’t have the final mixes and finishes on it (at least I hope it didn’t anyway), nor did I get any liner notes or credits. Which is understandable but too bad, because I’d like to dole out the much-deserved praise for the instrumentalists, arrangers, and songwriters on the project. “When I Consider the Cross” is, along with “Calvary Reminds Me,” quite forcefully written, and the former song, featuring Scott Howard in one of his few spotlight moments, includes the very fine line, “apart from your mercy, my gain is loss when I consider the cross.” It’s fine indeed, though Howard has trouble carrying the song’s big-ballad feeling. Still the song itself is a good example of the kind of medium tempo tune that will slot nicely into a variety of places during a performance.

I feel a little bad dinging Howard for his work on “When I Consider,” since he has so few features on the project. Maybe this is the case because Roger Bennett is featured in places that logically feel like they ought to belong to Howard - namely, “It is the Truth” and “What God Whispers in the Night” (note: I didn’t get a listing of track titles, so the song names I’m using are my logical guesses that may obviously and probably will be different from what’s on the finished product). To be honest, from the very first time I heard L5 at their debut NQC showcase years ago, I’ve never cared much for the vocal part of the “pianist and vocalist” dual-role Bennett has taken on with the group. His vocal cameos can be very effective live (as they were with the Cathedrals toward the end), especially given Bennett’s formidable health problems and his reliance on his faith and living it out through sg as a way to get him through bad times as well as good. But it’s not at all clear that Bennett is as effective in the studio. His vocal skills have improved since, say, the “Don’t Be Afraid” recording with the Cathedrals on Alive: Deep in the Heart of Texas. But his talent is still undeniably at the keyboard, and it’s disappointing that a group as disciplined and focused as L5 persists in this disorienting role-swap. On stage, it can be distracting (what with Bennett constantly hopping up and down from the piano), and in the studio, it disperses the group’s otherwise admirable consistency and force.

Though the project ends with one of these Bennett cameos (”What God Whispers”), the project’s essence is captured elsewhere, a few songs earlier on the title track, “Monuments.” It’s no earthmover, but it contains in miniature all the keys to L5’s success: thoughtful arranging, precise voicing, consistently disciplined execution. Like all successful songs, “Monuments” develops a conceptually mature idea full of rich imagery that is rewardingly dense with meaning. What I like most, though, about Monuments - both the song and the project - is that it accomplishes at the level of performance what many groups often strive for but don’t reach in their ministries generally: it conveys a vision of Christian life, service, and action based on hopefulness and the promise of better days ahead than those in the past if you’ve laid the right foundation.

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