Steppin’ Out of work

The work I had intended to do this morning got put on hold unexpectedly, so here I sit with the Hopper’s Steppin’ Out in the player. Here’s a fine example of a solid project built around a core of songs that give the disc its own character, distinct from what’s come before yet wholly in the tradition the new Hoppers have established. I’m comfortable saying something like this because when I think of Steppin’ Out as a project, I immediately think of three huge tunes: “I’m Saved,” “But for the Blood,” and “Mention my Name.” And, what’s more, it doesn’t matter to me that a lot of the other stuff on the project is unremarkable (the Hoppers make a point of thanking the Gaithers for writing “Hope,” but it’s honestly languid and disappointing; I know why you have to thank The Gaithers and all, but the Hoppers should have thanked Joel Lindsey, Belinda Smith, Larry Petree, and J. Michael Wilson for giving them tunes with enough oomph to carry freeloading songs like “Hope”). When a constellation of songs works, the entire project gels. Aside from the Hoppers themselves, who turn in the top-notch performances we’ve come to expect, the project’s success has mostly to do with its production quality: the songs are all well mixed, balanced in every sense, and smartly arranged. Cases in point:

“I’m Saved:” The reverb on Dean’s voice in the first verse is just the right special effect at that moment. And too, the use of the petit choir is very satisfying, not least of all because the Hoppers’ vocals aren’t ceded to or overpowered by the background vocals. And just to remind everyone that this is the Hoppers and not the Variety Hour with the Claude and His Family, Kim’s voice comes back at the end of the song to reestablish the Hoppers’ vocal presence.

“But for the Blood:” This is actually the reason I returned to the project in the first place. What a smokin’ hot tune. Lyrically, it’s evocative, portraying how spiritual despair can be transformed in a blink by the redemption of grace - “but for the blood,” each phrase in the chorus would be a lament. As it turns out, we get a declaration of salvation. Vocally, it’s clever: Connie hands off the melodic line of the chorus to Kim near the end, ratcheting up the emotional force toward the big finish. And the finish itself, with that theivably fine vocal swoop upward on the word “flood,” is a coup d’arrangement.

And then there’s “Mention my Name.” The Hoppers already have crowns enough in heaven for several eternities, so let’s make sure Wayne Haun gets some of his own for helping bring this song to life: The meticulous attention to detail here is seriously gratifying (i.e. the little vocal flourish on the second “name” sung in the song). And the sensitivity to the range of feelings expressed in the lyrics deepens the song’s emotional palette: for instance, Connie and Claude’s duet near the middle of the song is lyrically endearing while the accompaniment is pitch perfect for the sense of gracefully aging in spiritual companionship that Connie and Claude sing about (the piano exerts the right amount of force to convey the lasting bonds and humor that define Claude and Connie’s public persona; the flute mellows the passage out with its plaintive quality, musically rendering the existential realities of late life). Kim and Dean’s duet is, in contrast, perfectly electrifying (listening to him harmonize with Kim just now reminded me how astonishingly far he’s come since his first horrendous vocal adventures back in the day of Claude and his brothers). The choir is back on this tune, but with an entirely different effect, though no less effective than before. Here, it helps suggest the collective force summoned by a community of spiritual support.

Which is all a way of saying this: what I like most about these songs is that together they generate a sustainable, emotionally believable sense of the vitality of shared faith and belief.

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