LordSong: Soul Food
posted October 26, 2004 5:08 PM
About half-way into the first tune on Soul Food, I got the sense that LordSong has definitively picked up where the Ruppes’ 1999 project Harbor of Hope left off. Harbor of Hope, you may recall, explicitly and fully explored the hints of contemporary arrangements the Ruppes had flirted with here and there before, most notably in Seasons. And soon after that project, Kim (Ruppe) Lord left to form the LordSong trio with her husband, Michael Lord (the third part is Amber Franks’). Soul Food makes no bones about its CCM influences, interests, and aspirations. The slick cover art reinforces the contemporary tendencies: LordSong in a cleverly staged diner scene. Smart, fun, likeable stuff, in keeping with the image LS is trying to cultivate by touring with Mark Lowry, whose cross-over comedic appeal among the segment of Christian music fans who dabble in both CCM and sg obviously intersects with LS’s target audience (Lowry is rewarded for his largesse with a feature on “Just Like That,” but he is not a good fit with LS’s sound - his solo sounds patched into the song).
Certainly, the project is paced like a CCM album, literally moving more quickly between tunes than I’ve ever heard - sometimes, it’s as little as a second or two between tracks. This pace is appropriate to the material on Soul Fool. Most songs are youthful, upbeat affairs, quick and quick-witted, as in this line from “I Want to Live it All”:”I don’t want faith just big enough for heaven’s sake.” And too, a great deal of the project is lyrically compressed, a standard CCM feature, which sg shies away from because, I assume, too much lyrical ellipsis can irritate fans who listen for broad themes and prevailing ideas, rather than sculpted word plays and rapid-fire lyrics (the apex of this compression, which I enjoy a great deal, comes in “All my Reasons are You”). Yet, LordSong is still vocally mining the same rich veins of highly disciplined and complexly fine-tuned harmonies that the Ruppes received from their sg roots and perfected in the years Kim Lord was with them: there are several moments on this project when the voices are so tonally matched, the timbre so perfectly calibrated, they sound - as the Ruppes often do - almost synthesized, synthetic (Exhibit A: “All My Reasons,” again). While the Ruppes circled back around to the more traditional styles of sg after Kim’s departure, LordSong seems to have eagerly taken up the cultivation of contemporary gospel sounds.
What I like about this approach is that it doesn’t take itself too seriously. I don’t mean that the project is not meticulously executed (it is). Nor do I mean it’s not serious about its ministerial function (very serious). But it’s self-deprecating and humble in humorous and endearing ways: chief among them, the liner notes, which refer to the “funky keyboard part” on “All My Reason” or the way the project was “produced and ’somewhat’ arranged by Kevin Ward.” These little rhetorical notes really work for me because they indicate the way the album intentionally pushes well past the borders of sg and comfortably into the regions of CCM, without forgetting that this border crossing will seem “funky” and “somewhat” off-putting to some of their more traditional fans. “If you don’t’ like the record blame Kevin and LordSong,” the notes say toward the bottom. “If you love the record tell everybody you know.” Put me down as somewhere between those two positions, tending toward the latter, not quite liking it enough to call it love, but deeply responsive to the chords the project strikes.
When the project is at its best, LordSong glides through notes and phrases in a smooth, easy hybrid of sounds and stylistic influences. In “Pass the Faith Along,” it’s a hybrid of sg and praise and worship music. The passing tones are all sg in their complex but familiar harmonic structures, while the telegraphing of expansive chord progressions (played out in phrases like “that will last eternally / never change and will always be”) is pure praise and worship. As is the way the song is thematically built around a lyrical core that recurs over and over (”pass the faith along”). In “So Close to the Truth,” Kevin Ward’s arrangements rely “somewhat” too heavily on the same instrumental and theoretical idioms that are central to “All My Reasons” and a few other tunes (acoustical guitar riffs, last-minute vocal resolutions on the thirds and fifths of the chord, and the like). But the CCM influence injects a fun, smart, easy dynamism into the song that might have become overbearingly precious otherwise. As it is, the song is a wonderful vehicle for the high-end harmonies and an occasion for the vocals to descend in to those beautiful lower registers where Kim Lord’s voice resonates so richly (Ruppe’s fans will definitely be reminded of the richness Kim Lord brought to the Ruppes in phrases from “So Close” such as “far from the world that knew me”). Balance, then, is key. “The Cross was Enough” tastefully uses small sets of strings to deepen the instrumentation, and the smaller sound nicely matches the feel of the song, which is big but not chamber-orchestra huge. In these kinds of moments, the light touch of CCM gives the project a sense of balance and proportion that is sometimes lost when sg producers go all experimental and over-indulge their repressed contemporary inclinations.
What the project could stand more of is sg’s insistence on achieving vocal goals through strong blocks of tones forcefully placed. There are moments, for instance, on “The Cross was Enough” when the harmonic arabesques of the vocals are a bit much. The voices could have left a few passing tones and chord progressions to the instrumentation and gotten a tenfold return in the bargain. It’s not oversinging, exactly, but there’s an unnecessarily overworked quality to the sound that makes me want to say: Simplify, simplify. The most dissatisfying passages of the project are during songs like “My Good, Your Glory,” which is reflexively and straightforwardly (undilutedly, I would say, if I could make up a word) CCM. LS does this stuff easily and beautifully of course, but the formulaic sameness of these kinds of mid-tempo CCM tunes flattens out the contours of LS’s ensemble sound, deadening the group’s harmonic identity which ought to and obviously can leap out at you given the right material. “The Cross was Enough” is not that material. By overworking their voices in repetitious series of harmonic movements, tunes like “My Good, Your Glory” and “The Cross was Enough” are trying, I assume, to suggest the group’s dazzling vocal dexterity. But because LS is able to knock the top of your head off with simpler, less histrionic material (see “Shout to the Lord,” below), this pure CCM sound just comes off like pedestrian vocal warm-ups for a really talented college ensemble that wants to be First Call someday.
But First Call could never have dreamed of pulling off something like this project’s version of “Shout to Lord” - the album’s emotional center. It starts off with odd sweetness for a song about shouting, and that’s the first signal that LS is going to seize command of this old praise-and-worship standard and remake it with the confidence only truly self-possessed artists can manage. Where “My Good, Your Glory” never attempts to break free of CCM conventions and commonplaces, “Shout to the Lord” reinvests the energy of CCM by merging it with the spiritual depth more common to sg. The result is that the song rings out with newfound force, a delightful little capsule of musical perfection. The lyrical narrative develops along a tightly controlled dramatic arc, and the voices work within a clearly identifiable range of intensity so that the song maps out an emotional journey from the supplicant’s neediness to the plaintive praise of the redeemed (captured in moments like the twinkling duet on the words “my shelter” or in the way Michael Lord’s voice threads its way up to meet the female voices in a merger of obeisance and mercy). Shouting never sounded so carefully gorgeous.
It took me a while to come down from the high of “Shout to the Lord,” which threatened to put everything after it in the shadows of incomparability. But fortunately, the afterglow wore off. “I Know the Plans” picks up about a quarter way through and establishes its own place on the project as a country-sg thing embellished with strings, grounded with a steel guitar and ultimately quite pleasing. “Just Like that” makes me wonder if Michael Lord isn’t the Roger Talley of LS. No, he isn’t, but his higher ranges - while perfectly fitted for LS’s ensemble arrangements - are not very pleasing for solo work. He needs to stay down in more moderate registers whenever he has his own lines. “I Want to Live it All” is a toe-tapping roof raiser … bluesy, like something the Crabbs would do but much, much cleaner than the Crabb’s messy habits. “I Am Sure of You” possesses an admirable emotional range and depth, moving comfortably and compellingly through various stages of spiritual life and religious psychology.
But what comes after “Shout to the Lord” is really just an interlude (albeit a first-rate one) for the spellbinding closer, “Wandering Heart.” The song is a captivating depiction of the deliberative calm that a wandering heart discovers only after great trial and much error. I think the interposition of the old hymn “Softly and Tenderly” slightly diminishes the tune’s otherwise inimitable character. But it’s a smart move for crossover projects like this, since it sends unmistakable signals of affirmation to more traditional listeners while also reaching out to a contemporary fan base. But no matter, what’s most dumbfoundingly brilliant about this song is its smoothly jazzy instrumental epilogue. It comes in unassumingly to reflect on the sentiment established lyrically, to elaborate on it, riff on it and turn the song (and the whole project really) into a pleasant, soulful, focused meditation on the hard-won faith of spiritual journeying - the exploration of what lies beyond the familiar, the traditional, the conventional. Such journeys, like Soul Food itself, are richly rewarding and lastingly meaningful because they speak to the wanderer, the searcher, the secret explorer who lurks in most of us.