Resting Place, 2005
Even in southern gospel these days, not too much music rises to the level of homegrown quality. There’s plenty of the homemade junk, and lotsa homespun … well, to be honest, it’s crap. Indeed this is one of the biggest problems imperiling the future of sg - too many groups and performers who seem content to exist on the hamster wheel of second-rate talent: rustle up a barely listenable project on the cheap, peddle it on a circuit of dates that generate just enough cash to keep fuel in the bus (because these groups always have a bus) and the smallest possible block of studio time necessary to cut another homespun homemade DIY special to sell this time next year.
In this miasma of self-satisfied mediocrity, what a relief and a treat to find something like First Love’s self-titled debut recording - a fine example as I’ve heard in a good while of real homegrown quality. That is, the project is pretty clearly one undertaken with more faith than funds, more resolve than financial resources. But the result is impressive and exciting, not just because or despite of what it achieves against the pressure of its penury, but for the unmistakable proof of possibility contained in these eleven songs.
The group, comprising Katy Van Horn Peach, her husband Troy Peach, and JP Miller, has wisely chosen the first cut, “What a Day That Will Be,” as its inaugural single. The song ought to work marvelously on the radio - a medium-tempo tune that still packs the wallop of the kind a really good ballad can land … the pacing is perfect, has a cadence that induces irresistible toe-tapping and uncontrollable swaying to the beat. And there’s a modulation in there that made me sit up and take notice to a degree I don’t recall since hearing the move from the first chorus to the second verse of “I’m Free” on the Gaither Vocal Band’s Testify project back in 1994. The song is a great showcase for Katy Peach’s voice, which is a magnificent instrument, so wonderfully controlled and the pitches placed with such care and interpretative sophistication. There are both elements of Joyce Martin’s pathos and Kelly Nelon’s sweetness in Peach’s sound, which she mixes with her own musical sensibility that results in a kind of powerful tenderness. In the context of “What a Day,” this creates an expansive feeling from a melody full of uplift, an arrangement rollicking and yet disciplined, and an ending that out Nelons those classic Nelon endings by not just establishing and sustaining a high clear note but also having the male voices work out a harmonic resolution beneath the straight tone before returning all three voices to a final chord rebuilt around that original note.
This kind of ending is more homage than imitation, I suspect. Other songs channel sounds of other great groups in the tradition that First Love might well follow in. “He Made a Cross” echoes some Ruppes-like harmonies, especially in its use of rich, lush passing tones at the end of the end of the choruses and the staggered, fugueish ending, where the various parts circle around and trace each other until they come to rest on a resolution. We are all of us shaped by our past, influenced by the contexts and the backgrounds we bring to our work, and so invariably similarities like these are bound to arise. What’s so delightful about these echoes, though, is that they’re suggestive, in the spirit of the Nelons and the Ruppes or the Martins (and probably others I’ve missed), but not at all the same as - not trying to be like them, but like themselves.
And indeed a distinct First Love sound does begin to take shape, I think, over the course of the project. One of the letters in the latest batch (coming soon) is from a reader who heard the project and thought the songs seemed to lack cohesion on their own, but I’m not sure that’s quite right. I mean, I don’t doubt that the prestige and skill of the writers had more than a little to do with their choices, if only because using proven songwriters reduces just a little of the vast uncertainty that surrounds the formation of a new group. But more than that, the songs seem chosen to give each vocalist a chance to inhabit a lyrical and musical style that fits their voices: thus the Gerald Crabb tunes act as vehicles for Troy Peach’s countrified sound; the ballads and more traditional sg stuff match up well with the power and beauty of Katy Peach’s soprano; and the slightly contemporary selections (”Across the River” and “He Made the Cross”) give JP Miller stylistic space to work with the lighter touch in his voice. I say “slightly” contemporary because nothing here drastically departs from a pretty traditional range of southern gospel styles. A smart move, I think. These songs let the group introduce itself to us and suggest what can be more fully explored and filled out into a cohesive sound of its own in the future. This is, after all, what a first album is supposed to do - perform the introductions (and along the lines of what first projects ought to do, I would have preferred more biographical detail in the liner notes instead of the sincere but largely uninformative personal prayers that accompany each vocalist’s photo).
At the project’s best, songs gel - the vocals, arranging, instrumentation … everything - in a way that only real professionals can pull off. Take “I’ve Never Needed Him More.” There’s a steel guitar in the mix that rather hardens the edges of things a bit too much, cutting against the tune’s contemplative feel (and there’s a harmonica in there that manages to sound strangely like an accordion, or at any rate, something else out of place). But it’s a well-paced number, another nice showcase for Katy Peach’s talent. And in the last third of the song, it manages quite a feat, sustaining the meditative mood of the lyric but doing so with a full-throated force that wonderfully captures the lyric’s idea of spiritual helplessness transformed by God’s grace into a kind of security in the power of redemption (that is, there’s a strange kind of empowerment in acknowledge dependency on the divine). Some artists go their entire careers without tapping into a song emotionally and spiritually, without creating music whose disparate parts all unify around a common transcendent theme.
At other times, the group overcomes its own deficiencies by relying on what almost surely must be a native instinct of the sort that’s at the core of great artistic careers. “That’s When I Got Saved” gets off to a rough start with Troy Peach’s verses, which are set in a lower register where his voice is really unsettled and pitchy. He seems to be aware enough of this to try to compensate for it by over-enunciating and chewing too many diphthongs. This is not pleasant. But just about it all seems to be too much and you’re ready to skip ahead to the next track, something happens … the song ascends into higher ranges, Peach really lands his lines and the tune takes off like a shot, or maybe it’s more a like canter. Whatever, it’s wonderful, all the more so for having gotten out of the gate so stiffly. It’s as if the vocalists key into the core of the song, pounded out around thundering thirds. By the time the ending arrives, there’s an almost unconscious expectation lurking in the back of the mind that this thing demands one those classic Nelons endings. That’s how well it recovers. And sure enough … the voices search out and find a wonderful summit of a final note (Rex Nelon has bestowed many legacies on gospel music, but perhaps The Nelons Ending is his most precious gift).
It’s difficult to overstate how satisfying this all is. Not only do I think this tune will probably work like magic elixir in a live setting. I’m even tempted - awash as I am right now in the heady excitement of discovery that comes from hearing something new and good - that this song might well be a solid contender for a second single. The only reason I say “might” is because of those shaky early verses, but one could do worse than choose a good song for a single despite a few flaws, especially when they’re atoned for with such a forceful ending. [Sidebar: when I’ve come down from the high of discovery, I will probably say that the smart money for a second single is on one of the doggy Gerald Crabb tunes on the album (more on this in a bit), since young artists often tend to mistakenly convince themselves that releasing a solidly sung dud written by a famous guy is somehow superior to an imperfectly sung song that actually gets people’s attention … all this despite the incontrovertible fact that songs rarely make it on the radio due to their writers]. Second single or not, the song testifies to First Love’s possession of an essential ingredient - call it moxie or anointing or whatever you will - that makes all the difference between homegrown and homemade.
Of course there are lots of teachable moments and opportunities to learn from mistakes on the project. A few tunes are keyed too low at the beginning in order, I presume, to allow for the roof-rasingly high endings that come later. And I have to agree with the letter writer who thought that the Gerald Crabb tunes were real stinkers. “It’s Time to Go Back Home” is full of white space and dead spots, reminiscent of the swiss-cheese tune Crabb turned in for Greater Vision’s Faces project, “The Samaritan.” “Grand Reunion In Heaven” will probably work well in a sufficiently rustic and nostalgic setting, but on its own it’s a string of clichés built on the treacly sentimentality of the Hee Haw Gospel Quartet variety (plus it’s several clicks too slow, and the overplayed mandolin is hard to take seriously). And though I really do like “Hallelujah to the Cross” - there are some ensemble moments when the harmonics are just unapproachably gorgeous, and I’m glad to hear something new from Mark Mathes worthy of his early promise - there’s an odd hitch in the rhythm near the end (during a rubato portion of the bridge, the piano doesn’t seem quite to break time with the rest of the instrumentation and so stumbles over the drums) that trips the tune up, coming as it does right when the emotional center of the song is trying to take hold. To compound this problem, the vocalists don’t ever actually sing the “S” on the very last “cross” at the end of the song. So what should be a stirring finale to the song (and the project) ends up being a mildly parodic moment keyed to the unword “crawwwwwuuuuhhhh!!!” To be fair, this is as much a failure of production as singing - aren’t producers supposed to catch this kinda thing? - but either way it’s a rookie mistake that typifies a lot of the less successful spots on the project.
Part of the source of most of these problems is, doubtless, the limited budget on which the project was obviously produced. You can only go back and fix and polish and refine so much when every repair costs precious time and even more precious money. As it is, I think the project does well within its constraints. The flaws are infelicitous, sure, but what comes through is an overriding sense of potential. The imperfections aren’t so much cause for cringing as they are the fellow feeling of anyone who’s wanted to do something bad enough to risk not always succeeding. Most of all, though, the project gives off the sweet scents of anticipation: if this is what happens when they rub a few dimes together and let fly with their own raw talent, imagine what might happen next.