SSQ: SSQ

Ernie Haase & Signature Sound
Ernie Haase & Signature Sound
Gaither Music Group
2005
This will never do.

And to know why I say that, one need only listen to the way EHSSQ sings the last word of the song “Godspeed.” The word is “goodbye,” and the sound of it perfectly captures the exquisite impersonality of this self-titled project, the group’s first offering on the Gaither Music label. It’s a breathy falsetto, weightless and airy, like those rice cakes that were once all the rage among dieters and health-food types until we discovered that no matter how well something is composed, it needs to be enjoyable in the experience of consumption, needs to have flavor and texture, and not just be compositionally superior.

Song after song here has the sound of a tedious puzzler in which we are being asked to find synonyms for the word generic: “Shout Brother Shout” and “Do You Wanna Be Forgiven” are bubble gum tunes, resolving into mincing unison straight tones and knock-off jazzlite harmonics that would make even the Ray Conniff singers blush. Meanwhile, “Godspeed” sounds like the theme song to one of those quasi-clever 1980s sitcoms that were full of actors with feathered hair wearing garish sweaters. For some reason, producer Lari Goss decided to weigh the song down with ponderous instrumentals - sleepy horns, cheesy guitars, and velveteen electronic pianos - that seem more emotionally fitting for a high-school commencement performance of “Friends Are Friends Forever” than a song like “Godspeed,” whose cheeky hook and playful lyrics deserve the attention of a quick tempo and snappier vocals.

“Trying to Get a Glimpse” breaks up this serial schmaltz but only because it’s almost scandalous how hard the song tries to remind everyone that the EH part of EHSSQ is related to George Younce. Kin or not, it’s just too soon to re-record this song so near the Cats farewell recording of it and Younce’s towering lead performance (to say nothing of Younce’s death). Tim Duncan is a solid bass singer, but there’s nothing about his ability that ought to make anyone think now is the time for him to try to fill shoes that so recently belonged to one so great. If this is homage, it is poorly considered. If it’s standard bearing, the flag’s dragging the ground.

In the same vein, there’s “This Old House” … I mean, “This Old Place.” Coming on the heels of “Trying to Get a Glimpse,” it feels like a feebly mawkish attempt to give Ernie Haase his own house-metaphor song just like George had.

What makes this all the more regrettable and surprising is Gaither’s involvement here. While Gaither has so deftly guided EHSSQ into a powerful position as the fire-starting crowd-pleasers of the Homecoming tour and general pacesetter among the young quartets of gospel music, he would be hard-pressed to count this an equivalent musical success from the studio (which is not the same thing as a sales success, which I assume it is and will be). Instead, this project may be what vanity-by-proxy sounds like. Witness the opening lines of the Gaither-penned “Then Came the Morning,” full of the kind of muzaky unison singing that shows up on other Gaither projects when Gaither is indulging his inner art-house couture. It makes me think that maybe Goss and EHSSQ got hopped up on a little too much of the magic pixy dust that trails behind Gaither everywhere he goes these days and let the synergy get the better of their judgment. At least that’s about the only way I can explain how so many gifted artists produced such a common project.

“Pray For Me” is the most human song on this album, and so I enjoyed it the most, but about half way through it, I realized why that’s so: it’s a bluesy first-cousin to “Stand By Me,” right down to the same interval for the lead on the big-finish.

That leaves “Goodbye Egypt, Hello Canaan Land” and “Forgiven Again.” The first is a derivative little ditty that hops along nicely. The second is a tune from Gloria and Benji Gaither that’s the project’s big power ballad, and it fills that pigeonhole just fine, though the Gaithers may want to rest on the laurels of Bill and Gloria’s early work if this latest material is to be the kind of songwriting we are to expect of the great name in its patriarch’s sunset years (”Forgiven Again” is not an aberration; B&G wrote a perfect imitation of themselves from 20 years ago on Greater Vision’s latest project).

I realize I run the risk of overusing a term of my own coinage, but my hunch is that this is all yet another effect of Gaitherization: EHSSQ became wildly popular very quickly primarily on the basis of their live Homecoming performances. Consequently, EHSSQ’s brand has become disproportionately mortgaged to the group’s stage presence, to theatrics (which I don’t mean pejoratively) joined with genuine vocal ability and stylistic flare in live settings. One symptom of this otherwise glorious ascent is that unless you count their Christmas project (some do; I don’t), there is no real benchmark EHSSQ project out there - though this project plunges to a depth that in a side-by-side comparison makes Great Love look and sound like a towering achievement even though it’s not (it’s good; not great).

It’s as if Gaitherization has caused Haase to learn (and remind us he’s learned) the lesson of George Younce’s stage craft so well he forgot to pay attention to the other factors that contribute to the kind of balanced brand that is sustainable across segments and audiences and in different (read “not live”) settings. On stage, the kind of Truman Show bubbliness that plagues this project is just fine, but that’s because on-stage schmaltz is leavened with the full complement of a live performer’s basket of goodies: visuals (like dancing and being generally young and beautiful), live instrumentation, interaction with the audience, song set-up and transitions, and the general process of introducing personalities to audiences through comedy and other set pieces.

But if we are to judge by this project, the studio messes with EHSSQ’s mojo. Nobody but the engineers and Lari Goss to see their dance moves. Nobody to marvel at the careful carelessness of their bedhead. No guaranteed laugh track in response to Roy Webb’s bon mots (he is funny). The result is 45 minutes or so of a recording that shimmers in its artificiality.

The clever way to say this might be that the second S in EHSSQ is there, but not the first (ok, so that’s cute, but not so much clever). It’s not that the thing isn’t lively. There’s all manner of enthusiasm on this project - in fact that’s part of what annoys me about it: you can almost see these guys singing every note, even the melancholy and dark ones, with big cheese-eating grins on their faces. In musical terms this means the material needed to have more stylistic inflection from the individual vocalists to give the project some shape and individuality (and the arrangements needed to sound less like they were meant for our easy-listening pleasure whilst nestled in a beige leather couch with a stoneware mug of café latte at a Starbucks somewhere in suburbia). But that’s just a fancy way of saying that while the project is lively; it’s not at all alive.

Unless EHSSQ figures out a way of translating the energy and personality of their stagecraft into the studio with them, a group leveraged so heavily to embodying fads and trendiness on stage better hope that whatever The Next Big Thing is in their act, it manages to be as popular and dazzling as their little Baptist dance moves, short ties, and spikey hair - popular enough, that is, so that people will buy pretty much anything they crank out, even if it misfires as badly as this project does. Because if they let the act onstage go slack for even a moment, projects like this one will be hard ground to fall back on.

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