Review: Austins Bridge

Austins Bridge
Austin
s Bridge
Daywind, 2007
ALI: 33%

This new group’s self-titled release could more accurately have been called Rascal Flats for Christians. Which is not necessarily a bad thing. Nor are the country currents coursing through the album that surprising given the visible (and sometimes audible) influence of the Crabb family on this young male trio (Aaron Crabb co-wrote the first, best, and probably most stageable tune on the project: “He Will Carry You” - imagine an all-male Ruppes with more nasality circa Seasons). The album works in a fairly conventional Christian-country style with some bluegrass and bluesy inflections but relies disproportionately on the vocal personality of the group’s ensemble sound for its appeal. Lyrically, this means the album is largely uninspired and uninspiring. The result: an uneven album whose considerable promise is diluted by artistic self-indulgence.

Another way to say this: The best and worst thing about the project is the group’s extraordinary youth. It’s not so much their age (I have no idea how old they are) but the way the project (mis)handles the youthfulness that matters. On one hand, the project is often full of an excellent blend of harmonically sophisticated voices (”He Will Carry You,” “He’s in Control” and “What I still Believe” are especially good in this regard). These guys have the natural confidence of boyz-who-have-sung-2gether-4vr. The result is often electrifying. On the other hand, the project is packed with songs (8 of 10) written or co-written by one of the group members (mostly Justin Rivers), and what wasn’t written by AB members has the feel of tunes that established writers pass along when unproven talent comes calling (“I’ve been saving this just for you …”).

Take the first verse from “I am Free,” which opens in an urban setting (”I was walking down the street / the sign read 15th avenue”) and finds one of our young singers distracted and absorbed with the quotidian, “thinking about all the things I had to do.” Suddenly out of nowhere “A man passed by and asked me why I had a smile on my face” - [wait, wait … where did this smile come from? I thought he was distracted?] - “then I told him of God’s love and how he saved me by his grace.” Nevermind the implausibility of this little story (this is the kind of folksy thing that happens in a small town; a city big enough to have a busy 15th Avenue is full of people who don’t randomly interrupt strangers to ask why you’re smiling) and forget the backwards logic (smiling about God’s love while actually thinking about the million little things from everyday life you’ve got to do seems a little too split-personality for comfort). More basically it’s just a musically uninteresting song. And for a studio recording, this kind of thing makes for stultifying stuff, no matter how well harmonized.

On the third hand, these are the kinds of finer points that usually dissolve under the immediacy and emotional sweep of the live experience, and I suspect this group does quite well live (I am Free” has an uptempo-ballad appeal to it and a singer could really sell this story from the stage, now matter how narratively dodgy it is). Herein is a bankable strength. There is plenty of room to make inroads into not just southern gospel but a number of adjacent and more profitable markets if you’re three young, good-looking guys with a gift for close harmony and making Protestant Christianity seem hip but not terribly transgressive (there are a lot of photos on the jacket art in which the boys of AB stare at the camera with studied nonchalance of the vaguely disgruntled who want to appear like they don’t care that they care so much, but the bff4vrish thank-yous in the liner notes redeemably suggest three kids who are mostly just giddy - and rightly so - at the chance to sing together and in front of more than their families or the local youth group). This ability to look like you’d fit in among several different crowds is no small thing, especially in the Christian entertainment world where factionalism and sectarian differences born of snap judgments still hold a great deal of sway (The Collingsworth Family, for instance, has a lot of the right stuff musically, but their holiness couture will in some circumstances send a bunch of misunderstood signals that will always keep them out of certain markets and venues or pigeon-hole them as a novelty act).

I have a theory that there is a “post-gospel” crowd of Christian music consumers out there who like good southern gospel and/but also like Sandi Patty and some other inspo, some CCM of the more conservative variety, the Isaacs, and a little EHSSQ, a lot of Gaither, and maybe a few cuts from Randy Travis’s or Alan Jackson’s religious music. These people are eclectic in their tastes, moderate in their theology, and don’t think of their favorites as falling along or within any of the traditional generic boundaries about which southern gospel is obsessed. Austin’s Bridge could work very well with this crowd, which I assume accounts for the visions of grandeur that evidently have been associated with them in some corners (aspirations for multi-crossover opportunities, into southern, Christian country, the fringes of CCM, and/or beyond).

But to get anywhere in this post-gospel marketplace, Austins Bridge is going to have get some real material to go with their stylishness and harmony. Southern gospel audiences may not regret owning a bunch of second-rate cds bought with concert-goggles on, but this is the exception in Christian entertainment. To make it outside sg, the cd (or the radio single) has to sell the concert ticket, not the other way around.

As tempting as it may be to self-indulge in a record deal with a top sg label that lets you write your own ticket, cutting an album full of your own songs and relying on your Abercrombie & Fitch mystique to make up for the difference between your look and your lyrics will only work for so long before things start to unravel. Then one guy will drift off to sing with Crystal River and another to CrossWay and a third will go run sound for TK&McCrae, leaving behind one or two Austins Bridge records that posterity judges to be more or less promising disappointments.

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Comments

  1. RobertM wrote:

    “lyrically …uninspired and uninspiring.”

    Strange, but our family came to the exact opposite conclusion after listening to this wonderful debut album.

    The lyrics are strongly Scripture-based, and we all agreed the the biblical messages were both INSPIRED and INSPIRING.

    Do you read the Bible? Do you find inspiration there? If so, and to the degree that most of these songs are directly rooted in God’s Word, the new Austins Bridge album is for you!

  2. RobertM wrote:

    And by the way, the same kind of person who believes that Paul’s conversion on the road to Damascus is implausible would probably say the same about a city-street-style conversion.

    I would encourage you to reconsider the amazing grace of God and its inability to be constrained by implausible circumstances.

    With all respect, have you been converted to Christ? It is an overwhelming — and I would daresay, implausible — event when any human heart is captured by the Living God.

  3. Realistic wrote:

    RobertM:

    Learning how to disagree without being disagreeable is a goal of mine, so I’m going to respectfully disagree with you.

    It’s great that you enjoy Austin’s Bridge. Please consider that these three guys will likely be around much longer for fans to enjoy and for God to use in ministry if they *grow* in their use of their God-given gifts.

    A song can be Scriptural, anointed *and* well-crafted. Let’s not be easily satisfied with any less than all three.

    In fact, it is more respectful to Austin’s Bridge to believe that they can become even better songwriters than they currently are. And better songs are more effective communication tools for the Gospel — because they present less distractions and stumbling blocks for people to understand the life-changing message.

    Instead of becoming defensive, we need to humbly, prayerfully and realistically evaluate our creative works, and strive to reach for the best that God can do in and through us. We need to always believe the best is yet to come!

  4. TW wrote:

    I THINK YOU NEED TO PUT THAT BAG THAT IS OVER YOUR HEAD IN YOUR MOUTH!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

  5. Wondering wrote:

    Doug, I am wondering especially lately, if there is anyone you do like? Who do you look up to musically and spiritually? Is your entire world view the same as your view of sg? Why do you even bother to do this blog if you can’t find anything good to say about sg or any of the people associated with it? You must be a sad person. Oh and if you can’t find ANYTHING good to say about Stephanie Brown, then you are a real sad person.

  6. Charles Brady wrote:

    Drooge…. Drooge…. Drooge………..
    Tonight three spirits will appear to you Drooge Harrison. The first will be the ghost of SG past and the second will be the ghost of SG present and the third will be the ghost of SG without AVERYFINELINE…….

    Go get you some help man. You really need some! Honest criticism and commentary doesn’t always have to be trash talk at the level of folks who love to read Russian Literature….

  7. g wrote:

    I took this as a positive…..

    “On the third hand, these are the kinds of finer points that usually dissolve under the immediacy and emotional sweep of the live experience, and I suspect this group does quite well live (“I am Free” has an uptempo-ballad appeal to it and a singer could really sell this story from the stage, now matter how narratively dodgy it is). Herein is a bankable strength. There is plenty of room to make inroads into not just southern gospel but a number of adjacent and more profitable markets if you’re three young, good-looking guys with a gift for close harmony and making Protestant Christianity seem hip but not terribly transgressive (there are a lot of photos on the jacket art in which the boys of AB stare at the camera with studied nonchalance of the vaguely disgruntled who want to appear like they don’t care that they care so much, but the bff4vrish thank-yous in the liner notes redeemably suggest three kids who are mostly just giddy - and rightly so - at the chance to sing together and in front of more than their families or the local youth group). This ability to look like you’d fit in among several different crowds is no small thing, especially in the Christian entertainment world where factionalism and sectarian differences born of snap judgments still hold a great deal of sway (The Collingsworth Family, for instance, has a lot of the right stuff musically, but their holiness couture will in some circumstances send a bunch of misunderstood signals that will always keep them out of certain markets and venues or pigeon-hole them as a novelty act).”

  8. RobertM wrote:

    Realistic,

    Thanks for the reply. Insofar as a song is often poetry set to a melody, a critic should consider the word-picture being painted by the writer.

    Granted, the song is somewhat stylized. But the point here is that God interrupts individual’s lives wonderfully and unexpectedly. Is this song about the details of a conversion? Hardly. Was he chewing gum while walking down the street? Can’t rightly say. The song is about grace.

    The songs on this album are well crafted. Averyfineline got it wrong again.

  9. te wrote:

    I interviewed these young men several weeks ago. They are indeed young and ambitiuos. Not necessarily a bad thing. You make some good points in your review pertaining to song selection and where they fall in the spectrum of music.

    I, for one, like the project. I find it somewhat refreshing in it’s youthfulness. They are who they are. They aren’t some young kids trying to wear the “big boy pants” of traditional SG music. They do what they do and it works.

    I think that it was gutsy move to include “Native American Prayer” on the project. It works nicely before the Gerald Crabb penned song “History Turned the Page” - one of the best tracks on the Cd and hardly a writer’s throwaway.

    Are they Daywind’s attempt to bring the “Boy Band” marketing ploy to SG? Time will tell but for now I think that these young men show promise.

  10. thom wrote:

    I loved the Austin’s Bridge CD the first time I listened to it is still in my top 6 rotation in the car. It is refreshingly different in a good way. I admire the creativity and unique sound of this new group.

    Some have speculated what this project represents in relation to other offerings from the Daywind label. Is this a “departure” from SG music as some have asserted? Or is it more of an effort on Daywind’s part to market across genre lines and reach a much larger audience? Will there be a new label group within Daywind?

    This project was produced by Bubba Smith. He also did the Crabb’s “Blur the Lines” project for Daywind and has produced a variety of artists from Shirley Caesar, to John Schlitt former lead singer of Petra. (side note: now legendary country music producer Dann Huff who has produced Faith Hill, Rascal Flatt, Carrie Underwood, Rebecca St. James, and Keith Urban was part of John Schlitt’s band when Bubba Smith Produced Schlitt’s first solo project back in 1995)

    If Daywind is indeed wanting to expand their markets - and i don’t know one way or the other if this is so - then hiring Bubba Smith is a brilliant move. He has the creds to make it so. When you listen to the debut project from “Austin’s Bridge” you can definitely hear the country influence and the contemporary influence - as mr moderator called it “Rascal Flatts for Christians” - but this in no way makes this CD any less listenable for the SG fan.

    In fact, this CD should appeal to anyone who appreciates songs with solid messages, delivered with great high harmonies, a sprinkle of bluegrass, and a sound that is unique yet familiar.

    I will confess that I am no song writer, yet to my “non-song writer ear” the material sounds great. The lyrics are easily discernable and offer messages of hope, deliverance, and praise.

    To give you an idea of the audience this CD is reaching, my 17 year nephew bought it before I did because he had heard a couple of their songs on their myspace page and he absolutely loved it. He rushed up to me after church one day saying “Austins Bridge is great! I love their new CD.” Then one Sunday monring I was at the radio station and the guy coming in to do the next show came in and asked “was that Allison Krause and Union Station? It was great whoever it is!”

    So, go out and buy one if you can find it. I went looking for it on the “release date” and could not find it in 2 different Christian bookstores. The clerks were not familiar with it but gave me the canned answer “we can probably order it for you.” This is being distributed by Word Distribution - I expected one of those instore displays that you practically trip over when you enter the music department. But nothing of the sort. I still haven’t seen any promotional materials for it in the bookstores. Maybe it’s being promoted somewhere else. who knows>?

    If Daywind wants this project to reach -any- audience they must do something to give Word Distribution a swift kick in the pants and get it out there on the market.

    Kudos to Bubba Smith for some great work. This group will be around a long time - given the right promotion by the label.

  11. RobertM wrote:

    Thom,

    You mentioned your 17-yr old nephew and his positive response to Austins Bridge. My 16-yr old son heard it and became an instant fan. (That doesn’t always happen, as you might know!)

    Coming from a ministry-oriented family, my son appreciated the fact that these guys had been ministers of music in local churches — but have a fairly edgy, sophisticated sound. With young people like Austins Bridge, Lauren Talley, LordSong, and others, I’d venture to say next-gen-sg is in good hands.

  12. thom wrote:

    and RObert M: If the younger generation does not embrace this music and carry it one we are but a few short years away from losing it entirely. It always tickles me to see young fans at NQC or any concert event.

  13. Practical Fellow wrote:

    RobertM - fess up; you’re a family member of AB, right? Or are you getting a royalty off every CD sold? Because you’ve taken this thread waaaaay too serious with all the defensive posts on behalf of the artist.

    And regarding your response on post #8, if you have to argue ‘the point’ of the song, then it didn’t communicate it very well in the first place.

  14. Payton wrote:

    I can honestly say I wasn’t impressed either. Just another “Hey let’s buy a bus and start a group” thing to me. I wonder when people will ever learn that you can’t push the SG market into moving in a more musically progressive direction before it is ready to go itself? Slowly it will happen, and SG I believe will be much more diverse than it is now. But I still ask, why do people have the lightbulb come on in their head that tells them “Man, I’ve got an idea for a group….Let’s do something NEW and PUSH THE ENVELOPE!!!” I could give you and endless list of people who thought they had that very same revelation, only to find that they were number 964 to do that. As we speak, all 964 of them are probably sitting at the house.

  15. RobertM wrote:

    Practical Fellow,

    Considering how serious the owner of this blog takes all things sg, I think my comments are tame.

    And, no, I have nothing to gain through additional Austins Bridge CD sales.

    And, yes, the point of the song was crystal clear, but averyfineline missed it. You should listen to the song once.

  16. RobertM wrote:

    Hi Payton,

    Last time I checked their itinerary, Austins Bridge is not “sitting at the house.”

    :-)

  17. Payton wrote:

    Hi Robert M,

    Last time I checked my post, I didn’t see where I said Austin’s Bridge was “sitting at the house”………..yet. Please don’t put words in my mouth, and read more carefully.

    :-)

  18. thom wrote:

    Payton: I don’t think anyone is trying to change SG to something it is not. By considering it’s own history and loosely defined standards of what is acceptable and what is not one can see that there is already a very diverse mix of music under the SG umbrella. Everything from Charles Johnson and the Revivers to The Martins to The Crabb Family to The Inspirations to Ivan Parker to The McKameys to GVB to Naomi and the Segos to The Hoppers to The Primitives. All flavors all considered to be SG music.

    Maybe more than any other genre, SG is already fractionalized into several different sub-genres. Most consider SG to BE a sub-genre of Christian Music, - so there are sub-sub-genres within SG! lol

    So - there should be no threat of a hostile takeover by Austin’s Bridge. No anarchy.

  19. RobertM wrote:

    Payton,

    You’re disingenuous regarding the comments you made. I’m not stupid.

    Here’s what you wrote:
    “I can honestly say I wasn’t impressed either. Just another “Hey let’s buy a bus and start a group” thing to me.”

    Then, you went on to talk about 964 groups (all of them) sitting at home.

    Regards.

  20. RobertM wrote:

    Probably.

  21. HML wrote:

    ” “Post-gospel” crowd of Christian music consumers.” How about that! I never knew quite where I “fit” in my music tastes, but you just about pegged me with that description….even down to the Randy Travis part. (Though I do take lots of EH&SS and a little less Gaither ;-)

  22. Ann wrote:

    I was a fan of Justin Rivers when he was a member of the Crabb Family Band. I love the Cd , I had to special order it from our local Christian bookstore . I agree with the remark, Rascal Flatts for Christians ! Great job Austins Bridge ! It’s different from any other Christian Cd I own and I like that !

  23. Steve Randall wrote:

    You guys hit on some very good subjects, but one that hit very close to home being a SG DJ and that is SG has to change and is changing. Musically, lyrically and ministry wise they have to take it to the next level and this is where the line is being drawn.

    Talking about this “post gospel” crowd as it has been put, there is a huge crowd of listeners that love the old but they love the new. I am finding they not only have The Cathedrals, The McKameys, The Florida Boys and The Chuck Wagon Gang CDS, but they also have Alan Asbury, Larnelle Harris, Steve Green and Ray Boltz. Not to mention Ricky Skaggs, Randy Travis, Sawyer Brown, Alan Jackson & Some Inspo!

    Things they are a changing and it is time we Radio Stations and Programmers listen to the listeners for a change and give them what they want and not what we think they should listen to.

    Dont get me wrong! We need the Classics! But we can look toward the future while holding on to our past!

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