Review: Austins Bridge
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.Email this Post