Janet Paschal: Sounds Like Sunday
Sounds like Sunday
Vine Records, 2007
From her very early days with the Rex Nelon Singers, Janet Paschal’s career has been defined by stylistic dexterity: after her stint in southern gospel, she branched out into 1980s inspirational anthems as a soloist for televangelist Jimmy Swaggart, a style that morphed during her time on the Bill Gaither Homecoming Friends tour into a pleasant blend of old and new. This kind of professional itinerancy could undo less self-possessed performers, reducing them to a confusing smash-up of competing identities. But Paschal always seemed perfectly at home in all these places without ever becoming narrowly identified with any one of them.
Sounds Like Sunday is Paschal’s first new release since her successful fight against breast cancer over the past two years, and perhaps not surprisingly the album finds her in a spiritually contemplative state of mind that moves her musically beyond the limiting boundaries of any single genre or tradition. She has written recently of her hope that this recording will help “grant us a new perspective on why we’re here at all.” And the twelve hymns collected here have the distinct feel of a sometimes rapturous, sometimes solemn celebration of faith and life, commemorating songs of assurance, hope, and mercy that might speak powerfully to someone who has endured illness and survived recovery as Paschal has (a portion of album sales will benefit the Susan G. Komen Breast Cancer Foundation).
But just beneath the surface, this album also suggests that the work of suffering can go well beyond the commemorative and the testimonial. Where a less careful album of hymns could easily turn into a reliquary of dutiful church-lady specials, Sounds Like Sunday develops a delightfully diverse mix of sounds and styles, reimagining the relevance of the hymnody itself as an art form and a mode of religious experience. The richly imaginative arrangements here not only rediscover the power of hymns to sustain and relieve, but reestablish these classic songs as living texts of religious necessity.
In “Surely God is Able,” the relaxed but playful black-gospel score lets the lyrics speak for themselves and, using long passages that ride the one of the chord, situates our ordinary trials and tribulations in a divine history of saints suffering for the glory of God. What keeps this old standard from turning trite or cliché is Paschal’s slightly sassy way of describing all the harrowing situations in which God is able to work – backed up by a chorus of commiserating voices who seem to respond empathetically to her with variations on the same theme: “mmm huh … that’s right!” “The Good Lord Works in Mysterious Ways” acts as a call-and-response companion to “Surely,” ending with a long outburst of declarative pathos that turns the song’s title into a lament as much as a promise. These songs reassert God’s faithfulness to carry us through in his time and reaffirm the wondrousness of his mysterious ways, but they also suggest (somewhat surreptitiously) that you don’t always have to like his timing or methods.
I don’t know if this is what Paschal had in mind when she wrote of wanting to “give the theology [of these songs] entry into our everyday thinking.” But Paschal’s voice and Haun’s arrangements have convincingly captured the way truly inspirational periods of meditation and reflection draw us at first backward, to the stabilizing familiarity of old traditions – “What a Friend we Have in Jesus” and “I See a Crimson Stream” rely on a rustic, old-country acoustical sound to evoke the assurances of simple faith believing (though “What a Friend” is paced a bit slow perhaps) – but ultimately push us beyond the past, and toward a new sense of spiritual things that resonates with our changed circumstances.
If we are to understand these songs as a testament to the power of faith and art in times of struggle, then it is a faith and an art that for Paschal reinvigorate as they sustain, inspiring a eclectic virtuosity that runs the gamut from an Ella-Fitzgerald inspired arrangement of “Let the Lower Lights be Burning” – Paschal’s voice poised perfectly, a la Ella, just a half-click ahead of the beat, backed up by supporting vocals right out of the Savoy Ballroom – to the towering grandeur of “Be Still My Soul,” with a big brassy score and an operatic chorus that seem almost to summon a heavenly host.
Paschal inhabits a playbill full of roles flawlessly: at one end there’s the billowy voiced enchantress of “When God Dips his Love in my Heart,” with its patient shuffling gait and longsuffering electric piano; at the other extreme, the high-church celebrant of “When I Survey the Wondrous Cross,” its stately pipe organ and sacred chorus transporting Paschal (and us) to the reverence of a gothic cathedral, the beauty of a stained-glass frieze.
Which is to say, Sounds like Sunday is impressionistic, moving between and among genres fluidly, borrowing and absorbing styles as diverse as the sounds of the Sabbath itself. But the conventional Sunday worship experience rarely sounds this sweet. Even a song like “Near the Cross,” that feels closest to the piano-and-voices style many of us associate with Sunday morning, manages to be both less self-conscious and more immediate than even the best church music. Pared down to just keyboard (played so well it’s worth listening to the track for the piano alone), bass guitar, and a few background vocals, the song captures the vitality of those rare unrehearsed moments when old and musically gifted friends find themselves in what the scripture so quaintly called one accord – a commingling of sympathy and spirit brought together around a piano by the bond of a familiar hymn and a sharing of the soul’s deepest satisfaction in the consolation of music.
“The Savior is Waiting” and “Turn Your Eyes Upon Jesus” are similarly intimate but their more elaborate orchestration give the songs the elegance of a vocal-jazz set in a tucked-away corner of a lower east side Italian bistro that somehow found salvation.
Over and over, these songs evoke their own self-contained universe in imagination. The raw power of a symphony, the spiritual intimacy of the altar call, the dramatic arc of a Broadway musical, the enveloping charisma of the diva’s one-woman show: Just Janet.
Indeed, in its magisterial sweep – from the meditative and reflective to the stylistically curious and playful (listen for that little giggle at the end of “When God Dips his Love”) - Sounds Like Sunday possesses a larger-than-life feeling that cries out to be staged live. And I don’t mean Paschal singing along with digital accompaniment tracks. I mean live on stage like a redeemed Barbara Cook (the grand dame of Broadway) at the Christian Carnegie Hall with a full complement of players and backing vocals (listen to the symphonic opening to “Be Still My Soul” and tell me that wouldn’t be electrifying to experience with a live orchestra delivering the introductory bars like an operatic overture and then a spotlight suddenly illuminating Paschal centerstage). Paschal has with this album done for hymns what Cook did for American popular music. Just as you can feel in Cook’s voice all the loss, love, desire, grief, friendship, and hope behind the American songbook, so too in Paschal’s voice you can hear every gradation of faith and fear and hoped-for grace and glory of salvation at the heart of the Protestant hymnal.
This feels like a natural, comfortable place for Paschal to be at this point in her life. Having spent the last three decades of the twentieth century staying on the crest of the next wave in Christian entertainment – the gospel quartet of the 70s, the televangelism of the 80s, the rise of the Homecoming phenomenon of the 90s – Paschal has gracefully transcended the shifting currents of mainstream Christian music and recorded a deeply affecting album for the ages that might best be described as post-gospel, post-genre, post-suffering.