Janet Paschal: Sounds Like Sunday

Janet Paschal
Sounds like Sunday
Vine Records, 2007
ALI: 100%

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.

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  1. Janet’s Blog » SOUNDS LIKE SUNDAY Review on 12 Jun 2007 at 9:46 pm

    […] Article taken from averyfineline - http://averyfineline.comURL to article: http://averyfineline.com/2007/05/29/janet-paschal-sounds-like-sunday/ […]

Comments

  1. Daniel Britt wrote:

    To the skeptics: this album really is THAT good!

  2. Daniel J. Mount wrote:

    Post-gospel?

    Any album I would term post-gospel is an album I would not purchase. :o

  3. Alan wrote:

    What a great review. I haven’t heard this new project from Janet yet, but can’t wait to. I’ve said before that just because it’s from her, and bearing Wayne Haun’s sound, it will undoubtedly define the genre of hymn albums for a long time to come. Okay, this did it. I have to run out and get this one!

  4. Jim2 wrote:

    Avery.
    Thanks for the insightful review - I can hardly wait to hear what an album with a 100% ALI sounds like!
    Please define “post-gospel” so Daniel doesn’t “knee jerk” himself out of a great album

  5. Felicia wrote:

    I was given a promotional CD of this record at the SGMA concert a couple of months ago and it sounded just wonderful. It didn’t have complete songs on it, but just enough to make me want to run out and buy it. Does anyone know when it comes out?

  6. Revpaul wrote:

    So, Avery, did you like it or not??

  7. BGC wrote:

    Great reiew. The project is my current fav.

  8. Mickey wrote:

    Street date is June 12. DBM got an advance to review; Avery got one ’cause we thought he just might adore it.

  9. Mickey wrote:

    Have you noticed that when you submit a response here Wordpress tells you “Your comment is awaiting moderation.” What if that happened when Doug does his posts here: “Your new post is awaiting moderation.” We would never have anything to read here.

  10. David Bruce Murray wrote:

    I gave Janet’s new CD 5 Stars out of 5…the only 5 Star review I’ve written so far in 2007. My review should appear in the July Singing News.

  11. Jim2 wrote:

    Crossroads website shows June 19 as the Street Date. Which date is correct?

  12. Phil wrote:

    CBD shows it will ship on or around June 13

  13. seriously? wrote:

    After reading this and many of your other reviews… I’m convinced that your deaf!

  14. Seriously Too wrote:

    I haven’t heard it so I cannot comment on whether it is good or not. However, “Seriously?” that is a low blow. Different people have different tastes and can disagree, but making a remark like that is uncalled for. Since you didn’t feel the need to put your name or alias down here, neither will I. It doesn’t seem fair for me to speak my mind with not knowing who it is directed toward, so I won’t give you the courtesy either. Since have such golden ears, why don’t you make this productive and enlighten us on what is not good with it and why, and which parts of the review with which you disagree? While you are at it, why not review these top notch products that you think are great and tell us what are so great about them?
    Please educate us! In fact, show us how prescient you are by telling us which project released this year will win album of the year.

  15. Seriously Too wrote:

    By the way “seriously?”, don’t you mean “you’re deaf” instead of your deaf (unless of course you are talking about Avery’s deafness.) For that matter, David gave it a great review too. Does that mean he is deaf as well?

  16. jb wrote:

    I haven’t heard the whole CD and while I am a big fan of Janet and love to hear her sing, I heard 2 songs on the radio from this project and didn’t care for either of them. It wasn’t her, it was just the way the songs just sat there. She has such a sweet spirit about her that anything she sings is good, I just didn’t care for the songs.

  17. RR wrote:

    Haven’t heard it yet, but Janet’s a class act with anything she does. Seriously! :-)

  18. Grigs wrote:

    Even a blind nut finds a squirrel sometimes…….

  19. RR wrote:

    Even a blind nut finds a squirrel sometimes…….

    ?????????????

    Please explain what that means.

    Thank you!

  20. not a grammarian wrote:

    Grigs,
    Glad you found us!

  21. Seriously Too wrote:

    #18, does that mean that Avery is usually wrong, but right in this case, or that Avery is usually right, but wrong in this case? Also, who is the nut and who is the squirrel?

  22. Grigs wrote:

    Janet Paschal is a beautiful lady with the voice of an angel. I haven’t heard the latest album, but from past experience, I’m sure our bag clad commentator is correct.

    As for the nut/squirrel analogy, I’m sorry if my mastery of symbolism is too much to grasp. Here is the explanation: It was about 4 AM, I was suffering from insomnia, and it seemed funny at the time….

  23. David Bruce Murray wrote:

    Grigs,
    It’s not as funny if you have to explain it.

    A few of us went to see Gold City tonight, but couldn’t get in because the church was completely full when we got there…a good example of why big groups shouldn’t be doing love offering type events, but ticketed events instead to assure that those who buy in advance have a seat and those who don’t take their chances. In fact, the church wasn’t even allowing anyone else into the parking lot by the time we got there, which was right at show time, but I digress.

    Highly disappointed, we went to eat instead. Before ordering, three of us guys went in the men’s room…one guy is about my age and the other is his teenage son. His son went into the stall and closed the door. After a second, you could hear that he was standing up to do what he went in there to do, so I asked, “Is that water cold in there?”

    I had to explain it to him…it’s just not as funny when you have to spell it out to someone with an unequal sense of humor. His dad got it, of course.

    Plus, that squirrel joke is so old it has grown a beard…no explanation needed…I thought everyone had heard it by now, but I guess I was wrong.

  24. David Bruce Murray wrote:

    Oops… I just put a bathroom joke under a post about Janet Paschal’s hymns CD.

    Evidently, I’m deaf AND dumb.

  25. Seriously Too wrote:

    Careful David, you know what comes after Deaf and Dumb don’t you?

  26. te wrote:

    I’ve just listened to the CD and this review is right on. It is that good.

  27. RR wrote:

    One of the delights of this collection is that, unlike most CDs, there is no pattern in what you hear from one song to the next. It’s as if you walked down a street where there were different churches, and you stepped inside each for a sampling. Very nice!

  28. Carlos Vera wrote:

    there is something about her words coming from deep inside her spirit ,her love for God and within that is her smile.it just turns a person like an energizer battery it keeps going on and on and I say to the Lord ,help help she is terrific and I began to evaluate her ,she is very special ,may God bless her socks in and out ,she is a knock out ,may God grant her all the wishes of her heart.

  29. Dennis wrote:

    This is by far going to be one of the best albums we will hear from Janet. I think you’re going to catch various audiences with this one Janet :)

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