The Collingsworth Family: God is Faithful
I know the Collingsworth Family has a new album out, but I’ve decided to write about their 2005 recording because … well, for one, that’s what was at the top of the stack and two, because for whatever reasons my review may or may not matter, timeliness really isn’t of them.
The Collingsworth Family
God is Faithful
Looking at the cover of the Collingsworth Family’s 2005 album, God is Faithful, the unironic wholesomeness wafts off the cd in gusts. After a while, you can almost begin to smell the homemade cookies and Sunday pot roast, practically feel little Olivia’s hand reach out and grasp yours in an unconditional welcome to join the family as they sit down to give thanks at a dinner scene that later this year they will send out as Christmas postcards.
A big helping of family goodness shouldn’t be all that surprising to find at the center of a southern gospel act, and yet the Collingsworth family’s shine is so glossy, their happiness apparently so undiluted and earnest, it almost makes Connie Hopper look like a phony by comparison.
I think this is because the Collingworths have managed to successfully package their wholesomeness for the market (right down to the “Hair and wardrobe design by Kim Collingsworth,” as the liner notes put it) while betraying very little of the contrivance and strategy and entrepreneurial cunning such successful marketing requires – it’s the difference between, say, Janet Paschal and Jan Crouch. Unlike other gospel music families who have capitalized on their homespun bonafides by playing up their rough edges and unpolished style (the Goodmans) or keeping the country but gussying it up via the Gap and Express (the Crabbs), the Collingsworths invite you to vicariously enjoy the harmony of one big happy, impeccably manicured, respectably attired clan who wakes up every morning ready to conquer the world for Christ in song – notice how often the family’s press photos are shot with some kind of urban (or urbane) backdrop – but without ever becoming part of that world (be ye not of … etc).
As trendsetters, the family’s sound and style are important for the way they implicitly critique the rank amateurism and hilarious garishness that afflict the majority of family acts and TBN moneychangers trying to break through in evangelical entertainment these days. Indeed, in their contrast to the prevailing trend, the Collingsworths suggest – and lo, a miracle, this – that slathered-on makeup, sine-wave vibrato, bad hairpieces, bejeweled stage props and instruments, cheap suits, DIY dye jobs, diphthongy oversinging, and gold lame anything might actually be unchristian after all, or at least works of so many false, gaudy prophets.
The Collingsworth family is largeish, numerically anyway (Kim, Phil and four kids all young enough that their voices aren’t easily distinguishable from one another), bringing to mind Brock Speer’s line about the whole fam damily. The myriad combinations that can be made from six different voices gives the album the feel of a variety show … Indeed, I had to follow along with the liner notes the first few times I listened to the album to keep straight who was singing what and when and with whom. Not surprisingly, some of the acts (especially the ladies trio and the Phil-Kim-Brooklyn combo) are more successful than others (the daughters’ solos - children’s music may work on the stage but doesn’t make for riveting records - and, with my flak jacket on and the promise to explain myself more in a moment, Kim’s piano solos). But even while I only care to listen to about half the cuts on return visits to the album, there’s a buoyancy to the family’s sound in all its iterations that’s impossible not to find endearing.
My favorite cut on the album is “Tradin’ A Cross for a Crown.” It’s one of the few songs (along with “We Want to Praise the Lord” and “Shine on Us”) with the full family ensemble, and as I sit here typing with the family’s tightly-knit yet delightfully expansive harmonies pouring from the speakers beside my desk, I’m smiling irrepressibly. The chorus is a picture of musical poise: the perfectly clipped and neatly trimmed phrases balanced against wide open intonations (“I’m notuh / gonna walk awwwayyyy, I’ve gotuh / too much at staayyke”) create a deeply pleasing symmetry sung with the kind of enviably easy blend that only comes from shared genetics.
This must be infectious stuff to hear live (assuming they pull off this kind of spectacularly tuneful sound onstage): six family members holding forth so naturally and expressively. And it’s not the novelty of it all (though it IS a novel act, which will become harder to sustain as these kids age, I suspect … wholesome is difficult to keep going when rosy cheeks turn pimply and hormonal). It’s the ear they all have – cultivated and trained, to some extent, but self-evidently full of natural giftedness – for matching each other note for note, tone for tone, and for contouring their phrasing perfectly … attacking a phrase, truncating a syllable, coordinating syncopations, bending a vowel just enough to leave their inimitable imprint on it. Listen to how they arc the intonations of the word “healer” in “The Healer is Here.” With just the right amount of torque, the “er” sound morphs phonetically unto an “ahhh” that lets them enrich and expand the resonance of the tone, and so, suggest the very experience of the healer’s arrival.
Or “Shine on Us:” across the phrases in the chorus “find a way, in the darkest night” and “let your light shine on us,” the harmonics first expand, the chorus climaxing around the minor sixth of “the darkest night,” then collapse back into the lower, more reassuring registers in which to “let your light shine on us.” It’s so subtly sung that dissection cheapens its effect, not least of all because the Collingsworth sound owes a great deal to the vague but persistent feeling that the kind of music-theory scrutiny to which I’ve just submitted their songs is the farthest thing from their mind (whether or not this is true, I haven’t the faintest idea; it’s the perception I want to emphasize).
And this leads me to one of two complaints I have about God is Faithful. The Collingsworths’ voices are so naturally commanding and artlessly enthralling that the album often feels overproduced, with its swelling strings and maximally orchestrated scores and sky-high bgvs. Then again at other times, especially “Light from Heaven,” the family’s voices are oddly flaccid and disconnected from the song thematically, as if they’re relying too much on the orchestration to get the job done (vocally the song is all light without any of the darker colorations that Kim Lord’s voice gave the song when the Ruppes originally cut it, those dark tones essential in bringing into relief the illuminating power of divine light). I can fully appreciate wanting to take ample advantage of producers and arrangers of Roger Talley’s and Wayne Haun’s eminence and create an album that proves its seriousness by dint of symphonic majesty. But the lavishness of the orchestration at times feels stylistically incongruous with the Collingsworths’ sound – like Leonard Bernstein scoring the music for an episode of Seventh Heaven.
The Collingsworths’ voices can carry a sustained ending or rousing chorus all on their own, in their own way. They don’t need so much of the strings stringing and harps harping and the percussion section percussing and an oddly star-studded “appears courtesy of” chorus of bgvs (Jim Brady, Charlotte Ritchie and Lauren Frikkin Talley!) wailing away behind them. I’m not sure this is lily gilding exactly, but it comes awfully close.
My other issue is not so much a complaint as a disappointment: the piano solos. I admit I’m coming late to the Collingsworth party, which means I’ve listened to praises for Kim Collingsworth’s abilities at the piano for so long that my expectations couldn’t help but ascend to a level of the stratosphere to which no human could possibility rise. Still, even subtracting the hype, it was a big disappointment (though not, alas, a surprise) to find the gifts of this considerably talented keyboard artist obscured by all the clunky furniture of middle-brow piano soloism: the schmaltzy instrumentation and the cheesy ooooo-ing and ahhhhh-ing of the bgvs. All that was missing was a candelabra and one of Joanna Castle’s feather boas.
It’s not just that dense runs and tricky arpeggiations (see especially “Swingin’ and Marchin”) are far less impressive with a full band track keeping time and a host of bgvs establishing the melody behind the piano. More than that is the tired fact that absolutely everybody (in sg anyway) does it: from Dino to Roy Webb. Perhaps Collingsworth wanted to prove she could hold her own at what is an overwhelmingly male domain. But as the old music-school saying goes, the best notes are often the ones you don’t play, and this is especially true if the guys are busy measuring each other’s abilities by the size of their 32nd-note runs. Think less Andrew Ishee a la “The Prayer” and more Roger Bennett, a la Midnight Meditations.
It’s a lesson that might serve to guide the family’s sound as a whole: trust yourselves a bit more, and the bells and whistles of the producer’s booth a bit less. Because for however long the Collingsworths can keep this beatific sound together, the blandishments of the symphonic strings, the clanging cymbal, and the “appears courtesy of” will compete with even their best efforts to capture the sound of the unbroken family circle. I don’t guess the two are mutually exclusive. But listening to a song like “Free to Go Home,” the album’s final cut, it’s the voices I want to hear more of – less of the variety show novelty act and more of those wonderful but far-too-scarce moments when the song breaks free vocally from the apparatus of production, and in the process recreates a little of what it might have sounded like to stumble into some backwoods Nazarene church and discover this family for the first time, their voices knocking the roof off with every marvelous measure and magical phrase.
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