On the Way Up
Vine Records, 2007
HisSong is typical of many hard-working groups on the fringes of the industry who can sing for years and burn through several short-lived careers, all the while teetering between obscurity and breaking through. On the Way Up is the group’s third album (or fourth, depending how you feel about albums that are solely covers of old tunes), and besides being borrowed from a fantastic old Hemphills song – more about that in a bit – the album title aptly captures the aspirational quality of project.
Anchored by three older tunes (the title track and one other Hemphills’ song, “The Miracle Man,” and “Joy in my Heart”), the album comprises mostly new material orchestrated and arranged with the kind of glittering expertise that in most other genres is reserved for only upper-echelon acts. The result – if you close your eyes and listen imaginatively – is a dispatch from some potential future moment when a successful HisSong has landed their Gaither Music record deal and out Wolfed Greater Vision for most beloved male trio. At least this scenario helps the NQC-sized orchestrations on the album feel more contextually appropriate.
I recommend attempting this feat of imagination while listening over and over to the title track, “On the Way Up,” which I confess is pretty much the main reason I decided to review the album in the first place. The Hemphills recorded the song on their Without a Doubt album from
1876 1976. As it’s covered here, it’s not the only good song on the album, but it’s easily the best. Refurbished with a black gospel gait that’s helped along with some R&B moves here and there and held together by the understated distinction of pianist Virgil Stratton’s work at the keyboards, the song exemplifies the way to pay homage to a great old song, while also making it wholly your own.
Partly, the song’s success emerges from an admirable vocal discipline, which helps define this and other solid, if not outstanding, songs, such as “The Grave Can’t
Hole Hold Me” and “I Don’t Regret.” As for “On the Way Up,” this discipline keeps the group from oversinging. Instead of giving in to the centrifugal pull of the black gospel style – there’s always the temptation for southern gospel singers to want to Kirk-Franklin all over the last quarter of these songs – the harmony stays focuses and gains texture as the song gains momentum. Instead of speeding up the tempo or launching the voices off into their own orbits, the arrangement builds intensity by complicating and enriching the passing tones. Slide into a chord here, lean on a note slightly harder over there … the vocal discipline allows less is to be so much more.
But the real show-stealer here (and elsewhere) is the tenor part, sung by Adam Eldrod (thanks, SS). It’s not the kind of voice I’m sure I’d want to hear for prolonged periods of time. Indeed at his weakest, Elrod seems so enamored with the distinctive vocal sounds he can produce that he forgets to sing his lines with consistent comprehensibility (he especially needs to be careful to close his vowels and sharpen his phrases so that they are less about tone painting and more about clearly communicating complete musical ideas). But that said, Elrod sees and attempts to do something other and else with the high parts than typical gospel tenors. It’s a different voice, mostly in a good way, very human, self-possessed and experimental, as far as southern gospel is concerned. Exhausted as I am by the high, thin, tinny and coldblooded sound that so many tenors strive for, Elrod’s voice has the potential to distinguish itself in the manner of Jeff Crews’, formerly of Paid in Full, or Rick Strickland’s, in his prime.
It doesn’t hurt that Elrod and the rest of the group have an excellent vehicle in a Joel Hemphill tune. I don’t know why Hemphill’s songs aren’t re-covered more than they are, but that just makes it all the more joy to find “The Miracle Man” on here as well. It’s not nearly as strongly done as “On the Way Up,” but the album deserves points for featuring two old, less-remembered, but by no means lesser, Hemphills tunes.
Much of the rest of the album gets carried along by the force of the production quality. So good, in fact, that at times it tends to accentuate the distance between the group’s ability and that of their producer. “Because of the Blood” is the obligatory power-house B-3 gospel crooner tune. I’m a sucker for these songs, so the predictable lyrics don’t bother me that much, since the fun of these numbers is not the freshness of the writing but listening to how a particular ensemble puts its mark on a standard subspecies of the genre.
What did lift a butt-check off the chair, though, was the baritone’s pitchy entrance, the way he seemed to be trying to sing the way he thought someone should sound for this kind of song – all melisma and chewy syllables. And then there’s the mumbly delivery on “The Things That Won’t Be There,” a song with the same kind of rapid-fire phrasing of “I Wish I Coulda Been There.” The verses need to pop more, and the ensemble as a whole needs to go back and listen to how the Perrys deployed the use of staccato to sing their way through “I Wish.” As it is, the vocals feel like they’re being dragged along by the band track, and slurred lines give the impression of rhythmic ineptitude and amateurism.
The baritone (and lead) deserves credit for not trying to sing out of his range, but too often, he seems to be covering up his trouble with tone placement by going breathy. This is especially the case with “Out of His Way,” which has the added misfortune of being lyrically formulaic, conceptually predictable, and unnecessarily draggy. Like a few other songs here – “Through Every Storm” particularly comes to mind, with its telegraphed reliance on meteorological metaphors and an overdone ending that tries to compensate for the rest of the song’s weakness – the song feels like something an A-list writer pulled out of the back of the drawer for a C-list group (there’s probably a joke here about not going out of your way to listen to this song, but I’d have to listen to the song again to figure it out).
The lead voice is slightly stronger, but lacks definition and authority. But my point isn’t to pick on the guys individually. The point is, HisSong really is a good example of the old line about the sum of their parts etc. The album is not exactly diverse in its song styles, but there’s good variety here, such as “Our Highest Praise,” an easy listening tune that struck me as a good contender for a sitcom theme song, which I don’t mean entirely pejoratively. It’s catchy, harmonically sophisticated and confident, and nicely paced. All the way to this end of the spectrum and back again to the solid, traditional center of “Joy In My Heart,” the group maintains a pleasant, sometimes even impressive ensemble sound.
You may have heard “I Still Have it All” on the radio, which is a fine enough song, as midtempo songs of reassurance go. It gives the tenor solid exposure while also showcasing the ensemble’s harmonic strength (completely an aside: but don’t the entrances to the verses sound almost exactly like the entrances to the verses for “Four Days Late”?). Except, there’s the super-strong “On the Way Up” sitting at the top of album just waiting to endear the group to nostalgia-loving sg audiences everywhere. Added bonus! It’s a fantastic tune. With luck, it’ll be the group’s next single off the project. And even if it isn’t, we can still close our eyes and imagine.
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