Review: LordSong, Classics
Go to a gospel concert these days and chances are at some point the performers will turn off the digital music makers and make an elaborate show of encircling the piano (assuming someone can play) to sing some old song “out of the red book” with just the keyboard for accompaniment.
Before the song, a great deal will be made of this interlude, as if a folk-art form long thought extinct is being carefully kept alive by the last three or four people on the planet capable of singing acoustically. When the song is over, the singers will beam with the kind of self-satisfaction that George Bush exudes when he makes it to the end of a sentence. And then audiences are returned to their regularly scheduled program full of preprogrammed music and celestial choirs on back-up tracks.
The rise of this gather-‘round-the-old-redbookism in southern gospel has had the unfortunate effect of making piano-and-vocals “acoustical” work synonymous with “vintage,” as if to sing this way for more than a song or two at a time would be to engage in some kind of unthinkable artistic regression. Sure, and while we’re at it, why don’t we just start selling LPs in the lobby!
It’s a measure of how badly gospel music denies its own decline that an album like this one, full of good songs superbly sung and accompanied expertly (here, by the incomparable Stan Whitmire), must be dressed up as the kind of nostalgic novelty implied by the name, Classics.
But the title is misleading on two fronts. First, these songs may be familiar and in many cases fairly old, but their power is not their familiarity or age. Rather it’s that they are well written, thoughtfully imagined, carefully rearranged (for the most part), and exquisitely voiced. If this is somehow “classic,” let us all be doomed to eternal classicism.
Second, this is not a classic vocal formation. LordSong may be a mixed group in the tradition of the Lefevres and the Nelons, but the dominance of female voices – Heather Day and Kim Lord singing at or below Michael Lord’s register, and Valerie Ellenburg singing soprano – makes possible sounds unlike anything the Lefevres or the Nelons could ever have produced. It’s not a question of “better,” so much as “different” in a delightful way.
From her days with the Ruppes, we’ve known Kim Lord to be among the most gifted female vocalists in gospel music. And she’s in finest form here taking the lead on “Hold to My Hand” (and her harmony work in much of the rest of the “Hand Medley” is deeply satisfying as well).
But the poppier music that LordSong has made the mainstay of the group’s sound since its inception has underserved Michael Lord’s too-often overlooked voice. Here, he shows extraordinary range, which has less to do with how high he can sing than with the dexterity and flexibility of his voice to shade the harmonies to which he contributes and inflect the melodies he takes with the right coloration and feel. I wish more male vocalists in gospel music would strive for this sort of depth and nuance and stop wasting so much time trying to break glass, blow the subwoofer, or fleck the balcony with spittle.
It’s not just Michael Lord who seems to shine more brightly on this recording. Classics captures the qualities that make LordSong as a whole one of the most artistically sophisticated ensembles in gospel music, to a much greater extent than most of their music has suggested up until this point. Judging by earlier releases like Soul Food and Refuse to be Afraid, the group seems to have assumed that the way to establish themselves was to sing a stylistic mishmash of quasi-contemporary, quasi-traditional, pseudo-praise-and-worship music. Here’s hoping Classics disabuses them of this flawed assumption.
One key element of the album’s success is the song selection and arrangement, which would seem to owe a great deal to the influence of Mark Lowry on the group (if not his direct involvement). Emotionally, Classics gives off the same air of contemplation and larkishness that Lowry’s album of hymns relies so heavily on. Conceptually, Classics succeeds by taking traditional music and remaking it in the artist’s own image, just as Lowry’s post-Gaither success has mainly involved a willingness to see what fairly traditional gospel music and Christian entertainment would look like as presented through a fun-house mirror.
And finally, the album is, like Lowry’s musical tastes, eclectic but conventional. The majority of the songs here come from the world of gospel, but there are some praise and worship and inspo numbers that attempt to expand the generic horizons of the album.
Of these, the inspirational selections – most notably “Praise the Lord” and “Cornerstone” – work best because they include powerful passages of rich harmony and subtle passing tones that fit well with LordSong’s strength as a harmonic ensemble.
The stuff that tends toward the contemporary and praise-and-worshipy side, on the other hand, turns out to be the least successful selections. This shouldn’t be all that surprising. Songs such as “I’m Forgiven” and “Oh Happy Day” (as opposed to “O Happy Day, which is also here and works marvelously with the, uhm … classic convention piano style Whitmire provides) aren’t good vehicles for harmonic ensembles. They’re meant for soloists and unison ensembles, and the result is that the material feels beneath LordSong’s considerable harmonic sophistication. “I’m Forgiven” sounds like the soundtrack to a Doublemint commercial.
The other major weakness is the tendency of the arrangements to move in rhythmic fits and starts within songs. And I’m not just talking about the medleys, though the “O Happy Day/Oh Happy Day” medley, the album’s opening track, perfectly exemplifies what I mean. Like too many other songs, this one includes an abrupt and disruptive rhythmic change midway through the song.
It feels like a gimmick used to create the sense of a “bigger” sound, as if someone said, “this song needs something else” but no one knew what to do but jigger with the rhythm since there was only piano and voices to play with. This sort of thing is symptomatic of work from producers accustomed to thinking in terms of the larger instrumental arrangements that come with fully orchestrated albums, or else someone overly self-conscious of an acoustical album seeming anemic. But no one working with Whitmire should ever feel instrumentally insecure (including Whitmire himself, who is one of the arrangers). The guy is a one-man symphony.
Fortunately these are minor flaws that may mar the album’s surface, but don’t ultimately erode its achievement. Classics is an extended meditation on the lost art of close harmony, reminding us (and, one hopes, LordSong themselves) that the group’s strength all along has been, not as a flash and dazzle act working in the hinterlands of indistinctly hybrid song styles, but as artists unafraid to step out from behind the self-indulgent adornments of Christian music’s overproduced style, and just sing.Email this Post