Review: LordSong, Classics

Classics
LordSong
Kimichael, 2007

ALI: 50%

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.

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  1. Lordsong vs. Sisters « Coomer Cove on 10 Jun 2008 at 9:58 am

    […] vs. Sisters Posted on June 10, 2008 by coomercove Doug Harrison’s review of Lordsong’s latest release caused me to look into when they would be in my area again.  I […]

Comments

  1. jj1807 wrote:

    LOL @ the first two paragraphs. Very true!

  2. Bryce wrote:

    I’ve been ready to purchase this CD for several months, but Lordsong’s store seems to be down and they have no concerts scheduled within my vicinity. Has anyone acquired it via another vendor?

  3. Leigh wrote:

    If you think this version of the album is good, you should hear the original, which was released while Amber Baltzigler was still with the group. For the second release, they replaced Amber’s vocals with those of the sisters, and added “I’m Forgiven”. IMHO, the original release was superior to the new.

  4. BUICK wrote:

    Thanks for the review. I MUST get this one. It sounds like it will be a treat. And, were it not for this exposure, I’m not sure it would have crossed my mind to buy this project. So thanks again.

  5. sgfan65 wrote:

    Hey Doug !

    Thanks for taking my suggestion seriously and reviewing this Cd ! I am impressed with the review and agree completely !
    You have it all right on point.

    # 3 - I wish I could hear it with Amber ? Where and when was that released ? How did you obtain the copy of it ? Would love to hear it or obtain a copy of it, not to say that I do not love Valerie’s voice just as much if not more.

    I encourage everyone to buy “Classics” It’s definately worth the investment.

  6. GospelMusicFan wrote:

    And Douglas wrote…
    “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.”

    I thought the the news was always bad out of Washington, DC.
    Sure glad you are not the speechwriter for George Bush.
    George Bush wouldn’t be able to start the sentence if you write for hm, never mind finishing the sentence.

    This blogger still is okay for me because he makes me think.

  7. Alan wrote:

    A great review of what promises to be just as great of a project. Personally, I can’t wait to hear this one. When you called Stan Whitmire a “one man symphony” that about said it all. Anything he lends his hands to rises exponentially in class and diversity. One of the participants in this CD had told me some time ago that it was indeed completed with Amber’s vocals, but shelved it, probably in anticipation of the group changes. I’m sure it was a great sound then, and is now as well.

    The only thing that irked me (again) in this review was that gratuitous slam at Pres. Bush. It was not only unnecessary , but detracting from the overall tone. If and when anyone posting here can claim an undergrad degree from Yale, and an MBA from Harvard, then we’ll listen. Deal? Otherwise, a great review, and I can’t wait to hear this project.

  8. martha massen wrote:

    I totally agree with Alan, how ignorant to take a swipe at president Bush on this forum! It sure demeans this forum.

  9. Joe wrote:

    “Would you have no fear of the one who is in authority? Then do what is good, and you will receive his approval; for he is God’s servant for your good…” (Rom. 13:3-4).

    ” I encourage…that first of all, supplications, prayers, intercessions and the giving of thanks be made for all men; for kings, and for ALL that are in authority…for this is good and acceptable in the sight of God our Savior.” (1 Tim. 2:1-3)

    “…the powers that be are put into office by God…” (Romans 13:10

    Please see also Ecclesiastes 10:20 in this regard.

  10. FKL wrote:

    I personally loved the swipe at the president, it’s called HUMOR. It made me smile. Thanks, Avery!

  11. Derek wrote:

    I totally agree with Doug on his remarks about President Bush. I think this video pretty much reveals the George W. Bush Doug was referencing:
    http://youtube.com/watch?v=9OjawmodE14&feature=related

  12. Realistic wrote:

    This might work:

    “When the song is over, the singers will beam with the kind of self-satisfaction that [Al Gore] exudes when he [thinks of the millions of dollars he’s making from global warming].”

    Or this:

    “When the song is over, the singers will beam with the kind of self-satisfaction that [Barack Obama] exudes when he [says people will someday see his nomination as “the moment when the rise of the oceans began to slow and our planet began to heal”].

    Or maybe even:

    “When the song is over, the singers will beam with the kind of self-satisfaction that [Avery] exudes when he makes it to the end of a sentence [skewering his arch-nemesis George Bush].”

    Truthfully Avery, it’s kind of sad to see you waste tired fodder on a lame duck president, but if you’re that easily amused, go for it.

    ‘Just glad it’s still a free country — meaning that none of this idle talk has yet risen to the level of prosecutable hate speech.

    But then, we’re right next door to Canada, literally and figuratively, so stay tuned.

  13. Leigh wrote:

    #5 - I can’t see a date anywhere on my copy of the “Amber” release, so I don’t know exactly when they put it out. I purchased it in early 2007 (Feb?) from their product table during a concert on the Lowry “God Is Crazy” tour. Just a few months after that they announced that Amber was leaving and they had Melissa Brady temporarily filling in until the sisters could join the act.

    You can hear a few of the “Amber” cuts on a fansite at: www.myspace.com/lordsongsings

  14. RF wrote:

    The last bastion of support for President George Walker Bush–southern gospel fans.

    Really folks, you need to lighten up. The man has trouble with sentences. Everyone knows it and everyone recognizes it. It’s funny and has been a recurring gag on Letterman for nearly 8 years.

    Kind of like the picture from the Legacy 5 concert with Scott nearly hugging Ollie North and smiling like a possum. It just makes me wonder why???

  15. Dean Adkins wrote:

    And Douglas wrote…
    “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.”

    I thought that was the best part of the review.

  16. Alan wrote:

    I really didn’t mean to divert a thread about a great CD review to Doug’s latest slam on Pres. Bush. Nor do I agree with everything he’s done in the last 8 years. Far from it, in fact. His lack of oratorical skills has been the fodder of enough political satire, and we’ve all come to realize it. My only point was that to use it as a “humorous” analogy cheapened the overall tone of the review. And that was all. Obviously some agree with me and some don’t. I just choose to respect the office of the Presidency, and will try hard to do so even when a current occupant is worlds away from my personal convictions of Scriptural governing. I will say that when I’m praying for someone, like a political leader who sure needs it, I find it hard to then criticize them.

  17. Al Locke wrote:

    OK, all you anti G. Bush folks….wait till the next President, regardless of which one. You are going to get what you ask for.

  18. wackythinker wrote:

    Al, I think that could probably have been said about nearly every lame-duck presidency in any of our lifetimes. They’ve ALL been fodder for comedians, satirists, and political humorists.

    Probably dates back to Kind David’s time, too. As Solomon said, “there’s nothing new under the sun.”

  19. Matthew C. Moore wrote:

    Doug,

    Is there any specific reason why comments like those expressed above are posted? I enjoyed reading your review, as I do most of the time. Then I came to the comments to hear what others are saying about the cd only to find that no one is talking about the cd, they are bickering about a joke in the review. The comments on this site are getting ridiculous. It is impossible for any post to stay on topic. One comment is made that nudges the conversation off course by one degree, and then four comments later the original discussion is completely forgotten so someone can defend the president, or their denomination, or their favorite singer. As a frequent reader of this post, I find that I do not always agree with what you are saying. So I head to the comments for other ideas, or different perspectives regarding the issue at hand. Seemingly, I always find some mean-spirited doctrinal debate with a bunch of anonymous posters slinging slurs and scripture verses that supposedly support their point of view. I am about to just give up on comments all together. They are serving less and less of a purpose. What can be done about this. Do we have to loose comments alltogether to avoid the time consuming monster of combing throught each post to remove off-topic comments? It seems to me that a change int he structure of this blog is inevitable.

  20. Videoguy wrote:

    I’ll take a stuttering smart person for president than a smooth-talking no-talent, thank you…

    …which is why I would like a primary ‘do-over’.

  21. Ocean View wrote:

    Matthew #19:

    This is Doug’s blog, and he clearly likes to stir and incite reactions of all kinds from his readers. He’s the matador, and he’s waving a red cape with his words.

    In fact, he would probably be quite disappointed if people completely ignored his humor — and his political undercurrents. Often it seems that his blog’s underlying purpose is to remind his readers that he does not walk in lockstep with others.

    If you don’t appreciate the free-wheeling nature of this blog, that’s your choice.

    But this is not a scholarly site. The topics are fluid, and the comments are as well.

    Write your own blog if you want, but let Doug write and moderate his.

  22. RDB wrote:

    That was a pretty generic jibe about GWB, IMO. Not sure why everybody got so worked up.

    However, I’m Canadian and mebbe that explains my indifference. I sure hear a lot worse about our politicians, free speech restrictions and all.

    Mebbe get a sense of humo(u)r down there?

  23. Jim2 wrote:

    Doug,
    You stated “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” when talking about Michael and his contribution - that is SO right on. He doesn’t get the credit he deserves, but that is probably ok - you gotta keep peace in the family

  24. AnnD wrote:

    Yeah, I’m just glad to be still alive and well on planet Earth largely due to this stumbling, fumbling president of ours! AD

  25. cynical one wrote:

    Ocean #19 — AMEN!!!

    Others have made similar comments, but we don’t seem to listen.

    Whether we agree with Doug or not, he’s always interesting, and will allow us to comment (almost) any way we want, as long as we don’t talk dirty (althought he’s let some things slide that a few have taken offense to). But you’re right — it’s his blog, and he can write whatever the heck he wants.

    We don’t have to continue to read. But as long as Doug thinks we’re reading (and commenting), he’s probably going to continue to write pretty much the same as he’s always done, $50. words, political jabs and all.

    Personally, I don’t always agree with everything he says, but how boring would that be?

  26. Tom K. wrote:

    Stan Whitmire a “one-man symphony”? You need to get out more!

  27. Brandon Coomer wrote:

    Great review. Can’t wait to hear the project.

    If anyone has a copy of the original version with Amber they’d be willing to sale, please let me know.

  28. Hello? wrote:

    A perfect example of not being able to finish a sentence (about Iraq this time):

    What they’ll say is, “Well it costs too much money,” but you know what? It would cost, about… It — it — it would cost about the same as what we would spend… It… Over the course of 10 years it would cost what it would costs us… (nervous laugh) All right. Okay. We’re going to… It… It would cost us about the same as it would cost for about — hold on one second. I can’t hear myself. But I’m glad you’re fired up, though. I’m glad.

  29. Hello? wrote:

    FYI, the quote on #28 is courtesy of:

    George Bush? No.
    John McCain? No.
    Hillary Clinton? No.
    Barack Obama? Yes.

    No teleprompter.
    No notes.
    No ghost-written speech.
    Not much there.

  30. Dodge wrote:

    #12, Realistic,
    What is with the reference to being next door to Canada?

  31. SGFAN65 wrote:

    I’d be interested in the CD with Amber on it too - I would buy one from someone who’d like to sell it !

  32. BUICK wrote:

    Moses stuttered…and he wasn’t very good with words…and his people “murmured against him”.

  33. Fezzik wrote:

    Funny that somebody named “Dodge” would need to ask! Could you not get a deferment? You could have come back during Bill’s administration, no problem.
    My guess would be that “realistic” might have been talking about socialized medicine - and the inevitable, incipient rise in taxes and drop in quality of care/life that will come along with the change ?
    Can’t remember if it was on this thread or not, but some Canuck also mentioned the curtailment of free speech there - in the good ol’ USA our definition of ‘hate speech’ is more and more targeted against fundamental Christians (not a big percentage of this blogs readership?)
    Either that or “realistic” was just commenting on our long shared border (our Evangelism Minister says “if common sense makes sense, seek no other sense” when talking about biblical interpretation)
    And finally, “Anybody want a peanut?”

  34. Matthew C. Moore wrote:

    Ocean View and Cynical One,

    You have misunderstood the nature of my comment. It isn’t that I feel that Doug should change what HE is saying. You are right. It is his blog and he can do with it what he wants. I am simply wondering what can be done to keep useless discussions about the politics from becoming the predominate discussion in a thread that is about a CD review. I got the joke. I think that those who continue to comment on it do not understand the nature of the thread. That is all I am saying.

  35. Ocean View wrote:

    Matthew #34:
    It may not be wise to assume that those who make off-topic comments are too ignorant to understand the nature of the thread. Perhaps they (like Doug) simply find it amusing to stir up discussion.

    If the CD review itself is less interesting — or conversely so interesting that it really doesn’t require a comment (since Doug has handled it quite nicely) — people may not comment about the stated topic. However, if his political comment is more compelling, people may just jump on that train and ride it as far as they can.

    If Doug wants to censor comments that are off topic, he will. If he doesn’t, he won’t. Those who post are free to push the envelope until he stops it.

    Clearly, Doug must not mind the off-topic comments as much as you do, because he continues to moderate and then post those items.

  36. cynical one wrote:

    Also, since Doug made the political aside that was “off topic”, perhaps that make the political comment a subtopic, and therefore fair game.

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