Review: The Perrys, Almost Morning

Almost Morning*
The Perrys
Daywind, 2009
ALI: 40%

There is no single formula for success in southern gospel when it comes to new music, but in general, most new material that succeeds does so on the basis of how well it makes the listener think or feel. It’s the difference between the head and the heart.

Of course most good music is a mix of both. It’s a matter of emphasis, but that emphasis can make quite a difference. Compare the Hoppers (prior to their current “poor man’s Vegas show” era) and a song like “Anchor to the Power of the Cross” to the subject of this review, the Perrys, and “Calvary Answers for Me.” Each song’s (and group’s) unique appeal, you might say, is the difference between “wow” and “amen,” respectively.

Listening to Almost Morning involved the odd experience of frequently being brought to the height of some great feeling, only to struggle and often fail to locate the basis for that feeling in the song itself. The album is full of soaring orchestrations, impeccable arrangements, and for the most part exquisitely sung songs that provide regular inducements for us to feel very deeply, but without clearly tethering that feeling to lyrical ideas or images that will support it. Take the first verse of “If You Knew Him”:

I walked by the tomb of Buddha
Looked inside and saw his bones
Traveled on to see Muhammad
Still wrapped up in his grave clothes
Then I journeyed to a garden
Where old Joseph left Him lay
The precious lamb God’s own begotten
Was no longer in that grave

On this basis of this verse’s first-person “report from the field of world religion” form, we might naturally expect a chorus whose payoff describes the Christian’s belief in the everlasting salvation of a resurrected Christ, right? Instead we get this:

If you knew him, like I know him
You would know that he’s alive
If you felt him, like I feel him
Resurrection, deep inside
You’d know he’s living and death has died.

The rest of the song is a mix of modes, switching back and forth between the second person direct-address to the listener and first-person testimony established in the first verse, with a borrowed hymn dolloped in toward the end. The song can’t decide if it’s testimonial or evangelistic. Is it declaring the visible wonders of the risen Savior to a world filled with alternative spiritual paths (Buddha and Muhammad), or speaking directly to someone uncertain of what religious living means in felt terms of individual experience?

The Perrys sing all this marvelously, of course, but conceptually confused and confusing lyrics prevent the song from adding up to much. Indeed, that’s a pretty fair description of the album as a whole: lots of rich and yummy – but mostly empty – calories.

The most likely rebuttal to this view will be “Did I Mention,” which is making a big splash live, but it’s actually the best example of the phenomenon I’m talking about here. Not unlike “If You Knew Him,” “Did I Mention” suffers from some conceptual confusion: the first verse explicitly states that the rest of the song will be an occasion for the singer to “humbly testify.” But instead of testimony, we get variations on the already famous chorus: “Did I mention that I love him …,” which is not so much a testimony as a profession.

If you’re inclined to say it’s a distinction without a difference, that you still want to shout hallelujah no matter what the lyric’s formal classification, well, that’s my point. These songs go over so well with audiences not because of the way lyrics merge with the music to make possible spiritual insights reinforced with religious feeling, or the way the music brings out special inflections or textures to the ideas in the lyrics. Rather they work because when the Perrys sing this stuff, “it makes you feel,” as one reader so aptly put it a while back, but “it doesn’t do much else.” (Which reminds me of Bob Dylan’s comment about effective performances being ones that make you think and feel at the same time.)

Think back again to “Calvary Answers For Me,” a song with an original hook whose central idea was consistently and thoughtfully developed in the verses and given emphasis and depth of feeling by the musical score and arrangement (“Wish I Coulda Been There” would work too, if we were doing upbeat tunes). By comparison, the phrase on which this hook is built, “did I mention,” is at its most basic level a throwaway piece of ironic furniture from ordinary conversation – “uhm, did I mention I love love LOVE the new iPhone” – fused to a statement of religious piety so that the result is a lyrical novelty act, equivalent to music built around the idea of “OMG Salvation” or “It’s So God.”

The fact that only ONE of those examples is fake illustrates the issue I’m trying to get at, an issue that goes way beyond the Perrys. In fact, the Perrys might be said to succeed because they are among the best in the industry at transfiguring just about any lyric they decide to take up and making their audiences (I count myself among the crowd here) feel something that simply wouldn’t be there in the hands and voices of lesser talents.

This is a rare ability. So much of the new music being written and recorded in southern gospel today is often all heart and no head, or the religious-music equivalent of cheap grace. While faith without feeling is pretty purposeless, and piety sheared of any emotional belief risks drifting off into empty religious gestures, the near total absence of all but the most conceptually simplistic lyrics in popular southern gospel raises the possibility that the Praise & Worship phenomenon is creeping into all corners of evangelical pop culture. Horrors! Really.

The point is not to turn musical concerts into theological disquisitions, but it doesn’t seem like too much to ask that new music at least attempt to do more than open the floodgates of pious tears.

Of course, that’s not all Almost Morning is about. For one, it’s about Kyla Rowland. At least, there are a lot of Kyla Rowland tunes. A. Lot.

There’s also a mid-tempo Zydeco number featuring Troy Peach early on. It’s a paint-by-numbers tune that relies almost totally on instrumental hanky-panky to get by, but the song does fit Peach’s voice well, giving him short phrases that don’t require sophisticated phrasing or precise tone placement, and then allow him to slip back into the supporting role he is so well suited to with the Perrys.

One of my favorite tunes is an old Stamps-Baxter song, “I Love to Tell,” that the Perrys sing with magnificent ease and grace in straight-ahead style … an amply enjoyable quartet number. Joseph Habedank’s voice is special bonus feature of this song. For whatever reason, it’s much less covered and textured than it normally is (and the melody line when he has it is refreshingly unembellished). He backs off the vibrato and lowers his soft palate a bit, creating a brighter tone without nasalizing it (pay particular attention to his voice in the ensemble and his solo in the last chorus), the resultant sound more like Broadway than Stamps-Baxter, a neat stylistic intermixture.

Habedank applies this style to parts of “Almost Morning,” the title track, and a solo for him. The melodies are thoughtful and evocative, carefully crafted, and the vocal delivery and arrangement are by turns pleasant and powerful. It’s easy to imagine while listening to this song what a Joseph Habedank solo gig might sound like, which is just a way of describing the song, not career advice or anything; the last thing we need, mind you, is another sg soloist.

But alas and again, there’s no lyrical center to anchor the song. “It’s almost morning, joy will replace all your fears” etc. It’s not that any one of these phrases are intrinsically flawed or should be off limits by themselves, or that they don’t express some genuine belief or statement of faith, just as no one of these songs with worn-out phrases abounding would be bad in small dosages. It’s that, taken together, they begin to overwhelm in an underwhelming way, like eating too many rice cakes.

Good songwriting isn’t about inventing an entirely new lyrical idiom or creating a completely new imaginative landscape every time you sit down to write. The key is to lead your listeners down familiar pathways and then guide them into new and unexpected territory at some key point.

The lyrical conceit of “Almost Morning” is full of potential: light and dark, the misleading shadows of near night and the becalmed beauty of early dawn, the moon describing its arc in the vastness of space above, our lives cast in dim and shifting shadows of night below … so many possibilities for the writer of religious songs. But instead here we simply are told that “joy will replace your fears” and “it won’t be long till the dawn” and “tomorrow’s another day” and God’s love rhymes with home above, and at some point it becomes disappointingly clear that some varietal of the same flaccid-lyric syndrome is broke out all over this album.

That doesn’t mean these kinds of songs don’t sell well live and won’t, for instance, light us all up at NQC next week. The Perrys are among the industry’s finest artists on stage – simultaneously sincere in their piety and sophisticated in their understanding of performance art. And for this reason, the Perrys die-hard fans will be tempted, I imagine, to cite Almost Morning as proof of the group recapturing the spirit of This is the Day and Changed Forever, perhaps their best albums. It is true enough that like those earlier albums, Almost Morning packs a big emotional wallop across a set of stylistically various tunes. But the comparison only holds up if you don’t think too hard about it for very long.

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Comments

  1. Extra Ink wrote:

    I think the best song on the record lyrically may be “You Cannot Improve On The Truth”, which is track 9 and also written by Rowland. It’s a departure stylistically for Rowland…I’ve really got to wonder if her demo or her live pitch to the Perrys sounded anything like the cut turned out melodically. It’s so unlike the stuff she usually writes.

    “Did I Mention” will be the song of the year in 2010, in my prediction, if nothing smoking hot should supersede it in the coming months before the voting begins in the Spring. I look for the Perrys to release it next after “If You Knew Him” if they are thinking of next year’s fan awards.

    I must admit that I am a gushing fan. I have played this CD over several times, something I rarely do. Joseph Habedank is an amazing vocalist, friends. The Perrys are so far ahead of the rest of the crowd in SG on so many levels it ain’t funny. I must be one of “those” fans you mentioned, for I had just been thinking this is the best thing since “This Is The Day”. I still think it.

    One more thing. “Dying Is A Day”, Track 7, is the most progressive thing the Perrys have ever done. It’s an interesting diversion on the recording. Good stuff.

  2. JEB wrote:

    I’ve have finally concluded that Doug Harrison is incapable of communicating a clear thought. It takes him 5,000 words to say nothing. This is Gospel Music, Christian entertainment - good music that is wonderful to listen too and sing along with while you drive down the road.

    It “is not” a collection of great anthems. It is not a well-crafted sermon intended to save crowds of non-believers. It is Gospel Music, Christian entertainment.

    I am a fairly well educated adult who cannot really understand what Harrison is saying. Maybe I am just a little dense. I have read his post again and I am just trying to figure out if he will play the CD again and again like thousands of us do.

    I read averyfineline to read comments of the responders…

    Am I alone?

    JEB

  3. Butch wrote:

    A great communicator can take something rather complicated and make it easier to digest. Harrison takes the simple and makes it waaayy overcomplicated. I would love to hear him share the gospel to an unbeliever. That would be fascinating!

  4. Jim2 wrote:

    Doug,
    What is the Avery Listenability Index on this one?

  5. David Bruce Murray wrote:

    You wrote:
    “On this basis of this verse’s first-person ‘report from the field of world religion’ form, we might naturally expect a chorus whose payoff describes the Christian’s belief in the everlasting salvation of a resurrected Christ, right?”

    The chorus does deliver that very thing.

    The second line states, “He’s alive.” “He” obviously refers to Christ, referring to the end of verse one which speaks about “God’s own begotten.” The word “resurrection” specifically is used to convey that Christ is no longer dead, but alive and also “deep inside” to show Christ’s resurrection in the life of the believer.

    I can’t see why it failed to payoff for you, since it includes the very things you mentioned as being expected.

  6. TJT wrote:

    JEB # 2, I agree with you. I go to this site
    to read the replies. I could care less what
    Doug has to say. I truly think he’s tries
    to impress folks with all his words. If he is
    SO wonderful with his knowledge, then maybe he should write the next 10 songs for The Perrys. Who knows maybe the NQC
    could hire him to teach a class on song writing, and writers like Gaither, Brady, Griffin, Habedank and Rowland could get some pointers-who knows they might win some awards after attending and might be successful.

  7. AMS wrote:

    Harrison—this is entirely BANAL! Use wording and sentence structure that people can understand next time. Thanks!

  8. Ed wrote:

    First Doug needs to get saved. I believe he likes this music, but doesn’t have a relationship with Jesus.

  9. Wade wrote:

    ED…

    WoW… pretty rude leap and thing for you to say…glad it ain’t ppl like you that will be at The Gates readin’ the Book!!

    Why don’t you pray for him and hold on to your stones!?!?

  10. Janet B wrote:

    First off, I don’t have the cd yet, so I can’t comment on that. BUT…
    For once, I agree with at least one of Doug’s points here: The need for new sg songs that don’t run over the same, worn-out territory lyrically and/or are not aimed at simple emotional responses. That’s what has happened in the P&W genre & Doug’s point that it may be “creeping” into sg is a salient one.
    And Ed: Your belief about the status of Doug’s salvation & his relationship with Jesus is just speculation. That’s between Doug & the Lord.

  11. Deron Johnson wrote:

    Doug, I for one thought this review was both enlightening and though provoking. Almost Morning is a CD which I really enjoyed. At first listen, I thought that most of the songs were great; however, I definitely can see know how some of them might lack a lyrical center. What I definitely agree with you on, though, is that the Perrys are one of the top groups in SG today more because of their performance and the way they sing the words, not the words themselves.

    I have to say that this review is definitely readable to anyone who tries to understand it. One thing about your reviews, though, is that they always make me think. And isn’t that what the purpose of a review is?

  12. Jim2 wrote:

    Wow, I thought you’d give it at least 60%. (At least for the joy of listening to the performance quality, fantastic instrumentation) I also enjoyed the review - your perspective often makes me listen for something I hadn’t noticed.
    Wade - thanks, now I have the unfortunate image of some guy named ed holding his stones

  13. DamonfromKY wrote:

    I appreciate the in-depth reviews even if I have to read some sentences 2 or 3 (or more) times to get the point. No one (and I mean no one) else is going to analyze southern gospel music to this degree and actually challenge the accepted practices in this genre of music. If you want 5-star reviews talking about how this album (and every other album) is absolutely the best a group has ever sounded, there are other sites for that.

    Some of you really come here for the comments more than the core content? That strikes me as watching auto racing just for the crashes. Entertaining and mind-boggling every now and then, but usually just ugly.

  14. Wade wrote:

    Jim2…. sorry buddy if that portraiture was too strong for you!! lol

    Since ed obviously has no stones by making such a birdbrained comment and not HAVING STONES to not do it using a single 2 letter named most common associated with a smart ass horse….sssssoooo… I should have said rocks!!!

  15. Ed wrote:

    Ok, let’s ask him? Doug- are you a born again Christian?
    All I read on here is his posts on how bad this one sings and that one sings. He likes his few groups and everyone else he uses all the words he learned in college to slander and cut em down. So…if it was rude I apologize. Ok..Doug- are you?

  16. dd wrote:

    They’re right Doug. I enjoy reading your thoughts but i found myself scrolling alot on this one. What did you think of all the songs not just four. “the one unworthy”; “this ole sinner” (which they kill!); “prior to a prayer” …and so on. What did you think, first reaction, type, don’t think. And the P’s are so tight with this group, live that with the harmony, stage presence (as you mentioned) and spirit, they’re the total package.

  17. Tom wrote:

    Great review! We need more in-depth reviews of sg music like this. I will definitely still buy the CD (it is the P’s, after all), but I appreciate the careful and nuanced review.

    Especially appreciate the critique of “If You Knew Him.” I haven’t heard the song itself and only have Doug’s lyric quotations to go by, and Doug didn’t really flesh this out but left the question tantalizingly dangling (at least in my mind): Is anyone else even just a little bit embarrassed by such a fundamental misunderstanding of the nature of other world religions? From what Doug quoted here, this sounds almost as ignorant as that old song “Old Buddha” in terms of its assumption that Christianity must clearly be superior to other religions on the mere grounds that it claims that its founder died and was resurrected. Did I miss something? Have Islam and Buddhism made similar claims? Do their religious systems fail to function because a resurrected founder is not part of the mix? Yeah rah for evangelical evangelism techniques! I’m confident that the logic of such songs, carefully integrated into evangelical apologetics and testimony, will make it a breeze to convert Buddhists and Moslems to Christianity.

  18. Rachel wrote:

    Joe has been taking voice lessons for some time now. He sounds the best I have ever heard him. Total control. Maybe more SG singer should try it.

  19. quartet-man wrote:

    Ed, there is nothing wrong with critiquing singing, the art, songwriting etc. Is a person supposed to ignore someone offkey, monotone, sloppy on the rhythm etc? I am not talking someone corporately praising God (such as in a service), but when someone gets on stage (especially charging money), the rules change a little. Sure, they may well be praising God while on stage, recording CD’s etc. but at that point (in the case of charging for it), there is a business transaction in place and people have a right to comment on it.

    I happen to like the project (heard parts of it in passing) , but I would have to sit down and really listen to it and the lyrics to see if I agree with Doug. Nonetheless, the Perry’s did well vocally and if you notice Doug commented them on just that. I bought the CD myself now, but haven’t listened to it.

  20. Blake Edmondson wrote:

    The premise of “If you knew Him” is that even though we don’t see Him, we know he’s living because we know him personally. The song begins on the first verse talking about how others cannot say this becuase their “god” is dead. I didn’t see Doug here bash Rodney Griffin and he co-wrote this with Joseph. Doug just didn’t understand it.
    The premise of “Did I Mention” is that too many of our songs and sermons try to wow the mind with analagies and theology when we need to get back to “humbly testifying” that when we’ve been singing about all of this other stuff “Did I mention I love him?”. That song has challenged me as a preacher and a singer and is my favorite song the Perrys have ever done. If you’ll listen to these songs spiritually and not just cognitively, you’ll understand them better.

  21. Blake Edmondson wrote:

    and, BTW, you guys are KILLLING me with the “Perry’s”. It’s not a guy named Perry owning anything and thus should be “Perrys” as in the plural form of Perry. “Apostrophe’s” are my pet peeve.

  22. Sadie Sidewalker wrote:

    Doug didn’t bash Joseph, he bashed the song - huge difference.

    What I don’t like about this song is the spiritual arrogance that it implies: you don’t know Jesus like I know Jesus. Which is quite silly when you understand that this song will most likely never be performed for Buddhists or Muslims or whomever but will instead be heard by people who have followed Christ all their lives and probably DO know Jesus.

    I’m also not a fan or the type of poetic license that says “i walked by the tomb of Buddha looked inside and saw his bones….” Did you really? No, I didn’t think so.

  23. DMP wrote:

    Not to mention that the comparison is ignorant and shows a lack of understanding when it comes to world religions. The song makes a direct parallel between Jesus, Muhammad and Buddha and makes the assumption that they all hold the same significance within their respective religions. The truth is, Muslims don’t worship Muhammad and Buddhists certainly don’t worship Buddha. It’s a ridiculous lyric.

  24. cdguy wrote:

    With my initial dozen or so listening, I thought it was a very good cd. Apparently I don’t know what good listening is.

    I will admit there was one song I thought was weaker than the others, but overall, I would give it at least an 85. Maybe higher.

  25. jbb wrote:

    Well, I for one am going to sit back and watch it go to No. 1….I love the song and the message. I guess I do not take it literally that “you” walked by the tomb, but, as a comparison that Buddha, and Muhommad are still there..Praise God, Jesus tomb is empty. Keep writing lyrics like this Joseph. Someone always wants to pick apart something that is good. I know it is not directed at Joseph personally, but, at the song itself or at least I hope so.

  26. Soli Deo Gloria wrote:

    Any song that refers to Joseph of Arimathea as “Ol’ Joseph” automatically fails.

  27. doesitmatter wrote:

    Does it matter that Buddha was cremated and not buried in a tomb?

  28. redhead wrote:

    11. I couldn’t have said it better myself, Deron.

  29. jbb wrote:

    #26: You gotta be kidding me…right?

  30. Soli Deo Gloria wrote:

    #29: Nope.

  31. Rachel wrote:

    Well “If you Knew Him” went to #3 on the Singing News Chart, so I guess all the talk on here really doesn’t matter.

  32. Kevin wrote:

    I like The Perrys energy. I think they can work an audience of typical southern gospel fans. My issue is this: the last three years when I’ve seen them at NQC, when they sing together, the lyrics are never clear. I use the mom factor: if mom can’t understand what they’re saying in a song, they’ve failed to get the message across — and it’s just noise. Albeit happy noise, and they look like they have fun on stage! But, they lose points on tight harmony with me. CDs are one thing: you can dub and mix them until they’re perfect — an artists true talent comes out when they perform live. But, I WANT The Perrys to be good live, however I’m usually disappointed. They have an appearance on the latest Gaither DVDs, too — love the verses of the song, not so much the chorus when they’re all singing. That’s all I got to say about The Perrys. Looking forward to NQC this weekend! :-)

  33. quartet-man wrote:

    Watch out, Kevin, you might be the next one for Blake to chastise, since Perrys is possessive in your usage in the first sentence. :-)

  34. thom wrote:

    mr moderator: so basically what you’re saying is you didn’t care for some of the songs, but you thought the delivery was excellent, right?

  35. Bingo wrote:

    Thanks for these money quotes, DH:

    “But […] there’s no lyrical center to anchor the song. […] It’s not that any one of these phrases are intrinsically flawed or should be off limits by themselves […]. It’s that, taken together, they begin to overwhelm in an underwhelming way, like eating too many rice cakes.”

    “So much of the new music being written and recorded in southern gospel today is often all heart and no head, or the religious-music equivalent of cheap grace.”

    “The key [for a songwriter] is to lead your listeners down familiar pathways and then guide them into new and unexpected territory at some key point.”

    2 Timothy 2:15 (King James Version)
    “Study to shew thyself approved unto God, a workman that needeth not to be ashamed, rightly dividing the word of truth.”

    While enjoying what they do, let’s also work together to encourage SG songwriters to strive for greater depth and excellence — to work hard to rightly divide the word of truth, as the good ol’ KJV says.

  36. jbb wrote:

    But the crowd loved them last night and they were “awesome”. They need to sing If You Knew Him every night.

  37. tenor by trade wrote:

    Who is this self-proclaimed kuru on sg music? Sounds to me like he really ought have a serious talk with someone about salvation. Second question, how long has he been around sg music? 50 years like I have or is it 1 year, 5 years or what? Any song that gets people to think about their relationship with the Lord Jesus Christ and their walk with Him is doing its job. Once again, perhaps this writer should do a checkup on his salvation and see where he stands. As far as Tony Greene, you have to know Tony personally to understand his humor. Considering he was facing End Stage Renal Failure without this transplant, I sure don’t think I would criticize him if I haven’t walked in his shoes. What a great example he set in his testimony of giving praise to the Lord Jesus Christ and how He works in our lives.

  38. Terry wrote:

    I think it is time we , as christians, get down plain and simple worship of the Lord. “Did I Mention” tries to convey the simplicity of just how gratifying it is to just tell the Lord I LOVE YOU. Maybe if we could just worry about our worship instead of how a song is written we could accomplish more in our spiritual lives!

  39. Sarah S wrote:

    I think this song makes perfect sense..In fact, it DOES.

  40. TH wrote:

    I have to say something about every ones misconception that the Perrys are well liked and successful for talent only. Have none of you read the Bible?

    Psalms 37:4 Delight thyself also in the LORD; and he shall give thee the desires of thine heart.

    Does no one believe this promise? Does it not occur to anyone that the reason they do well is because of a promise made by a God who cannot lie? Please take a minute and come to the chambers of the servant, and see what it is to serve instead of talking about the way the servants fail.

    God provides for His own.
    Ponder it.

  41. Harold wrote:

    Re: lyrics of “If you knew Him”…..in history I was taught that Buddah was burned and only ashes remain? Was I taught wrong or can you actually see bones in his grave? Im just saying…….

  42. KC wrote:

    You are nuts!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

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