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Monday
Jul072014

Review of No Other Name, by Hillsong Worship

Hillsong Worship, 
No Other Name (Live)
(Hillsong Music)
Released: July 1, 2014 

As Hillsong continues to put out Western-worship-influencing album after album at an amazingly rapid rate, I am reminded of what seems to have been Charles Wesley's (intentional or unintentional) principle of influence: put out a lot of material, and the handful of songs that are supposed to stand the test of time will. I admire this about the vision of Hillsong's now quite diversified worship offerings. As with most of my reviews, I try to funnel my ideas down two evaluative tracks: musicality and theological content.

Review Summary

Musically, No Other Name is beautiful, though "safe" and middle-of-the-road. The production is exquisite, and the musical vibe is largely the trademark, now classic, Hillsong sound: backing choir, lots of pad layers, simple but captivating electric guitar melodies, and lots of diverse drum work. The songs are singable (though high as always), with a few surprising melodic twists. Theologically, I'm moved and incredibly encouraged by an embracing and contextualizing of tradition (the Creed, and the Lord's Prayer), by a relative absence of triumphalism present on most, if not all, preceding Hillsong records, and by an intense focus on the person and the work of Jesus.

Songs I would most likely incorporate in my context:
"This I Believe (The Creed)"
"Our Father"

Musicality

I said above that the sound is "classic Hillsong," but there are tinges of 80s "synthology" on several tracks, a sound that is hot on current worship records. You notice it in the opening of "My Story" and the musical hook of "Heaven and Earth." 

"Heaven and Earth" has an unusual approach to the Chorus which is worth songwriters giving a listen. There's a push and pull of the downbeat of the Chorus. Though it starts on the word "heaven," the tonic chord and the overall "drop" into the Chorus doesn't happen until "-lide" of "collide." It creates an interesting musical moment of collision, painting the text in a helpful way. It gives you the sensation of singing over a mixed meter when you're not.

I always admire (envy? :) ) the imaginative simplicity of the electric guitar parts. They are always tasteful and fitting, yet melodic and colorful. They're not overblown, but they add interest and movement to the music that I find satisfying and beautifying. Listen to what the electrics do, for instance, in "No Other Name."

Finally, noteworthy is an unconventional (for Hillsong) melodic turn in "Depths." In the second half of each verse (e.g. on the syllable "-va-" of "salvation's song"), the melody jumps unexpectedly. It gives the song a folk-Celtic quality that is unusual for the pop melodies we've come to expect.

Theological Content

Overall, the album is quite focused on Christ's atonement...not a bad center-point at all! The Bridge of "Heaven and Earth," for instance, grounds the reconciling love foretold by the prophets in the sacrifice of Christ:

By His stripes we are healed
By His death we can live
In Jesus' name
All oppression will cease
Every captive released
In Jesus' name

There are a few fresh, imaginative turns of phrase, like, "Salvation's robe" and "freedom in His scars" in the same song. The second verse of "No Other Name" grounds the general praise of Christ in His work on the cross. And "Calvary" is all about the freedom and "covering" (a biblical word laden, especially in Hebrew, with atonement-overtones).

As I mentioned above, for the first time to my detection, Hillsong has minimized triumphalist lyrics and expressions like "Jesus, I'm living for You," "I give it all away for You," "I'm standing up for You," etc. I'm really encouraged by this, and I pray it is a sign of their theological editors (my understanding is that they have a group of people who edit their lyrical content) taking this dynamic that I've pointed out over the years seriously. Even in moments on this record when we are declaring our love for and commitment to God, it is couched in the context of God's prior love for us. "Depths" captures this beautifully:

Verse 1
In Your presence I quiet my soul
And I hear Your voice
In my spirit I hear the sound
Of salvation's song
Jesus, Jesus

Verse 2
I will wait in Your Word, O Lord
There Your Spirit speaks
Bringing life to the weary soul
To the depths of me
Jesus, Jesus

Chorus
I love You with all my heart
I love You with all my soul, Lord
I love You with alll my strength
With all that is within me

Notice several things. First, the Spirit is mentioned as speaking through God's Word. That's not a small thing, given the strong emphasis in Pentecostalism on the Spirit speaking directly to individuals. I appreciate, too, how, throughout the album, we're noticing a better definition/distinction of the persons and work of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit in places like these. Second, the Chorus, based on the shema, is a simple but beautiful response to the psalm-like verses. It may be that this song, without the proper context, could be a bit too individualized ("me and God") to be regularly utilized in corporate worship, but I don't think it should be written off.

One aspect of No Other Name's content is VERY encouraging. There is an embracing of and interaction with the Church's Great Tradition like I've never seen before. The opening song parts from the standard fare of an upbeat song focused inward. Instead, "This I Believe (The Creed)" looks out and up, ground the album in nothing short of a sung version of the Apostles' Creed. Amazing! Several songs later, "Our Father" begins with these lines that are quite uncommon in the songs of the Pentecostal tradition:

The words of Christ
Passed down through generations
The Son of God
Teaching us to pray
Echoed words
Father, have Your will, Your way in me
Completely

The Chorus then recites the first section of the Lord's Prayer. It's simply beautiful, and it appears to be yet another indicator that evangelicals are continuing to explore and embrace the Church's tradition in increasing measure.  This is extremely encouraging. 

I might finally mention "Broken Vessels (Amazing Grace)." I love the song's idea of wedding a beatuiful re-tune of "Amazing Grace" with the 2 Corinthians 4 language of broken pottery and jars of clay. Perhaps this song could have been more powerful if it had lingered longer in confession before singing of amazing grace. As with many gospel- and salvation-oriented songs, we evangelicals make short shrift of our Confession of Sin. I was hoping that this song would stay there a while longer. We need more confession songs. Hillsong, please write some!

In sum, No Other Name doesn't really break new ground for Hillsong musically, but it certainly does theologically and lyrically...for Hillsong. More of their songs are avoiding looking down and in, but instead look out and up to Jesus, and there is a refreshing picture of how they're attempting to contextualize the Great Tradition in their music. It's an important marker in the evolution of this very influential worship resource provider.

UPDATE:

A friend pointed to me to the interaction of John Dickson with Hillsong over the song based on the Apostles' Creed. Fascinating to hear what Ben Fielding had to say. Check out this video, but first, a quote from Fielding:

We [songwriters] are writing the liturgies of the church today...recognizing that in a lot of contemporary churches these liturgies aren't read. And so, the songs of today literally become the confession of the church.

Yes, and amen. Thank you, Hillsong, for your open ears and your passion for the church universal! 

Wednesday
Apr042012

Review of White Flag, by Passion

Passion, White Flag (sixsteps/Sparrow)
Released: March 13, 2012

Passion's latest project continues in their strong legacy of fervent live worship albums.  One can never question on these records that this movement continues to be deeply committed to the core of what Christian worship is all about--encountering the presence of God with the people of God.  At the same time, White Flag continues to reveal the theological growth and maturation of Passion's main songwriters and artists--Chris Tomlin, Matt Redman, Kristian Stanfill, Christy Nockels, Charlie Hall, etc.  There are even some surprising new ventures, as far as content goes. "White Flag" (the title track) appears to be a metaphor for surrender to God, which characterizes some, though not all, of the album.

SUMMARY

It is simply not possible that every album produced by a band or music-community can be landmark and earth-shattering, and while White Flag is a great listen and a solid offering of fresh anthems for the English-speaking Church, it is not extraordinary.  The production continues to be crisp, energetic, creative, and forward-looking within the pop-rock genre.  The theological content is solidly evangelical and orthodox, with charismatic leanings being dialed down a bit as compared to previous albums.  If we were to compare the breadth of content with that of the biblical Psalms, it has not gone much further than Here for You (2011) and Awakening (2010) in exploring the spectral realities in between poles like joyful praise and sorrowful lament, with one notable exception surprisingly opening the door toward worship's connection with the Lord's Supper.  

The songs I would most likely incorporate into worship in my local context would be:

With honorable mention to:

  • "Lay Me Down"
  • "One Thing Remains"
  • "Yahweh"

MUSICALITY

White Flag is marked by the usual "arena worship" instrumentation--big drums, heavy low-end, high tenor vocals, backing "congregational" choir, epic guitars, and seeping keys.  No new or experimental/risky sounds will be found on this record, but there are a few slight new touches, such as the (most likely synthesized) dulcimer/harpsichord arpeggiations on "The Only One" and the electronica-plus-Death-Cabby-indie-guitars from Crowder on (the congregationally unfriendly) "All This Glory."  Songs like "White Flag" and "One Thing Remains" exhibit the typical arena-style soft-low-to-epic-high contour, all glued together by tom-beating, snare-banging, kick-pounding crescendos.  "Yahweh" has a nicely arranged skipping pedaled piano part in its opening and some fresh ways of coloring a triple meter.  The early 80s metal-style holds and fuzzy electrics fit well the grandeur of the song.  Some songs seem much more appropriate for special music because of their difficult rhythms, which congregations would find hard to follow, such as (ironically named) "Sing Along."  "10,000 Reasons," save a few minor variations is the same version in key, arrangement, and style, as Redman's earlier recorded version.

THEOLOGICAL CONTENT

Modern worship has always excelled at magnifying the prominent attributes of God--His greatness, His holiness, His majesty, His power, His perfection.  You hear it exemplified in songs like "Yahweh," whose first verse and chorus sing:

You have no rival to Your throne
In majesty, You stand alone
There is no limit to Your reign
Now all Your works shall praise Your name
As far as this, from east to west
There's no other, there's no other

Yahweh,
Your name alone be exalted
Yahweh,
Our hearts are Yours forever 

Debra and Ron Rienstra, in their book Worship Words (see my review), have challenged worship to incorporate more of the names of God.  "Yahweh," the chief name for God and perhaps the most obvious one scripturally, is still a step forward for modern worship which has for the most part failed to meet such a challenge.  Though, to be honest, much like Tomlin's "Jesus Messiah," there's not much exploration into the meaning and significance of the Name ("I am that I am").

"One Thing Remains" (previously recorded by Jesus Culture and a few others) is a testament to the power of God's love.  And this is no generic love, it is the type of love exemplified in the Hebrew word, hesed, often translated "steadfast love" or "covenant love."  Some might criticize the repetitive chorus, "Your love never fails, it never gives up, it never runs out on me" as typical "mindless 7-11" worship music, but we need to remember that it is God's love which is celebrated in such a repetetive fashion in Psalm 136 ("His love endures forever").  The problem with this song is that it lacks a context for the most part.  It is faintly rooted in the gospel ("the debt is paid") but no mention of any member of the Trinity is made.  It is a direct-address song.  If it were to be incorporated in worship, it would need strong contextualization and grounding in God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit.  But with this context, it is quite moving and compelling.

"Jesus, Son of God," even by virtue of its title, is a step forward (albeit a small one) in more Trinitarian explicitness, and it is a beautiful, singable, gospel-centered song, praising the incarnation and cross of Christ.  Verses 1 & 2, with the chorus:

You came down from heaven's throne
This earth You formed was not Your home
A love like this the world had never known 

A crown of thorns to mock Your name
Forgiveness fell upon Your face
A love like this the world had never known

On the altar of our praise, let there be no higher name
Jesus, Son of God
You laid down Your perfect life, You are the sacrifice
Jesus, Son of God
You are Jesus, Son of God 

The second line of verse 2 is a beautiful, rich poetic metaphor.  As the crown of thorns came upon His head, "forgiveness fell" upon His face.  Blood fell.  It is a powerful statment that the instrument of torture, in a providential twist, opened up the "precious flow" of blood, which would be the world's great forgiving balm.  

The most surprising song of all, from a theological perspective, is Charlie Hall's "Mystery."  Someone's been studying their eucharistic historical theology!  Check out these lyrics:

Sweet Jesus Christ, my certainty
Sweet Jesus Christ, my clarity
Bread of Heaven, broken for me
Cup of salvation, held up to drink
Jesus, mystery

Christ has died and Christ is risen
And Christ will come again.

Why is this surprising?  First, Passion is a parachurch worship entity, and the Lord's Supper is not something they have typically focused on in their worship music.  Second, the language is reflective of some "high church" exposure.  "Mystery" is a term that more "sacramental" churches more often use.  And the phrase "Christ has died, Christ is risen, Christ will come again" is straight-up high church liturgical eucharistic language.  I'm very curious about the origin of this song...it is simply not typical evangelical megachurch content.  What makes this song more exceptional is that, for a Communion song, it's quite uplifting and eschatologically-oriented.  The bridge (which is the song's high point) sings:

Celebrate His death and rising
Lift your eyes, proclaim His coming
Celebrate His death and rising
Lift your eyes, lift your eyes

It's a moving, victorious, back-looking, forward-reaching Communion song.  Praise God!  Imbedded in this simple text is a very reflective, rich, full-orbed eucharistic theology.  This is remarkable.

One can only hope that what is barely hinted at on this album--a greater ecclesiastical awareness--is indicative of things to come.  One of the great issues facing the Passion movement along with a fair amount of the modern worship "industry" is that they are in many ways one-off from the Church.  They are "church enrichment" programs, to be sure, but they are NOT the Church, and as such, there will always be missing from their songs the very vital component of contextual music-making.  One wonders whether this missing piece is what is driving the Passion folks (Louie Giglio, Chris Tomlin) to begin the move toward "settling down" into their Atlanta-based plant, Passion City Church.  In the meantime, I'll applaud any effort at building bridges between the largely "churchless" industry and the one true Bride of Christ.

CHECK OUT OTHER ALBUM REVIEWS 

Monday
Jul042011

Review of Fragments of Grace, by City Hymns

In the early days of the hymn resurgence among young (largely evangelical) Christians, only a handful of groups were making records.  Red Mountain Music was one of those entities. 

Click to read more ...

Wednesday
May182011

The Opiate Mass: Innovations in Church Music

Vol. 1: Make a SoundThis blog, in case you didn’t know, is especially interested in cataloguing trends among young Christians who are seeking creatively to wed the historic Christian faith with modern expression in worship and music.  The Opiate Mass is a fantastic example of this, and yet they are doing more than providing a packaged expression of ancient-future worship.  They are pursuing innovation in church music.

The Opiate Mass isn’t quite a band.  It isn’t quite a concert-experience.  It isn’t quite a liturgy or worship service.  It’s something in between all those things.  The Opiate Mass is a collection of musicians and artists out of Seattle, led by director Zadok Wartes.   In an interview, Wartes relates its origin:

A group of dear friends and I were all experiencing a rather bothersome dissonance between our rock/club/band experience on Friday nights, and our Sunday morning music direction/performance. We dreamed up our ideal of both worlds — composing and performing epic music in large holy spaces all in the name of the sacred and beautiful. It was an awkwardly indulgent and desperate desire to experience God.

Vol. 2: AlbatrossThe Opiate Mass performs (leads worship experiences) in a host of venues across denominational lines.  They draw inspiration from the broad Christian tradition—Roman Catholicism, Eastern Orthodoxy, and Protestantism. Their albums are elongated and contemplative.  They create spacey, ambient music, rich in texture and layering, with a mixture of old and new instruments, from horns and pipe organ to synths and electric guitars.  If you had to boil down their expression to one band, they most resemble the indie-eclecticism of Radiohead.  Yet their choice concert hall is an old, classic sanctuary (high ceilings, stained glass, ornate woodwork), not a rock arena.  The textual content for their music is historic and eclectic, from hymnody (e.g. “What Wondrous Love is This,” on Albatross, and “O Come, O Come Emmanuel,” on From the Belly of a Woman), to service music (e.g. “Sanctus,” on Make a Sound), to Orthodox liturgy (e.g. “Paschal Troparion,” on Albatross) to Scripture (e.g. “Isaiah 35,” on From the Belly), to original material.

Vol. 3: From the Belly of a WomanTheir three recordings (to date) are mixdowns of live performances, which, in the words of Wartes, “have their warts and abrasions.”  Still, they’re beautiful.  And, amidst the worship biz’s heaps of hyper-polished “live” recordings with more post-event overdubbing than preserved original tracks, The Opiate Mass’s material is refreshingly human and boldly experimental.

Perhaps what I appreciate most about The Opiate Mass is their insistence on not bifurcating the sacred and the secular when it comes to artistic musical expression in ecclesiastical contexts.  In the language of my own Reformed tradition, they observe God’s “common grace” in places like clubs and rock concert halls.  They don’t disavow the genuine experiences they have and feelings they feel when they hear a great band in a “secular” venue.  But, taking the approach that all truth is God’s truth, that all beauty is God’s beauty, they seek to sanctify musical expressions that isn’t readily associated with Christian worship.  I wholeheartedly applaud this endeavor.

I likewise appreciate the unashamed merging of musical and liturgical worlds which are often kept apart in Christian worship.  They are unafraid of blending classical instruments with modern ones.  They do not flinch at the juxtaposition of ancient texts with futuristic sounds.  They newly arrange tried-and-true musical works (check out their redressing of Handel’s “For Unto Us a Child Is Born” on From the Belly of a Woman). 

I don’t know how reflective their recordings are of the actual experiences they lead in churches, but at least what is recorded is meant more to be listened to and reflected on than sung with.  In other words, they’re not creating original congregational music.  Still, they’re contributing something powerful to the ever-evolving corpus of church music. 

From the Belly of a Woman is their latest album, released this past Tuesday.  It is the fruit of their work during Advent/Christmas 2010.  They recognize that May is an odd time to release a Christmas album, but they nevertheless press on, and they’ve given the Church a beautiful gift.  You can download all their music directly from their website, under “Catalog.”

Monday
Apr252011

Review of The Water and the Blood, by Sojourn Music

The folks at Sojourn Music continue to lead modern church music down a different path.  Each album seems to be more aggressively their own, pushing outward the narrow boundaries of contemporary/modern worship by experimenting with new and old sounds and styles.  The Water and the Blood was produced with a different set of values than the industry standard—in analog, as a whole, and with a vinyl option.  Producer Mike Cosper explains,

While still reflective of a variety of moods and styles that occur at Sojourn gatherings, it’s a recording with a sound, a sense of space, something that’s meant to be listened to as an album, as a whole. It’s meant to be a listening experience, and vinyl, with its added depth, warmth, and presence, has a way of conveying that experience like nothing else.1

The album was recorded largely in Bloomington, IN, with Paul Mahern, who has worked with Over the Rhine, The Fray, John Mellencamp, and others.  Tracks were laid down on tape, not bits and bytes, trading digitized perfection for human warmth.  Herein lies another subtle challenge to the value-system of contemporary/modern worship.  It makes a theological statement about authenticity, humanness, imperfection, and grace.

The Water and the Blood is installment number two of their ongoing quest to re-give the hymns of Isaac Watts to the Church.  The first installment, Over the Grave, was a masterpiece, as well.  “The Water and the Blood” appears to be a phrase codified over time in English hymnody.  It is perhaps most famous in Augustus Toplady’s “Rock of Ages, Cleft for Me,” whose opening verse reads, “Let the water and the blood / from Thy riven side which flowed / be of sin the double-cure / cleanse me from its guilt and power.”  But the lesser-known hymn of Watts, “Lord, We Confess Our Numerous Faults,” which, adapted, appears as the title track, contains the phrase which predates Toplady.  Ultimately, the wording belongs to Scripture (1 John 5:8), but English hymn-writers have given this pairing a strong significance.  And, now, so has Sojourn Music.  We might consider “the water and the blood” poetic shorthand for the entire gospel story, and, given the album’s content, it is a fitting title.

SUMMARY

Musically, The Water and the Blood is superb.  Its production is fresh and original, and its diversity of style is so off the grid of a typical “worship album” that it seems other-worldly.  Textually, one simply can’t find fault with lyrics that pull from Isaac Watts, one of the most formidable theologian-pastor-songwriters of all time.  Sojourn could spend the rest of their musical years retuning Watts’ texts, and the Church would be incredibly blessed for it.  In my opinion, not every song is fit for congregational singing, but the two I’d be especially inclined to bring into my local church’s repertoire are “The Water and the Blood” and “Let Your Blood Plead for Me.”

MUSICALITY

If you have narrow tastes and appreciations, this album is not for you.  If you’re looking for modern worship’s standard sound, this project will be a disappointment.  If, however, you have a taste for blues, folk rock, country, bluegrass, soul, and Americana, you will love The Water and the Blood.  The album bears the hand-print of Mike Cosper’s subtle, soulful, and artistic guitar style—especially electric and lap and pedal steel, though he plays dobro and mandolin as well (!).  The guitar solos throughout aren’t necessarily always flashy, but they are thoughtful, melodic, and musical.  I am thinking particularly of the three songs I will mention next.

One of the first things to note is the album’s use of blues to convey confession and lament.  I have longed to see the intersection of this genre with this biblical expression.  Blues is uniquely suited to convey the hope-tinged anguish of the lamentations of David and Watts.  From the recurring electric line (and complementary bass line) in “From Deep Distress,” to the descending tremolo guitar line and soulful vocals in “Deep in Our Hearts,” to the heavy joy of “Death Has Lost its Sting,” Sojourn shows how powerful a song can be when music and text are so thoughtfully wedded.

The vocals are likewise remarkable.  I sense some different hues of control and expressiveness in Rebecca Dennison’s voice, especially on “The Water and the Blood,” which is a favorite track of mine.  The fact that six additional vocalists (Jamie Barnes, Rebecca Elliot, Kristen Gilles, Brooks Ritter, Megan Shaffer, and Chad Watson) sing on the album is a testimony to the vision of community music-making and anti-rock-star vision for artistry that Sojourn has grown to champion.  (Though not every church has the human resources to do this, I would add.  Sojourn is very blessed in this regard.)

One of the marks of creativity in songwriting for the local church is in the careful balance of innovation and singability.  “Compel My Heart to Sing” is a great example of this.  The melody is melismatic and easy to sing, and the music beneath is far from bland.  The chorus’s progression (C, C/E, Fm, Bb, Eb, Ab, G) is beautiful and different.

“Let the Seventh Angel Sound” is a fun arrangement that sounds like it came from the brains of Paul Simon and James Taylor.  The organ is calibrated to a mellow, almost whistle-like setting.  The clean, loose guitar playing, coupled with Barnes’ smooth vocal style, is engaging.  I wonder, though, how fitting the text’s intensity is with the song’s easygoing nature.  I’d love for Barnes to comment and bring insight to that.

Brooks Ritter has written a beautiful new setting of “O God, Our Help in Ages Past.”  The music brings out certain hues from the text absent in its more triumphant (and equally beautiful) setting (“St. Anne,” by William Croft, 1708).  Ritter’s tune is a soulful country ballad that highlights the comfort Watts probably intended to evoke in his beloved text.

Some might think that the musical setting of “Let Your Blood Plead For Me” is too playful for the gravity of its content, with its on-beat, honky-tonk-style piano and interlude progression (I, III7, vi, I, IV, II7, V, V7).  I find its light-heartedness an interesting take on the hymn (see comments on the text below).  The Scriptures speak about the human response to salvation being our “skipping like calves” (Malachi 4:2), and this music surprisingly and tastefully colors the text in that direction.

THEOLOGICAL CONTENT

As noted above, the first thing that one should notice about this album, textually, is the amount of verse devoted to the under-used biblical expression of lament.  Verse 1 of “Death Has Lost Its Sting” cries:

My God, how many are my fears
How fast my foes increase
Conspiring my eternal death
They break my fleeting peace

The first verse of “From Deep Distress,” in keeping with the anguish of the opening lines of Psalm 130, records:

From deep distress and troubled thoughts
To You, our God, we raise our cries
If You truly mark our faults
No flesh can stand before Your eyes

I have now heard many a worship theologian proclaim that the church’s song really does shape the church’s spiritual health. Unfortunately, because evangelicals have little vocabulary for lament, when suffering comes our way, we have no theological and spiritual categories to handle it, and we question our faith, God’s goodness, or even His existence.  Lament teaches us to suffer rightly.  Sojourn has given a gift to the church by bringing this to the fore.

The second thing one should notice is the album’s gospel-saturation.  Time and again, the source of delight in the texts is found in the meritorious work of the life and death of Jesus Christ.  “The World Will Know” praises:

Our faith adores Thy bleeding love,
And trust in one that died
We hope for heav’nly crowns above
Redeemer crucified

The world will know the righteousness
Of our incarnate God
And nations yet unborn profess
Salvation in His blood
Salvation in His blood

The chorus of “Deep in Our Hearts” testifies:

Oh gracious God, You’ve heard my Plea [notice the capitalization]
A once cursed pris’ner, now released
Those dreadful suff’rings of Thy Son
Atoned for sins that we had done

The gospel is the motivation of all our worship, as “Compel My Heart to Sing” intones:

Jesus, my God and King
Thy wisdom is a boundless deep
What wondrous love has purchased me and
Compels my heart to sing

Sojourn and I share a passionate desire to see modern worship embrace a richer vocabulary of the gospel in our song.  If there continued to be progression in even that one area in contemporary Christian music, the Church would be tremendously blessed.

There are two songs, though, that stand out in their weaving of text and music.  “The Water and the Blood” is the first:

Lord we confess our many faults
And how great our guilt has been
Foolish and vain were all of our thoughts
No good could come from within

But by the mercy of our God
All our hopes begin
And by the water and the blood
Our souls are washed from sin

It’s not by the works of righteousness
Which our own hands have done
But we are saved by our Father’s grace
Abounding through His Son

It’s a simple song of confession, but the words are crafted so carefully and beautifully.  The verses center around minor tonality, and the choruses switch to major, with a lift in the melody to a new tessitura.  It’s all just very well put together.

“Let Your Blood Plead for Me” is the other outstanding song.  It is a song of testimony:

Lord, how secure my conscience was
And felt no inward dread
I was alive without the Law
And thought My sins were dead

My hopes of heaven were firm and bright
But then Your standard came
With a convincing power and light
To show how vile I am

This testimony is starkly (and without much transition) contrasted with the chorus:

Let Your blood plead for me
Let Your blood wash me clean
I believe, Lord I believe
Your blood has covered me

It is a song that aptly exegetes the oft-used phrase (it appears in various forms), “The bad news is I am more sinful and broken than I dare imagine, but the good news is, in Christ, I am more loved and accepted than I dare hope.”  The Law rightly condemns me, but, through Christ, the Father justly pardons me.  This is the essence of the song.  And it’s powerful!

Both for its text and its music, I heartily recommend The Water and the Blood as a fresh and timely work.  I look forward to what’s next from Sojourn Music.  They’ve quickly become leaders in a new kind of evangelical modern worship, and I welcome it!

Saturday
Mar122011

Review of Here For You, by Passion

Passion, Here For You (sixsteps/Sparrow)
Released: March 8, 2011

I remember when I heard my first Passion record—Passion 98—in high school.  It was fresh and different.  Little did I know at the time that I was listening to a mile-marker in the short history of contemporary worship.  Passion and Delirious are the pivot-point on which “contemporary worship” swung to “modern worship.”  Thirteen years later, much has changed, and much has stayed the same.  Many of the same faces and voices that were emerging in 1998 (Tomlin, Crowder, Hall, Redman) are now household names in contemporary Christian music.  Those twenty-somethings who were more raw emotion and energy have matured into thirty-somethings who have added a bit more depth to their passion.  Here For You clearly shows that Passion still dominates the modern worship scene.

SUMMARY

Passion always produces great albums.  To my ear and heart, this is not a hallmark album, however.  Musically, it is a typical modern worship album (this is not a criticism).  Textually, there are a few small surprises, but nothing jumps out that has not been previously recorded.  Awakening (2010) had a few outstanding songs (e.g. “You Alone Can Rescue”).  This album doesn’t seem to carry the same kind of stardom.  The songs I would most likely incorporate into worship are: “All to Us” (see my review of Tomlin’s album for comments on this song) and “Spirit Fall.”

Repeats from other albums and projects include: Crowder Band’s “Shadows,” from their Church Music, Stanfill’s “Forever Reign” from Hillsong’s A Beautiful Exchange, and “All to Us,” from Tomlin’s And if Our God is For Us.

MUSICALITY

The production, as always, is great.  The album is filled, with few exceptions, with the typical instrumentation: flowy keys, electric guitars, light acoustics, big drums, and crowd noise.  “All My Fountains” is a nice sonic departure from the standard tones and sounds of modern worship.  It is more earthy and vigorously acoustic rhythm reminiscent of late 90s Dave Matthews.  Christy Nockels (“Carry Your Name”) really does have a golden voice…the finest in Passion’s arsenal.

Perhaps the most novel aspect of Here For You is the introduction of rap into Passion’s recordings.  Lecrae appears on “Shadows,” with David Crowder, and on the bonus track of “Our God,” with Chris Tomlin.  With others, I’m appreciative of the incorporation of other genres, and especially from brothers and sisters who have an equal claim to the history of American church music—the African American tradition.  Some may disagree, but I believe rap is very much rooted in a combination of blues and the sing-song/shouting style of traditional black gospel preaching.  However, as many have noted, rap is a hard medium for congregational music.  It is effective as a preaching medium, and in a responsorial format (e.g. a verse plus a congregational refrain), but it is certainly something for congregations to listen to, not participate in.  Still, it’s a welcome addition to Passion’s albums specifically and worship generally.  Perhaps it is another small sign that racial bridges can be and are being broken down in and around worship.  Praise God for that!

THEOLOGICAL CONTENT

With this album, we see yet more cross-pollination between Hillsong worship and Passion worship.  “Set Free” is co-written by Redman, Tomlin, Ingram, and Ben Fielding.  Stanfill leads Hillsong’s “Forever Reign.”  There is also a little nod toward the hymn tradition on this record.  The chorus of “Lord, I Need You” very briefly touches on the text and melodic line of the 1872 hymn by Annie Hawks, “I Need Thee Every Hour.”  I’m also excited to see the maturation of the songwriters with texts which “sound” like the expression of the biblical Psalms.  Kristian Stanfill’s “Always” is a weaving of several psalms (like 121 and 130) which give voice to lament in worship.

Some songs on the album, such as “Lord, I Need You,” “Carry Your Name,” and “Constant,” are deeply gospel-centered and Christ-saturated.  The text of  “Lord, I Need You” is doubly praiseworthy because it highlights Christ’s righteousness, not our own triumph, the latter being a nagging theme sometimes found in modern worship:

Where sin runs deep Your grace is more
Where grace is found is where You are
And where You are, Lord, I am free
Holiness is Christ in me

Likewise, I appreciate the opening line of Crowder’s “Sometimes”:

Sometimes every one of us feels
Like we’ll never be healed
Sometimes

Modern worship needs to rest in these moments of lamentation more often, like the Psalms do.  The song carries quite a progression that one often doesn’t see in one hymn:

It begins in individual lamentation:

Sometimes every one of us aches
Like we’ll never be saved
Sometimes

It progresses to hope:

When we’ve given up
Let Your healing come
When there’s nothing left
Let Your healing come
Til we’re rising up
Let Your healing come

It moves to adoration:

It’s Your love that we adore
It’s like a sea without a shore
We’re lost in You
We’re lost in You

It moves to consecration and mission:

Where You go, we will follow
Oh, God send me

“All My Fountains” is an interesting expansion on that phrase taken from an under-appreciated psalm (Psalm 87), an eschatological song about the children of Zion and the joy of being in the protection and presence of God.  Knowing the psalm gives great context for the joy of “All My Fountains”:

He has founded his city on the holy mountain.
The LORD loves the gates of Zion
more than all the other dwellings of Jacob.

Glorious things are said of you, city of God...
Indeed, of Zion it will be said,
“This one and that one were born in her,
 and the Most High himself will establish her.”

The LORD will write in the register of the peoples:
“This one was born in Zion.”

As they make music they will sing,
“All my fountains are in you.”   (Psalm 87 [NIV])

The first three songs are calls to worship, songs of exaltation.  “Symphony” lifts the eyes similar to the opening lines of “How Great is Our God,” with its Psalm 19-like first verse:

Shining wonders, fields of splendor
How they sing Your symphony
The deepest oceans, rising mountains
How they sing Your symphony

There is a strong emphasis throughout the album (which is typical of modern worship) of finding God’s special manifestation in the moment of musical worship.  “Waiting Here for You” sings,

And we’re desperate for Your presence
All we need is You

“All My Fountains” cries,

Come on, rain down on us,
Rain down on us, Lord

It has always been a part of the modern worship ethos to seek God’s special manifestation in the moment of singing.  Many worship songs ask for that very thing, saying something like, “as we sing, come meet us here.”  I wonder, with such a heavy emphasis on the presence of God in music, whether modern worship has steered us away from seeing how the presence of God is also (and perhaps better) manifested in other elements of worship like the Lord’s Table.  A gentle reminder to those of us who love and appreciate the vitality of modern worship is that the Scriptures testify and the history of the Church’s worship corroborates the reality that God chooses to manifest Himself most acutely in the Lord’s Supper, not in singing.  But, unfortunately, modern worship movements like Passion have been at least a small step removed from corporate worship of the local church, acting more like parachurch worship movements than core expressions of Christ’s church (interesting sidenote: Passion City Church has launched as a Passion-offshoot in Atlanta). While I’m all for encouraging generations to gather, be inspired, and rise up for ministry (Passion is a movement targeting the specific demographic of college and young adults), I wonder whether Passion’s influence on the Church has at least in a small way led evangelicalism more toward missing what uniquely happens in worship when we celebrate the sacrament together.

It is encouraging to see the theological jab in “Spirit Fall.”  Often times, simple songs of the Spirit are nebulous and do not highlight the roles that the Spirit plays.  Here, we have a very specific call for the Holy Spirit to act:

Oh, come
Magnify the Son
Savior of the world
The hope for everyone

The Spirit’s job isn’t just to give us goosebumps and overlay an emotional blanket on our hearts during worship.  The Spirit has come to bear witness to the Son, to herald the gospel, and to illumine Christ to us.  To my mind, this is what gives this simple song some uniqueness in the modern worship expression.  Personally, I am not usually drawn to more experiential songs, but this one attracts me because of its theological angle.

“Set Free” is an exciting song intended to get bodies moving:

And we’ll dance, dance
Dance in Your freedom
Oh, Your glorious freedom
Forevermore, forevermore

Perhaps because it’s more of a “dance” number than a “sing” number, the text-writing is a bit more loose.  I often encourage worship leaders to hold up as a criterion for song-selection the idea of logical cohesion (see my article “How I Choose Songs for Corporate Worship”).  Where is the point at which words and phrases move from being “impressionistic” to random?  I wonder whether “Set Free” teeters on this tipping point:

Joy, joy, unspeakable joy
Hope like never before
You came for us
You are our freedom

Love, love, unshakeable love
We shall over come, we will never give up
We lift a shout, we lift a shout
Everyone singing

Come on, come on now, we’ve got a new song
Come on, come on now, a song of liberty
Let the world hear heaven’s melody
This is the shout of the hearts You’ve set free

There is a conceptual glue which holds these statements together, certainly, but the text is awfully loose.  I’m not totally against it, but I want to continually raise the question that many do not: Should we not pause to ponder the fact that, while standing in the rich history of hundreds of years of Christian worship, we are the first to express words in this way, so loosely hung together?

I’m also interested in discussing the phrase, “dance in your freedom.”  For as popular a phrase as this is in modern worship, there aren’t many Scriptural parallels to it.  In the Bible, certainly there is dancing.  And a major theme of the gospel certainly is freedom.  And yet if you do a Bible Gateway search of the words and phrases, “dance freedom,” “dancing freedom,” and “dance free,” at least in the NIV, no matches are found.  Where did this phrase and idea get so popular for modern worship?  Does it have its roots in David’s naked, “undignified” worship?  Is it an attempt to encourage that attitude of heart?  It is not at all bad to strive for bodily freedom in worship; God deserves our all.  Dancing is an expression of worship, of course.  But where did we come up with this phrase, and what is its meaning and purpose?  I simply want to question its prevalence in our modern hymnody. 

Because of Passion's incredible influence over evangelical worship (in many ways, they are trend-setters) they must be open to scrutiny and questions like those above.  Still, Here For You contains nothing off-course theologically, and will no doubt leave a positive mark on the landscape of modern worship.

Wednesday
Mar092011

Review of Here Among Us, by Jaron and Katherine Kamin, plus Interview

Contrary to what one might think I believe, the hymns movement is not THE answer for modern worship.  The reform that is needed and the reform that is happening in today’s evangelical congregational music needs much more than a revival of hymnody and historical connectivity.  That said, the hymns movement is still an important piece in this reform…which is why I want to continue to herald its growth and expansion. 

Jaron and Katherine Kamin are a welcome addition to the fold.  Recently relocated from Socal to Nashville, this singer/songwriter couple have found new solace in old hymnody.  Just yesterday, they released Here Among Us, a beautiful indie-rock hymns album, which was produced by the mighty Andrew Osenga

Jaron and Katherine share the vocal load throughout the album.  Jaron’s is a straight and simple pop voice (as any good modern worship leader should have)—not too flamboyant, but certainly nuanced and stylized.  Katherine’s is a round alto tone, uniquely suited to the indie style of the project.  Some of the songs are new tunes to the old hymn texts (e.g. “Praise My Soul the King of Heaven”), but many are modern re-arrangements of the original tune (e.g. “Nothing but the Blood” and “Immortal, Invisible, God Only Wise”).  They’ve also included a few of their own great originals (e.g. “Light”). 

Much like my comments regarding Ascend the Hill, I personally enjoy the musical style of Jaron & Katherine.  Their style is a loose, engaging indie rock sound.  “Light” begins with a Built to Spill-ish / OK Go-ish beat and guitar chord shifting.  In general, there is a lot of “space” in their mic-placement or effects on the electric guitars…beautifully ethereal, as in “Christ is Made the Sure Foundation.”  You can hear the Nashville influence, as well, on tracks like “Give Praise to the Lord,” with its tasteful, arpeggiated banjo.  “All Hail the Power of Jesus’ Name” contains a fresh rhythmic interplay between the original melody’s 4/4 rhythm and their added flowing 6/8 beat.  The drumming throughout the album is creative and unconventional.  I love the surprising second half of “Praise to the Lord, the Almighty,” in that regard. 

The whole album is a rich sonic feast, but my favorite two songs are “Praise My Soul the King of Heaven” and “Christ is Made the Sure Foundation.”  In my opinion, many of these songs work wonderfully for congregational singing (see their answer to the final interview question below), and I hope that many churches (particularly the ones sold out on the Passion and Hillsong repertoire) will employ them.  I thank God that folks like Andrew Osenga spend time producing the work of new and emerging artists, especially those of the hymns movement variety.  You can hear Osenga’s tasteful electric guitar work throughout Here Among Us…in a sense it’s his small signature on the album.  Go out and get the album, and tell all your friends about it!  I can’t wait until their next project.

I had the privilege of being able to fire off a few questions to the Kamins.  When bloggers like me do interviews, it’s a risky endeavor, because artists are not always purposeful, thoughtful, and articulate.  This is not the case with the Kamins, which is why I wanted to give them a major voice on this post.

Tell us about your background as worship leaders and with worship music.

Well, we've been leading worship together since before we started dating.  So, for almost nine years.  It started with youth groups, then volunteering with smaller congregations, and eventually to Jaron being a full time director after some time in seminary.  Katherine's been involved on and off, but writing and playing music has always been one of our favorite ways to spend time together.  We've primarily led worship in congregations that were also our worshiping community.  With this record, though, we've had opportunities to visit other congregations, and that's been a really beautiful experience for us, being received into another body's worship service and connecting with folks there.

When we started leading it was almost entirely with contemporary songs.  It really wasn't until around 2007 when Jaron's boss at the time, Jim Rauch of Westminster Pres in Escondido, CA, started asking him to include one hymn per week that our focus began to change.  It didn't take long for us to realize that rearranging these hymns for a contemporary style of worship really felt like the best of both worlds to us.  Eventually the pastor had to require that we include at least one contemporary song each week.

What are your thoughts, constructive and critical, about the state of contemporary evangelical worship today?

It’s hard to generalize about the state of evangelical worship.  So many churches are doing so many different things.  What we can say is that we think the church is at its best when people in local contexts are finding what works and resonates in their particular situation.  When they find or create the music and lyrics that give voice to their community, affirm scripture, and draw nearer to God because of it, then we see that as ideal.  From our perspective problems arise when a community goes through an identity crisis and starts to reach for a voice in worship that is not their own.  A church should not trust only a record label executive to determine what their worship should look like, though that executive may have some good ideas. 

What captivates you about hymns, and why have you chosen to focus your album on them?

We love hymns for at least three reasons.  The first is that the hymns provide a connection to the thousands of years of Church life that have come before us.  When we sing these songs, we sing with the saints of the past.  We have a connection to their struggles and joys, which, we believe, are struggles and joys that we still relate to today.  We have a connection to the way our fathers worshiped their God, who is also our God.

The second reason is that we find these songs, in general, to be very rich theologically.  So much modern music today, evangelical or otherwise, is about expressing an emotional state.  There’s nothing wrong with that, but the music of the last few centuries (again with exceptions) has been more about engaging with very particular aspects of who God is and who we are in Him.  Including hymns in our worship provides some needed balance.

Third, a lot of the music is just beautifully written music.  It makes sense- it that has survived for centuries.  You tend to hang on to the good stuff.  That makes for a pretty big pool of great music.

What, in your minds, is the value of setting old hymns to new music?

For us a lot of the value in it is that the new music enables us to own the lyrics a little more.  That’s the hope anyway, but to be honest, we also just love to rearrange songs, whether they were written in the last twenty years or the last two hundred.  We personally still love the hymns when you’ve got a group of people singing around a piano or pipe organ, but we hope that these arrangements will provide a fresh experience for people.

What are your hopes and goals for this album?

It really was a privilege just to be able to make this album.  To work with this music with such amazing musicians and to see the vision become a reality through our work with Andy Osenga was kind of a realization of hope for us already.  However, we hope that the people who might benefit from hearing this record will be able to hear it.  We hope it provides something fresh, that it gives voice to people.  And we hope it enables these works to minister to folks who may not engage with them otherwise.  We hope that people who hear it will participate in it.  One of the things we were really intentional about in recording, even in the keys we chose, is making a record with which people would be able to participate, whether that's by using these arrangements at church or singing along in the car.  And one of the beautiful things about working primarily with lyrics we didn't write is that when we lead others in a live setting, it doesn't feel as though we're imposing our own words onto them.  We're all partaking in the ministry by the saints that came before us.

Monday
Feb212011

Review of The Mercy Seat / The War by Jamie Barnes and Brooks Ritter

Jamie Barnes, The Mercy Seat
Brooks Ritter, The War (split EP)
Released: February 22, 2011

There is something very special going on in Louisville, and my writing a review about this “happening” is kind of like the woman who was straining just to get a finger on the hem of Jesus’ robe—just a touch is all I ask.  God has gathered a whole lot of young talent and put it under one ecclesiastical roof.  This is the best summary I can give for what is happening with Sojourn Music.  Sojourn Community Church is a multi-site community with a strong vision for how the arts are a part of God’s kingdom-restoration in the community.  You don’t see too many churches out there with this vision.  But before I heap accolades on the music of two incredible singer-songwriters, Jamie Barnes and Brooks Ritter, for their latest split EP, The Mercy Seat / The War (read Sojourn's description here), let me begin by commenting on something rather unrelated to the music itself.

Jamie Barnes and Brooks Ritter are humble, generous men of God.  I met Jamie several years ago when my wife and I took a field trip out to Sojourn in the summer of 2008.  I met Brooks just over a year ago at the Calvin Symposium on Christian Worship in Grand Rapids.  I was flying solo, and Jamie took the time to single me out and invite me to a few social gatherings where I got to hobnob with Keith Getty, Kevin Twit, Mike Cosper, and other heroes of mine.  Jamie’s hospitality in that act meant a lot to me and spoke volumes about him.  Brooks engaged me in a bunch of conversations, and he always exhibited the uttermost kindness and humility, even as I told him that he had an incredible, one-of-a-kind voice.  These two are men of character, and that is perhaps the most important thing I could say about them.

OVERALL COMMENTS

The album itself is just incredible.  It is true artistry, which does not kowtow to simplistic pop sensibilities.  It is a “split EP” in the sense that it is a full, ten-song album split down the middle.  The first five are Barnes’ songs; the last five are Ritter’s.  All songs are either explicitly based in old church hymns, or else they are haunted by the spirits of the great English hymn writers.  But this is not a “worship album.”  It is definitely solo material, some of which can be (and has been) transposed into the context of corporate Christian worship (e.g. “The Mercy Seat” and “Absent from Flesh”).  Recorded live at the 930 Art Center in Louisville, KY, the stylistic diversity in these ten tracks is astonishing.  Jazz, gospel (black and white, mind you), blues, grunge, soul, country, rock—they’re all here.  Yet this smorgasbord is no hodgepodge.  The cohesion comes from its production, themes, and the souls of the singers themselves. 

If you can’t afford the whole album, you must at least get Barnes’ “Absent from Flesh” and Ritter’s “The War.”  In my opinion, they are the best songs on the album.

Theologically, the album is rock-solid.  Texts which are based in time-tested hymns from greats like Isaac Watts are nearly always a slam dunk in the Department of Biblical Conformity.  Barnes and Ritter write the kinds of songs that will last in Christian hymnody. 

THE MERCY SEAT  |  JAMIE BARNES

Barnes says, “If we’re being honest, we all have this longing for an advocate, and a lot of the songs on my side of the EP have this hint of desperation in them.”  That’s a great summary statement of the textual trajectory and musical edge which unify the five songs.  Musically, Jamie provides an aural feast.  His songs keep his voice in a modest vocal range, and his smooth, simple singing style perfectly fits the “longing” and “hint of desperation” he intends.  My favorite feature of his music here are the use of horns, sergeantly peppered throughout the EP.  The slippery, jazzy “Dark Passenger” has some moments of tight ensemble, especially among the horns.  There is an exquisite moment, just around 3:44, where the vibrato between two instruments locks into eerie symmetry.  Verse two is powerful:

Why do these hands withdraw from worship,
And battle your embrace?
They clinch in anger far too often,
And seldom stretch in faith.

“Jealous Arm” contains a haunting chord progression at the front-end that moves from the major tonic chord to the minor.  The ghostly, Coldplay-like piano line accentuates the tense nature of revelry in the jealousy of God.  The first verse:

Is this the way we repay our God?
Who among us has he not made?
Forsaking His face for the sculpted things
We have shaped with our evil hands.
And where are they now, our silent golden cows?
His swift and jealous arm has thrown them down.

The choice track, however, is “Absent from Flesh”—roomy drums, earthy claps and slaps, and wailing horns make this an exquisite, original, and inspiring piece.  Co-writers Barnes and Watts, though separated by nearly three hundred years, together celebrate the eschaton:

Absent from flesh, O glorious day!
In one triumphant stroke
My reckoning paid, my charges dropped
And the bonds ‘round my hands are broke.

I go where God and glory shine,
To one eternal day
This failing body I now resign,
For the angels point my way.

Hearing the unparalleled hymns of Isaac Watts so beautifully re-dressed and re-given to the modern church simply makes me want to dance naked in the streets. 

THE WAR  |  BROOKS RITTER

Many singers, including myself, shake their fists toward the heavenlies that they were not graced with the golden voice of Brooks Ritter.  No joke: the first time I heard his voice, I pegged him for a fifty-year-old, black Mississippi Delta bluesman.  This twenty-something has all the soul, presence, and maturity of a voice twice his age, and he stewards his gifts well throughout this EP.  “The War,” a grungy blues tune, introduces Ritter with a punch to the belly, and the left-hand-calloused fingerprints of Neil Robins’ axe-work (of Dirt Poor Robins and No More Kings) are all over this number.  It’s reminiscent of Soundgarden at the height of their music-making.  The text of this song’s chorus characterizes the posture of the whole album—centered upon the gospel of the finished work of Christ:

Though the scars of my sin run deep
They’re washed in the flood brought from Calvary
Remind me O Lord in my hour of deed
The war won  for the redeemed!

“Good Day” takes a stylistic leap in a different direction.  It is a black gospel number, through and through, full of clever colloquialisms fitting to the genre.  This song rocks:

Well, hey, Jesus the God man came to the Earth
He opened his arms to the children of dirt
He was singing a new song, “Child come on I’ll show you the way”
It was a good day when the Lord came
You know it was a good day

My Jesus came through the desert
He walked on the sea and died on the hill of Mount Calvary
He went to the grave but checked out on the third day
It was a good day when the Lord came,
It was a good, good day.

I love the thought that Jesus “checked out” of the grave on the third day like it was a hotel room.  The ease with which Almighty Christ sealed His victory over death is worthy of such a thought.  The next song, “Waters of Forgiveness,” is a soulful white gospel number that one could hear arranged for an all-male quartet.

In the words of Barnes: “This record, it’s more than just making music for our local church.We want to be a community of artists…So it’s important to us to publish music and to publish books and things of that nature…These songs are just a way for us to point to truth.  Hopefully that’s what good art will do, point to a good God who’s the author and creator of everything.”  God has given the Sojourn community a unique call with the provision of unique resources.  The Mercy Seat / The War is proof that these artists continue to steward such gifts well.  A while back I posted on why worship leaders should be theologians and theologians worship leaders.  Barnes and Ritter are worship leader-theologians par excellence.  Go get this album, people.