God & Music
Giving Jesus The Business 2007
The Bad News
Bishop Noel Jones & The City of Refuges’ City Of Refuge sounds a lot like everything Paul Morton ever did ten years ago, but the CD wins my award for worst album art, weighing in with two strikes against it (actually, maybe they’re the same strike): the whole “Bishop” thing, which I’m becoming very turned off to (our need to elevate ourselves with silly titles), and Jones’s huge head being plastered over the small figures of the people who actually sing and perform the music. Me, Me, Me. Or, alternately, church folk worshipping their leaders rather than worshipping God, and Jones allowing this mess to happen. Jones doesn’t actually have a big head, mind you, it just looks huge because of this wretched art direction. Skimming through the CD, it sounds perfectly fine, which is to say I won’t be buying it because noting in it sounds anything different from stuff I already own. It’s Paul Morton Lite.
Maurette Brown Clark
Maurette Brown Clark likewise delivers a perfectly bland collection of okay-sounding praise songs, taking no chances and blazing no new trails, Brown sticks to safe ground with The Dream, and thus remains on the rack. The album actually sounds a lot like Andraé Crouch—which is both good and bad. Good in that she certainly sounds anointed and sincere in her ministry. Bad in that it’s California In A Blender: all the edges rounded off with lame Jerry Hey horn arrangements and “contemporary” riffs only your dad would think were hip. This is the safest CD I’ve heard in a long time, a Groundhog’s Day collection of tunes afraid of their own shadow.
Vanessa Bell Armstrong I won’t even play clips of because of the bad wig. Between the disastrous blonde hair and the train wreck papier maché pastiche dress and huge, jangly earrings, I can’t even begin to get my mind on Jesus Christ—the attention is all on her and not in a good way. She does not project an image of God’s love, of God’s grace, but of an aging diva trying to compete with girls like Lexi and Darlene McCoy. I have no idea if this is a good CD or not, and won’t be finding out. I expect Gospel artists to, first and foremost, not be so wrapped up in self that I can’t even make it past the shrink wrap. Rapper Open Book’s Da Truth dropped just last week. First blush: either he’s too loud or I’m too old. Probably both. Moreover, I just refuse to pay money for anything, anything at all, titled "Da." The capitulation to the ignorance of the street is, for me, anti-Christian. We don't need to speak the Queen's English, but we shouldn't legitimize ignorance, either. As a people, we should strive to be better, to think, to grow.
Deitrick Hadden always strikes me as somebody trying to sound like somebody. Like Ginuwine, I find him more annoying that entertaining, and am usually more interested in the guests on his tracks than on his original content. Hadden has a voice that gets on my nerves after while, and all of his beats sound, to me, like they’re just a year or two off from being contemporary. Like his music really would have been the bomb if they’d released the album eighteen months ago. The I'm The Joint "Playa" imagery doesn't sweeten the deal, either. There's just nothing about this CD that even remotely suggests the love of Jesus Christ. Pass.
So, let's talk about what I did like this year. Surprisingly, I liked Mandisa. Mandisa, the heavy gal who got booed off of American Idol last year because of her conservative Christian stance on gay issues. The media painted her up like a black, female Jerry Falwell, but my take on her is she’s anything but. Far from being the intolerant nut the media wants to play her as, Mandisa always seems, to me, to come across as loving and friendly and patient and kind, standing up to terribly unfair criticism of both her spirituality and her body image, both of which she gleefully and joyously addresses in the fabulous True Beauty, a clever re-tooling of Cheryl Lynn’s epic Got To Be Real. A fun, retro, party song, True Beauty is my favorite pop song of the moment, one that speaks of God’s truth in a way that doesn’t condemn but liberates, that presents the Gospel of Jesus Christ in a fun, enlightening, positive way. My main annoyance is that this is only a B-side of a single—Only The World. A decent enough pop tune in its own right, I think Mandisa has her CD flipped over wrong, as the preachy Only The World evokes nightmares of Michael Jackson’s syrupy, preachy Heal The World-type songs; the self-indulgent violin clutter he can’t seem to stop himself from running perfectly good albums with. True Beauty is the far superior song, a song I guarantee you will instantly like.
Onitsha, another Idol alum, debuts with Church Girl, which is better than most of the Gospel stuff I’m listening to these days, but, of the stuff I like, hovers near the bottom in only that Onitsha doesn’t really bring much new to the table. Rather, she revisits beats she’s heard and vocal riffs she’s heard and themes she’s heard and it all sounds a little like something we’ve heard, though quite well done, and she has a really pretty voice. But, really, for seventeen bucks I want to be blown away.
The D’Angelo crooner torch has apparently been passed from Tye Tribbett, who wandered off the mark last year with the overly preppy Victory, to Sean Simmonds, whose True Story is not quite as well written as Tribbett’s landmark Life, but is more on-point in its economy of design. Released in February of ’06, however, True Story doesn’t qualify for our 2007 nod but is mentioned here mainly because it just popped up on iTunes and the year really has been just that slow. This sounds like a very good CD, though, certainly worth a spin, though I'm not wild about the I'm The Joint CD cover. Can you imagine Jesus Christ striking that pose, for any reason whatsoever? Sean: show us your heart, brother. Stop posing like a jackass.
Karen Clark-Sheard continues moving away from success with The Clark
Sisters: Live—One Last Time—whatever that means. I suppose they’re
suggesting this will be their final recording as a group, but I’m not
sure I believe it. This album badly misfires, shooting Sheard in the
foot much the same way the lame Victory album damaged the then-stellar
Michael Jackson. Jackson was apparently talked into rejoining his
brothers one last time in order to, I suppose, set up the brothers’ bank
accounts so Michael could finally be rid of the baggage and go on with
his solo career. The resulting album, Victory, was anything but. It was
a sub-demo quality work of four individuals, rather than the smart and
exquisite group efforts of Destiny and Triumph before it. It was a
tossed-together mess of demos produced individually by the Jackson
brothers, revealing how little talent most of them actually have without
Michael either down front singing or in the control room producing.
One Last Time is not nearly as bad as Victory, but it leaves me with the same uneasy feeling about the opportunity squandered. The Clark Sisters, having gone their separate ways for nearly a decade, were now reuniting. The opportunity, here, was to demonstrate how much the ladies have grown individually, Karen in particular, whose arc seemed destined to line up with Yolanda Adams, a star so big she is no longer burdened y such labels as “gospel” or “secular,” she simply is. Karen’s dynamic, progressive PaJam-powered work on The Heavens Are Telling and 2nd Chance seemed destined to project her right into Yolandaville, where she would become a household name and be racked in the R&B section (as Adams frequently is).
But Sheard misstepped badly with the Israel Haughton praise album It’s Not Over, a CD which rounded the edges off of Karen’s progressive sound, landing her firmly in Shirley Caesar territory (and also managed the impossible: making the breathtakingly beautiful Sheard look….well… homely on the CD cover art. What on earth was she thinking?!), veering sharply off of her career trajectory. Here, she trips again with One Last Time, as the aim here seems to be not to demonstrate how the sisters have individually grown but to revisit the classic Clark Sisters sound, losing their current audience along the way. Twinkie and Dorinda’s projects, in particular, have had enormous dynamic punch and progressive, Kim Burrell-style fervor to them. One Last Time loses virtually all of that muscle and gives up nearly all the ground these women have gained as solo artists in some misguided notion of re-creating a “classic” sound that was, for me, lame ten years ago when they were pushing Sunny Delight sugar water in radio and TV commercials.
This is particularly sad for Sheard, whose career now seems to be firmly off-track, unless she is deliberately spinning away from her daughter Kiki’s urban gospel sound. Karen Clark-Sheard was, in no way, competitive with Kiki Sheard; there is absolutely no reason why mom has to now move into the Old Folks’ Home and mush her sound down to lame praise and worship riffs. Grown ups like me will like Karen’s albums while the kids will be more in tune with what Kiki (and, in particular, her producer-rapper-brother J. Drew—a serious guy to watch) is doing. Sheard may be in need of serious career advice. Or, if she’d taken on new management prior to It’s Not Over, I pray she’ll reconsider. She was moving in precisely the right direction, now she’s veering off towards bland obscurity. This is a terribly ordinary album, which is not to say it’s bad, it’s just ordinary, which, for these wonderful ladies, is a sin; a misuse of the wonderful gifts with which God has endowed them.
Psalm 27, from The Word Network's Lexi Allen Prater's Heaven Hears, is a very long and very sophisticated nine minutes, Psalm 27 is, alone, worth the price of the album. An album that seems a bit uneven by trying to be all things to all men (and all women), Lexi apparently trying to corner the Mary J. Blige end of the Christian market (and, to a great measure, succeeding). Despite the jazz underpinnings of Psalm 27, Heaven Hears is dramatically urban Jeep Bumping music, with the diminutive Lexi belting out ghetto platitudes with fierce power and staunch conviction. The beats here sound a bit dated, but dated in terms of the R&B set, like stuff left in Timbaland’s closet. It is still fresher and more progressive than most things you are likely to hear in Gospel music, and competes fairly well with the high-octane urban soul music in the secular bins.
I’m still trying to figure out who Darlene McCoy is and why I am only now discovering this wonderful, wonderful talent. The best song of the year is, hands down, I Adore You from McCoy’s self-titled 2007 release, a CD I’d guess a lot of black folk passed on because McCoy is seen holding a cowboy hat on the cover art. Memo to Darlene McCoy’s designer: you just alienated 2/3rds of this CD’s audience. This is, by no measure, a country western album, but appears to be a “black” Gospel album sung by an (apparently) white woman, the dynamics of which are all but lost from the moment the CD starts spinning. McCoy has a simply breathtaking voice, and the writing is terribly moving throughout the album. Join that with exquisite, crystal clear recording quality, and you have an artistic statement that is unparalleled even by the best work of the year. I Adore You brings me to worship, brings me to tears, loses me in the moment. I have to stop what I’m doing every time I hear it, and I’m not tired of hearing it. I’ll have to go figure out why I’ve never heard of her—she has several releases over the past years. But, if you’ve passed this one up in the store, I urge you to pick this up. This is the song of the year and very nearly the album of the year. [2015 Editor's Note: Ms. McCoy is not white, thought the lighting on her album cover creates that ambiguity. Despite two Dove Award nominations, astonishingly, her brilliant self-titled debut is her only album release to date. Huh?!?]
Not His Fault: Once you've released one of the seminal urban Gospel recordings of all time,
we can never agian accept "ordinary" from you..
Fred Hammond’s Free To Worship is a terrific album, certainly worth a
purchase. And that’s all I can really say about it, which, for Hammond,
is a minus. Hammond’s milestone is arguably the live disc of the Pages
Of Life Chapters I & II CD (the studio disc is a Frisbee, dead on
arrival). In that stellar live concert you will hear an utterly fluid
set of praise and worship songs conceived in devotion to Jesus Christ
and performed with an unbridled passion that sets your stereo on fire.
An utterly un-self-conscious Hammond, at the peak of his powers, hammers
through an emotional and powerful worship experience.
Helming such a masterpiece can be equal parts blessing and curse, as Hammond’s career highpoint was so high, we simply cannot accept an ordinary album from this guy anymore. A Fred Hammond album that is simply good, that is simply great, is just, well, ordinary. Which makes it seems as though Fred’s done something wrong, which he hasn’t.
However, since Pages, Hammond has been chasing the magic, misfiring with Somethin’ ‘Bout Love and Free To Worship. Both are decent collections of songs, but that’s the problem: neither is an album. They both seem too calculated, too crafted with too much energy invested in pleasing church folk. As funky as they sound, neither CD sounds hip. It all sounds like music church folk think is hip. It lacks the genuiness of popular music today, even while trying to emulate it. Like hearing a Tupac song on an elevator.
It’s worth mentioning that Tonéx has released a ton of stuff this year,
most of it from his archives. A year after he announced his “retirement”
from the music business, we’re into a bit of Tonéx Overexposure, Tonéx
has product all over the place, including a poorly re-worked version of
his stellar Oak Park 92105 (aptly re-named Oak Park: 92106). Here Tonéx
seems to sell out by re-working Oak Park to omit some of the stronger
language (notably the word “nigger” and a couple of fleeting expletives,
all used for good reasons and in proper context) in order to
re-re-release the CD without his self-imposed Parental warning label.
The re-worked edition (or, is this the original and 92105 is the
re-worked edition? With Tonéx, who knows) falls short of the original’s
brilliance in that it seems to compromise its message for the sake of
getting the CD into Christian bookstores, Christian bookstores often
being the very antithesis of progressive Christianity: sanitary little
oases of white-scrubbed unreality from which creative works of any real;
integrity are routinely banned. Christian bookstore chains are designed
to appeal to a model of Christianity that is simply fake: the phony
facade we all embrace as part of our efforts to appear Christ-like,
while avoiding the less perfect reality of our daily struggle. Christian
bookstore chains are, unfortunately, the biggest supporters of Gospel
music and, therefore, tend to dictate what record companies release.
These places decide for us what is and is not acceptably “Christian,”
imposing a phony, biblically inconsistent and unrealistic Ozzie And
Harriet standard of purity that even the Holy Bible itself—with all of
its sex, violence and cursing—does not adhere to.
Tonéx’s work is typically too Christian for secular chains and labels and too secular, too provocative, for the neutered, passionless, gutless Christian bookstores. I realize a brother’s got to make a living, but the 92105 version—with the green cover—is head and shoulders better than the orange-cover 92106, forming a more cohesive statement (if you can use the word “cohesive” and “Tonéx” in the same sentence). Oak Park 92105 is, hands down, the urban Gospel album of the decade if not of all time. I hate to see it neutered like this.
As for the other stuff—it’s all hit and miss. Some it, like his T-Bizzy alter ego’s rap stuff, very good, some of it, like the Jazz-influenced London Letters, interesting and experimental. None of it bad. I think it’s safe to say you can buy most anything that says Tonéx on it and be assured that, at the very least, you’re holding a solid album in your hand. But none of it comes close to the brilliance of the over-long but worth it Out The Box or the sheer artistry of Oak Park: 92105.
The Electrician: J.Moss breaks the molds by combining progressive sound with actual sincerity.
Who Are We Praising?
The best album of the year wasn't actually released this year. It was
released in 2004, but we just found out about it this year, so I guess
that still counts. Adrianne Archie’s HTHAELHH is a landmark recording in
the sense of how utterly un-self-conscious the work is. The project
simply flows from the tossed-together intro “Welcome” through the
demo-quality acoustic pleas of “Why Not Take A Chance.” Fans of Jill
Scott and India.Arie will immediately recognize the road traveled, here,
road I believe was pioneered by artists like bassist MeShell Ndege
O’Cello (whom I’m sure most people reading this have never heard of) and
Erykah Badu. Archie’s work seems much less deliberate, however, much
less calculated. She panders less to the Church Folk crowd, instead
concentrating her energy on creativity and fun. There’s fairly little
about this work that sounds like a Gospel album. In fact, I’d go so far
as to say this really isn’t a Gospel album, in the sense of a genre of
In terms of CD’s actually released in 2007, J. Moss’s V2… is, far and away, the best album of the year. There is simply nothing out there that even comes close. Setting aside the brilliant but often uneven Tonéx for a moment, what we have in V2… is an immaculately conceived and crafted work of stunning beauty. This is the breathtaking work of a master of his craft, easily twice as good 2005’s The J. Moss Project, which was, itself, groundbreaking. Moss excels here in his ballads, breathy, transparent, highly emotional pleas that tug at heart strings and bring us to worship. He peppers the album with hammering R&B beats, with bass so fat and yet so clean my jaw just drops. Usually you get heavy bass, you can et loud bass, you can get thumpy bass—but you can’t get all three. Fred Hammond, for example, simply can’t mix an album. The brother really needs to stay out of the mixing and mastering sessions, his albums always sounding over-compressed with bass that is artificially pumped with ProTools steroids—the cheesy-sounding software EQ tricks like adding sub-octaves to fatten the bass. To the trained ear it sounds like Monster Mash and is impossible for me to satisfyingly correct on my end because Fred ha sprinted all this crud onto his tracks.
By contrast, V2…’s bass lines are so unbelievably crisp and yet so unbelievably beefy all at once, I’m simply at a loss to explain how he did it. This may very well be the best-recorded pop album I own, gospel or secular, which is a tribute to “PDA” Allen and Moss’ studio chops. This sounds better than any pop album I have ever heard, period. An utter delight to listen to, an album which doesn’t fatigue the ears with too much high end or dull our sense with flat or over-blown bass. All the highs and mids are absolutely and deftly transparent; you can ear the man breathing in the pauses. The dynamic range is as wide as CD’s allow, giving us a varied palette of colors from which Moss brushes his canvass. An amazing recording, it sounds like they spent ten million dollars on it (the amount Michael Jackson is rumored to have spent on 2001’s Invincible, which—including the $30 million Sony spent promoting it— is rumored to be the most expensive album ever recorded, V2… sounds better than Invincible).
The writing is quite strong, as is all of Moss’ work, the introspective and revealing ballads in particular. Holding On is an outstanding, emotionally wrenching confession, examining the personal struggles many Christians have with depression, as is I’m Not Perfect, a passionate admission of guilt by Moss and the brilliant Anthony Hamilton.
The showpiece of the album is Florida, a Big Concept medley that closes out the project. Very few, wait, now I can’t actually think of any, black gospel acts ever to the Pink Floyd Big Concept piece; musical quilts sewn together from various pieces to form a kind of operatic Big Picture. Earth, Wind & Fire’s landmark recording I Am (and, to a lesser degree, their 2-disc follow-up Faces) is a perfect example of what I mean. In the world of Contemporary Gospel, the best examples of this are acts most people reading this will not ever have heard of. Michael Omartian (okay, try this: Omartian produced Jermaine & Michael Jackson’s Tell Me I’m Not Dreamin’, Christopher Cross’s mega-hits Sailing and Ride Like The Wind, and he wrote the theme to the TV series S.W.A.T. and Baretta (“don’t do the crime, if you can’t do the time…”) among other things)’s brilliant 1974 debut album White Horse was a Left behind-style apocalyptic vision. At only 34 minutes, the album formed a cohesive statement that flowed from start to finish, all of the music in service of the overall concept.
Daniel Amos' 1977 masterpiece Shotgun Angel contained an eschatological rock opera of sorts based on scenes from the book of Revelations. A little too wide-eyed and doomsaying for most modern audiences, but an appropriate song cycle for a band named after two minor prophets. While I suspect most people reading this have never heard of DA, this is a huge, groundbreaking, legendary CCM band that opened doors, well, for people like J. Moss.
While not nearly as ambitious (or as psychedelic) as the Beatles-inspired Amos, Moss’s Florida interweaves themes of sin, repentance, and false prophets into a trio of songs presented here in medley under one track title. It is Moss’s most ambitious and creative work to date, hopefully a harbinger of things to come if only, oh if only, black gospel artists would please at least try and think outside of the box a little. Music can be a compelling evangelism tool, but most black Christian artists seem content to rehash and rehash and offer up hollow praise and bumpy dance things. Here, Moss crosses into Beatles territory by thinking conceptually, by creating his own urban opera and painting on a big canvas in a way no other artist (other than, in his own way, Tonéx) is doing these days. I look forward to an entire opera—an entire CD—crafted by these insightful young men, who seem to be the only artists making a real difference in the urban gospel scene these days.
V2... speaks very bluntly to the believer and would make a great tool for youth ministry and inreach. What I don't hear enough of is a clear articulation of what Moss is so happy about. Here he tends to make the same mistakes as other top gospel stars: he preaches to the choir. Handing this to someone not indoctrinated to our culture, and you'd tend to confuse them. Entertain them, certainly, but it's not really clear what all this hoopla is about. The unlearned listener certainly has an idea God fits in here someplace, but as for the mechanics of having a relationship with God, of coming to know God, those are lost somewhere in this amazing mix
With the true message of the Gospel lost somewhere in the party, this CD is no more effective at soul-winning than Beyoncé's. which is not to suggest this CD isn't ground-breaking: it certainly is. And, it may be the best urban gospel CD released this year (my vote remains firmly for Adrianne Archie's landmark HTHAELHH, but that was recorded in 2004). V2... is a fun, clean party record, one Christians will tend to enjoy on another level, but it's all secret handshake: if you don't know what he's talking about, he's not going to tell you.
Which brings us to the other best album of 2007, which squeaks past V2… on a budget a fraction of V2…’s size. Adrianne tells us about Jesus. Starts her set with Who Jesus Is, making my point for me. Archie’s masterpiece, He That Hath An Ear Let Him Hear, was recorded on a shoestring budget, its rough edges and humble pedigree occasionally showing through. But the combination of Joel Goodwin’s dynamic and efficient production (not to mention major keyboard chops), and Archie’s sultry (can I say that?), hypnotic vocal and rich lyrical composition, edges past the much slicker and more expensively produced V2… if only in that V2… forgot to tell us who Moss was singing about.
Adrianne never forgets who she is singing about, and never lets us forget.
I Push Myself: The best urban Gospel Indy album ever recorded. If you don't own this, shame on you.
Developed on a shoestring budget, HTHAELHH nonetheless has a big budget
major label sound. Archie’s mix is smooth as Cadbury chocolate, her
producer Joel L. Goodwin keeping the aural tapestry clean and
uncluttered. Archie’s elegant Roberta Flack vocals do not have to
compete with a bunch of clanking and banging and aren’t drowned out by
frivolous horn arrangements dropped in just because they had the budget
to drop in frivolous horn arrangements. Goodwin knows what the mission
is: open a window for Archie to fly through. He doesn’t use the album to
prove himself or to try and amaze us with all of his gadgets. The only
gimmick on HTHAELHH is the message of hope, love and salvation in Jesus
Please stop reading this and go buy this album. Oh, and a hint for iTunes users: when you burn the album to CD, iTunes tends to insert a 2-second pause between tracks. For albums like HTHAELHH, you absolutely must disable that nonsense, otherwise iTunes will jack up the elegant cross fades used here. To disable this feature, click on EDIT—PREFERENCES—ADVANCED and choose the BURNING tab. Also, I recommend choosing the slowest burn speed available (usually 8x). It takes a little longer, but it is also less prone to error (annoying pops and clicks in the CD).
In fact, HTHAELHH is consciously crafted to be un-self-conscious. We don’t listen to Adrianne so much as we hang out with her. “Who Jesus Is” is a stroll through the park on a hot summer day, looking for a handball game. “Always On Time” is one of several songs borrowed from the church but given a head-nodding urban loll and cannon-fire 808 kick drum perfect for low-speed hood cruising. For me and my house, this is home. This is summer on Hollis Avenue in Queens Village, the concrete jungle that gave us Run-DMC and LL Cool J. Summer meant competing tent meetings all over town and storefront churches lined up against funeral homes and liquor stores. This may be the reason for my enthusiasm for this project, the universality of its voice. Younger people think of it as “Neosoul.” I think of it as home.
“It Is Well” begins with either a classical piece borrowed from somewhere or (more likely) a pitch-perfect simulation of one crafted by Goodwin. If it sounds just a tad artificial, it’s because that’s what Goodwin wanted. The rest of the project sounds uncannily live, but in her interview Archie assures me most of the project was sequenced using a Roland XP-80 workstation and ProTools. “It Is Well” segues into a semi-freestyle club jam, Goodwin leaving in a bunch of crosstalk between Archie and the control room as the bass gives our sub a workout, Archie giving God thanks for survival both spiritual and physical before crossfading into what comes across as a lunch break with giggling girlfriends as Archie strums an emotionally powerful praise song, accompanying herself on guitar. The contrast between the heartfelt, wrenching praise and the snickering in the background actually reminds me of what it’s actually like in the studio (and, often, church rehearsals); where proper respect and decorum are not always demonstrated outside of an actual worship service. Which misses the point that even rehearsal is an opportunity to worship. I wasn’t offended by the laughter and chatter, I think it grounded Archie’s sincerity in a visceral reality, but it did remind me of the kind of teaching that needs to go forth in music ministry.
Another driving song, the Breezy “Way We Praise,” is a joyful drop-top Mustang chorus so vocally windy you can actually feel your hair blowing back, while “Push Myself” tackles tougher subject matter: the reality that no one will invest in your vision as much as you. Archie preaches to herself about focus and self-motivation before proclaiming her calling—and the separation such a calling often requires—on the rave “Use To Do.”
“What A Fellowship,” the first single off the CD, is likely the simplest and most elegant work, here. While not lyrically the strongest—it is just what it appears to be, a simple rework of the time-honored hymn—it is, nonetheless, the most accessible (and commercial, which is both good and bad) work here. Play this one for your friends and get them hooked on this wonderful work.
Which sets us up nicely for the jazz-tinged title track. “He That Hath And Ear…” juxtaposes melancholy chromatics against a call for the faithful to return to their faith. Aingonlechugo continues the Blue Note Records-tinged spiral, following through Archie’s call to repentance by rededicating herself to God’s purpose. The wonderful “Take It,” takes repentance to the next step: dedication our gifts and ourselves to God. Awash in Flyte Tyme S.O.S. Band synthetic percussion and Goodwin’s ongoing Fender Rhodes chromatics, Archie dances the dance of the Seven Veils (what, no Prince finger cymbals?!) against Moog sweeps and 808 drum thunder.
The project lightens up with party music like the praise and worship leader Jesus U Rein, the off-kilter jazzercise swinger “Way Home,” and the willowy “Saints Go Marching In.” Saving some of the very best for last, Archie’s elegant, plaintive “U Never Change” is, likely, the emotional high point of the CD, finding Archie wailing away in uninhibited praise, purging travail and distress over Goodwin’s soulful chromatic rounds.
The project concludes with what appears to be a live-to-track take of Archie and her guitar (with Goodwin on bass). “Why Not Take A Chance,” the longest track on the CD, is also the most ambitious track on the CD. Echoing the rawness of the earlier “Praise Elevation,” “Why Not…” provides our invitation in a raw, unpolished and searingly honest performance apparently unfettered by concerns about record company polish. Here Archie completely lets her hair down, departing from Goodwin’s jazz-tinged sound and entering India.Arie country, soulfully bellowing Tracy Chapman “Fast Car” challenges to the listener to stop listening and to take action. This time there is no snickering in the background, no coverage of blown notes or unsure steps. She leaves the polish off and simply stands, center stage, wailing away, accompanied only by her Washburn DX and passion to lead others to Christ.
HTHAELHH is not simply a good album or even a great album: it's an important album, a rare collusion of artistic integrity and spiritual purpose. A work that, like Oak Park, transcends such labels as "gospel" or "secular," "jazz" or "R&B." HTHAELHH stands on its own merits; it simply is. If I had to lodge a complaint at all about it, it would be that Archie's writing doesn't include any love songs or political songs or songs that take her outside of the Christian comfort zone. Something that would make the CD a little tougher for rackers to decide the section the CD belongs in.
Christians get their hearts broken, too, and it is precisely this dimension of herself Archie seems to keep private, as if romantic love was not in the dominion of an omnipotent God. This is a perfectly acceptable artistic choice, but it does reinforce the phony idea that Christians are forbidden to sing about anything that isn't blatantly spiritual (as if there are or should be areas of our lives God is not welcome in), or that Christian musicians can't simply be artists in their own right; their work being accepted as art—not "Christian" art but art. Just one love song, one achy breaky heart song, might have irritated her Church Folk fan base, but would have blossomed this stellar work from being a stellar Christian work to being a more holistic statement about the human condition, elevating our faith in Christ from being a niche idea that fences us off from reality. One stroll down India.Arie's streets would have confirmed that having Christ in your life doesn't mean you must now exist only in the Gospel bin. Church folk ignorance would make such a move a risky one, and Archie would, I promise, be accused of selling out or trying to have it both ways. But I believe such notions are borne of an inbred fear and ignorance whose time has long since past. God created music. He created all of it—not just the James Cleveland songs. When I am hurting, when I am in love, when my woman leaves me, why do I have to turn to secular artists and secular thoughts to speak to those issues?
As I mention in the PraiseNet Interview, this may very well be the most sensual Christian album ever recorded. Adrianne Archie's music reminds me of being in love, of what that felt like. The CD radiates an unapologetic sensuality that translates into an unapologetic and uninhibited humanity—a full and complex humanity, not the plastic, “safe” humanity of most Gospel releases. Archie seems to live in the same world we do. As such, she seems to be able to speak to us with the authority of someone who's in the struggle with us. She earns our trust because she appears to be human in every dimension, not just the “safe” ones.
Talking to her, she comes across as playful, joyous, and completely Not About Adrianne. She is completely about Jesus Christ and about His kingdom. Which adds an even more pleasant dimension to the work, considering this is, in fact, a landmark recording. She is either unaware of that, or she’s simply given that aspect of the work’s significance over to God—where it belongs. The only reason Adrianne Archie isn’t the hottest thing in urban Gospel music right now is a simple matter of distribution and promotion. Promotion costs a lot, lot, lot of cash, and Adrianne exists in the emerging world of independent music, where promotion is carried on by guerilla marketing and word of mouth. In other words, it’s up to you to spread the news about this wonderful person and this wonderful work.
And that's 2007 so far.