Audio: Not that contemporary

Culture | New labels seek to reshape CCM, but don't yet

Issue: "Betting on the future," Aug. 1, 1998

Newly created Here To Him Music and Driven Music, spin-offs of Louisiana-based Howard Publishing, have entered the Contemporary Christian Music (CCM) market with two attention-grabbing CDs that exhibit "new expressions of songs and artistry that are coming from today's churches." The two new labels and their inaugural releases take on the bustling CCM world with gusto. But the question remains: Is it fresh or just business as usual? Opening Windows features an evening of praise and worship hosted by pastor Max Lucado at San Antonio's Oak Hills Church. Jeff Nelson's 60-member choir gives tunes like "Ancient of Days" and "There's a Stirring" informal but studio-quality readings. Mr. Lucado interpolates inspirational meditations (not a sermon). A "praise team" of pop-style leaders encourages the country, rock, and R&B settings. The "band" is obviously a professional ensemble. The frequent applause reinforces the "show for God" atmosphere. While the technical quality of Opening Windows is high, there is nothing really fresh here. In fact, younger listeners might be impatient with Here to Him's use of Integrity/Hosanna style arrangements, which go back 20 years. The second CD, Artists Acappella: The Signature Songs showcases "CCM's most acclaimed artists" singing their "foremost songs in stirring pop vocal arrangements." They're all here: First Call, Cindy Morgan, Mark Lowry, Babbie Mason, John Elefante, Dallas Holm, Ron Kenoly, Michael O'Brien, Bruce Carroll, The Martins. If you have heard First Call's "An Evening in December," this continues the band's style. There is vocal rhythm along the lines of Take Six and Glad, but without the polish of those groups. For devotees of a cappella singing by The King's Singers (and other ensembles whose vocal energy is undeniable but never forced, edgy, or spread), this CD will be a disappointment. Its perfectly blended sound is obviously done electronically (the technicians do miracles here). While it is fascinating for a few minutes, it becomes subject to the tedium that plagues much of CCM. On the positive side, the benefits of performing a cappella would be remarkable in CCM. Let's hope other ensembles get the message that pop does not always require the din of a trap set or electric bass. Especially striking are "Sometimes Miracles Hide," a ballad about an abortion decision, and The Martins' full-throated rendition of the Doxology in a fairly straightforward format. Why is this double release trumpeted so loudly in the promotional literature? In the worship music category, the nightclub atmosphere with applause and front-and-center vocal leadership is among the slickest I have encountered. Emotional manipulation is easy with this level of entertainment, but it begs the question about the theology of worship. In the vocal performance category we are led to believe that Driven Music is the label that will reshape Contemporary Christian Music. But what they showcase so far has all been done before. Max Lucado listeners should recognize that Here to Him is a company borrowing (with permission) his name and church for commercial purposes. Listeners should beware of the temptation to replace the local congregation's simplicity with what one hears on a professionally recorded CD, which is, after all, a business venture-not church.

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