Even with founding member Armand Morales back at the helm, the "Classic" in the Imperial's latest (and 30th!) lineup is misleading. Dave Will's 23-year tenure ended in 1999, Paul Smith's five-year tenure ended in 1985, Paul Evans' tenure is just beginning, and neither Russ Taff nor anything resembling Southern Gospel harmonies is anywhere in sight. Masterly country-rock eclecticism, however, abounds, as do good songs, chief of which are the love song "Love Speaks for Itself" and the crucified-with-Christ song "If I Were Jesus," which speaks for itself.
This album's appearing on Sufjan Stevens' label means, among other things, that there's more going on than what first meets the ear. Gentle melodies (part soul, part folk, some jazz), whisper-soft singing, and nursery-friendly instrumentation (baby's first electronica?) turn out, upon repeated listening, to swaddle lyrics like "Why is every little bitty thing falling apart?" and "Can we align all we desire with the greatest will?" Call it Sinéad O'Connor at her most vulnerable meeting Job at the end of his tether. (And, yes, familiarity with both helps.)
Showbread's ingredients include melancholy melodies, hard-core-punk attitude, and soft-core-punk flexibility-"The Prison Comes Undone" is atmospheric and slow enough for Bono at his most introspective. But the spice, so to speak, is lyrics that aren't so much seasoned with salt (although they are) as intended to aggravate the open wounds of a broken world. And aggravate them they will, whether those of the Right, the Left, or the No-Labeled, the better to drive home the bitter truth of Jeremiah 17:9, which provides the album's title.
The highlight of 2009's Murder by Pride was a faithful recreation of Boston's "Peace of Mind," so it makes sense that the follow-up is an entire album of faithful recreations of other people's songs. (Well, almost entire: "God," which comes at the end and thereby gives God the last word, is a Stryper original.) It also makes sense that the "other people" include Deep Purple, Black Sabbath, Kansas, and Kiss, as the theme is honoring roots, and it's obvious the band didn't grow up digging the Carpenters.
There are seven "gospel" categories in which a performer or a group can win a Grammy this year. But Mavis Staples wasn't nominated in any of them even though her album You Are Not Alone (Anti) is the best Grammy-nominated gospel album of 2011. Instead, for reasons known only to the Academy (which once awarded a Best Hard Rock/Metal Performance Grammy to Jethro Tull), it's contending with the latest releases by Rosanne Cash, Los Lobos, Willie Nelson, and Robert Plant for the Best Americana Album award.
Produced by Wilco's Jeff Tweedy, You Are Not Alone gives Staples something that she hasn't had since the '60s heyday of her family group, the Staple Singers: a chance to sing a variety of roots-based styles amid accompanists more sympathetic to her talent-and to her faith-than to her crossover potential. Her almost chillingly subdued rendition of "In Christ There Is No East or West" deserves a category all its own.