“I’m not trying to sell you / what you won’t receive,” sings Derri Daugherty. “I don’t need to tell you / what I do or I don’t believe.” True enough. As CCM’s most artful band for nearly 30 years, The Choir has more than earned an Apostles’ Creed badge. What its members continue to seek is a musical incarnation of the intersection between faith and doubt that does aural justice to both. They get nearest this time with “Dancing with a Serpent.” They finish a close second with everything else.
Best known for his lead guitar role in The Black Crowes, Ford might strike some as an unlikely candidate for the creator of the most reflective Christian-conversion roots album of the year so far (admittedly, a narrow category). But with the help of the British band Phantom Limb, that album is just what Ford has created. If the subtlety of his lyrics risks leaving some listeners in the dark, the gorgeously layered background vocals don’t. Here’s hoping that a Father and a Son are in the pipeline.
There’s nothing as immediately grabbing as “Pumped Up Kicks,” but “Coming of Age” comes close. And, all things considered, this album beats Torches. Throwing commercial caution to the wind, Mark Foster writes, sings, and—with Paul Epworth’s help—produces his heart out to exhilarating effect. “I’m afraid to face God and say I was a coward,” he sings at the outset, and plenty of other examination-of-conscience-worthy lines follow. Would they resonate if not set to an epic-scale sonic eclecticism? Maybe not. But they are.
The longer these three septuagenarians stick with their soul-gospel-blues mix, the less generic it seems. Never have they sounded as much like a Three Dog Night for the roots crowd than they do on “Stayed at the Party,” which is nothing if not a long-overdue sequel to “Mama Told Me (Not To Come).” Another similarity is that these guys can do small wonders with the right material: Popsy Dixon’s falsetto on Ted Hawkins’ “I Gave Up All I Had” is the essence of vulnerability betrayed.
Thanks to a special arrangement with Cracker Barrel, Michael W. Smith’s Hymns has made Billboard’s Top 30. And it’s not bad. Neither, however, is it greater than the sum of its musically conservative parts. Fortunately for the veteran CCM superstar’s many fans, it’s not his only new album. Sovereign (Sparrow) is being pigeonholed as a “worship album,” and to the extent that each of its dozen songs directly addresses God from a humble and grateful point of view, it is.
But to the extent that “worship album” has come to connote lowest-common-denominator musicality and insipid lyrics, Sovereign defies the stereotype. Smith’s years of Bible study and of continuously raising the standard of his verbal expression have enabled him to weave Scripture into confessional verse with no sign of emotional manipulativeness or aesthetic strain. And the handful of young collaborators that he enlisted to help “push” him have guaranteed that the melodies, instrumentation, and production go with the flow.