‘…celebrating wooden church religion…’
DON’T LET THE DEVIL RIDE
Perpetual Obscurity Records
Paul Thorn’s Don’t Let the Devil Ride hits the Americana music jackpot.
With the Blind Boys of Alabama and the McCrary Sisters as guest vocalists, the Preservation Hall Horns among the musicians, and Rick Hall’s Fame and Sam Phillips’ studios as well as Preservation Hall providing recording mojo, Thorn could have performed “Happy Birthday to You” and it would have sounded smothered in tangy BBQ sauce.
But Thorn taps his sacred roots (his father was a bishop in the Church of God of Prophecy, a Pentecostal denomination) as well as his abiding affection for African American gospel music, and especially Kevin Nutt’s Sinner’s Crossroads radio show on WFMU, to showcase gospel and spiritual staples done with profound respect for the originals. It’s his first all-gospel album.
‘Don’t Let the Devil Ride,’ Paul Thorn, from Don’t Let the Devil Ride
‘Soon I Will Be Done,’ Paul Thorn, from Don’t Let the Devil Ride
Thorn’s sound is a cross between Eli “Paperboy” Reed and the early work of fellow Pentecostal singer Brother Claude Ely. The album celebrates wooden church religion from the opening rouser, “Come On Let’s Go,” to the very end.
None of the songs will be unfamiliar to the gospel enthusiast, and especially to those who prefer the prewar guitar evangelist and postwar gospel quartet styles. Among the standouts is the go-to quartet song, “He’s a Battle Axe.” It incorporates the lyrics of “The Lord’s Alphabet,” a Golden Gate Quartet selection in which Christ and his infinite abilities are described using 26 words, each starting with a different letter of the alphabet. Thorn puts a Pops Staples twang into the unabashed sacred-secular mashup that is the title track, written by O.V. Wright and done solidly by Chicago’s Windy City Four. Outstanding slide guitar work propels the Blind Willie Johnson classic, “Jesus Gonna Make Up My Dyin’ Bed.”
Thorn and company form into a choir to deliver a slow-as-molasses version of the O’Jays’ “Love Train.” In the process, they unearth a soulful spirit normally buried beneath the beat. On the other hand, a sped-up version of “Soon I Will Be Done” converts the spiritual into a joyful congregational singalong, complete with handclapping.
In the liner notes, Kevin Nutt of the aforementioned and longstanding Sinner’s Crossroads radio program, contributes learned insight on the provenance and power of each song included in the collection.
On “Keep Holding On,” Thorn sings, “I can make more money/By singing rock and roll/But I’ll keep singing for Jesus/Until I don’t have a suit of clothes.” That’s living the life you sing about, son. Thomas A. Dorsey, for one, would approve.
Don’t Let the Devil Ride deserves all the attention it can muster so Paul Thorn can continue singing for Jesus.
Picks: “Come On Let’s Go,” “Soon I Will Be Done”
‘…traversing socially relevant issues…’
NOTHING TO FEAR
This Side Up, LLC
Jennifer Shaw is a Christian singer-songwriter who doesn’t limit her lyrics to vertical praise. In fact, she traverses socially relevant issues on Nothing to Fear, her first full-length album in six years.
There appear to be three connecting threads holding together the album’s combination of new song compositions and a hymn arrangement. One, and perhaps the greatest of these, is love—-Shaw’s love for children, for God and God’s love for all creation. For example, “How Far Love Goes” looks in wonder at a God who would trade “a crown for a cross.” “Love in Action” is about true discipleship: living to serve humankind
A second thread is life. Shaw uses her own experiences over the past two years as fodder for the lyrics. Nowhere is this more telling than on “Forever Family,” a paean to adoption. Shaw and her husband have added to their three biological children three adopted Chinese children with medical issues. The third thread is doubt and fear of the unknown, but also comfort that faith in God gives us, as the title track expresses, “nothing to fear.”
‘A Greater Love,’ Jennifer Shaw, from Nothing to Fear
‘How Far Love Goes,’ Jennifer Shaw, from Nothing to Fear
Melodically, the songs on Nothing to Fear are pretty and even sweeter when accented with strings, such as on “A Greater Love.” This track, which likens the love of a parent for a child to the love of God for us, is the album’s finest selection because it showcases Shaw’s soaring vocals. I don’t know Shaw’s genealogical background, but I hear a Scandinavian lilt in her soprano.
For all the loveliness in her voice, Shaw is a straightforward lyric reader, allowing the melody and arrangement to do their thing. This is how she renders the hymnbook staple, “It Is Well With My Soul.” For me, however, Dr. LouDella Evans Reid’s arrangement of “It Is Well,” and her direction of it with Chicago’s Traditional Choir and other ensembles, beats all comers.
Outside the studio, Shaw is a major advocate for children around the world, especially those struggling with intellectual disabilities or illness. She works with Compassion International and is an in-demand speaker about parenting children with special needs. As Mahalia Jackson is alleged to have said, there are two kinds of people: those who “sing and say” and those who “do.” Count Jennifer Shaw among the do-ers.
Picks: “A Greater Love,” “How Far Love Goes.”
‘…designed to inspire relaxation and remembrance…’
TIS SO SWEET: INSTRUMENTAL VIOLIN HYMNS
DD Productions (release date: December 3, 2017)
Instrumental sacred music in the African American tradition goes back decades. In fact, two of the first six sides cut by Arizona Dranes, a musician for the Church of God in Christ and among the earliest African American gospel artists to record, were sacred instrumentals (“Crucifixion” and “Sweet Heaven Is My Home”).
In the contemporary gospel era, piano and organ soloists have been joined by saxophonists, trumpet players and violinists, among others. Counted among the professional sacred violinists are Kersten Stevens, Brooke “Viosocalist” Alford and Daniel D.
On Tis So Sweet: Instrumental Violin Hymns, Daniel D. (Daniel Davis, “The Contemporary Violinist”) plies his musical trade in the service of a dozen church hymns, those evergreen chestnuts that feel like they’ve been around since time began, when in actuality most hail from the nineteenth century. While the arrangements here have a lot in common with smooth jazz, albeit with a soulful twist, Daniel’s percussive playing emulates the gusto of solo or congregational gospel singing. He bows with confidence, improvising on the melodies like a gospel singer (especially on “What a Friend We Have in Jesus”) without obscuring the hymns’ intrinsic beauty.
‘Blessed Assurance,’ Daniel D., from Tis So Sweet: Instrumental Violin Hymns
‘Leaning on The Everlasting Arms,’ Daniel D., from Tis So Sweet: Instrumental Violin Hymns
When Daniel plays “Leaning on the Everlasting Arm,” aka “What a Fellowship,” it sounds like the camp meeting singalong it was born to be. He gets downright electronic on “Just As I Am,” and on “Blessed Assurance,” he briefly evokes the electric violin-fueled fusion of Jean-Luc Ponty. Keyboards aside, though, it would be great to hear Daniel D. accompanied by an orchestra. Nevertheless, this is a restful album, designed to inspire relaxation and remembrance.
It is said that hymns are making a comeback. Tis So Sweet suggests they never left.
Pick: “Blessed Assurance”
‘…establishing an ideal tone for eliciting corporate worship…’
YOUR GREAT NAME
Entertainment One Music
Todd Dulaney was nervous the evening of his live recording at Calvary Church of Naperville, Illinois, that produced Your Great Name.
He had been struggling with an illness that was threatening his voice. He kept on praying, he told the audience, that this, too, shall pass. It did pass. Dulaney suddenly and dramatically retained the full range of his voice. He went on to finish the recorded worship experience.
Like all worship experiences, the whole is greater than the sum of its parts, and that’s mostly the case on Your Great Name. My qualifier makes room for a few songs that stand on their own. Two of them are particularly notable. Eschewing the album’s theme of vertical praise, “Pulling Me Through” finds Dulaney crediting Jesus for not just bringing him through but pulling him through life’s challenges. “Father Be Pleased,” Dulaney’s marvelous duet with kindred musical spirit Nicole C. Mullen, is a humble wish for the Father to be proud of his children.
‘Your Great Name,’ the title track from Todd Dulaney’s new album
‘Pour Me Out,’ Todd Delaney, from Your Great Name
Dulaney works within the multicultural P&W milieu—a soulful Hillsong—popularized by his fellow Chicagoland native sons VaShawn Mitchell and Jonathan McReynolds. For Your Great Name co-producers Dulaney and Dontaniel Jamel Kimbrough, along with a battery of musicians and singers, establish an ideal tone for eliciting corporate worship. They intentionally keep the melodies consistent and sustain a dramatic thrumming throughout so the mood can rise and fall as the spirit leads. The hypnotic “Pour Me Out” and the title track are ideal examples of this technique, with the latter even supporting a drone note like traditional Irish music.
A couple of other noteworthy songs: guest soloist Shana Wilson-Williams delivers a passionate lead on the uncomplicated “King of Glory.” “Sanctuary” is as simple as a Shaker hymn.
Overall, Todd Dulaney outdoes himself on Your Great Name. He proves he is not only a singer and songwriter but a bona fide worship leader whose warmth and enthusiasm shine through on every song, be it humble ballad or exuberant praise workout.
Picks: “Pulling Me Through,” “Father Be Pleased”
‘…melodies and arrangements take intriguing turns…’
Keith Reed Jr. & New Sound of Worship
New Sound Music Group
Last fall, JGM reviewed Bless the Lord, an EP from Keith Reed Jr. & New Sound of Worship. It heralded the Ohio-based Rhythm & Praise ensemble’s soon-to-be-released full project, True Worship.
True Worship made its debut in February and, as promised, it riffs on the musical style demonstrated on the EP.
If the lyrics are conventional P&W (an exception is the empowering “Moving Towards Destiny”), and the song titles telegraph the theme, the melodies and arrangements take intriguing turns not typically heard on R&P projects. Tempos shift from finger-popping (“I Can’t Praise You Enough”) to funky (“Fill this Place”) to high-church solemn (“All Hail the Power”). Delicious harmonies are suffused with major sevenths and other jazz chords, which New Sound of Worship navigates with aplomb. Strong vocalists front “What a Mighty God We Serve” and “Moving Towards Destiny.”
‘What a Might God We Serve,’ Keith Reed Jr. and New Sound of Worship, from True Worship
The satiny arrangements, cool harmonies, and smooth jazz underlayment are partly the product of Reed’s training at the Fort Hayes School of the Performing Arts, where he earned a certificate of specialization in jazz piano.
Although there are sonic similarities among the slower selections, they are the album’s standouts. Two in particular are worth noting. The prayerful “We Welcome You Lord” is accompanied solely by acoustic piano. “Out of Your Belly” (John 7:38) is the sole conventionally melodic selection on the album. In toto, True Worship is a relaxed listen, the album’s deft production bringing out the nuances of the harmonies.
Keith Reed Jr. is Minister of Music at Destiny Church International under the leadership of Apostle Theodore Caesar. He also leads worship and plays keyboards for Restoration Christian Center, where the pastor is the Reverend Alonzo James.
Picks: “We Welcome You Lord,” “Out of Your Belly”
Kimberly M. Kent
(release date: November 11, 2017)
Last fall, Kimberly M. Kent, a worship leader, multi-instrumentalist, and singer-songwriter from Indianapolis, Indiana, followed her debut EP The Journey with a new EP, Blessed2beChosen.
On this second release, Kent lends her burnished alto to a half-dozen self-penned songs containing biblically-based lyrics and appealing melodies. For example, the gently flowing opener, “I Am the Redeemed,” uses Psalms 107:2 to highlight the specialness of salvation (hence the album’s title).
Christ’s death is the subject of “My Son I Give to You” and “The Debt I Owed.” Throughout the new EP, but particularly on these two songs, Kent reflects on the cost as well as the legacy of Christ’s sacrifice. She also sings about God’s fatherly love, a balm when she felt “all alone” and “nobody cared.”
‘Only You Can Use Me,’ Kimberly M. Kent, from Blessed2beChosen
Like “Redeemed,” the songs are on the mellower, more introspective side, though “Power in the Name” is a mid-tempo Rhythm & Praise piece that moves along steadily, with the drum machine set to praise break tempo.
One cannot listen to this EP and not mention the marvelous background vocalists who Kent is fortunate to have. The tuneful ensemble—Jay Starks, Ki’ara Price, Lakisa Wynne, and Maria Southerland—shines throughout, and most brightly on “I Am the Redeemed” and “Only You Can Use Me.” They could easily record independently (maybe they have).
In addition to fostering her solo career, Kimberly M. Kent directs local church choirs and serves as Director of Worship at Justiﬁed By Faith Church in Indianapolis, under the leadership of Pastor Jeffrey McGhee. She is also the host of The Journey with KMK, a radio program that airs Mondays from 5 to 7 p.m. on www.jhmradio.com.
Pick: “I Am the Redeemed”
‘…a meatier, more traditional baritone sound…’
The Divine Souls
Independent released (2017)
“Out in the West Texas town of El Paso” is a gospel quartet named the Divine Souls. Their album, Favor, is a solid collection of ten songs that combine traditional lyrics and themes with modern musical accompaniment.
Most pronounced about the Divine Souls is their harmonies. When other quartets are going high above the stave with their harmonizing, a la the Violinaires, the Divine Souls go low. The result is a meatier, more traditional baritone sound. In addition, while some quartet CDs prominently feature the lead singer while the rest of the group sounds as if they are singing from the alley behind the studio, here the harmonies leap out of the speakers. Still, they do not overpower the lead vocalist. Kudos to producer Ke’Andree Jones of K Jones Productions for maintaining the proper balance.
Favor is also distinct in that three of the ten cuts are hard-charging drive-tempo songs and two of them are placed back to back. About those two: with chugging guitar work, “Running for Jesus” is a twist on the classic “I’m Not Tired Yet;” “All Things” takes its lead from the familiar church line, “Jesus can do all things but fail.” Here the instrumentation is less contemporary than on the other tracks.
‘Running for Jesus,’ The Divine Souls, from Flavor
‘Serve,’ The Divine Souls, from Flavor
Other standout selections are “Have Your Way,” a song with a P&W soul that becomes a congregational hymn, thanks to its quartet makeover. “Serve” is a slow and emotional southern soul gospel track about serving the Lord because he makes a way for us. The title track expounds on this favor God has placed in our lives, as does “Change,” where the quartet sings about God taking them “from the poor house to a new house.”
Founded in 2011—young in quartet years—the Divine Souls consist of co-founders Deacon Michael Bembo and lead guitarist Bro. Robert Trussell; and singers Pastor Brian K. Rosette, Minister Delmus Lowe, Deacon David White, and Elder Aaron Brown. Bro. Toraino Johnson is the newest singing member. Musicians in addition to Trussell and Brown (keyboards) are Elder Andy Williams (bass guitar), Elder Ned Gadson (drums), Bro. Isaiah Reyes (keyboards) and Bro. Julis Mosely (guitar).
Notwithstanding the substitution of synth for real strings and brass (I’m all about the real thing), Favor is a fine project that will please gospel quartet fans.
Picks: “Running for Jesus,” “All Things”
Bob Marovich is a gospel music historian, radio announcer and author. His “Gospel Memories” radio program of vintage black gospel music and artist interviews airs live first Sundays from 3 a.m. to 7:30 a.m. on Chicago’s WLUW 88.7 FM, and streams live at the station’s website. Snippets of recent broadcasts can be heard online at the Gospel Memories Radio Show. Bob is also the founder and editor of The Black Gospel Blog, now the Journal of Gospel Music, the source for the reviews published here with Bob’s permission. Bob launched JGM on the tenth anniversary of The Black Gospel Blog, which he founded July 28, 2004, as the first blog to cover African American gospel music. His first book, Shout Troubles Over: The Birth of Gospel Music in Chicago, is scheduled for publication in March 2015 by the University of Illinois Press as part of its Music in American Life Series. Bob lives in Chicago with his wife, author Laurel Delaney, and their two cats.