‘musical and lyrical continuity’
WHAT DO YOU SEE IN ME THE EP
”What do you see in me?”
This question posed by E. Barnes at the introduction of his EP becomes the dominant theme of this autobiographical forerunner to a full album.
Indeed, Eric Barnes’ inspiration to sing gospel music was birthed by this very question. Looking back on his life, one with lows as well as highs, Barnes wondered not only how he got over but why.
The title track answers, in part, that God is a God of second chances and in helping us, He makes us better. “Masterpiece” posits that we are one-of-a-kind works in progress who take God time to perfect. The single, “Extraordinary Love,” reflects on a God whose love is so strong that He cares to work wonders for little ol’ us.
Barnes writes, plays and sings the material on the EP. His youthful, easy voice tracks alongside an assortment of buzzy electronica and bouncy beats. The mellow urban AC motives and melodies are faintly similar and elide into one another so the project has a musical as well as lyrical continuity.
Not all songs ponder the main theme. “Let’s Go 2 Church” portrays the worship service as a sanctuary where we “put on our Sunday best before things get worse,” while “Believe” is a simple song of hope and encouragement.
In other words, the God on What Do You See In Me the EP (and ostensibly the album to come) is not the Old Testament Warrior God but the New Testament Father God who loves His children no matter what mess we get ourselves into.
I AM STILL HOLDING ON
In 2009, Alice “Al MacWill” Williams introduced “urban country gospel,” an amalgam of soul and country that in some ways evoked Ray Charles’ 1960s experiments with C&W and R&B.
On the other hand, Janice Brown, who teamed with the late Rev. F.C. Barnes on the certified gold 1983 single, “Rough Side of the Mountain” fame takes the gospel-country combo all the way on her new solo album, I Am Still Holding On. Fiddle, guitar picking, steel guitar, and dobro meet warbling B3 and the rolling gospel beat on the nine-song CD.
The album gets Music Row-quality production, courtesy of Monte Stephens, Brown’s husband, meaning the instruments sound three-dimensional. None of them, however, can overpower Brown’s muscular vocals, which helped place her and Rev. F.C. Barnes’s evangelical songs atop the gospel charts thirty years ago.
Promotional video for Janice Brown’s I Am Still Holding On
The finest moments on I Am Still Holding On are the revival-style selections, such as “Thy Word,” “He’s Got It All In Control,” and “God Can Still Work it Out,” where Brown teasingly tosses in some of Dianne Williams’ legendary couplets from the Warriors’ classic “He Can Work It Out.”
Another high point is “I’m Here,” a lovely countrified gospel ballad that invites listeners to enter into the comforting arms of Jesus. If strings aren’t your thing, the title track is dominated by the more traditional gospel accompaniment of piano, though an introspective dobro punctuates the pauses.
I Am Still Holding On argues that country and gospel are not as foreign to one another as is often assumed. Keep in mind that the gospel favorite “It Is No Secret” came from the pen of Stuart Hamblen, one of the first singing cowboys. Dorsey’s “Peace in the Valley” has had as many country covers as gospel ones. Given that the earliest gospel composers of the 20th century lived in or migrated from the south, where string bands held sway over dance floors, it’s no surprise there’s a little twang in the sacred song catalog.
Rev. F.C. Barnes and Rev. Janice Brown, ‘Rough Side of the Mountain,’ a certified gold single from 1983
I was waiting to hear an extended gospel sodbuster at the end, a quartet vamp with a Bob Wills underpinning, but alas, that will have to wait for another album.
Simply put, I Am Still Holding On is WSM Nashville meets WDIA Memphis on the road to the Grand Ole Gospel Opry.
Picks: “Thy Word,” “He’s Got It All in Control.”
‘…Sunday morning music forged in the kiln of Holy Ghost fire’
THE SPIRIT SPEAKS
The Jones Family Singers
Arts + Labor
Gospel music is blessed with family groups whose lifetime of singing together in the living room, in churches, auditoriums, and festivals are evident in their tight harmonies and seamless musicianship.
But for every Winans, Clark, and Hawkins Family, there are thousands of other families not in the national spotlight who toil just as hard, if not harder, in music ministry.
One such group is the Jones Family Singers of Bay City, Texas.
The ten-member group has its origins in the Sensational Zionaires, named for Mount Zion Church of God in Christ in Markham, Texas, where the group’s patriarch, Bishop Fred Jones Sr., is pastor. Before his call to ministry, Baptist-born Fred Jones played guitar for the Gospel Messengers of Houston.
The Jones Family Singers at SXSW, March 20, 2010, ‘Trying Times’
In the well-written and uplifting liner notes to The Spirit Speaks, the Jones Family’s first recording in many years, Michael Corcoran (This Is My Story) places the family’s music in historical context. Corcoran also describes how he introduced filmmaker Alan Berg to the Joneses. Berg saw the potential of a documentary, but needed fresh music from the group. Cue producers and indie rockers John Croslin and Eric Friend, and The Spirit Speaks was born.
The album is a newly recorded collection of some of the group’s most popular songs over the past twenty to thirty years. The ten tracks—especially “Going Home” and “Leaning on You”—reprise gospel music’s gritty soulfulness of the 1970s and 1980s and traditional gospel’s reliance on Biblically-based lyrics. Songs such as “Down On Me” and “You Woke Me Up This Morning” are hand-clapping, aisle-walking rousers, while the superb female lead on the slower “I Am” is an absolute pew melter.
Well produced and executed, The Spirit Speaks is Sunday morning music forged in the kiln of Holy Ghost fire. Traditional gospel with a capital T, it will please fans of sacred old-school as well as the myriad crate diggers who groove on the beefy guitar-drum-bass backdrop that adorns Carter- and Reagan-era gospel.
Picks: “Down On Me,” “I Am,” “You Woke Me Up This Morning.”
‘…its hostility is only a style of delivery’
Emerging from a Central Illinois-based group called The Elite M.O.C. (Men Of Christ), Hostyle Gospel clarifies that its hostility is only a style of delivery. Indeed, on its third album, Desperation, the Christian hip-hop ensemble employs militant metaphors and minimal but urgent beats to stomp out the devil by any means necessary.
The Jesus Hostyle Gospel serves is not the long-haired, sandal-wearing flower child of contemporary portraiture but a no-nonsense battle-hardened warrior who loves the world and its people enough to help them mightily. His troops are poised to assist by battling the devil in whatever guise he may assume. On “Monsters,” for example, Hostyle Gospel and Lamorax confront the demons head on, declaring “In Jesus’s name, I stop ‘em.” “That Life” calls out rappers who “blaspheme for the fame” and resort to illegal and unethical activity to become rich and famous.
Hostyle Gospel, ‘Calling Out to You,’ live at Mt. Olive Baptist Church in Champaign, IL, featuring Minister Noah J. Brown. Posted at YouTube by Noah Brown.
Hostyle Gospel, ‘Proverb Letter,’ from The Immortal Combat album (2011)
The album is peppered with fist-pumping, pep rally style chants designed to fire up a crowd to join Hostyle Gospel in taking up the fight. In fact, the group doesn’t lift as much as launch acclamations heavenward on “Praise.” They are willing warriors declaring that “Jesus Christ is coming here to fight.” The group encourages others to step up by shouting on “Turn it Up” that “if you’re feeling unashamed, turn it up.” They don’t just mean the volume but the intensity and energy to restore the world.
A battery of guest artists, including Blessing, Lamorax, Chevatron-X, and Sene’, join Hostyle Gospel on the album’s dozen tracks.
Hostyle Gospel hails from Champaign, Illinois—a coincidence, as I was reviewing this project while passing Champaign en route to Chicago. The Black Gospel Blog reviewed their equally tough talking mixtape Five Star Generals in April 2011. It’s not your grandmother’s gospel music, but it seeks the same result.
Pick: “That Life.”
‘an absolute gem of an album’
Something amazing, indeed.
The title of Sky Jasper’s debut album says it all. Something Amazing is an extraordinary introduction to a fine singer-songwriter whose music is best described as gospel-tinged, electro-charged Christian pop.
Originally from Oklahoma but now based in Jacksonville, Florida, Sky Jasper has the effervescence of Deitrick Haddon and the bracing beats of PAJAM, though his lyrics and melodies share more with CCM than gospel. At the same time, Jasper’s singing runs from rock star rugged to melismatic to contemplative.
The title track and first single from the album sets the musical and lyrical mood. Melodic and cheerful, “Something Amazing” exudes the ecstasy of being saved, a topic that continues on “That’s Who You Are,” which showcases Jasper’s auto-tuned falsetto leaps. “A Mighty God” and “You Know Me” chronicle and champion the triumph of salvation over secularization, while “Still Running Back” declares that despite our failures and lapses, God loves us anyhow.
The most dramatic moment on Something Amazing is “Third World Child.” Accompanied by delicate and introspective acoustic guitar, Jasper illustrates the stark reality of hunger, thirst, and abuse of children in underdeveloped countries. It’s a song less interested in bending heartstrings and more about taking action to stop the inhumane treatment of children.
The heavy use of auto-tune on “Love You” gives the song an almost Middle Eastern vibe, though Jasper doesn’t need any electronic assistance; he sings very well. The gadgetry appears to be for playful effect more than anything. The quality production makes all the electronica sparkle and shine.
Something Amazing deserves more attention. It is an absolute gem of an album.
Picks: “Something Amazing,” “Third World Child.”
‘…a superb national debut’
YOU CAN MAKE IT
You Can Make It is a superb national debut for Bryan Popin, a New Jersey native and music prodigy. His resume includes work with African American and Southern gospel artists, training from a Julliard instructor, and even Stevie Wonder, who nicknamed him “Little Boy Wonder” for demonstrating tremendous promise at an early age.
The album traverses the spectrum of sonic territory, from the intimate and informal old-school singalong on “Thank You Jesus” to the stadium-filling power praise ballad “Beautiful Savior.” Rock-fueled praise ballads are what Popin does best. He demonstrates this not only on “Beautiful Savior,” but also on “So Incredible” and “Here for You,” a hard-hitting and huge production number.
Popin blends traditional and contemporary gospel in the early portion of the CD, especially on “Alright,” a simmering gospel blues in rocking chair time that benefits from an extraordinary assist from Tamela “Take Me to the King” Mann. The title track concludes with some fiery a cappella gospel singing. Martha Munizzi also appears on the album, joining Popin on the melodic “Your Love Amazes Me.”
Bryan Popin, ‘I Can Make It,’ from the album You Can Make It
No matter the style, Popin sings with enthusiasm and conviction, as does the large background choir. Seems that eOne Worship threw the book at this project in the quality of its musicians and singers.
Although some selections are straight worship and thanksgiving, the album’s predominant message is encouragement and hope, that freedom from trials and struggle can be found by holding on to Jesus.
It’s Popin’s testimony. “This whole record is my life song and my story because I’ve lived it,” he said. “Pretty much every song I’ve lived and I’ve breathed and I’ve walked. Jesus helped me keep it together. He put the right people in my path. So if I can make it, you can make it.”
Picks: “Alright,” “Beautiful Savior.”
‘commemorating an influelntial career’
THE W.I.N. (WORSHIP IN NASSAU) EXPERIENCE
Recorded live in Nassau’s Grand Hotel as part of the Radio One “One Love Getaway to the Bahamas” this past May, The W.I.N. Experience commemorates gospel crooner Earnest Pugh’s 20 years in ministry and 15 years in the music industry.
Project participants included vocal firecrackers Pastor Shirley Caesar, Bishop Rance Allen, LeJeune Thompson, Angel Davis, Michelle Prather, and Pugh’s newly-signed Vincent Tharpe & Kenosis. You can’t go wrong with such a strong team, and with Cedric Thompson as producer, to boot!
The opening songs, including the bouncy single, “I Praise Your Name,” are characteristic of Pugh’s handsome R&P style, and the island flavor of “We Praise You” pays homage to their Bahamian hosts. “More of You,” currently making waves at radio, and “The Lord Is Here” are more dramatic praise ballads, but the album really grabbed my attention at “All Things Through Christ.” This bluesy contemporary gospel, with an admitted D’Angelo flavor, features Pugh’s most inspired singing and a strong assist from Bishop Allen.
From there the album only got better, with the nostalgic “O’Landa Draper Medley” featuring Caesar, Thompson, and Tharpe/Kenosis; and “Just When I Need Him Most,” an excellent contemporary gospel song and the album’s finest track. The spirit was so high on “Just When I Need Him Most” that “Step Right In” was all but a Holy Ghost praise break with lyrics.
Pugh’s tight, energetic background vocalists play such an important role on the album that they could receive “&…” billing on the front cover.
Picks: “Just When I Need Him Most,” “All Things Through Christ”
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 founder and editor of The Black Gospel Blog.