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The Gospel Set

November 15, 2014

Bob Marovich’s Gospel Picks


‘…the product of a gentle, introspective soul…’


Debra Black

Debra Black Music


On God In Every Season, Atlanta-based singer-songwriter Debra Black offers up worship songs in a voice that is very easy on the ears and arrangements that are laden with pleasant pop melodies.

Black’s voice blends Sarah McLachlan sweetness with the no-nonsense country of Faith Hill, and her lyrics are uniformly positive and warm, the product of a gentle, introspective soul. Praise to a God who is a constant companion sums up the acoustic “I Will Exalt,” and complete surrender to Jesus is the subject of the hand waver “In Your Hands.” Black broadens the experience of Christ from the personal to the communal in “Hosanna,” a vision of a utopia where all men and women rejoice together.

SELECTED TRACK: Debra Black, ‘Be Free,’ from God In Every Season

The line that struck me most powerfully is in the title track, a reflection on the changes of the four seasons: “You make everything beautiful, in time.” It reminded me of the belief that everything turns out all right in the end, and so if your problem still troubles you, it isn’t the end yet.

The two tracks that stand out most on the album are the radio version of “More Than Enough,” which replaces the delicate acoustic arrangement of the original with a pop-rock toughness. The debut single, “Be Free,” is a power anthem that rollicks along with a pleasant, metronomic rhythm.

Produced by Josh Williams, God In Every Season is a notable debut for Debra Black, who founded Worship on the Square, a nonprofit that brings to city centers opportunities for worship and awareness of today’s pressing social issues.

Picks: “Be Free,” “More Than Enough.”



‘…Christian music’s most incisively honest, bravely hopeful project this year…’



Reach Records


Lecrae’s new CD, Anomaly, is Christian music’s most incisively honest, but at the same time most bravely hopeful, project this year.

To Lecrae, being an anomaly, being an outsider, is both an advantage and disadvantage. On one hand, anomalies are outcasts who don’t fit in. At the same time, as Lecrae articulates on the title track, being an outsider is “exactly what God created us to be.” “Why you scared to be different?” he asks on “Say I Won’t.”  Anomalies call it like it is, and Lecrae does just that on this album.

Being “exactly what God created us to be” means eschewing the way of the “insiders,” whose spiritual and social vacuity are modern manifestations of Nero fiddling as Rome burns. “We need something more,” Lecrae declares on “Nuthin,” calling “a foul in the game” played by hip hop artists who “ain’t talking ‘bout nothing.”

Lecrae, ‘All I Need is You,’ from Anomaly

“Nuthin” is blunt but not nearly as much as “Welcome to America.” Lecrae’s depiction of a world out of synch is a contemporary hip-hop equivalent of what Bob Dylan raged against in the 1960s.

But Anomaly is not just an index finger pointing outward. Lecrae offers frank confessions of his own on “Good, Bad, Ugly,” including a past that included an abortion and being a victim of sexual abuse. Nobody is perfect; we are all broken people, he and Kari Jobe express on “Broken.” “Ain’t no person that’s better than another,” they remind the listener, and that “from Heaven, we’re all small.” Rather than seek pity, Lecrae and Kari use the moment as a cry for unity.

Lecrae, ‘Give In,’ featuring Crystal Nicole, from Anomaly

“All I Need Is You” is the most mainstream praise song on the album, and its current position at the top of Billboard’s Hot Gospel Songs chart speaks to that. Another mainstream cut is “Give In,” which features the lovely vocals of Crystal Nicole, who calls for an “all in” attitude when it comes to following the pathway of righteousness.

Although Anomaly tackles the troubles of a secular world, “the man in the sky” is ever present and ever caring. Therein lies the hope. Our job as “messengers” is to speak the truth about God’s promise to humankind. Walking the walk of salvation is the solution.

A provocative and insightful work that will undoubtedly rank among Lecrae’s all-time finest albums.

Picks: “All I Need Is You,” “Give In.”



‘fleshing out Bobby Robinson’s legacy…’


Various Artists

Narro Way Records


Mention the name Bobby Robinson to popular music historians, and you will hear how he founded a number of New York-based record labels, including Whirling Disc, Fury, Enjoy, and Red Robin, and released classic hits for Wilbert Harrison (“Kansas City”) and Gladys Knight and the Pips (“Every Beat of My Heart”). He even allegedly advised a young vocal harmony group called the Five Satins on how to approach a record company with a song they had called “In the Still of the Night.”

Like many indie record companies, Red Robin had a couple of gospel artists on its roster, namely the Robert Ross Singers and Blind Boys of Washington, DC. Robinson’s crowning achievement in religious recording, however, was establishing Revelation Records with an emerging John Bowden as producer.

From The Best of Revelation Records, the Carolina Kings with ‘What a Blessing’

Over the course of three years, Revelation produced dozens of fine singles and a couple of albums, mostly but not exclusively for East Coast groups. The singles and albums provided struggling independent gospel singers and groups the aural business card they needed to garner radio airplay and more bookings. In the process, the duo chronicled and preserved an exciting time in gospel music history.

For The Best of Revelation Records: 1959-1962, Per Notini’s Narro Way imprint out of Sweden has collected twenty-seven of Revelation’s highest-octane releases by gospel quartets, groups, soloists, and choirs. The selections range from the hard-charging quartet energy of the Echoes of Glory on “Journeying On,” the trained vocalizing of Christine Clark on “Sinner Like Me,” and the spirited singing of Bishop William O’Neal’s Christian Tabernacle Choir on their trademark “Down by the Riverside.”

Male quartets steal the show, with a team of alpha leads sounding especially hungry to be heard. The Sensational Canarians’ lead emulates Johnnie Taylor on the quartet’s performance of “Place Called Heaven.” The bass singer of the Gospel Harmanaires does an exceptional job on a swinging arrangement of Alex Bradford’s “Too Close.” Newark’s Holy Wonders provide intensity and urgency on “I’ve Got a Home.” Arguably the most powerful of all is the gritty-voiced shouter Dewey Young, leading his Flying Clouds through a heated entreaty, “God Bless Our Home,” one of the finest of all the Revelation singles. Recruited by the great Claude Jeter to join the Swan Silvertones toward the end of that towering group’s 1952-1955 tenure with Specialty Records, Young is the direct link, along with the Sensational Nightingales’ Rev. Julius Cheeks, to hard-edge soul belters such as James Brown and Wilson Pickett. You’ll want to hear a lot more of this powerhouse singer after this incendiary performance, so search out the group’s extremely rare albums, Flying Clouds and God Bless Our Home. Not easy to find at all, but worth the effort.

Dewey Young and the Flying Clouds, ‘God Bless Our Home,’ from The Best of Revelation Records

As usual, Notini, who also operates Gospel Friend with Jonas Bernholm, had the original vinyl re-mastered so well that the music almost sounds as if it comes straight from the master tapes. Uniformly, the selections on The Best of Revelation Records have an electricity that makes one wish for a time machine to go back and hear these groups in person.

After Revelation shuttered, John Bowden went on to produce gospel for HOB Records. Bobby Robinson produced some of the earliest rap and hip hop records. “In the Still of the Night” went on to become one of the most beloved vocal harmony songs of all time.



‘…capturing the excitement of a group having church…’


Evangelist Nelson Larkins & God’s Posse

TREWWORKS Music Group/Deznell Music Group

It is always a pleasure to hear a live gospel quartet album that truly captures the excitement of a group having church. Such an album is The Kind of God We Serve by Chicago-based Evangelist Nelson Larkins & God’s Posse.

Although the group’s name gives the impression that it is a contemporary small choir, make no mistake: Nelson Larkins & God’s Posse is a rompin’, stompin’ quartet that is 70 percent traditional, 30 percent contemporary in its delivery. You Tube is resplendent with amateur videos of the group shouting the glory down at various church settings. I get the impression that although the live album was released initially in 2011, it is being re-introduced into the market, complete with a new cover.

Darnell Williams’ quality production highlights the group’s harmonies, the spontaneity of the audience (though where in Chicago the live recording took place is unknown), and the accomplishments of the musicians. For example, quartet progeny and electric guitarist Joey Woolfalk signifies traditional by laying down blues riffs at the start of “Leave That Woman Alone.” Criss Johnson, another product of the Chicago quartet community, cameos on the song as a lead-singer-turned-preacher, relating with great exuberance the story of the woman who discovers Christ missing from the tomb.

Evangelist Nelson Larkins & God’s Posse, ‘The God We Serve’

A group having church: promo trailer for Live in Chicago CD

The CD offers several uptempo handclappers, none more quintessentially gospel quartet than “Put Your Trust In Jesus.” It has all the necessary ingredients of a pewburner: up-tempo backbeat, call-and-response between lead and group, audience interaction, and a shouting extended vamp. On the medley, “Old Gospel Music,” God’s Posse provides old-school harmonies with remarkable fidelity. Ironically, the group follows “Old Gospel Music” with a funky, contemporary turn on “Ride On King Jesus.” It would have been interesting had they begun the spiritual as part of the “Old Gospel Music” medley, complete with jubilee harmonies, then transitioned into the modern interpretation.

At the quartet’s appearance as part of the Chicago Area Gospel Announcers Guild Quartet Jam last week, Larkins told the audience that he is considering retiring for medical reasons. While his retirement will leave a void, the fifteen years of training under his tutelage will sustain God’s Posse henceforward.

Picks: “Leave That Woman Alone,” “Put Your Trust In Jesus.”



‘…sacred tone poems in ambient soundscapes…’


Natasha Gray

Jeneyus Productions


Natasha Gray’s debut album, Born, is what I would term “progressive gospel.” Somewhat like a portion of Zi’el’s recent project, Pronounced ZY-EL, Born wraps inspirational songs in ambient soundscapes of electronica and beat with occasional rock flourishes.

Gray (Natasha Simmons) has a simmering voice, at times sensuous, and she is nothing if not consistently deliberate in lyric delivery. She sings her prettiest on “Make Me Over,” an a cappella song of personal conversion. She delivers her most powerful vocals on the album’s lead single, “Just Know God Cares.” The latter song demonstrates her apprenticeship as lead singer for the North Carolina Mass Choir and background work for the likes of Shirley Murdock and Natalie Wilson.

Natasha Gray, ‘Just Know God Cares,’ from her debut album, Born. Posted on YouTube by Rodrick Cliché.

Most of the songs, however, could be described as sacred tone poems, because they are snatches of thoughts and prayers set to meditative, wandering, atmospheric melodies. On the other hand, the stinging rock guitar riffs, blistering drumming, and complex chord changes of “Talk To Me” are flashbacks of 1970s prog rock. “Liquid Prayers” and “Mirror Mirror” have the most radio potential because of their approachable melodies.

Born benefits from Natasha Gray’s intriguing vocals, crisp production by Rodrick Cliche, and fine musicianship, but it could have used more songs Gray could sink her teeth into. For all their aural allure—they are likely to resonate with a younger demographic for that reason—the soundscapes simply do not give her talent the showcase it deserves.

Pick: “Just Know God Cares”



‘…pleasant in a jazz-pop kind of way…’


Donna LiZa


On “He’s Got the Answer,” the concluding cut on her eight-selection solo CD Makin’ the Level, Donna LiZa gives us an autobiographical glimpse of a pivotal moment in her life.

Originally from New Orleans, Donna lost everything in Hurricane Katrina and became part of the post-hurricane migration to Texas.

She moved to Arlington and began singing with Bishop Greg O’Quin and iPraise. The group’s musically multi-faceted After the Storm (2009), on which Donna led “I Appreciate U,” earned five stars from the Journal of Gospel Music.

Listen to Donna LiZa songs on Reverb Nation

Bishop O’Quin produced Donna’s solo CD and co-wrote some of the songs. Would that Makin’ the Level had been as strong as After the Storm, but with the exception of “Meant It for My Good” and “He Cares,” the songs rely too heavily on synthesized keyboard programming. The vocoder is unnecessary on “U Promised.” A rootsier sound, courtesy of more live musicians, especially given Donna’s Louisiana-Texas pedigree, would have enhanced the album’s feel.

“He Cares,” a song of comfort, is the album’s strongest contribution in terms of composition and melody. Donna’s delivery of Eddie Robinson’s “Meant It For My Good” suggests the album would have been even stronger had she incorporated more songs by other writers. “Finally” is about finding the perfect love and as such is suitable for weddings.

Donna LiZa’s vocal delivery on the album is pleasant in a jazz-pop kind of way. It would be interesting to hear how she sounds live or tackling some of the selections in gospel’s classic canon. Her resume, which includes work with the New Orleans Gospel Interracial Choir and Franklin Avenue Baptist Church Mass Choir, suggests she has more to give.

Pick: “He Cares.”



‘…sounds like two albums in one…’



Dream Records

I first encountered the power trio Zie’l of Shreveport, Louisiana, in 2005 at the Gospel Music Workshop of America. Hearing Christina Bell, Keyondra Lockett, and Crystal Bell sing traditional gospel songs like an old-school quartet with jazz training gave me a glimpse of their future success. Not long thereafter, their CD Genesis garnered a Stellar nomination.

The trio’s latest album, [Pronounced ZY-EL], sounds like two albums in one. Six of the ten tracks represent a different style for Zie’l, almost experimental, with a mix of urban AC and hip hop awash in techno. “The Oil,” for example, is complex and atmospheric, the trio’s harmonies tight and electric as they instruct listeners to not take God for granted because tomorrow is not promised. Co-written with Tonex, “The Truth” is a post-modern worshipper, and “Yes He Will” brings doo wop harmonies and techno beats to bear on the ageless message of God making a way for His people.

From [Pronounced Zie’l], ‘State of Emergency,’ the album’s first single

“Up Down,” “Beautiful” and “Determined” are the other three songs that make Zie’l sound like an inspirational version of TLC. The eclectic work of producers Drathoven, Tonex, and Pierre “The Maven” Medor is quite evident here. It’s not hyperbole to say that they are collectively Zie’l’s fourth member.

The other four selections are more representative of the Zie’l we have come to know, and these songs really sell the album. “Purify Me” has a sensual spirituality in its bluesy, soulful flow. The current single, “State of Emergency,” is an SOS cry from the prayer closet. This contemporary gospel track is the most radio-friendly of all the songs on the album. “Take Me As I Am” and “Relentless” round out this warmer side of the CD.

Although the electronic selections are a little too experimental for my taste, the churchy cuts on [Pronounced ZY-EL] are quite satisfying.

Picks: “Purify Me,” “State of Emergency.”


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. 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.




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