By BRUCE DENNILL
Steven Curtis Chapman: Worship And Believe 7
Eric Clapton & Friends: The Breeze – An Appreciation Of JJ Cale 5
Sutherland: The Invisible 6
The Kiffness: Kiff 5
It’s difficult to, er, believe that this is Steven Curtis Chapman’s first worship album given how long he’s been around and how much he’s added to the Christian music canon. A first listen, however, suggests a reason for his reticence to enter this niche until now. Chapman is of the very first order as a songwriter, and achieving that entails a great deal of craft in terms of creating lyrical stories and combining them with great arrangements. Worship music, in writing terms, doesn’t allow for the same scope. To be sung by a congregation, a song must be relatively simple, and the sentiments to be expressed must fit a certain perspective. As such, this collection disappoints the first two or three times you listen to it, as a man known to be a sensitive, skilled artist apparently does little more than move the same elements around in a way that fails to differentiate him from his colleagues. But then, as you persevere, Chapman’s skill again becomes evident as melodies creep into your psyche and the potent, undoubted heart of the man (his passion made more poignant that he wrote these songs about trusting God after the death of his young daughter) makes its way through the recorded sound. And once you get to that point in the experience, the whole collection assumes a new gravitas, and the first five songs – We Believe, One True God, Amen, Hallelujah You Are Good and More Than Conquerers – all work well, with the likes of Who You Say We Are also unmistakeably Chapman in style.
It’s an almost tediously well-documented fact that Eric Clapton is a huge fan of JJ Cale – to the point that the latter, though generally well-respected, probably owes half of his fanbase to indirect introductions via Clapton interviews and other compilations like this one. A major differentiator this time around is the inclusion of some of Clapton’s buddies, who provide the variation the album needs if it is to avoid sounding like a carbon copy of all the guitarist’s previous tributes. They’re hardly an inconsequential crowd, either – Tom Petty, Mark Knopfler, John Mayer, Don White, Willie Nelson and Christine Lakeland – bringing with them half a millenium’s worth of experience and blues-rock passion. The way their input is used is occasionally confusing, with, for instance, Petty’s vocal contribution more obvious in the credit line (where it clearly says, “Vocals: Tom Petty”) than it is in the recording. Mark Knopfler has Someday all to himself and, while it’s a good fit for his typically laconic delivery, it’s not a particularly striking song. In truth, that’s an issue for large parts of the collection: Cale as a composer provides a good solid bedrock with an occasionally thrilling peak in catchiness, but the latter are in short supply when his biggest hits (the likes of Cocaine, say) are absent. John Mayer is one of the few contributors to come out with his reputation enhanced, being the new kid on the block but effortlessly holding his own on as a guitarist, and indeed providing more interest in his interpretations than Clapton does in his. Don White, perhaps less famous than many of his featured peers, also does well, with Sensitive Kind, featuring his vocals, being one of the high points of the album. Others are Songbird and Starbound, both fronted by Willie Nelson, who’s had at least as many successes as Clapton at taking the writing of others to the top of the charts. Giving credit – for inspiration, for trailblazing – is necessary and laudable, but this effort fails to make it exciting.
They share a name with South Africa’s coldest location, but Johannesburg band Sutherland don’t go in for an icy, windswept sound, preferring a mixture of indie folk-rock and upbeat Afro-pop feel with carefully sung lyrics obviously designed to tell a story. There’s a consistent tone throughout the six-track EP, but tweaks in the arrangements mean that it’s easy to recognise individual tunes. Countering this slightly is a penchant for minor keys that does initially restrain the desire to get involved with the music. That’s most noticeable in the Beatenberg-ish The Great Escape, the first song to maintain a major key atmosphere and probably the most accessible composition during an initial listen to the material. The eloquence of the songwriting and beautiful clarity of Jacques du Plessis’ production, however, first suggest and then support the notion that giving The Invisible, as a collection, time to get under your skin is a good idea. And the hook for closer Keep On Pushin’ On will bed in faster than most.
The novelty value of The Kiffness’ band and album names is mitigated by the sophistication of some of the music – particularly those songs utilising trumpets, contra-bass and other classical instruments. Where Are You Going is twinkle-toed lounge music, presented with a smile and a cheerful swagger. A remix of Samuel Miller’s Stepping Out and the samba-tinged Camps Bay appeal for the same reasons, while Pushin’ On is glossy radio pop. From Rainbows & Butterflies on, though, the album tends more to simpler song structures and more electronic arrangements, becoming more chill room fodder than dance-floor filler. Obviously, that’s no bad thing, as many listeners are looking for something to stimulate a mood rather than something to react to. The Kiffness provide an enjoyable, easy-going alternative to both harder-edged house and techno music and the sometimes very serious types who make it. If a party atmosphere is your intention, Kiff could be just the ticket.