By BRUCE DENNILL
Brandy Clark: 12 Stories 8
Sannie Fox: Serpente Masjien 7
Third Day: Revival – Deluxe Edition 7.5
Various Artists: Wow Hits – 20th Anniversary 6
Brandy Clark’s 2013 album 12 Stories was re-released recently as part of a deluxe edition that includes a Superstar Country compilation. Listening to the songs, it’s clear that they’re ageing well and have all the quality required to make sure that they will still, in decades’ time, be just as appealing as they are now. There are a number of facets to the collection that make this a near-certainty, from Dave Brainard’s rich but uncluttered production to the wonderfully natural performances of Clark and her studio cohorts – exceptionally talented Nashville types all. But it is Clark’s writing, and more particularly her perspectives as expressed in her songs, that make her really stand out. There are many bad jokes about the way country songs share four or five lyrical ideas – generally involving heartbreak of some kind. This album is well-named in that Clark doesn’t stick to those tropes but rather observes her world – warts and all – and unflinchingly relates what she sees, leavening the more brutal details with black humour. As such, the first single of the album, Stripes, considers a decision to not shoot a cheating paramour because the result would be being forced to wear a unflattering prison uniform (“There’s no crime of passion worth a crime of fashion”), all wrapped up in a rollicking melody and harmonies worthy of the Dixie Chicks. Even her more traditionally beautiful songs, such as Hold My Hand, have an edge to them, as the titular instruction, it turns out, is in response to seeing a gorgeous competitor for her man’s affections. And Pray To Jesus is not some profound reaction to some hardship – it’s positioned, along with winning the lottery, as the only option to finding a way out of poverty and ennui. Elsewhere, song titles confirm similarly non-traditional points of view on other topics – What’ll Keep Me Out Of Heaven; Get High; Take A Little Pill; Hungover; Illegitimate Children; and The Day She Got Divorced. And each is superbly written, confirming the talent that has seen Clark enjoy a position as a go-to songwriter for artists like Sheryl Crow and Kasey Musgraves.
Looking down the tracklisting for bluesy rocker Sannie Fox’s debut solo album Serpente Masjien, there’s a notable amount of alliteration in the song titles – Get Gone, Hip Heretic, Bottle In A Bag, Hang High, Sea Skull … That linguistic trick translates well into the sounds that accompany the lyrics, with repeated patterns – this time in Fox’s deft electric guitar work – creating powerful grooves that drive much of the collection. Opener Get Gone matches the Kings Of Leon for mainstream rootsiness. Then, Hip Heretic relies more on its firm beat and bass rhythm for its cadence before Bottle In A Bag’s title provides Fox with a phrase that is its own satisfaction in that it can be repeated metrically to pleasing effect (recalling similar arrangements by on early Springbok Nude Girls albums). That first trio sets the bar high, with the songs that follow not having the same compact combination of pace, accessibility and muscle. That said, there is no diminishing in the edgy authenticity of Fox’s offering, with both her excellent guitar playing and her expressing, authoritative voice underlining her status as the real deal – a singer-songwriter with little regard for cheesy commercial niceties and the talent to express her own views effectively and forcefully. Freedom features famous South African poet Uys Krige, a relative of Fox’s, opining on the power of music before No Good belies its title by being another fantastic stomper. Shadows Of The Deep has the louche coolness of a Chrissie Hynde or Debbie Harry and Sea Skull, much of which is instrumental has a similarly retro, Doors-ish feel. And to close, the chanted Call could be offered to Adele as a future album track, should the latter be in the mood to go a little left of centre.
Atlanta-based rockers Third Day have their roots in the music of the South, from gospel to Southern rock and even a little swamp boogie. That legacy is placed front and centre on their recent collection Revival, recorded – for added atmosphere – in Fame Studios in Muscle Shoals, Alabama, an institution that became a byword for a soulfully successful sound thanks to hosting sessions by Wilson Pickett, Aretha Franklin, Etta James and a host of major country stars. Whether or not the location had a major effect on the sound of this album is debatable, but that’s because Third Day are a supremely competent outfit who sound great on any platform and already have a rollicking Southern sound driven by singer Mac Powell’s unmistakable drawl. The title track combines all the desired genres and atmospherics, with the notion of revival – the communal lift; the collective renewal – tangible in the performance of the song, before you even consider the lyrics. Gonna Be There With Me is more formulaic, but any risk of stagnancy is mitigated by more energy, perhaps best expressed in a short piano solo about two-thirds of the way through. Let There Be Light is the first song in this collection likely to remain in the already sizeable “best-of” showlist that Third Day can fall back in arena gigs and church worship sessions alike, being simple and beautifully arranged. Gather Round Now is stark and rootsy, not dissimilar to some of the recent output by fellow Southerner and CCM stalwart David Crowder. A cover of Paul Simon’s Loves Me Like A Rock is a great success for a number of reasons. The original was recorded in the same studio, and the Oak Hill Boys, who provide backing vocals here, sound not unlike the Dixie Hummingbirds, who backed Simon when he laid down the song in the early Seventies. This is one reason the track fits like a glove into the rest of the set – all originals – and speaks to the quality of Third Day’s songwriting when held up against an acknowledged genius like Simon. New Creation is a gospel stomper that gets feet tapping and heads nodding immediately, while Great God Almighty sounds like a Bible-informed outtake from Springsteen’s The Seeger Sessions. This Deluxe Edition comes with five extra tracks. Three are alternate versions of songs on the album, with perhaps the most interesting a first take recording of Faithful And True that offers the sort of tightness and emotion that most bands would be happy to have in their final mixes. A run of remarkable consistency continues.
Like the Now That’s What I Call Music series and every other series that’s been niftily marketed to facilitate the packaging and repackaging of a an ever-growing catalogue for presentation to a new group of listeners, Wow Hits has had some editions that were better than others over the years. Theoretically, cherry-picking 20 years of those cream-of-the-crop affairs should result in a peerless final product come the celebration of two decades of such releases. This compilation is not that product, and it’d be interesting to know how songs were weighted for choice. There are some era-defining tunes that also laid the foundation for the enduring success of their creators – MercyMe’s I Can Only Imagine; Chris Tomlin’s How Great Is Our God; DC Talk’s Jesus Freak; Switchfoot’s Dare You To Move; Jars Of Clay’s Flood and Amy Grant’s El Shaddai. But there are also the likes of Testify To Love by Avalon, Overcomer by Mandisa and Redeemer by Nicole C Mullen, good songs all but hardly among the very best contemporary Christian music since the turn of the century. Cynically, it’s easy to propose that putting all the top material in one place would make marketing the next release more challenge. Suffice to stay that there is a decent overview of much of the music that’s made chart ripples in Christian circles in the last 20 years, but another selection from the same period would not be less valid than this tracklisting.