By BRUCE DENNILL
Laura Story: Open Hands
Randy Newman: Dark Matter
Sannie Fox: My Soul Got Stranger
Various Artists: God’s Not Dead 2 – Motion Picture Soundtrack
Atlanta-based worship artist Laura Story kicks off her latest album with Death Was Arrested by North Point Inside Out, a band from across town. Her version is somewhat more emotionally restrained than theirs, but offers fans of the hugely effective original another effective stylistic perspective. She stays in Atlanta for the title track, which features fellow Georgian Mac Powell as a duet partner and ups the dynamism as it shows off Story’s writing skills. The album as a whole reflects this pattern to some degree, with Story’s apparently sensitive demeanour suiting the arrangements of the quieter songs while also driving the tangible heart that comes through when the instruments are placed more front and centre. You Came Running has a strong hook, and For The Love Of My King is a strong new addition to the growing canon of modernised hymns – in this case My Jesus I Love Thee. Whisper has a great dynamic range, boosted by some strong harmonies and Every Word You Breathe is perhaps the song on the collection most representative of Story’s established sound. Open Hands is a good album, but Chris Bevin’s production is perhaps not quite layered enough to give the individual songs immediately recognisable personality.
It’s probably fair to stat that well over 90% of people have no idea what science trend-of-the-moment “dark matter” actually is, though many of them will glibly nod and smile if it comes up as a topic for dinnertime conversation. The same can be said to a large degree of singer-songwriter Randy Newman’s output. Best-known as a the composer of the soundtracks of a number of Pixar films, he is – in marketing terms, certainly – the opposite of the warm-and-fuzzy, child-friendly stories he provides the backing for, being highly cynical, unashamedly intellectual and unafraid of rubbing listeners’ faces in both the worst aspects of the world he observes and in the caustic irony that is his preferred mode of delivery. A marker is laid down with album opener The Great Debate, which is exactly what is says on the tin – arguments for and against religion and science respectively, taking into account the complexity of both and the effect the observer’s stance on one or either matter has on their argument. As the description might suggest, it is the opposite of pop music in every way, clocking in at over eight minutes and taking in soul, gospel and big band arrangements that back up the theme of the lyrical passage at that point in the piece. Ultimately, it’s the sort of thing that someone looking for an easy listening album will be confused by and a long-time Randy Newman fan will love – and that’s likely the exact sweet spot Newman was aiming for. The breadth of Newman’s scope as a songwriter is confirmed by the leap from the above opus to Brothers, a song about a conversation between John and Bobby Kennedy taking in half a dozen historical events but ultimately driven, supposedly, by the former’s passion for a Cuban salsa singer. That is followed by Putin, an aggressively satirical musical portrait of the Russian leader. Newman’s imagination is bewilderingly wide-ranging, but songs like this show that it is, as with all good storytelling, a unique perspective on something many other people have already considered that really sells an idea. Another Newman trademark – along with his piano-playing and low-register, sing-sung vocal style – is the lush orchestral backing that helps take some of the bite out of the words he uses. Lost Without You is not as romantic as its title, but the arrangement in which the story is couched gives it a relatively commercial sheen. Sonny Boy is based on a true story about bluesman Sonny Boy Williamson, and is perhaps the most obvious link to Newman’s soundtrack work, along with It’s A Jungle Out There (in the latter case, that’s because it has already been used in a soundtrack – for the TV series Monk – and won Newman an Emmy back in 2003). She Chose Me is the sort of forlorn love song that Newman (and perhaps Elvis Costello) do better than most, and Wandering Boy closes the collection with sadness, and the rueing of a relationship not fully invested in when the protagonist had a chance. Newman remains the standard-bearer for a musical niche that will almost certainly never veer closer to the mainstream that it has to date, and Dark Matter is an aural workshop in how to combine the facets that make such music absorbing, if not particularly stirring.
Generally associated with swampy blues guitar and the wailing that goes with that, Sannie Fox presents, with this new collection, a sure touch for a far wider range of influences, instruments, tempos and tones. In opening trio Criminal For Your Love, Shunting Train and Sorrow, for instance, she moves, respectively, from Hendrix-meets-Sade psychedelia to driving (and yes, bluesy) stand-and-deliver rock to Dusty Springfield-esque, string-laden torch song. At first listen, the album sounds resolutely un-commercial, the work of an artist doing exactly what she wants to with an ear for authenticity rather than chart friendliness. But Fox’s skill as a songwriter is steadily revealed as the tunes grant listeners layers of increased access over time, rewarding investment rather than throwing themselves sloppily at onlookers. Willow Song, using lyrics lifted from Shakespeare’s Othello, is a folk song in the original sense; delivering a message over a cyclical backing, with a moody, primeval feel to it. Later, Darling Plz and Glorious Wonder have some of the more obvious hooks in the collection. My Soul Got Stranger is an album that doesn’t quite fit in anywhere, but which features bits of work that will somehow fit in everywhere. Intriguing stuff.
God’s Not Dead 2 and its predecessor have functioned as rallying calls for Christians anxious to counter the removal of God from public discourse in America, so it’s not surprising that much of the soundtrack comprises strident, quotable anthems. Sound Of The Saints by Audio Adrenaline lays a strong foundation and fellow brand names Newsboys and MercyMe add solid accompaniment in Guilty and Welcome To The New respectively. Hawk Nelson’s Diamonds sounds more suited to its filmic context than some of the other songs. Trying to get that link right – the lyrics and energy of the tracks helping to drive the on-screen narrative forward – means that there is a certain similarity in approach in many of these songs. In the second half, that is solved to some degree by rap entries Raise The Banner (by Propaganda) and Exile Dial Tone (by Jasmine Murray) and by pleasing ballad Dead Man Walking by John Tibbs, which closes the collection. However, there’s not quite enough here overall to make this a great soundtrack, just as the sequel it accompanies is not as effective as the first film in the series. Adequate, but not inspiring.