By BRUCE DENNILL
Vertical Church Band – Church Songs 6
The Arcs: Yours, Dreamily 7
Obikay: Africa 5
Various Artists: Wow Hits – 2017 Deluxe Edition 7
Chicago outfit Vertical Church Band suggest with the title and sleeve of this collection that they might be paying tribute to great traditional songs through church history, but that is not the case. These are “church songs”, certainly, but new originals for the band’s Harvest Bible Chapel first and anyone else who finds them significant after that. Initially, some of these compositions face the same challenge as many new worship songs: they are heard out of the context of the community for which they are expressly written and as such don’t connect with outside listeners immediately. There are enough exceptions, however, to impress neutrals. Spirit Of The Living God, with the strong vocals of Meredith Andrews leading the way, is excellent from the off, particularly the dynamic build towards the end. Quieter options It’s Who Your Are and If I Have You also don’t require much growing time, being intimate expressions of commitment that ring true regardless of setting. Later, None Like You uses a dual lead vocal to good effect, lifting the mood of another quiet-to-crescendo arrangement, and Restore My Soul is as gentle as its soothing title suggests. Closer Bound To Glory wraps things up cheerfully with a rootsy strum and stomp. There’s nothing revelatory lyrically or stylistically on this album, but it’s well-constructed, competent stuff.
Starting as a solo side project for The Black Keys’ Dan Auerbach, The Arcs became a collaborative collective, though the final product still bears obvious traces of the guitarist and vocalist’s raw songwriting and production approach. Outta My Mind has a Seventies bounce to it, calling to mind women dressed like Heather Graham dancing in Austin Powers. Put A Flower In Your Pocket is psychedelically nonchalant and Pistol Made Of Bone completes a filmic trio, sounding like it was custom-made for a Tarantino movie, to the extent that the lyrics could have been written by the director in line with his much-explored favourite themes. Fans of 10CC will likely love Cold Companion, which brilliantly brings together that band’s edgy perspectives and, in this case, ska-tinged arrangements. Velvet Ditch, perhaps not surprisingly given its title, offers some vintage Frank Zappa-style looniness, though it retains enough of a melody to avoid being pure esoteric. Come & Go is less accessible, featuring a second track of a woman moaning orgasmically alongside singing, and Searching The Blue brings matters to a slow, soulful end. Auerbach confirms his status as a trendsetter rather than a follower, paying tribute to timeless influences in original ways rather than playing safely in the chart-friendly middle ground.
Johannesburg-based Afro-pop singer and songwriter Obikay really lays out her stall with this debut album, which extends to 17 tracks. Many might have, unless they write songs at a prolific rate, chosen to hold some songs back for a follow-up album or EP, but this collection is nothing if not confident. Arrangements are kept relatively simple, with Obikay’s voice and the beats that drive the music the main focal points, ensuring that there is a strong dance component to the songs. That is the abiding impression the album makes, too as, though everything is well put together, the lyric lines are fairly simplistic, examining ideas very often included in pop music, as suggested by song titles like Lover Boy, Shake It Up, Girls Night Out [sic], Animal, Move Your Body and Alone. Live, Obikay is likely to get a crowd bouncing, but without much pace and tone variation in its long tracklist, this album requires some investment to listen to all the way through.
This sort-of hits compilation – a staple of the album sales chart in the Eighties and Nineties – is largely out of fashion, particularly when the tracklisting is as generous as it is here, with 39 songs on offer. Generally, some executive is sitting somewhere and calculating the enhanced earning potential of releasing all of these songs as downloadable singles, so being able to get around two-and-a-half hours of music in a single curated package is still, for some, a treat. That the list of artists featured is a little predictable is not surprising – this is a collection of hits, not a development platform, after all – but the number of nailed down certainties also suggests a slightly worrying shortage of previously unknown or uncelebrated talent breaking through. That concern aside, though, there is a consistently good listening experience. Highlights include the enduring strength of the message-melody combination in Chris Tomlin’s Good Good Father; the emotive instrumental emptiness of Nichole Nordeman’s beautiful Slow Down; and anthemic Everything Comes Alive by We Are Messengers on the first disc. On Disc Two, Lauren Daigle further cements her burgeoning reputation with a great vocal in Trust In You; Crowder’s Lift Your Head Weary Sinner wades through a Southern swamp; NeedToBreathe’s choir-bolstered Happiness outstrips One Republic at their own game; and Your Words by Third Day demonstrates how to arrange an already good song to get maximum dynamic effect out of it. If these are just the mainstream peaks of what was released last year, CCM is, for now, in rude health.