Music Reviews: Merciful Maria, Or Roar About War

September 19, 2020

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Maria Callas: Pure

Colby: Merciful God

American Young: AY

Chris Tomlin: Holy Roar

Martin Smith: Martin Smith

Various Artists: War Room – Music From And Inspired By The Motion Picture



Even for music fans who know nothing about opera, there is a whiff of familiarity about the name Maria Callas, even though the singer’s stage career ended in the Sixties. This likely has to do with Callas’ personality being almost as big as her voice – she set new standards for the intensity with which operatic roles could be performed, ignoring industry and genre norms as she did so, and, late in her career, left her industrialist husband to live on a yacht with Aristotle Onassis before dying at 53, more or less writing the script for the arc that would be followed by many others as modern celebrity culture developed. This context does affect the way you listen to this “best of” collection, as Callas’ voice, though great, is not necessarily the purest instrument you’ll hear singing these compositions. Being able, thanks to her back story, to sense Callas’ desire to add passion and truth to her performances gives already legendary songs added poignancy. It’s also not often that so wide a range of opera standards is performed so memorably by a single voice, with Callas’ willingness to tackle roles traditionally thought unsuited to her type of voice one of the factors in her success, and now longevity. Habanera (from Carmen), O Mio Babbino Caro (from Gianni Schicchi), Ebben! Ne Andro Lantana (from La Wally), Sempre Libera (from La Traviata) and Ave Maria (from Otello) are the most mainstream attractions here, but everything features Callas’ recognisable stamp, making this album a valuable reminder of her lasting impact.


Combining traditional South African gospel with more modern interjections and a couple of original compositions, Colby Sivhada’s debut is well made and strong enough to make a mark in one of the more crowded genres in the local market. Opener Thoma Nga Nne Murena showcases the rich instrumental textures that support Sibhada’s earnest vocals and the following track, Vha Murena, is as strong (as an original) as its lyrical and more established companion. Jesus Is Love has a more soulful feel, which won’t surprise listeners who are aware that it is written by Lionel Richie, and Sivhada is able to match the American icon for vocal expressiveness. Hossana [sic] is the kind of thing Kirk Franklin specialises in, with call-and-response vocals and a complicated arrangement made to sound simple by extraordinarily gifted musicians. Throughout, the collection, producer Don Phallane makes the wise choice to keep matters relatively simple, avoiding the over-emoted busyness that can sometimes make gospel recordings more difficult to listen to than they are to join in with live. Great playing and a set of songs that complement each other well.


Country music duo American Young – Kristy Osmunson and Jon Stone – begin this collection with a couple of songs that display a mature longing to hang on to meaning in the hurry and flurry of modern life. Be Here asks a partner to focus on human interaction rather than digital connections, while American Dream is a reminder that the many definitions of that term don’t necessarily overlap, and what was initially worth aiming for is now shown to be superficial. As the album continues, lyrical subject matter becomes less about the process of working through such philosophical ideas and more about instances in which such perspectives are exercised. Love Is War muses on the eternal challenges of relationships, Party In The Dark adds some pop touches to their formula and Better On You explores a new level in energy terms. Slow Ride adds a touch of soul thanks to a heartfelt call-and-response vocal and some lush guitar licks, before Hometown Girl delivers a melancholic message over a pulsing backing. Something To You ends proceedings on a more traditionally country note. American Young don’t have the immediate musical grip of, say, Lady Antebellum, but the strength of both their writing and their performances means that AY starts to settle after a couple of spins and will easily withstand many hundreds more.


Now one of the most influential and widely-known contemporary worship music writers and performers around, Chris Tomlin usually offers, with each new collection, at least two or three new songs that quickly become standards. That sort of position in a sector of the music industry that judges success on sales (like any secular equivalent) and the impact of the lyrical content of the songs is a tricky place to be. It’s not unusual – as is the case here – for a first listen of such a collection to suggest that many of the compositions, while put together with supreme competence, are assembled from a relatively small group of raw materials. Goodness, Love And Mercy, ironically a musing on a passage of Scripture (Psalm 23) that is so well known that it can risk becoming a cliché in the wrong context, is the first track to stand out from the pack. It’s gently strummed opening section and hugely effective chorus hook make it (practically speaking) ideally suited to a church worship scenario. But it also has creativity aplenty – an effective key change early on and an interlude with a piano break that is probably written as Southern gospel but which has a distinctively mbquanga flavour to it, giving the song a strong South African feel. Is He Worthy? is another noteworthy song, a choral call-and-response number with a huge dynamic range that builds into a sort of ‘pop hymn’ (which is a much better result than that term makes it sound). Forever Young has a fast rhythm in the bass part of the piano that gives it a certain urgency, and the opulent tone of guest vocalist Nicole Serrano gives the simple significance of I Stand In Awe a freshness among all the songs led by Tomlin alone. Praise Is The Highway is a marker of how Tomlin’s songs have shaped the landscape he inhabits, included here with him as a songwriter, but largely of a creation of a number of writers from the Bethel Music team – whose work here sounds less like their distinct style and more like Tomlin’s stock-in-trade approach. Structurally and in the way its lyrics are written, closer How Sweet It Is pays tribute to old-fashioned hymn as an original song rather than being one of those hymns with a short new appendix. It ends the album on a high, even if the density of the production and the general volume is rather lower than much of what has come before.


Notably not the name-sharing English singer-songwriter who headed up the popular band Delirious?, Martin Smith is a Johannesburg-based artist whose sound is centred on his solo guitar work and singing, often drenched – pleasingly – in reverb. It’s a formula that requires the songwriting to be strong as there is little to hide any shortfalls, and the music, and Smith’s performances, deliver, with his impassioned vocals highlighting strong hooks and opening duo Carla and Firetruck being an excellent introduction to Smith’s work for newcomers. For Lust, For Lustre has a fuller arrangement and a little more drama, while Ruby sounds a little like a Martin Gore-penned Depeche Mode ballad. Similar guitar sounds and repeated strum patterns are minor niggles in terms of the appeal of listening to this whole ten-track album in one sitting, but the authenticity of the emotions expressed and the way Smith delivers his messages vocally make it easy to connect with him. And some simple but beautiful arrangements – such as the cross-cascading guitars at the beginning of The Middle Way – prove that multi-tracking everything just for the sake of filling space is completely unnecessary. Some of this recording sounds lo-fi to the point of having released a set of demos, but the power of the songs is not dimmed by its relatively simplicity in terms of presentation.


Stephen and Alex Kendrick’s film War Room, about the power of prayer, made its points well and with considerable warmth, and the quality of its soundtrack will, it’s fair to say, have played an important role in that effectiveness. There are few risks taken, with nine Christian music A-listers (solo artists and bands, variously) offering songs that make for an enjoyable standalone album while also making important contributions to mood and tone. Steven Curtis Chapman’s Warrior is the message of the film encapsulated, highlighting the importance of praying, and Casting Crowns’ To Know You’s dramatic arrangement communicates the profundity of a deep relationship with Christ. I Am They, perhaps the least known act on the collection, make a strong case for inclusion elsewhere with the beautiful Amen, while Vickie Winans adds an injection of energy with the soul-funk of Shake Yourself Loose. John Waller’s Crazy Faith is musically a little lighter than his best material, but the lyrical point he’s making is on point. A collection that will have a sustained life beyond the influence of the film.

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