By BRUCE DENNILL
Greg Holden: Chase The Sun
Rodney Atkins: Greatest Hits
Matthew Van Der Want: Terrorlove
Bethel Music: We Will Not Be Shaken
Various Artists: Top 25 Modern Worship Songs 2016
One of English singer-songwriter Greg Holden’s major breakthroughs was the adoption by American Idol winner Phillip Phillips of Holden’s song Home as Phillip’s first single. Like Phillips, Holden has a confident, whole-hearted approach to his performance and arrangements, and the dynamics of just about everything here allow for easy engagement. The bright piano-led intro of opener Hold On Tight sets the scene for a full-throated vocal that would usually be the centre of an indie production, rather than major-label pop record, where things are usually played safer and more conservative. Save Yourself has a lyric line that is edifying without being cheesy and more of the contained confidence that is soon established as a calling card of this album, before Boys In The Street tackles – with sensitivity, maturity and a storyteller’s knack for narrative – the eternally heartbreaking issue of a parent’s discontent with their child’s sexuality. The title track changes the mood, stripped down and featuring a warbling mandolin, but still the same unmistakable intent in Holden’s singing. A Wonderful World is a superior barroom singalong (nothing to do with the Louis Armstrong standard), and It’ll All Come Out is one of those great songwriter efforts that would sound as strong in a corner coffeeshop as it would in an arena. The same is true of the folky I Won’t Forget, guided by a picked guitar line, before the country sway of The Next Life, featuring Garrison Starr’s equally committed vocals, closes the collection. There is skill here, and insight, and charisma – huge appeal and little or no pretention.
Rodney Atkins’ style is safe, simple and effective. His sales figures and the number of different publishers administering the tracks confirm that this is not a weakness, but it does give listeners intent on finding something new and profound a challenge. Atkins happily owns the clichés that apply to him and his audience – even if those perspectives are decided for him by the songwriters he utilises. These Are My People sings the praises (literally) of the average, nothing-special sort who fill the bars and other contexts Atkins is familiar with, Cleaning This Gun (Come On In Boy) touches on the supposed reaction of any father to his daughter starting to date, It’s America entrenches the precepts of the American Dream and About The South is a list of what a good ol’ boy loves about being a good ol’ boy. Take A Back Road stirs some pop in with the country and Honesty (Write Me A List) is a sincere ballad that’s likely to be a hit for other singers similarly light on cynicism going forward.
The title of Matthew Van Der Want’s latest long-player gives good insight into the tone listeners can expect once they’ve pressed play. Falling somewhere between Leonard Cohen and Depeche Mode in terms of both his sound and the intelligence and intensity of his wordplay, Van Der Want is a songwriter who can be caustic and compassionate, often in the same song. Opener Full Frontal is a superb example of what he’s capable of: cutting, sung-spoken words about not being good enough for a nameless partner set to simple but effective piano with clever use of horns. Dead Horse is similarly dark in emotional terms, though its electronic pulses add sonic texture. Holiday Cake introduces a note of yearning and wonderfully poetic descriptions of the surroundings on a family holiday. A cover of Depeche Mode’s beautiful ballad Somebody is fairly faithful to the original before Lucy stands out for both its condensed production feel and its poppy melody and beat. The sort-of title track rather undoes that relatively upbeat feel, it’s hook stating, “This is our last day; this is our last meal” and its chord structure and alternating driving, then quiet arrangement lending the song a genuinely sinister air. This is intellectually satisfying material that, while hardly a cheerful diversion, is a great example of focused, uncompromising songwriting.
Being hugely prolific – as Bethel Music is – is certainly good for business in many ways, but creating loads of music is no better a means of guaranteeing quality than focusing on very few tracks over a longer period. We Will Not Be Shaken starts well with the expansive, emotive soundscape of the title track. This sonic theme continues into Ever Be, starting to make it clear that, in part at least, this is a slightly different collection to many similar worship projects where long, meandering tracks simply feel exactly that – long and meandering. Here, before the content of the compositions is really examined, the melodies and arrangements are shown to be beautiful and accessible (the third track, Jesus We Love You, completes a powerful opening trio). That said, when the shortest track on the album is around five minutes and the longest nearly eight, there is a stamina required to get through the collection as a whole that may not appeal to all. The early promise is somewhat diluted by some less decisive tracks like Home, but there is enough hear overall, thanks in part to the fine voices of Brian and Jenn Johnson and their cohorts and unashamedly luxuriant dynamics.
Johannesburg singer-songwriter Cazz’ debut EP is, in a sense, an unintentional concept album – five songs that talk about past relationships and the pain, frustrations and occasional triumphs that were involved. The title track has a driving guitar and drum rhythm track that gives is a bit of a swamp-rock edge. Grey is a grungy waltz that gives Cazz a chance to show off a little more of her singing range, and which features some appealing organ sounds in the Barry Berk-produced arrangement. The jangly intro for Something Perfect introduces what is probably the collection’s best track, with the relatively sparse instrumentation leaving room for a clear note of yearning in the lyric and vocal performance. Close Summer Love is the most mainstream pop offering here, a simple reflection on a holiday fling. There’s plenty of style in the presentation of this first major release from the young singer, and as she expands her range of perspectives, listeners can no doubt expect more varied themes and focused insight.
Titles that include words or phrases like “top”, “best of”, “greatest hits” and so on can be incredibly frustrating, suggesting – as they do – a subjective judgement that has been made on your behalf and which may be way off your own taste as a listener. This collection is a slightly different proposition, as the rankings involved are based on how often songs are used in churches around the world, which can be measured by publishing software. As such, though the compositions listed here were the most popular in 2016, they may not have been new releases at the time. Indeed, there is only one song here that as released as late as 2015 – an overhaul of a hymn; The Old Rugged Cross (I Am Free) – with the other entries stretching back to 2003 in terms of their release dates. Many of these songs have become contemporary classics – Lord, I Need You; Cornerstone; Christ Is Enough and Today Is The Day among them. There are also tunes that have been around for a while but which are on a slightly slower curve to ubiquity, like Set A Fire, Ever Be and All Sons And Daughters’ sublime All The Poor And Powerless. As a compilation, Top 25 Modern Worship Songs 2016 works well because individual listeners – no matter how often they go to church and hear the songs most-loved in their own context – will be unlikely to be getting exposed to all of these songs at the same time elsewhere.