By BRUCE DENNILL
Various Artists: Easter Journey 6.5
Bye Beneco: Space Elephant 6
Ashlinn Gray: Ashlinn Gray 7
The Brooklyn Tabernacle Choir: Pray – Live 6
As is the case in the lead-up to Christmas, there is a great deal of Christian music that can help believers focus on the core themes of the celebration when Easter is on the horizon. Of course, it could be argued that any well-written worship music points listeners in the direction of their risen saviour, but nonetheless, a well-curated collection can help with the setting of an appropriate mood. On Easter Journey, there are established anthems like Chris Tomlin’s At The Cross (Love Ran Red) and Matt Redman’s Nothing But The Blood, and newer favourites from industry powerhouses including Passion (Glorious Day), Crowder’s Come As You Are and Jeremy Camp’s Same Power. Perhaps most significant, though, are the strong offerings from artists that have not yet, for better or worse, become clichés in terms of the regularity with which they crop on every new release. Bryan and Katie Torwalt’s Holy Spirit is a well-known song, and it stands well on its own without the support of a brand, as does Carrollton’s Everything Or Nothing. And Cody Carnes, though not nearly as big a name as his wife Kari Jobe, makes a strong impression with his The Cross Has The Final Word. Which, in this context, is perhaps the most telling statement of all.
Johannesburg “dream-pop” (their phrase – it works) trio Bye Beneco have touches of the troubled pop of Sia and perhaps a touch of Gin Wigmore, but the more conventional aspects of the songs of both those artists go out the window on many tracks, particularly the drone-chant of Chemiroch, an interesting piece with a fantastic back-story involving missionaries, country music and the mis-pronunciation of an influential American singer’s name. That the band are even aware of such scenarios, never mind endorsing them to the degree that the record their own version of a composition so obscure as to be an ideal trivia quiz answer, speaks to real commitment to their left-of-centre approach. As such, they probably won’t mind that many listeners won’t know quite what to do with this collection, with the title track and On The Line, among others, being meandering, spaced out musings that actress-singer Zooey Deschanel might murmur sweetly in some unlikely future rom-com. There are more accessible options, such as Paraffin and Vampire, but these are still some way off conventional. Forget those Nineties albums where someone sounded a little emotional and used a gravelly distortion effect on his guitar – this is alternative music.
Already an established presence on the live music circuit as well as on a number of radio playlists, Ashlinn Gray further strengthens her reputation with her recorded work. Her powerful voice is let of the leash sometimes introduced by poor sound systems at shows, and Jake Odendaal’s crisp production ensures a pop punch. Beginning this EP with the introspective Risking It All is, well risky, but like all the work here – written by Gray, along with collaborators Greg Jorden and Wes Ayliffe (as well as Rudo Pieterse on two tracks) – the compositions are strong, well-balanced, and peppered with hooks. Single Battleships is far more lyrically empowering than most radio-friendly pop tunes, but its chorus is impossible to shake off. More Than Nothing is perhaps closer to what might have been expected of a young singer-songwriter with a guitar, but its simpler structure is countered by the production to create something that’s vaguely melancholic but also danceable. Closer Now is the least imposing track, but is thoughtfully effective, recalling Brandi Carlile’s quieter moments. Sugarcoated Lemons is as bouncy as its title suggests, requiring a video featuring both rainbows and unicorns, and yet difficult for more serious listeners to avoid humming. Gray will go places, and this short collection gives her an excellent foundation to build on.
The Brooklyn Tabernacle Choir is rightly celebrated for the consistent quality of their arrangements and performances. This live album captures the way a collective of fine voices working together can stir the soul, as well as the skill of the band backing the singers. Number of the tracks also work as first-rate stand-alone songs, perhaps most notably Sing, with its urgent refrain. Taken as a whole, the template of having a worship leader join verses and choruses with spoken-word sentences, while practically sensible in the venue, does not translate terribly well to the recorded format, as listeners will not need instructions as to where something is going after the first or second listen and will likely feel an impatient twinge at the interruption. The constant use of key changes rather affects the overall dynamics as well, making the progress of each piece more predictable than it might have been. Good performances, then, but a touch short on production inspiration.