By BRUCE DENNILL
Blake Shelton: If I’m Honest
Various Artists: The World’s Favourite Hymns
Coldplay: Everyday Life
Ndlovu Youth Choir: Africa
The Collingsworth Family Presents Brooklyn & Courtney
Kristene DiMarco: Where His Light Was
It’s not Blake Shelton’s fault that he fits almost every aspect of the definition of “All-American”, with his multi-platform celebrity and stubbled good looks. But his choice of tracks for this album is, to a greater or lesser degree, his responsibility, so offering a list of solid but unspectacular country pop informs the singer’s reputation as being rather risk-averse. Clearly chosen to inform a theme of break-up and heartbreak – Shelton and ex-wife Miranda Lambert split not too long before this album was released – these songs don’t add too much depth to Shelton’s relating of his navigation of that time of his life. This has to do, in part, with the singer’s delivery, which is polished rather than emotional. This shortfall is slightly tempered in Go Ahead And Break My Heart – not because Shelton steps up his efforts but because it’s a duet with his current partner Gwen Stefani, so there is some relational currency. Elsewhere, Shelton wants to have his cake and eat it, singing about Doing It To Country Songs before closing with supposedly more pious reflection in Savior’s Shadow. If I’m Honest is uneven, an effort to please as many listeners as possible without ever really satisfying any of them.
A triple-disc offering of 50 recordings, this compilation’s title is perhaps a touch misleading. Traditional, centuries-old hymns are so often re-worked for contemporary worship contexts that the original arrangements are increasingly unfamiliar – certainly to younger listeners. There’s also the question of how “hymn” is defined. One idea has it as any religious song of praise – that works here – while others include some reference to a compositions historical provenance. The interpretations collected on The World’s Favourite Hymns are relatively modern; from the last 30 or 40 years at most. So there are timeless classics like When I Survey (written by Isaac Watts in the first half of the 18th Century), performed by Tim Hughes (born towards the end of the 20th), alongside modern songs with different structures by shared intent, like 2011’s 10,000 Reasons, featuring three contemporary worship leaders backed by an orchestra in the Royal Albert Hall. There is a myriad riches here, with one shared objective – putting scriptures to music in a way that makes them both memorable and meaningful.
Pop this album into a player and it shows that there are 20 tracks programmed into the playlist. Eight of those, though, are blink-and-you’ll-miss-them soundbites that are more buffers between other tracks than necessary additions of any sort, and another couple are sub two-minute vignettes that, while appealing, cannot – in this format – be added to any playlist or similar. Everyday Life is not, in its sprawling, loosely themed, double-album spread, a collection made to fit a niche or sate a particular audience. It has instrumentals (the opening Sunrise); stark socio-political commentary (Trouble In Town, with its distressing recording of a US policeman harassing someone he’d stopped); traditional gospel (Broken); church-tinged chanting (When I Need A Friend); propulsive protest songs (Guns); gently lyrical folk-pop (Eko); elegant finger-snapping Sixties pop (Cry Cry Cry) and, somewhere in there, the instantly familiar, anthemic single (Orphans) that thrusts every Coldplay album up the charts. At a first listen, it’s flat-out bewildering, but spin it again – and again – and you’ll start to identify your own favourites, which may very well be different to someone listening with you. For all the tough topics touched on – police brutality; refugee crises; loneliness – it is likely this “What am I listening to and why do I like it?” charm that will get people talking about this album. Which will get more people listening to it.
Whatever else you may feel about television talent shows, they do offer a massive publicity spike for artists and collectives who do well on the platforms. The Ndlovu Youth Choir was a well-regarded group already making significant strides after their genesis in a small village in rural Limpopo. After a successful, feel-good run on America’s Got Talent, they now have a superb platform on which to build, potentially, the same sort of world-conquering career as Ladysmith Black Mambazo or the Soweto Gospel Choir. Time will tell on that score, but this recorded work is an important step in the right direction. The arrangements on Africa are clean and the singing pure where their television introduction was sometimes less polished, their performances carried by infectious enthusiasm and a heartfelt combination with audiences. Featuring 11 cover versions, this collection has plenty of variety, confirming that the choir can fit comfortably into just about any niche, which augurs well for continued success and longevity. Though their interpretation of Toto’s Africa is what swept them to fame, African Dream, written by Alan Lazar and originally a hit for Vicky Sampson, is arguably the album’s highlight, its new arrangement adding considerable clout to the dynamics of the original composition. Many of the choices have a fairly risk-free pop feel – completely appropriate for a group of young performers. But when songs written in a more layered way (and possibly originally intended for choral performance) are tackled – including The Greatest Show, from the soundtrack to The Greatest Showman – the choir’s combined aural power is more meaningfully felt.
The Collingsworth Family is a family of musicians based in Kentucky in the US who present their collective and individual talents on a number of different platforms. This particular collection is a focus on daughters Brooklyn and Courtney, both violinists, accompanied by their mother Kimberley (who is also responsible for the arrangements) on piano. There is not much flashiness here, and there doesn’t need to be. The simple, smart formula takes a selection of well-known compositions – including The Prayer, What A Friend We Have In Jesus (one of the few pieces given a slight overhaul, with gorgeous, jazzy minor chords added to the piano line), Beethoven’s 9th Symphony (Joyful, Joyful, We Adore Thee) and You Raise Me Up – and adds excellent musicianship and production to create superior instrumental fare that will age well.
The breathy, a capella Doxology that begins this collection is incredibly simple, but also particularly effective in reminding listeners that worship through music is not reliant on tricks and effects for its impact. This makes the heavily filtered vocals of the title track, which follows, a touch grating before everything settles down with the gospel-pop of Fear Not, which is probably the collection’s highlight. DiMarco’s voice is pleasing, with her arrangements not often requiring any vocal gymnastics other than matching the instrumental dynamics in songs like Take Courage and Jesus Is Willing. Those arrangements follow a general pop template, lush but not overbearing, allowing even the quietest tracks here to be clearly defined. I Am No Victim is initially one of these more serene options, a simple proclamation of faith that builds into a sonic statement of certainty. In tone terms, Where His Light Was falls somewhere between faith-inflected CCM and contemporary congregational worship – good, enjoyable songs that don’t break any moulds but are none the weaker for it.