By BRUCE DENNILL
Passion: Worthy Of Your Name
Lionel Bastos: Songs From My Phone
The Parlotones: Antiques And Artefacts
Roxette: Good Karma
Meredith Andrews: Deeper (Deluxe Edition)
Kari Jobe: Majestic
As has been the case with many of the major worship movements – perhaps most notably, in recent times, Hillsong United (with Michael W Smith often managing the same thing in an individual capacity) – new albums from Passion tend to feel like milestones for the practitioners who benefit from them, such as worship leaders and pastors, as well as the congregations and other listeners who enjoy the music. Passion, based in Atlanta, has now been around long enough that a changing of the guard is starting to take effect, with movement stalwart Chris Tomlin leading only one song and Kristian Stanfill stepping into the gap left behind. Stanfill’s Glorious Day, which begins the collection, is a rousing arena-sized anthem that inspires an instant singalong, a brilliant mood-setter for an album that listeners would expect, setting out, to be triumphant. The title track, not as immediately striking but following the same dynamic rules, continues in the same vein. How Great Is Your Love covers much-explored thematic ground, but Stanfill’s whole-hearted vocal gives it impressive emotional punch before Build My Life, which sounds like – and is of a standard with – Tomlin’s best work further underlines that Passion’s progression is being well-managed (in terms of quality, at least). Holy Ground allows for a rare (on this album) female lead, and Melodie Malone’s vocals are at once yearning and persuasive. Heart Abandoned is more balladic than its predecessors, but perhaps the size of the Georgia Dome, where Worthy Of Your Name was recorded is thought to be unsuitable for anything actively designed to be quiet and reflective, as this one soon grows to anthemic status as well (which, it must be noted, makes it easier to connect with as a congregant). Long-term Passion collaborator David Crowder, usually responsible for some of the more experimental work in the movement’s canon, plays it more mainstream and traditional with Forgiven, which is yet another instantly accessible pop psalm that encourages listeners to fervently engage with its message. Enduring, influential singer-songwriter Matt Redman, also one of the past regulars, contributes the compelling Your Cross Changes Everything. Hillsong United make an appearance alongside Crowder for the emphatic Rule before Tomlin wraps things up with the initially meditative (and later huge) God Of Calvary. Studio versions of the title track and This We Know are included, but given the purpose the music has been created for, the live versions feel a touch more authentic. Worthy Of Your Name is consistently strong and reliably convincing, with surging arrangements to match.
As an experienced independent singer-songwriter, Lionel Bastos is painfully familiar with the waste of time and emotional battering that are the result of relying on the bureaucracy, red tape and dubious motives of the label system. This album is perhaps the purest response possible to what that world would say is expected from someone of Bastos’ pedigree – a long collection (17 songs) of original works recorded using the musician’s iPhone and featuring just his voice and acoustic guitar. By definition, it showcases – and reveals, in naked detail, any possible flaws – the strength of Bastos’ songwriting skills. Whether or not he gets his finger-work or phrasing exactly right is less of an issue than if there’s nothing to hang any initial listener appeal on. Though it costs relatively little to produce, the collection is ambitious in its own way, asking listeners to change their taste template when it comes to particularly clear or inventive production. In that regard, Songs From My Phone is a challenge, as its hour-long running time contains very little in the way of dynamic swells and cascades, with no rhythm section to raise the pulse or emotive extras like strings or organs to manipulate responses (bar in one or two spots in the tracklisting). What it is, though – like both the lyrics of every single song and Bastos’ sensitive performance style – is brutally honest. Bastos writes about the elation and the eviscerating pain of relationships with, variously, dry humour (Lullabies For Her Soul), resignation (Best I Say Nothing) and quiet ecstasy (Happy Dance). He revisits themes from different directions – I Think Of You comes three songs after Do You Think About Me? – and, by the slightly different sound of the recordings, presses “record” wherever the muse happens to take him, be that a pub where he’s playing or a room (perhaps tiled) that has a brighter sound than wherever he was playing the following tune. It’s undeniably true that most, or perhaps all, of these compositions have the potential to sound bigger and maybe better given some studio attention, with a bit of layering, a bass track or some backing vocals, but adding such detail would largely sully the image Bastos is trying to create: of an artist creating unadulterated art and asking listeners to commit to it based on its already considerable merit. It won’t work for everyone, which Bastos knew when he released it, but its existence requires a response, and if that is indifference, the asking of questions about how susceptible you are to marketing and other superficial commentary – at the expense of the soul of whatever artists are offering you.
B-sides and rarities albums often sound like what they’re usually designed to be – stop-gaps to either fulfil label obligations or to keep in touch with fans between the release of collections deemed to be more mainstream. Just as often, though, the reasons for not releasing the music gathered for these albums are odd or just plain irrelevant and the material is just as strong as what was released. Kahn Morbee, chief songwriter for The Parlotones, has a knack for coming up with strong hooks and there’s nothing here that has any major shortfalls in that area – it’s possible that there might have been some vague melodic overlaps with other recorded Parlotones tracks, but that’s the only likely criterion for shelving these tracks. Defy Gravity is a strong single, bracketed by Skeletons and We Were Just Having Fun, both almost as good. Electricity grows, as it were, in amplitude as its arrangement builds and builds, while My Love Is Absolute (low, rumbling guitars) and Tiny Tiger (indie rock goes to the circus) confirm that The Parlotones’ radio-friendliness is not down to sticking too closely to a single formula. Golden Moments wanders perhaps a little too close to cheesiness lyrically, but a lovely mandolin line helps mitigate that. A number of songs riff on the same theme – the achievement of dreams, and the privilege of making music for a living, and though some will write that approach off as a touch saccharine, it’s damn sight better than the arrogance and hubris that is usually the alternative. Antiques And Artefacts is not essential by any means, but it is more evidence of of the enduring all-round talent of the band that created the music.
For a band as big in the late Eighties and early Nineties as Roxette were, it was always going to be difficult to bounce back – in a completely different musical climate – using the same sort of formulae that were so successful three decades ago. Of course, much of that time was spent on enforced hiatus thanks to singer Marie Frederiksson’s long and severe illness, so it is great to have the band in existence at all, but nostalgia only carries the project so far. It’s not that the songs are poor, necessarily; more that if this was Roxette’s initial offering, there would never have been the chart success there was initially. Put in the words of Some Other Summer, one of the better tunes here: “Some other summer, you will do better”. Per Gessle sings lead on a higher proportion of the tracks than was the case early on, but Frederiksson’s pipes remain the stronger instrument. It Just happens, with it’s quirky key dips, is the best track on the album.
Not possessed of the immediately recognisable pipes of a Kari Jobe or Jen Johnson, Meredith Andrews has a sound that takes a little longer to bed in for newcomers. That said, bed in it does, with the songs on this album more engaging with every spin. Synth-driven opener Sunrise is full of great pop energy and Spirit Of The Living God, a song made famous by Vertical Church Band (of which Andrews used to be a member) has a slow-building potency. Impossible, particularly in its quieter earlier sections, is a standout in the middle of the collection, before Hands That Are Holding Me does perhaps more than any other track here to bolster Andrews’ reputation as a songwriter specifically. Another quiet-to-loud arrangement, it combines a number of different strong melodic ideas and is passionately performed. Take Me Back is equally well sung, with a more classical structure to the piece, and Andrews’ version of Christ Is Enough is a compelling one.
As a worship leader, most of singer Kari Jobe’s work is done on a stage in front of a room full of people. She is, as a result, supremely comfortable in that context, and able to deliver performances of incredible intensity and skill, using her magnificent voice to its full capacity – a major strength when recording a live album like this one. In a pleasing bit of synchronicity, the theatre in which the concert took place was called the Majestic, tying in well with the sort-of title track How Majestic and the general theme of many of the songs. Opener Hands To The Heavens has a lovely balance of minor and major key moments and triumphal dynamics, instantly creating a mood conducive to – as is the goal of the collection – worship. Though there are louder and quieter moments, this entire concert has a big sound with the rhythms of songs like Only Your Love keeping listener energy high. That this is the case throughout is impressive in stamina terms alone, with many of the songs extending over seven and even eight minutes. On Forever, a modern worship standard for which Jobe has provided the definitive version, her exhilarating ability to hit notes near the top of her range at full strength rather than with an tentative falsetto demands wrangling with the volume controls in order to get the full effect. I Am Not Alone has a much subtler arrangement, playing off heartfelt lyrics, gorgeous strings and a delicate acoustic guitar to powerful effect. Jobe’s husband and regular collaborator Cody Carnes takes the lead on the slow-building Holy Spirit, which has a sublime arrangement supporting the message of the lyrics. There is no flagging in intensity towards the end, with the final chorus of Look Upon The Lord requiring as much effort from Jobe and her band as anything before and closer Let The Heavens Open extending to almost nine minutes of big, bold playing and singing.