By BRUCE DENNILL
Mike Oldfield: The Best Of – 1992-2003
Crowder: American Prodigal
Chris Tomlin: Never Lose Sight
Mike Oldfield’s career is a storied one. He was the first act signed by Richard Branson when the latter founded Virgin Records, and Oldfield’s debut Tubular Bells put the label on the map. His mostly instrumental pieces, which fit into every genre from world music to pop and folk and trance, were influential throughout the Eighties and Nineties, and The Best Of – 1992-2003 looks at his output during the time he was with the Warners label. Without disparaging his legacy, this was not Oldfield’s best period, and large parts of this album sound dated. That in itself is not a problem, as it may be that listeners are huge fans of the sound of the era. But in many cases, while it’s possible to hear on these songs what Oldfield provided for other musicians to build on and develop, it’s also possible to hear that his originals remain best suited to the time they were released, rather than having the malleable feel of those compositions more often referred to as “timeless” (such as the hits of the Beatles, for instance). Man In The Rain is a rarity in that it features a vocal line and it stands out for that reason, with folk tune The Sailor’s Hornpipe 2003 firing off a surge of familiarity as it closes the collection. Oldfield completists and lovers of ambient music will appreciate this, but for others, it may be of historical value only.
David Crowder’s second solo album sees the singer-songwriter show off a range of his quixotic musical charms without ever taking the sort of risks that have seen him (mostly as part of the David Crowder Band), operate outside of the mainstream while still being immensely popular for so long. American Prodigal explores more of that continent’s endemic music styles – Southern rock gospel, notably – than some of Crowder’s previous projects, making it less easy to classify as a CCM or worship album (as a whole, it’s certainly not the latter in musical terms, though its themes of struggling with sin and seeking salvation are consistent throughout). Run Devil Run’s instrumental arrangement would serve Lenny Kravitz just as well as it does Crowder, Prove It is halfway between a Texas barroom stomper and a Fallout Boy pop single and All You Burdens comes close to wandering into electronic-tinged territory occupied by the singer’s old band. My Victory and Forgiven will likely be the enduring hits from this collection, both beautiful, emotive, faith-filled anthems that will remain in church worship repertoires for a couple of decades at least. Not satisfied with just the four or five different approaches, Crowder then goes full Ray Charles-goes-gospel for All My Hope, and seems to have as much fun as his listeners, before making the banjo that intermittently pops up in his music a lead instrument in the heartfelt Shepherd. American Prodigal is not as startling in its innovativeness as many of his other releases, but Crowder is a canny writer and a superb musician, and his efforts here still impress.
Arguably the most bankable name in the worship music market – a tag that might make those primarily interested in the “worship” part somewhat uncomfortable – Chris Tomlin is now at a level where congregational worship leaders expect to discover at least a couple of accessible anthems they can add to their repertoire per album. Those are immediately obvious in this collection. The first is Good Good Father, which opens the record and is a slow-building ballad with a powerfully emotive chorus. Interestingly, it’s one of only two tracks (the other is Yes And Amen) here that don’t feature Tomlin as a co-writer, another hugely praiseworthy facet of his arsenal, but despite that lack of direct input, it suits his voice and performance style perfectly. The other is Impossible Things, which extols the omnipotence of God with a relatively upbeat arrangement (which feels like it could benefit by being accelerated a few beats per minute). Beyond those clear highlights, Tomlin provides the sort of high-quality foundational material required to stay ahead in an industry in which there are strange requirements: making worship music professionally requires artists to cover the same narrow lyrical theme repeatedly and in appealing ways, which is no easy task. God Of Calvary – a specific focus on the most important theme in the Bible – has a soaring melody that’s easy to lose yourself in and Come Thou Font is a fetching re-upholstering of a classic hymn. Yes And Amen has a touch of the bluesy pop of John Mayer or similar and the duet First Love, featuring Kim Walker Smith, brings matters to a satisfying close. Better than solid but not progressive – Never Lose Sight is another distinguished chapter.
Conceptualised in Pretoria and now based in London, and having achieved reasonable success in Germany, Austria and Switzerland, five-piece rockers Livingston have, with Animal, put together a set that’s designed to flow like a live show (and succeeds as such). The production also contributes to that feel, with stage-friendly atmospherics, perhaps effectively achieved because the whole band were involved in the creation and production of the songs, closeting themselves in a remote house in rural Germany for the duration of the album’s genesis. The downside of this consistency is that the sonic range over the course of the collection is not terribly wide. But with a sound that hovers somewhere between Civil Twilight and The Killers, this is not a bad thing, and there are several highlights. Chemicals is a catchy pop song pumped up with a piercing keyboard line, chunky guitars and a drumbeat Larry Mullen Jr probably collects royalties on. Skin & Bones has thundering drums while still allowing plenty of space for powerful vocals, while The Hunter sounds as though A-ha collaborated with eVoid. Into The Rain has a clean, crisp sound and a strong hook, and single Human being a direct and accessible song without holding back on musical complexity. A strong collection with a clear identity.