By BRUCE DENNILL
Various Artists: Top 25 Praise Songs – 2016 Edition
Various Artists: Leading Lady
We Are Messengers: We Are Messengers
Matthew Mole: Run
Slash featuring Myles Kennedy And The Conspirators: Living The Dream
Like so many similar compilations, there are a number of minor (some might say petty) issues with labelling or marketing of this album. In old-fashioned Christian music parlance, “praise songs” are those in the canon that are more up-tempo and have more energetic arrangements, with the slower, more meditative material categorised as “worship” music. A number of compositions on this double album would more accurately be described as the latter. It’s also possible to nit-pick the wording of the title, though in this case it is accurate: these are the top 25 most used songs according to the records of the Christian Copyright Licensing International organisation. As such, these recordings not being the original versions is not an issue, proving as it does that the songs themselves are the most important parts of this particular formula, where the effectiveness of an artist’s writing can be measured by how accessible their work is to musicians in churches around the world. There’s a major bias towards American songwriters, which is unsurprising given the relative value (in commercial terms) of the contemporary worship industry in the US. Englishman Matt Redman’s 10,000 Reasons (Bless The Lord), written in 2011, remains in the top position, though, and 2001’s In Christ Alone by Keith Getty and Stuart Townend holds steady at number six. Indeed, there is nothing written after 2013 here, which is not to say that no great music has been written since, but that it’s likely that churches take a while to absorb new perspectives and creativity. Fans of this type of music will likely have much or all of it on other albums already, but this collection does offer new interpretations of the originals, which is likely to give worship leaders fresh ideas and reduce the danger of the originals becoming clichés if played or sung too often.
Leading Lady is an interesting step forward for a South African film soundtrack in that it not only uses all-local artists, but also ventures across stylistic and language lines to provide a reasonable cross-section of music that fits the mood and tone of the film. Folk-pop singer-songwriter Matthew Mole enjoys the lion’s share of the playing time, with five of his affecting sotto-anthems on the album, including Same Parts, Same Heart and Take Yours, I’ll Take Mine. The slightly spiritual tone of his lyrics is maintained in Simeon’s offering I’m Forgiven, while Shortstraw (Couch Potato) bring a more irreverent approach and Bok Van Blerk (Soutwater) and Danny Ross (Mr Mixed Heritage) add gruffness that balances out Mole and Simeon’s geniality. Snippets of Benjamin Willem’s score make up the rest of the collection, with many being too short to really connect with on any reasonable level.
Darren Mulligan is the voice and vision of We Are Messengers, though the outfit functions as a band for touring purposes. Stylistically, this debut collection recalls the combination of songwriting nous plus layered production of acts like One Republic. It could be argued that some of the writing might have benefitted from a little less density in terms of the arrangements, but where pop appears to be the lingua franca of chart success, it’s understandable that erring on the side of caution involves including material presented in a way that allows for wider appeal (which, incidentally, worked well in this case; a release from an Irish band charting in the Billboard charts based on pre-orders alone). There are a number of highlights in the early section of the collection, with Everything Comes Alive, I Look Up and The River (not the Bruce Springsteen tune; neither is Dancing In The Dark, later in the tracklisting) being album highlights. Give It All has the poppy allure mentioned above and I Want You adds a Phillip Phillips-ish acoustic angle to proceedings. At 14 tracks, there is perhaps a touch of filler here, but this is a solid foundation for what is to come.
A release that helps commemorate the 20th anniversary of the Planetshakers church in Australia, Legacy comprises 12 live recordings, made at both the church’s home base in Melbourne and in Manila and Kuala Lampur. Among other things, these help to highlight the technical expertise involved in the way they run their operation, with the production, sound and scale of the first few songs in the collection the equal of studio concerts by Coldplay or similarly globe-straddling bands. Impressive as that is, the sonic grandness doesn’t necessarily help communicate the message behind the songs. It takes, arguably, until Here’s My Life, six tracks in, for that balance to be corrected, with it being possible during that song and the following track, You Call Me Beautiful, to feel the emotional lift of more than just the dynamics of the arrangement. Drawing Closer is one of several tracks that appear to be aimed at a youthful audience, bringing in beats and loops. Arrangements are often long and a little rambling – in keeping with the focus on presentation – but there are moments of insight and positive sentiment.
As his star still continues to rise, it’s interesting to note, via the sleeve notes for this collection, how much effort singer-songwriter Matthew Mole is putting into keeping his material sharp and appealing. Production duties on individual songs are often split, with the expert best suited for a particular aspect of the sound – vocals, programming, instruments, etc – doing only that job. It’s a simple thing, but speaks of the attention to detail needed to remain both authentic and popular. Mole seems happy to bare his soul in terms of his love for his wife and family (the gorgeous Jess’ Song, You Are Mine, Running After You, For My Folks, You Are Loved), and even the songs that might be more commercially constructed – Intro, certainly, or the title track or Use Your Eyes, say – feel first and foremost sincere, and only then considered in terms of how they’ll play as far as radio or chart success goes. This combination of a refusal to subscribe to more cynical industry norms while having the ability to consistently create memorable songs and regular hits is rare and noteworthy, and Run, as a whole, is an excellent crystallisation of what is possible in such a niche.
There are not many better rock guitarists than Slash, and even fewer better rock vocalists than Myles Kennedy. So the combination of their skills – and Kennedy’s band The Conspirators, is always thrilling in a visceral sense: hearing the rumble and thunder of Slash’s riffs and the sneering wail of Kennedy on the high notes he hits without apparent effort. Michael Baskette’s production aids and abets the sonic onslaught, giving this album a fat, satisfying sound while also guaranteeing the crisp cleanness of every note played or lyric sung. As a chunk of old-fashioned guitar rock, then, Living The Dream is fantastic, a perpetuation of the fantasy that so many young musicians still aspire to. Where there is a shortfall is in matching the punch of the sound with the stand-out facets of each of the songs. Opener Call Of The Wild, thanks in part to a panned, crescendoing intro, is successful at lodging itself in your psyche, as are Sugar Cane and Driving Rain – the latter the best track in the collection. For the rest, though, the most profound enjoyment will come from a technical appreciation of the skills of the players rather than an emotional bond with the tracks themselves.