By BRUCE DENNILL
Various Artists – 2015 Ultimate Worship 6
Future Islands: Singles 5
Andre Swiegers: Ghost Train 6
Luke Bryan: Crash My Party 5
As usual, the use of the word “ultimate” in a compilation title is problematic – as it would be if other terms such as “definitive” or “best” were incorporated instead. To be fair, trying to market a collection called “Some Songs That Were Released This Year – It’s Up To You If You Like Them Or Not” is equally tricky, but that is a more accurate reflection of what listeners are being presented with, and it speaks to the mindset such albums should be viewed with, critically speaking. Ultimate Worship includes almost nothing from the contemporary gospel side of the CCM industry (only More Than Enough by Kensington Temple ventures into that territory), sticking for at least half of its running time with the relatively safe bigger names in (mostly) youth-focused ministries such as Worship Central (The Way; the excellent Can’t Stop Your Love; Set Apart); Soul Survivor (My Lighthouse, featuring Rend Collective); Planetshakers (Endless Praise; Covered); and New Wine Worship (Spirit Fall; My Jesus; Hope Is On The Horizon). Artists who don’t yet enjoy such a high profile include Beth Croft, a worship leader at Soul Survivor, whose Rule In My Heart, Love Takes Over and Arms Of Grace add a breath of fresh air. The top-notch songwriting of All Sons & Daughters ensures that their Great Are You Lord and Christ Be All Around me are two of the standout tracks overall and likewise, the folk sensibilities of Rend Collective mean that Boldly I Approach (The Art Of Celebration) and Burn Like A Star don’t follow any predictable formulae. New Life Worship just about equal the impact of their anthemic We Believe with Dance Again. One of the few big-name solo artists to appear here is Paul Baloche, and the authority of his My Hope suggests that the balance should have been skewed more in the direction of such experience. The criteria for inclusion here are fairly cryptic and, though the generous running time is filled with enough to keep listeners interested, there are too many gaps (for those familiar with the genre, certainly) for this double-disc effort to really satisfy.
The opening track and first single from this Future Islands’ Singles was called, in some quarters (okay, NME, Spin and Pitchfork), the best song of last year, which seems a tad hyperbolic for a track that spends its opening moments reminding listeners of Underworld’s Born Slippy, which was something to sit up and take notice of. This is not to say that the band’s synth-pop melodies are not well-constructed at worst and reminiscent of the best daft-coiffe-and-dungarees moments of the Eighties (Sun In The Morning is particularly evocative in this regard). It must be noted that Future Islands don’t settle for the detached cool that many acts trading in a similar sound go for. Pleasingly named singer Samuel T Herring leans into his melodies like a tight-jeaned classic rock vocalist, adding energy and drive to otherwise mid-tempo material such as Back In The Tall Grass and the more contemplative Fall From Grace. That same Seventies sensibility is echoed in the acoustic guitar-driven Light House. The evocations of earlier periods are enjoyable in the aural sense, but perhaps too often there’s a sense that there’s not a lot of innovation here; no building on what exists, but rather simply reflecting it.
Andre Swiegers somehow remains one of the more underrated singer-songwriters in South Africa. That is perhaps because the most accurate keyword for his output as a whole is perhaps “consistent” – a desirable result, certainly, but not as easy a sell as someone whose performance and writing style involves more flamboyance. His lyrics are uniformly simple and sincere, whether he’s happy (“There’s a rainbow in my heart every time I think of you”, in the title track) or sad (“After my confessions, she seized my possessions and hit the road”, in Wicked Kinda Woman), with perhaps the single-line distillation of his intent found in the line “Some live for money, and some for respect; well, I live for passion and good vibrations”. There are regular and reliably lovely acoustic guitar motifs from Swiegers and one of his sons, Emile (another, Jean, is behind the drum kit for these recordings). The arrangements are as unpretentious as the lyrics – Leonard Cohen fans will appreciate the spare combinations of percussion, guitars and either strings or an organ or similar. Tomorrow is a particularly good example in this regard. Ghost Train is not an album filled with fireworks, but it dependably delivers on its promises, providing 35 minutes of easy listening.
Luke Bryan’s output fits snugly in the middle of the country music spectrum, and superficially, that’ll be enough for some. But there’s a thread throughout this album (and his previous releases, though those aren’t under review here) that speaks of an attitude – personified by the king jock in just about every American high school movie ever made – that won’t sit well with some listeners. It’s introduced as early as the opening track, My Kind Of Night, in which Bryan expresses his admiration for a partner by singing: “You got that suntan, skirt and boots; waitin’ on you to look my way and scoot your little hot self over here; girl, hand me another beer.” Not everyone needs sophistication, sure, but even as a guilty pleasure, such sentiments don’t allow for much engagement with life’s big questions. The title track is more reflective, but only on a sliding scale, and any progress is somewhat undone by the adolescent wit of Beer In The Headlights, or the underlining of what really matters in, er, Drink A Beer. Goodbye Girl, awash in lap steel, has some old-fashioned charm, and is one of the few imports – Bryan is an established songwriter, but chose to include only two co-writes here, among 11 tunes by other composers – that seem wise additions to the collection, As familiar-sounding filler. Crash My Party fills a gap. But there is much more and much better available from the same neck of the woods.