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Like the King James Bible, Christian hymns have imbedded themselves so deeply in the American consciousness that even now they sprout and bloom if only like wildflowers in the cracks of a secular sidewalk.
Consider the Gaither Vocal Band’s Hymns (Gaither Music Group/Universal). Now 77, Bill Gaither has long been the éminence grise of popular evangelical song. He has also popularized at times an evangelical sentimentalism that’s more milk than meat.
Hymns renders that problem moot. Although sentimentalism taints “I’ll Fly Away,” “Love Lifted Me,” and “The Old Rugged Cross,” it’s reined in by a verbally terse colloquial orthodoxy. Musically, the lead cut, “Amazing Grace,” proves that something besides cockles-warming nostalgia is afoot. Gaither (bass); Michael English, David Phelps, and Wes Hampton (tenors); and Mark Lowry (baritone) intertwine their voices atop a musical foundation reverently a-writhe with key changes and instrumentation as diverse as it is inventively arranged.
They don’t tamper much with the long-familiar melodies or tempos. Neither, however, do they reject revisionism out of hand, imaginatively imbuing the Fanny Crosby–William J. Kirkpatrick classic “Redeemed” with grandeur. And their “Love Lifted Me” could almost pass for blue-eyed soul.
Seattle’s Kings Kaleidoscope has a younger, less-traditional audience in mind, one reared on the expansive templates of “jam bands” and for whom the idea of rocking outside the box is more than theoretical.
Unlike the ensemble’s all-hymns 2012 EP Asaph’s Arrows, the only traditional number on its rousing new seven-song Live in Color (BadChristian) is “Be Thou My Vision.” But there’s nothing traditional about the way that the lead vocalist Chad Gardner emotes the lyrics or the way that the arrangement builds to a full-bodied martial climax entirely in keeping with the concept of spiritual warfare.
What seems to animate the group’s 10 members more than anything else is a disregard for time-bound categories that might inhibit the spontaneous exuberance experienced by those who’ve tasted and seen that the Lord is good. And by titling Live in Color’s lead track after a term coined by Augustine (“Felix Culpa”), they give fresh meaning to the “communion of saints.”
Page CXVI targets a slightly older demographic. Awash in luminous soft-pop settings that play to the strengths of Latifah Phillips’ quietly arresting alto voice, Lent to Maundy Thursday, the trio’s latest hymns-based collection, comprises four 19th-century numbers and three originals that evoke the 40-day period immediately preceding Easter.
Their approach on “And Can It Be That I Should Gain,” “Before the Throne of God Above,” “Were You There,” and “I Love the Lord” is to pour old lyrics into new melodies, effectively introducing the former’s inspirational durability to believers or seekers who came of age listening to Sarah McLachlan and Coldplay.
Bridging the generation gap is Wendell Kimbrough’s dozen-cut Hymns & Friends. More musically stripped down than either Kings Kaleidoscope or Page CXVI, the album will appeal both to fans of alternative-folk Americana and to their parents.
Kimbrough, a D.C.-area singer-songwriter and Anglican Church worship leader, and his ensemble of singers and musicians preserve the melodies of hymns such as “O Worship the King,” “How Firm a Foundation,” and “For the Beauty of the Earth” while discarding aural cultural baggage.
“I see the project as something of a ‘preservation’ endeavor,” Kimbrough says. “Because it’s not always readily apparent how to translate these old hymn tunes from the piano to the guitar, some of them are falling out of use. I hope that by making serviceable guitar-based recordings of them, I might contribute to their wider circulation.”