Christian artists make the Billboard charts-and stay there
by Arsenio Orteza
Just before Christmas, Rush Limbaugh devoted a segment of his radio show to a discussion of "One of Us," a song by Joan Osborne that over the next few months went on to turn the grammatically ambiguous and theologically curious question "What if God was one of us?" into one of the most recognizable refrains on rock radio.
But while Mr. Limbaugh was wise to wonder if the success so near Christmas of a song that openly pondered the Incarnation might count as a miracle, the really miraculous event was taking place on Billboard's album-sales chart: For the first time ever, Christian recordings not bearing the name "Amy Grant" were making the top 250 and staying there.
The first was I'll Lead You Home, the only Michael W. Smith album of the '90s so far to forgo the inclusion of top-40-friendly love songs in favor of hymns ("Crown Him with Many Crowns"), Scripture ("As It Is in Heaven"), and spiritual songs (the remaining dozen). Produced by Patrick Leonard, who prior to his recent conversion had co-composed some of Madonna's best-known songs, I'll Lead You Home represented the most mature work of Mr. Smith's career. And although it had fallen to number 223 by June, its 18 weeks on the chart-a Methuselan span in pop-music years-testified to the resiliency of its appeal.
Then in November came DC Talk with Jesus Freak, which by selling 85,000 copies in its first week debuted at number 16 (a Christian first) and which by continuing to sell has maintained a steady top-100 presence since then.
More impressive than their numbers, though, is the fact that instead of purveying more of the "baptized" easy-listening music with which most Christian pop has become synonymous, DC Talk has in Jesus Freak come up with a blend of rap and alternative styles that complements their bold, clever lyrics especially well. Specifically, the trio excels in transforming such derogatory and all-but-meaningless phrases as "Jesus freak," "So help me, God," and the ones in the chorus of Godspell's "Day by Day" into spiritually potent slang.
But no sooner had DC Talk begun to look like Christian music's official rock 'n' roll ambassadors than the eponymous debut from the alternative quartet Jars of Clay caught commercial fire nearly one year after its release. What elevated it from a family-bookstore bestseller to a Billboard one was its getting picked up for secular distribution by Silvertone Records, who immediately began getting the Adrian Belew-produced song "Flood"-allusions to Noah and all-played on alternative and top-40 radio.
But what elevated the album to Silvertone's attention in the first place was its quality. In a decade worn down by the relentless pummeling of "grunge," the Jars' emphasis on ringing acoustic guitars and instantly hummable choruses functions as aural balm. That the album has climbed the charts steadily in its five-month run and broken the top 50 makes it, with the possible exception of Andy Griffith's hymn collection, the most successful Christian album of the year so far.
But even Jars of Clay may yet be overtaken if Take Me to Your Leader, the sixth album by the Australian group Newsboys, benefits from a second wind. Its first wind-the momentum generated by its release earlier this year by the Christian label Starsong-has kept it in the top 200 for nearly four months. Its second wind-the momentum that the internationally formidable mainstream label Virgin hopes to generate by re-releasing it this summer-will depend to a large extent on whether or not an audience raised on '90s pop will know what to make of the unabashedly faith-enriched lyrics that accompany the group's effervescent electro-pop.
Virgin, the home of alternative rockers Smashing Pumpkins and the notorious rappers Geto Boys, is betting that secularized fans will make the adjustment. Although the label's first official Newsboys press release refers to the band as "playing contemporary Christian music," it also refers to the band's "quixotic lyrics, sharp songwriting, thundering rhythms, and refreshing splashes of skewed Aussie humor."
The irony is that, since 1992, the "quixotic lyrics" that convey the band's "Aussie humor" have been written almost exclusively by the American Christian performer-and non-Newsboy-Steve Taylor.
"Usually what happens," Mr. Taylor explained to WORLD, "is that Peter [Furler, the Newsboys drummer and main composer] will have a title and a concept. With the song 'Lost the Plot,' he had only the title and the line, 'When you come back again, won't you bring me something from the fridge?' It was just a matter of my taking it from there and seeing what I could come up with."
Mr. Taylor's modesty belies the significance of his contribution. As the Newsboys themselves admit, they lack verbal advancement.
"They have always needed help with their lyrics," Mr. Taylor said, "and they haven't made any bones about that. But Peter writes the music, and I think he does a really good job. Besides, and I wouldn't name them, but there are a lot of Christian bands who write bad lyrics and don't even realize it, so they just keep doing what they're doing. What's worse: for a band to write trifling stuff while thinking they're doing God's work or for a band to realize that because their lyrics are bad, they need help?"
Not that any of Mr. Taylor's Newsboy lyrics rival "Jesus Is for Losers," the highlight of his own Warner Alliance LP, Squint, two years ago and arguably the best Christian rock lyric ever written. But he does need to keep something in reserve. He has, after all, just inked his own deal with a subsidiary of Arista Records, and in so doing sent fair warning to Michael W. Smith, DC Talk, Jars of Clay, and Newsboys that they may soon need to make more room at the top once again.
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Music: Andy, Jackie, and Tiny
Three cultural oddities as strange as heavy-metal Pat Boone
by Arsenio Orteza
Last February, at the height of Pat Buchanan Mania, another well-known, middle-aged, conservative Christian Pat B. announced that, to "get attention," his next recording would consist entirely of heavy-metal songs. It's June, and Pat Boone in a Metal Mood has yet to hit the stores, but that doesn't mean that conservative Christians with an interest in cultural oddities have been left in the lurch-not when one of the top-50 bestselling albums in the country for the past two months has been I Love to Tell the Story, a collection of hymns sung by Mr. Mayberry himself, Andy Griffith.
Not that Mr. Griffith is a stranger to hit records. Forty years ago, he topped the charts with "What It Was Was Football," a comedy routine in which he impersonated a naive bumpkin recounting his first football game. Still, considering how seldom even the most ardent fans of The Andy Griffith Show and Matlock have been known to clamor for more of Mr. Griffith's singing, one views the sudden omnipresence of his smiling face on the CD shelves of Christian bookstores with bemusement.
It's a bemusement that the music itself compounds. For instance, why were two arrangers-David Huntsinger and Steve Tyrell-needed to arrange the hymns in what can only be described as "generic hymnal"? And why did Mr. Tyrell occasionally marshal as many as 32 backup singers to all but drown Mr. Griffith out? And why are tens of thousands of people every week shelling out enough money for a tankful of gas to hear "Amazing Grace" sung by a man who sings no better than any other pew-weary septuagenarian?
Actually, I Love to Tell the Story has moments of humble charm. "Wayfaring Stranger," a mournful spiritual in which the singer's reluctance to die dampens his enthusiasm for reuniting with loved ones, suits Mr. Griffith particularly well. But in most of the other songs he simply drops his jaw and sings as if nuance and diction were nothing more than highbrow impediments to raw expression. Which means that, unlikely as it seems, Mr. Griffith may have come to represent the elder generation's version of the revenge-of-the-common-man vocal esthetic so beloved of baby-boomer Bob Dylan fans.
Compared to both Mr. Dylan and Mr. Griffith, the Jackie Gleason of And Awaaay We Go!, the newly reissued compilation of vintage Gleason vocal performances, sounds almost virtuosic, or, as the liner notes say, "like a Dixieland Al Jolson or Eddie Cantor." Unlike the many romantic-strings albums that bear the Gleason name, Awaaay emphasizes the late comedian's vaudevillian blend of singing and slapstick, collecting eight songs that he composed for his various stage and Honeymooners characters (Ralph Kramden's pre-feminist "One of These Days-Pow!," Joe the Bartender's "Hy'a Mister Dennehy"), as well as two comedy recitations ("Casey at the Bat," "I Had but Fifty Cents") and-well, romantic-strings music.
Unlike the usual Gleason romance music, however, the seven instrumentals on Awaaay possess a rigor that comes from having been composed (by Mr. Gleason in almost every case) with a specific dramatic context in mind. Therefore, instead of sounding like aural wallpaper, the selections "Melancholy Serenade (Theme from The Jackie Gleason Show)," "Our Love Is Here to Stay (Ralph Kramden's Apology-to-Alice Music)," and "You're My Greatest Love (Love Theme from The Honeymooners)" create vivid impressions of the culture in which Mr. Gleason's abundantly generous showmanship flourished.
Perhaps that explains why the National Review music club offers an all-instrumental Jackie Gleason disc among its conservatively tailored menu. One thing's certain-Mr. Gleason's reference to the titular character of "Here's Charlie" as "a lollapalooza" proves that the word has a much nobler past than its current use as the name of an annual alternative-rock tour would suggest.
Anyone waiting anxiously for Pat Boone's heavy-metal album will probably enjoy Girl, the first significant recording in years by that paragon of peculiarity, Tiny Tim. Although none of Girl's 14 songs bear witness to the Christian faith that Mr. Tim articulated two years ago in an interview with the satirical Christian magazine The Door, the songs do bear witness to his peculiar genius for never having met a song he didn't like.
The liner notes call him "a living treasury of romance and music," and the song selection seems designed to prove it. Beatles songs ("Girl," "Hey Jude"), pop standards ("New York, New York," "Stardust," "Over the Rainbow," "Bye Bye Blackbird"), and flat-out corn ("Sly Cigarette," "I Believe in Tomorrow") follow one after the other, linked by Mr. Tim's vibrato-heavy baritone-at 60-something, he can no longer summon his famous falsetto at will-and Brave Combo, the Grammy-nominated sextet known for their commitment to mastering musical styles as foreign to each other as polka and Oriental folk.
Brave Combo's tight, lively playing is what keeps Girl from sheer novelty. Not only do they provide the often campy songs with a solid musical grounding, but they also seem to have tempered Mr. Tim's more unnerving vocal eccentricities. Not that a tempered Tiny Tim isn't plenty eccentric already, but with Brave Combo he seems less like a sideshow attraction and more like a well-preserved escapee from a time capsule sealed in the days of minstrel shows.
And by recording Led Zeppelin's heavy-metal warhorse "Stairway to Heaven" as a snappy cabaret number, Mr. Tim and the Combo not only strip the song of the overblown significance accorded it by backward-masking zealots, but they also beat Pat Boone to the heavy-metal punch with humor and style. As playful foils to Mr. Griffith's stolid musical orthodoxy, both And Awaaay We Go! and Girl tunefully recall the importance of not being earnest.
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Music: Old-fashioned Passion
Relief from Grammy-winning least common denominators
by Arsenio Orteza
In February CBS broadcast the 38th annual Grammy Awards, allowing people the world over to witness the sorry state of American pop music. From the dizzyingly incoherent variety of live performances to the inarticulate acceptance speeches of unkempt rockers for whom simply saying "thanks" is a lost art, the three-hour spectacle did little but confirm that the culture war is as much about order and manners as it is about values.
The gospel medley, however, made sense. Beginning with a powerful performance of "I Surrender All" by Cece Winans, who would later win a Grammy herself, and continuing with rousing cameos by Whitney Houston and the gospel veteran Shirley Caesar, it served as the only portion of the show during which the star-studded crowd seemed to enjoy itself. And when Miss Winans later accepted her award by urging her peers to believe that Jesus is real and coming again, she launched a preemptive strike against those who would dismiss the sincerity of her music as just one more sociocultural phenomenon associated with our country's legacy of racial conflict.
Those who missed her performance can begin making amends with Great Women of Gospel, Sparrow Records' new collection of first-rate performances from its roster of gospel-singing ladies. In addition to featuring the studio version of Miss Winans's "I Surrender All," the album lifts strong tracks from recent albums by Tramaine Hawkins, Deniece Williams, Mom Winans, the Clark Sisters, and Sandra Crouch.
The titles tend toward the traditional-"His Eye Is on the Sparrow" and "Amazing Grace" join "I Surrender All" in comprising one third of the disc-and only Sandra Crouch's "God Is Moving" approaches the abandon that makes black gospel unique in the history of church music. But a strength emerges from the composure, proving once again that sophistication is no enemy of heart-felt expression and that authentic Christianity is no enemy of the arts.
Taxpayer-funded arts are, of course, another matter. Perhaps conservatives should consider it a sign of their effectiveness that this year's Grammies featured not one but two pleas-one from actor Richard Dreyfuss-for the American public not to allow Congress to wean the National Endowment for the Arts from the mother's milk of the taxpayer.
It's a pleasing fact that, with no help whatsoever from the NEA, the latest albums by Hezekiah Walker's Love Fellowship Crusade Choir (who supplied backup for the gospel medley) and the 1996 Grammy nominee Yolanda Adams have spent months at or near the top of Billboard's gospel chart. Shakin' the House-Live in L.A., the new album on which both Mr. Walker and Miss Adams appear, will probably do even better and further belie the notion that only redistributed wealth can keep good music afloat.
Shakin' the House-also available as a 90-minute videocassette-begins with four songs from Fred Hammond and his Radical for Christ Choir. And although two of them, "Unconditional Love" and "Blessed," are as stirring as anything else on the album, the task of shifting the album into high gear falls to Miss Adams, who for three songs demonstrates what makes her unique: the power of her voice, but also the cleverness of her singing. Stretching and compressing lyrics like a jazz singer until they establish her intended mood, she finds new ways of tapping into old-fashioned passion.
After Miss Adams's free-form solo excursions, Hezekiah Walker's exuberant choral arrangements sound both tighter and louder than they otherwise might. Certainly Mr. Walker's preaching stokes the flames. And a light-hearted detour into "I'll Fly Away," replete with a false-ending routine that finds Mr. Walker playing call-and-response with his choir, solves the problem of pacing. Ultimately, however, Shakin' the House succeeds not so much as one album but as three 25-minute mini-albums that, taken together, provide plenty of bang for the buck.
An equally sound investment is the album that's currently sitting atop the jazz charts, Van Morrison's How Long Has This Been Going On? Although Mr. Morrison has made many "jazzy" recordings, How Long represents his first headlong plunge into jazz itself. Officially credited to "Van Morrison with Georgie Fame and Friends," the album bears only fleeting testimony to the Irish singer's rock-and-roll youth, focusing instead on songs written by or for Lester Young, Louis Jordan, George and Ira Gershwin, Mose Allison, and Lambert, Hendricks and Ross.
The cover songs, in fact, bring the album to life, which is to say they swing more naturally than Mr. Morrison's own compositions. The exception is the new version of "Moondance," the singer's 26-year-old FM radio staple. Always jazzy, it's gotten jazzier over the years, finally sounding like a jazz standard itself. And if Mr. Morrison's bluesy tenor voice doesn't quite fit the traditional jazz profile, the limber playing of his band-guitar-less for the first time-grounds How Long in a venerable tradition.
A Cappella Gershwin, the first album of pop standards by the Christian vocal quintet Glad, finds its roots in that same tradition. According to Ed Nalle, the group's lead singer, the reputation of Gershwin's music among Christians may have improved with age.
"It was probably considered scandalous at the time because of its roots in Broadway," he told WORLD. "I would imagine there were even preachers who railed against that. But now it's become part of our culture."
Hearing such staples of the pre-rock soundscape as "I Got Rhythm," "But Not for Me," and "They Can't Take That Away from Me" done a cappella, one notices not only the melodies and witty lyrics but the also the artful way in which the Gershwins wove the two together. By contrast, many of the songs that won Grammies this year seem to take pains to stress every inherent structural incongruity.
"I watched the Grammies," said Mr. Nalle. "I was horrified. It was the lowest common denominator."
Mr. Nalle believes people want a higher common denominator, and he sees the 20,000 copies that A Cappella Gershwin has sold since it was released last fall to the secular market as confirmation of his optimism.
"We've been getting e-mail from people who know about us already, but others are asking, 'Who are you?' We've actually had people come to our concerts and bring friends who like Gershwin. It's a point of contact."
And since Gershwin fans who attend Glad's shows also hear plenty of gospel music, the Gershwin connection becomes a point of light, as well.