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A little of everything

Christian releases from earlier this year bend genre boundaries

Coby James by Coby James: With John Mayer–level talent and similarly infectious bluesy pop-rock, the buzz around Coby James makes sense. The kid himself (he was only 17 when the album released) even admits, “I’ve got finesse,” when facing his haters in “No Trouble.” Tooting your own horn is an incomplete answer to bullying, but “Pressure” shows the singer and multi-instrumentalist ascribing the source of his strength more clearly to God, amid sticky rhythms and a great hook. In “Paradise,” finding satisfaction outside of God is like “a thousand miles chasing / but it’s always outta reach.”

Backroads & Small Towns by Whosoever South: Whosoever South returns with an electrifying combination of hip-hop and country that band members dubbed “Country Crunk.” The rousing “We All One People” features searing banjo licks and explosive rap that rail against the political divide: “We talking and talking, but still we missin’ / It’s shocking how awful we never stop and listen.” With full-throated expression of patriotism and faith, this Southern-fried fusion will prove comfort food to many. But amid so much weaving together the love of country and love of God, it’s hard to tell where one leaves off and the other picks up.

Citizen of Heaven by Tauren Wells: Wells’ dance-worthy pop prowess and slick vocal stylings already beg comparisons to Michael Jackson. Melodious whoops in the title track only bolster the comparison as Wells marvels, “You grow the lilies with Your majesty / and You don’t even love ’em like You love me.” But on “Miracle,” with its arrestingly tight beat, ambient keys, and R&B fills, Wells goes full Jackson-esque. Unlike Jackson, however, Wells contrasts a secularism that leaves “all these conversations filled with doubt” with faith that “no one can deny / what I’ve seen with my own eyes.”

Supernatural by Paradise Now: While others chase hip-hop and club vibes, Paradise Now stands against the musical current by offering unabashed hard rock in the vein of Skillet. Also like Skillet, the Wales-based outfit incorporates spiritual themes in a general way that can resonate with a wider audience. The title track blasts off with propulsive drumming and the observation that, despite internal and external forces fighting against faith, the supernatural finds a way into the world. “Young Guns” includes moments of machine-gun rhythms and lyrics that effectively express the intensity and upheaval of youth.

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Curly Neal
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Music

The Globetrotters’ magic

Anniversary album pays tribute to a great American force for good

In 1970, the Harlem Globetrotters were at the peak of their popularity. Between the unit led by Meadowlark Lemon and Curly Neal and the unit led by Geese Ausbie and Marques Haynes, the roundball wizards played to stadiums full of ecstatic fans, spreading laughter and goodwill as only they could.

Perhaps the most striking proof of their stature as entertainers was Harlem Globetrotters, a CBS Saturday-morning cartoon in which animated versions of the players defeated hapless opponents while solving mysteries and crimes à la Scooby-Doo.

Each episode’s climactic montage was accompanied by a song. And each song came from a soundtrack album simply called The Globetrotters.

Released on the pop-music-mogul Don Kirshner’s Kirshner Records, The Globetrotters should’ve been a hit. Not only had its way been paved by the success of Kirshner’s other cartoon band, the Archies, but The Globetrotters also had more musical muscle. A lot more.

Three of the songs were written by Ron Dante (the Archies’ real-life lead singer). Six were written by the dynamic Brill Building duo Neil Sedaka and Howard Greenfield. The suppliers of the remaining four were the R&B veterans Rudy Clark and Kenny Williams, a team that three years later, along with the Cadillacs’ J.R. Bailey, would earn a Grammy nomination for composing the Main Ingredient’s “Everybody Plays the Fool.”

Was the music bubblegum? Soul? Doo-wop? Rock ’n’ roll? Comedy?

Yes.

Clark, Williams, and Bailey (joined by the session singers Sammy Turner and Robert Spencer) also provided the vocals. But neither they nor the musicians appeared in the credits, the bare-boned nature of which served to create the impression that it was the Globetrotters themselves who were making such joyful noise. (Lemon participated but only as a barely audible background singer.)

The album didn’t sell, although one of its singles, the Sedaka-Greenfield-penned “Rainy Day Bells,” has gone on to become a staple of the Carolina “beach music” scene.

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Phil Madeira
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Music

Making his peace

The ups and downs of Phil Madeira’s last and next albums

“All the strange upheaval in the USA / makes me wanna pack it in and take you far away.”

So sings Phil Madeira at the beginning of “Immigrants,” a country song in jazz clothing from his latest album, Open Heart (Mercyland).

The line has taken on fresh relevance in the wake of George Floyd, but Madeira wrote and recorded it months before. Hence its whimsical tone: He goes on to fantasize about rediscovering his Scandinavian roots and starting from scratch as a newly minted immigrant.

Madeira is not so whimsical about what America’s warring factions might presage for the faith in which he was reared.

“Evangelicalism has been politicized,” he told me. “I feel like God has been used for political gain more than ever and that the church in America seems more interested in America than in Jesus.”

Longtime eavesdroppers on American Christianity’s conversations with itself will recognize in such comments a common complaint of the evangelical left, and, all things considered, that’s where Madeira, who admitted as much in his 2013 collection of autobiographical essays God on the Rocks, fits.   

But if his book surprised those who’d known him mainly from his contributions to decades’ worth of CCM recordings (he’s currently a member of Emmylou Harris’ band), it also revealed the complicated ways in which nature, nurture, and grace can interact within the son of a (Baptist) preacher man and wash him up on once-distant shores: He has been an Episcopalian for over 20 years. “The Episcopal Church,” he says, “is the last stop for me.”

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