Review: Gaither Vocal Band-Better Together.

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As always I was highly anticipating the release of a new Gaither Vocal Band album, and I traditionally buy every record they put out since their debut album.  That tradition of ‘sight unseen’ purchases seems to develop into another tradition, a tradition of disappointment.

This release continues that unfortunate tradition. I always expect to be surprised, or moved by a Gaither Vocal Band album, regretfully none of these occurred.

It seems the mastering process has buried the killer harmonies that are on this record. To catch a glimpse of the harmonies  get some high-end headphones. Mastering is supposed to be the gateway between production and consumption according to wikipedia, apparently on this record that gateway was closed. The voices sound too subdued, the lead is turned up, while the rest are indistinguishable singing back up. It’s the vocal equivalent of mashed potatoes. Hard to single out a specific potato, even harder to single out its part. I love to hear the construction of the harmony, the chord structures! The subtle variations in individual melody lines, I’m sucker for that, and I miss that on this album! And on almost every Southern Gospel album put out in the last decade or so.  Todd Suttles is way too heavy in the overall mix, with his airy bass tones he throws a smothering heavy blanket over the entire record. Wes Hampton is drowned out in the mix, this album would have sounded a lot fresher, and better when Wes was turned up in the mix. Wes Hampton to me is the finest singer in the Vocal Band, and every time he had a solo I caught my self sighing in relief. David Phelps his solo singing sounds pseudo nonchalant as if he isn’t really having a good time. I’m not saying he isn’t,  but this is the vibe I get. Adam Crabb is an incredible singer,  but just like his brother Jason  a ‘Michael English lite! Bill Gaither’s contribution as far as vocals go is negligible, it makes one wonder if Gaither sang much at all (except for his solo on “You’ve Got a Friend).

The songs:

  1. “Working on the Building” a traditional spiritual type song. Everyone has done this from Elvis to the Cowboy Junkies. I love dusting off or re-inventing the old standards, but this rendition is really the same old same old.Still these spirituals are a great fit for the Vocal Band.
  2. “Lead Out of Bondage” a classic tune written by Robert L. Prather done by every self-respecting quartet back in the day. Todd Suttles does the narration verses, and does them pretty good. But the track distracts, especially the lush violins, that play parts reminiscent of a brass section and are to dominant in the mix. Would rather have heard a good updated version of Prather’s song “Heading Home” that the Statesmen Quartet did on their Nabisco TV Show back in the 50’s.
  3. Dallas Holm has written so many great tunes, and they pick “Heart of Mine” a simple tune executed in a slow western swing fashion. Again the potential of the tight harmonies are lost in translation (mix). Great fiddle playing in this song. Wes Hampton sings the lead on this mediocre tune and made the most of it. Wish they’d recorded “He Knew me Then”or  “Drifting” that Dallas Holm did with Phil Johnson and Tim Sheppard.
  4. “When He Set Me Free”. A stomping tune, that Russ Taff nailed on his  “Under their Influence” album that won a Grammy back in ’83. A rendition that can not be topped by anyone. Todd Suttles sings all kinds of counterpoint* bass lines, some threw me off, or annoyed me is a better word. It seems as if Bill Gaither is trying to make up for the lack of a real bass singer in one single song….it’s just too much.
  5. George R.Poulton wrote the melody of “Aura Lea” a civil war song about a maiden (Wikipedia). Elvis Presley’s “Love Me Tender” had the same melody. Lovely melody, fantastic orchestrated track,  and amazing harmonies.  Gloria Gaither wrote the words to this song carried by this too familiar melody. The song’s entitled “But I Need You More”, the message would have rung so much clearer had Gloria, Bill or Todd narrated them with the guys in the background humming and doing  ooh’s and aah’s on that classic melody.
  6. “Dig a Little Deeper” apart from the mix is really fantastic! Todd Suttles is superb on this, all the guys rock this one! Honorable mention to Wes Hampton! Spiritual songs and Wes are a match made in heaven.
  7. “Moses Smote The Water” like “Dig a Little Deeper” a great spiritual with a hard-driving track. But again the full potential of the players, and singers isn’t exploited to the max. It’s lacking texture and contrast in the mix.
  8. “We’ll Talk It Over” written by Ira Stanphill is arguably the best version I have ever heard. Fantastic song, with beautiful 40/50’s cinematic sounding strings, and wonderful singing by Phelps who’s lyrical and dramatic tenor voice paint a lush picture of Heaven. A great tribute to Danny Gaither who had that same dramatic quality to his voice and sang this song with great flair. Yet again the mix disappoints. I sound like a broken record…believe me, I know!
  9. “Didn’t It Rain” is my favorite tune on this album. Adam Crabb does exceptionally good on the first verse. Wes Hampton takes the second and sounds awesome! Phelps’ rounds the tune out, with some amazing harmonies by the others.
  10. Carole King’s “You’ve Got a Friend”…..why????? Bill Gaither sings the opening lines….and i’m sorry to say this, but I made my oldest son listen to this cut. And he said ‘who’s that singing? Sounds like Elmer Fudd! Apart from that, the track has the same arrangement as the original cut James Taylor did complete with the identical acoustic guitar lick. And Bill is feeding them the words on random spots in the song, as if these guys don’t know the words to this milked dry evergreen. If they really wanted to do a James Taylor song why not do “Walk Down That lonesome Road” or ‘Shed a Little Light?  Uninspiring, and unimaginative are words that come to mind as far as this song goes.
  11. The title cut “Better Together” written by Dony and Reba McGuire-Rambo, Gaither and Chip Davis. I’ve heard the early demos of this, and seen it come to develop into full blossom, and although this is a reasonable cut, it lacks the urgency of the message…especially in these trying times where individualism is king this is the message that is needed. The Vocal Band kind of sounds like the Imperials when they had Sherman Andrus in their ranks…..which is a good thing. Yet I miss dynamics, contrast in this rendition, and the addition of strings makes it a “Disney” tune. I would have loved a more raw and gritty approach to this.
  12. “Walk On The Water” opens with the same guitar riff as in “One Good Song” that was on the “I Do Believe” album. It’s a classic Gaither Vocal Band tune, and probably a song that they had shelved from the time Penrod was with them. Here Phelps’s pseudo nonchalance is heard best it irritates the crap out of me. This song lacks creativity, both lyrically and musically…..it’s like they recorded it before…a dime a dozen.

Honesty bids me to say that, would I have written this review after the first time I heard it, I probably would have burned it down to the ground. But listening with intent and great headphones I was able to appreciate some of the songs more than I initially did. Discovering little vocal licks I hadn’t heard. Having said that, it bothers me even more that this is in potential a great record had they paid more attention to the mix of the vocals and tracks.The whole record is blurry as far as harmony goes! I still believe they are the most talented crew out there, and that they can do better! it seems they just lack direction, and obviously a guy with ‘ears’ in the mixing/mastering process.  Hiring outside the A-list musicians could help too, we need different sounds, and licks bad!   And for Heavens sake sing some more obscure old songs, and some great new ones. A group with this name and stature can afford to cross boundaries, and break the mold. You’re not done yet Bill Gaither you hear?! This can’t be your swan song! It just can’t be!

 

*counterpoint is the relationship between voices that are harmonically interdependent (polyphony) yet independent in rhythm and contour. (source Wikipedia)

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Old man river (the old story)

When I was about 8 or 9 I got interested in music…after a got my first record by The Delta Rhythm Boys I was hooked on jazz, quartet singing and voices in general.

After the smooth and intricate harmonies of ‘The Delta’s’

I stumbled onto Bill Haley! Bill Haley and his Comets! I had that live album in Sweden…that had a version of “Love Letters in the Sand”….that was marvelous! For a boy raised in a very strict and legalistic home, this was ‘sin set to music’ to my father’s ear. My mom was more ‘worldy’ for a lack of a better word. She had the same ‘bug’ for music and singing as yours truly. She’d sing a lot around the house whatever she did. She loved singing, and she could harmonize….switch parts on a dime…and it came all natural, no training. She was awesome! Thank God for my mom, she’d allow me to my records on a audible volume. I had no headphones, just a recordplayer (mono) that was portable, it was like a small suitcase. I scratched a lot of records because my dad came through the door….he really hated it.

 

To make my father more accepting of the notion that I wasn’t gonna quit listening to music, I strategically bought a gospel album by Jim Reeves entitled “We Thank Thee”. I love Gentleman Jim…still do…his smooth, no frills, nothing fancy approach to singing has a soothing quality to it! My favorite song that he did was “The Nightwatch”. My mom loved it and played it even when I wasn’t home. And left it on regardless of my dad coming or going. From that point on I had more freedom to listen to music, still I respected him too much to take advantage of it. I lowered the volume of music, as soon as he walked in, even if he didn’t ask.

Anyway back to my musical babysteps. I bought a compilation album on a budget label that had all kind of different artists on it. People like Owen Bradley, The Kalin Twins, Johnny Burnette and Buddy Holly. The latter I loved…one of the few R&R poets! “It’s too late, she is gone” I loved that tune!

I’ve always been a ballad guy, don’t get me wrong, I love uptempo too…but I always sit up when a slow song comes on!

 

Gene Vincent is known for his harddriving rockabilly sound, fast stuff like ‘Catman’. But if you never heard the dragging blues song “Blues Stay Away From Me”  you haven’t been livin’. Gene also did a great rendition of ‘Unchained Melody’ haunting! Gene Vincent! That cat had it going…..love Gene!

My first Elvis record was “Elvis Golden Gospel Songs” a compilation album. The first time I heard “He Touched Me”, was also the first time I heard the Imperials. Or as Elvis used to introduce them on stage ‘the Mighty Imperials’.

Elvis got me into Southern Gospel….into the Quartets!

My first Imperials album….it was 1981 by then, and the group had some personnel changes since their Elvis days, info I didn’t have at the time.

Anyway I rushed to my room, got the record out, and slapped it onto the player…. I slammed it on that mother. Those few seconds of scratchy silence before the first song comes on…the anticipation…then suddenly Disco came pounding through the speakers! “Closer Than Ever” was the song…I was shocked! Didn’t like it one bit! Brother! Those guys are total sell outs I thought! Abandoning real quartet singing, why?! I was disappointed at first, but the slow songs I loved. “One More Song For You”, Jim Murray singing “All My Life” so my initial narrow-mindedness caved in quickly…and I liked it! I loved it! I own every record by the Imperials from 1964 to 1984!

One of the best things to ever come out of gospel music was and is Russ Taff! Loved Russ with the Imperials loved that tune “Whenever Is Speak His Name” 

I love Russ voice and spirit…a real good guy! Russ influenced me greatly…not that it helped much.

Another guy that influenced my approach to singing was a guy named Tony Hadley! He sang with Spandau Ballet…a british band from the eighties. 

Loved Tony’s tone and diction, and those long coats…man I dressed like that in the eighties. That song makes me long for the good old days….classic tune!

 

Another group I really digged in the eighties were The Housemartins…who did a raw, sloppy cappella stuff..and gospel tinged pop! It Their lead singer had a distinct voice…melancholic, weird slighty depressing music, but I loved them anyway. Listen how he sings “Lean On Me” pretty darn good if you ask me….memorable at the least!

As the years rolled on…I  like many ‘new’ artists/music…man I do…but mainly all current hip bands playing new music with that good old feeling! The feeling Ray Charles, Merle Haggard, Gram Parsons, Sam Cooke, Charlie Rich, Jerry Lee Lewis, Larry Norman and Kenny Drew give me!

Of Barbarella, Quartets, Madness and Sir Cliff.

When I was 10 or 12..I loved music that was frowned upon by my peers. While they listened to bands like Duran Duran, I listened to The Delta Rhythm Boys, when they danced to the beat of The Simple Minds, I stood bewildered on the edge of the dance floor feeling superior to the musical simple minds in front of me. Who were frantically displaying how rhythm should not be displayed in public. Duran Duran…what kind of name is that?! What does it mean? Well I’ll fill you in on that later. When one of my classmates asked me what kind of music I listened to, I said…‘well….Duran Duran, Simple Minds,…you know?! Anybody who knew me back then, knew that I was pretty opinionated and outspoken! Well spoken some considered me as eloquent. Which says more about the IQ of my peers, than my linguistic artistry! Outspoken..my foot! Not on this topic I wasn’t!

I was ashamed of my musical taste back then, or maybe ashamed is not the word. But I just didn’t have the heart to tell them that Kenny Drew was a great jazz pianist. Seemed pretty pointless to explain to them who Lee Gaines was. Or talk about Leland Sklar’s genius bass playing, or how funky Steve Gadd’s grooves were. All the stuff they listened to, was overly synthesized and drum programmed! Of course there was the ironic possibility that all of the others were hiding their own musical taste aswell. Then again, sales figures of bands like Duran Duran went through the roof, so that’s pretty good evidence to proof the contrary.

Man I can see myself sitting up in my old room once again, listening to ‘Take The Chains From My Heart’ as sung by Ray Charles. Or scaring the wits out of an old out of tune guitar that I really didn’t play. I violated the darn thing! Playing along with Charlie Rich singing “I Do My Swinging at Home‘. Charlie Rich…that guy was awesome! The Silver Fox started out on Sun records as a Elvis on steroids. But when he was a few years into his career he developed into one of the most underrated artists ever! No one can touch Charlie when he sings a song like ‘Set Me Free‘. Charlie’s piano playing was a mix of gospel, jazz and country, he played it very well. There were a couple of groups I liked when I was a teen. I liked Spandau Ballet, that lead singer Mr.Tony Hadley had a great voice. Liked a group named ‘Madness‘ who had a hit with the title ‘Nightboat to Caïro’. I was also crazy about Billy Ocean’s voice, that sounded somewhat like Larnelle Harris’s voice. So? you guys ask, why didn’t you answer naming those contemporary artists while questioned by a moron? Well all those names were the ‘uncool’ performers of that time. We found common ground though, on one singer who we all thought was awful. His name Rick ‘the prick‘ Astley….he sang the horrible ‘Never Gonna Give You Up‘. That line came by so much, that you prayed ‘ I kinda wish he gave up’.

I promised to explain the name Duran Duran..here’s what I found on http://www.rateyourmusic.com;

‘Inspired by one of their favourite Birmingham clubs, Barbarella’s, the band took their name from the evil character “Dr. Durand Durand”, played by Milo O’Shea in Roger Vadim’s 1968 sexy science-fiction cult film Barbarella’.

Mmmh Jane Fonda yummy…we all agreed on miss Fonda too, but that’s another tune. You know irony is the hygiene of the mind Oscar Wilde said. Isn’t it ironic that today I actually like Duran Duran, and even the Simple Minds. I still hate Rick though…glad the record company finally gave up on him. One artist I still find hard to admit that I like is Sir Cliff Richard…..yes I know, I know, that’s indeed kind of sad…but hearing Cliff sing ‘True love ways’ with the London Philharmonic is just fabulous.

I loved Elvis Presley too..man did I ever! Loved Bill Haley, Eddie Cochran, Gene Vincent, Jerry Lee and Carl Perkins too. But Elvis was the man! Elvis turned me on to gospel quartets! I loved those background voices better than Elvis. Ate up all ooohs and aaahhs by The Imperials. Every ’56 ending by J.D! The gospel albums of Elvis….wow! The ‘He Touched Me’ album is the best. Never heard a better rendition of the Ralph Carmichael song ‘Reach Out to Jesus’.

I started to buy gospel quartet music where ever I was. Still kept listening to soul, jazz, country, blues, bluegrass and classical, but quartets are still my main thing. You name it and I listened to it, Cathedrals, Statesmen, Couriers, Singing Americans, Weatherfords,Rebels, Melody Masters, Swanee River Boys, Vanguards, Downings, Oak Ridge, Imperials, Blackwoods, Stamps, and many more.

Thank God for Gaither…he put me on to a lot of these groups. And thank Al Gore for the internet! All the info on the net is awesome! I love the details, credits, who played on what album? Who sang the baritone in what year in a certain quartet. Who replaced who on a part, what is counterpoint singing? part swapping? or coming in on the fly! I love the history and the heritage. I love the tight-knit gospel singing community, or the thought of it. Loved how Glen loved George! How J.D. loved his wife. How Gerald Wolfe sang ‘Magnify Him‘, and how Michael English broke into ‘He’s Still Working On Me’. How Vestal Goodman practically hijacked a mic on an early Gaither video to sing;

‘A country where no twilight shadows deepen
Unending day where night will never be
A city where no storm clouds ever gather
This is just what Heaven means to me’.

I love the music that I love, and I know for a fact that the people who I met in real life and who are artists themselves, are genuine, normal, cool, and just like us all. If someone asks me today what music that I like, I say ‘Gospel’ and they immediately will break into ‘Oh Happy Day‘.,,and then walk off laughing…shoutin’ ‘hallelujah‘ while they distance themselves from me. I answer that with a loud ‘amen‘. As I said, or implied before, don’t talk about perfect pitch to the tone-deaf! They won’t hear you!

Auke