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!

The oddball #2

From a vintage 1993 southern gospel album ‘Southern Classics’ comes the oddball in this blog..or should I say ‘Vlog? Does anyone still use that term?? Vlog….sounds kind of raunchy. Video-blog or vlog? I opt for video-blog for an apparent arguable reason. Back to the actual oddball…it’s a song from an album that is titled “Southern Classics”. A record of the world-renowned Gaither Vocal Band. A record that I regard as the ‘benchmark’ in the recent history of SGM. Why? Because it is not a tribute to classic Southern Gospel but an attribute…it added a legendary album to a genre that is on freaking life-support since The Imperials! This record set the bar…..it really did! The line up in ’93 was Bill on bass, Mark Lowry on baritone, Michael English on lead, and the magnificent Terry Franklin on tenor! Not gonna say anything on Michael because I don’t wanna sound like a teeny bopper! But man is he awesome on this album…enough already!!! I want to spotlight two guys, out of this line up. Bill being the backbone of this quartet, and Mark Lowry being the spinal chord…Mark  is what makes this body of voices function! Without Mark the baritone, it’s just two guys with amazing voices, and a big checkbook with fuzzy hair! Speaking of Bill, his bass is very underrated…and I don’t care if he is stacked to high heaven in live concerts, heck he might be the snappiest lip-syncher ever…I DON’T CARE! On this record he nailed it! But the absolute star on this here record is Terry (I hate you) Franklin!!! The best first tenor ever in the Vocal Band, and the best tenor in any quartet! If you don’t believe me, ask Glen Payne if you run into that fine gentleman up there, he’ll tell you the same thing! On this oddball Terry sings wonderful solo’s, with a rare kind of control, diction and amazing tone! Why is this an oddball? Well the title of the album suggest that all these songs are classic southern gospel songs. Songs like ‘I Bowed On My Knees’, ‘There is a River’ and other SGM favorites. Well those are on there, and this one is the only song on it, that breaks that mold. I don’t vividly remember who wrote it…but if memory is like the  friend he mostly is, I’d say that Terry and his lovely wife Barbi wrote it. But I could be wrong…hey give me a break! It’s not like I know everything!  I’m just human. Yes! just like you, a sinner saved by grace…‘put your hand down now, they might think you’re pentecostal! Amen!

Here’s the link to the oddball….enjoy! And really listen to these guys, and pick out each part…superb is the word you’re looking for.

So let’s dance, let’s dance…..tooooonniiiigghhhhhttt!!!