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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Trio’s a crowd #1

Southern Gospel music is originally built on 4 part harmony. 4 singers  a bass, baritone, lead (2nd tenor) and a first tenor! A quartet has that full sound,  a blend with a firm foundation.

All these guys sing different parts, all but one! In four-part harmony Continue reading

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!!!

CD – Review ‘On My Own’ – Steve Ladd (by Auke Bijlsma)

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Steve Ladd has been on his own for almost 4 years now, and cranked out two albums prior to this CD. I must be honest I haven’t heard the first two. I heard Steve first with The Anchormen and later with Gold City singing the high part and he did a fine job back then. Now that I’m being honest, I also must confess that I bought almost no solo stuff put out by any tenor singers. Don’t get me wrong I love tenor singers, but only or mostly in a quartet setting. The often thin and high-pitched vocals usually get on my nerves after a few tracks. There are few exceptions I enjoy,  for instance I love Jonathan Pierce’s and David Phelps solo stuff. There’s a Larry Ford record I got, that was produced by Michael Sykes if I’m not mistaken. Oh and if Terry Franklin had made a solo record (sans Barbi) I would have bought it! And now I add Steve Ladd to that list, I know probably to short of a list for most, but hey I’m picky!  Either way, that’s good company any given day of the week Steve!

Steve’s voice has a quality to his voice that reminds me of singers like Dennis Deyoung of Styx, and that guy of The Sweet Comfort Band, can’t think of his name right now, but it’ll come to me later on. Steve’s got a high powerful voice, clear as bell, yet with a light raspy and vulnerable edge. This album was produced by Steve himself, Michael Sykes and Michael English. Both English and Sykes are vocally present on this album. Granted that Michael English his trademark background vocals are more prominent than any other background vocalist on the album. To me that is a good thing, because I’m an English fan from the first time I heard him.  Joyce Martin Sanders also sings back up on the album,  she is amazing, soulful and versatile. Let me take you through the tracks one by one…that’s probably sensible, since this ought to be a review of some sort.

First song on the album entitled ‘We Need Jesus’ written by John and Dino Elefante and Scott Springer. I knew this song from the 80’s reli-rock band Petra, and this where my opinion about Steve having that rock band lead singer quality makes suddenly sense. When he sings the first verse, he keeps it light and breathy. Steve sounds like a 17 year old during that first verse, and I mean that in a good way, he sounds kinda cute there. But when he breaks into the chorus singin’ ‘The Lord is Our God‘…he sounds like one of the best rock singer I have ever heard (Jerry Martin being the best).

Next song was penned by Bud Chambers who wrote over 7000 songs….funny thing is that once you have to mention that somebody wrote that many songs, folks only know one of two songs by that somebody. The song is “One More River To Cross‘. I always loved this song, ever since I heard it first on a Gaither tape….’And I heard it first on a Gaither tape‘ hmm got a nice ring to it.  Anyway Steve’s vocal treatment, and wonderful background singing by Michael English and Joyce Martin Sanders. The rhythm is good old stomping country tinged  rock and roll, they eliminate the usual swaying rhythm, and opt for a straight, almost mechanical pace, pumping the soul level to the max. Good stuff…man! Amazing BGV’s did I mention that already?!  Man!! do I love Michael English!

While we’re at it, the next tune is also a gem. Why? Well it is a lovely simple tune, well written lyrically and musically. Most songs that share that rare sacred bond are emotionally/musically functional. Meaning that it gets the message swiftly to where it’s supposed to be! Straight to the heart! Steve opens again in that beautiful vulnerable tone….while a acoustic guitar is lightly present. An organ caresses the then still frail frame of the song, but the buildup continues. The second story of the melodic building is crafted by Candy Hemphill Christmas. Candy daughter of the author of ‘Master of the Wind’ Joel Hemphill. She has such a wonderful clear voice, a voice solid as a rock, and yet delicate as fine china. A perfect match with Steve, a match that is made through harmony when they sing together. Beautiful isn’t word enough, divine comes closer, a Pentecostal would say ‘anointed!  And when Michael Sykes adds a third part it hits you! this is God-given talent any which way you look at it!  Candy Christmas is a wonderful singer, and a true representative of Christ’s love . Check out her Bridge Ministry, she deserves an extra star in her crown for that alone! So that’s sweet singing  by a sweet sister!

Next track already!! Well what can I say? It kinda starts uh kinda corny.  But then the chorus kicks in…and wow…love the counterparts Michael English sings around Steve, the next verse is amazing, and then that chorus again, intenser than the first, but not overdone….harmonies…well Eagles look out! Song’s title? Jesus Saves!

Steve Ladd’s next pick for the album is ‘Heaven‘ a song that was on Michael English’s first solo album! I must say that this song has never done it for me…but in this approach I kinda like it! There is much going on! Funny thing is that Michael’s  background singing makes this cut better than his own rendition. Well I can’t explain, won’t describe, or even attempt to do so! Buy the freaking record already and see for yourself!

‘We shall see the King, when He comes’ is one of my favorite tracks on this here CD! It’s gritty, with again amazing soulful back-up singing! It’s an old song! Written by either John B.Vaughan or James.D.Vaughan. The latter is the first man ever to put a Gospel Quartet on the road to sell shaped-note songbooks back in 1910.  John B. was a composer/writer who taught at a school of music down in Waco Tx. John B. Vaughan according to Wikipedia wrote only two songs, and that’s counting this one!  So I like to think John B. wrote this one too.  After all J.D. Vaughan wrote about six of ’em, and built an empire selling printed music. So let John B. have this one. What a lovely, lovely song John!

When I read the title of this song, I must admit that I hoped it to be another song.One with the exact same title. ‘Not Guilty’  is it’s title, and the song I hoped for was done by british gospel singer John Pantry. But it wasn’t the song I hoped for, though it may seem to some, that I had set myself up for a huge disappointment, and truth be told, I kinda did, didn’t I? How marvelous the surprise! What beautiful singing, wonderful lyrics and wonderful tasteful musicianship by the players. Disappointed? No sir, not at all, pleasantly surprised!

 Look out Bryan Duncan! ok there you go! See? I told you guys I would think of that name earlier on didn’t I? The next song is  sweet comfort in a dirty blues, and that’s a thumbs up y’all, very believable…for white guys that is. I mean…it’s been said that white men can’t jump, and that they can’t sing the blues either. Well you got another thing comin’. This is great, this is blues….with a amazing B3 solo thrown in for good measure. And brother Steve can sing….I think by now we can safely establish that!  The song’s entitled ‘I went away to pray’. Again the background vocalists are so great, that yours truly, a wannabe singer sat down and cried a little, after that I just went away and prayed ‘Lord will You make me better or them less good?  Great tune!

Now let me start with the song title first, I always forget to mention them early in my rants. Title is  ‘Breathe In, Breathe Out’. Now at least the title is out-of-the-way, or is it? Stupid to confess maybe, but I don’t get the title, the words don’t make sense to me. I won’t say what part I don’t get, but if you buy this amazing album, the unclear will be clear to you, or vice versa…or not at all. Spiritually I’m probably an infant, or a toddler at best.

Amazing, that to me,  this album is, how amazing Steve sings, amazing how the pickers and singers made Steve even look better than he already is. Never liked the pairing of the words ‘simply’ and ‘amazing’, …to me there’s nothing simple about grace, that’s what makes it kind of amazing! The last song is absolutely amazing, talks about the most amazing fact of life itself, that there’s Grace greater than all our sins. It’s amazing..and that is what this song says..’it’s Amazing’.

Onto the business end of music then, what’s the production-value of this album one might ask?  The answer to that one is,  it holds the highest production value of all…..and that is  feeling!  A lot of top-notch produced albums lack just that……feeling.

Let me conclude with a quote by an unknown author that says;

                                                    ‘Music is what feelings sound like’.

Album credits:

Produced by Michael Sykes, Michael English and Steve Ladd.

 Players: Joel Key-acoustic, electric guitars

Jonathon Brown- Organ, piano

Duncan Mullins- bass,session leader

Garth Justice- drums, programming

Steve Allen- percussion

Alan Pancake-  strings on Not Guilty, It’s Amazing

Dustin Jenkins-strings on Heaven

Tracks recorded at Cabana Studio (Garth Justice engineer)

Vocals recorded at Square One Studio (Steve Allen engineer)

Background vocals: Michael English, Joyce Martin Sanders, Steve Ladd

Mixed by Pete Green  

Mastered by Steve Allen