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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CD Review- “Pure & Simple” Gaither Vocal Band (by Auke Bijlsma)

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Artist: Gaither Vocal Band

Album: Pure & Simple

Label: Gaither Music

Producer: Ben Isaacs

I know many fans of the Gaither Vocal Band urged the powers that be (Bill Gaither ) to record something that wasn’t stacked to high heaven, over orchestrated and generally overproduced. A cry for a more real and straightforward record was heard. I was one of them, so when I heard of an album in the making that would be kept pure, and simple I was kinda excited to say the least. Now without further delay, here’s my view on the album.

The album opens with a song entitled ‘Rasslin’ Jacob’ it seems that the arrangement that The Dixie Hummingbirds used on their Diamond Jubilation: 75th Anniversary album was the Vocal Band’s mold, it’s almost exactly the same. Michael English takes the lead vocals and this is the kind of song he carries very well. Bill Gaither sings nice bass lines, the other guys sound great, but  the mix sounds kinda muffled . I would have liked to hear more dynamics, the tenor part isn’t prominent enough. The Dixie Hummingbirds version is different in that respect, the Vocal Band’s cut kinda sounds like a solo effort by Michael English, the vocals backing him up could be anyone, I like to be able to pick out each singer’s individual part.  The ending by the Gaither posse is where they leave the arrangement of the Dixie Hummingbirds, they shift to unison before ending in modern harmony and that is also where the parts can be identified and I love it.

‘Come To Jesus’  is a David Phelps feature, this song written by Mindy Smith is drenched in fiddles, mandolins. Although it’s a great song, and David Phelps sounds like he always does (which is great), this too sounds like something that would be considered a solo effort. The harmonies are stellar but too muffled, not expressive, just awesome BGV’s. There’s a lot of reverb and echo on this song, not really simple and or pure but it adds to the atmosphere of the tune. If you judge this song on its own merit, it’s a stunning song, but I can’t help listening to it as a GVB effort, and that’s where I am somewhat disappointed.

‘I Don’t Want To Get Adjusted’  doesn’t disappoint, again Michael shows he’s still a monster of a lead singer, and he makes this song his own. The harmony vocals are awesome but again to modest in the mix, I miss brilliance, the highs and lows are too intertwined. I am the first to admit that this is a matter of taste, so to each his own.

‘Glorious Freedom’ is one of my favorite songs ever written, love the build, the construction of the song, and lyrically it’s the ultimate in expressing the perk we Christians get when we make Him our choice. I love how the guys come in on the verse, here you can hear that little to no stacking of the vocals was done..awesome! Love this song.

‘Whole Lotta Shakin’ Going On’ is a Mark Lowry feature, at first I didn’t care for this song that musically resembles the Peggy Lee song ‘Fever’. But the subtle ad-libs by the other guys, make me appreciate it more and more. Michael especially has some great ones. Also Bill Gaither can be heard prominently on the 3:00 mark, doing something I heard the bass-singer of The Delta Rhythm boys do, on a Nat ‘Cannonball” Adderley’s composition entitled ‘Work Song‘. Bill is loudly singing a deep and breathy ‘whoo’. As you should be able to figure out, I’m a sucker for details and this kind of stuff get’s me excited. Like this song very much.

Lehman’s ‘The Love of God’ is amazing. Vocally it’s perfectly arranged, the track is breathtaking. It’s very, very slow, and it may not something you would love to play all day without getting depressed. But if you’re in the mood for something melancholic, yet uplifting this is the song you wanna play!

‘Do You Wanna be Well’ is a Wes Hampton feature, if I didn’t knew any better I would have thought Ricky Skaggs sang the lead. Wes sounds just like Ricky did in the 80’s, this song  is the embodiment of easy-listening music. Lovely, lovely tune, and after the dragging, heavy funeral march tempo of ‘The Love of God’, you’re suddenly feeling carefree and happy again.

Charles Johnson’s ‘Winds of This World’ is next, what can I say? Michael was born to sing this kind of song. He’s just built for it. Love this song, there’s one thing though that bothers me in this song, and that’s the third verse, I will tell you what bothers me. After the awesome and powerful piano-solo that is situated between the second verse and the third, the track seems to collapse. The piano seems to be wrecked after the beating that it just took . The piano is turned down so radically in the mix it doesn’t make sense, you think ‘what happened to the pianoplayer? Later in the chorus the piano can be heard better, and the song picks up momentum when a choir is added to the mix to work to a great finally. Great song, awesome vocals by all the guys, the only ‘flaw‘ is the third verse and the lack of the piano in the mix after that genius solo.

‘Rumormill’ written by Jon Mohr is a Mark Lowry feature, love the lyric of this song, and the track is also great. Great guitar playing on this track. Not my favorite cut on the album, but a good remake of this song.

Another remake is next, and a lovely one! Michael sings the lead on ‘The Old Rugged Cross Made The Difference’. Never heard a better of interpretation of this song. I always regarded The Imperials version of this Gaither classic as the ultimate rendition till now. Awesome, especially David and Michael’s voice compliment each other more than I ever heard.

David is featured on ‘Fool’s Gold’ a haunting song, that fits David’s equally haunting voice.

“Cup of Sorrow” a Amos Lee tune that was featured on Lee’s ‘Mission Bell’ album is a Michael English feature, and it’s one of my favorite tunes on the entire album. The inclusion of an electric guitar, a Hammond B3 on this song on the predominantly acoustic track is a good call. Overall that was a good call, I think an all acoustic album would have been boring. Love the mandolin solo that follows the somewhat honky-tonk piano solo! The harmonies are stellar, and the tune demands you to sing along. Awesome song!

Teddy Huffam’s ‘I’m Rich’ is so awesome, David has the lead, on this song is where the full potential of this all-star GVB is heard for the first time in a long while. Beautiful harmonic inversions, and modern harmonies.

“I’ll Pray For You’ is the most beautiful song I ever heard, never have I heard Wes Hampton sing better! The track is also one of the most beautiful I ever heard. The track opens with a simple piano, you can hear the sound of the mechanics of the keys. Breathy BGV’s by the rest of the guys join in, an acoustic guitar is added, a mandolin.  A beautiful chamber orchestra is added to the mix, strings that don’t sound bluegrassy, or country. I was reminded of Schindler’s list, the track has a jewish feel to it. One of the most beautiful songs ever by anyone.

“Sow Mercy’ written by Reba and Dony McGuire, is one of those songs that sound like you’ve known it forever. Message is great, musically not really special. Mark Lowry is still one of the best and most solid singers in the business, very consistent.

A must buy for everybody who loves well crafted and produced music. Ben Isaacs did a great job on this one. A surprising album, that might prove to be an acquired taste to some, or an instant favorite. All in all I love the album, although overall I think the harmony voices sound too much like BGV’s.

Auke