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Energy, sense of fun vital for a cappella albums to compete

The a cappella world is in dire need of a Simon Cowell.” That’s what Billy Wilson, a Scottish minister and musician, told The Christian Chronicle a few years ago. He didn’t mean we should say to aspiring a cappella singers, “If you had tried singing like that 2,000 years ago, people would have stoned you.” (Simon Cowell said something like that once.) But we should be honest about the good — and bad — of a cappella music if we’re going to package it on CDs and showcase it to the rest of the religious world — and if we believe it’s the best possible way to worship our father. That’s especially true today, when a cappella albums don’t enjoy a guaranteed audience among church members. Competition from instrumental Christian albums is stiff, and youths who grow up in Churches of Christ are more likely to dream of becoming the next Todd Agnew than the next Rodney Britt. If commercial a cappella music is going to stake a claim to its rightful share of the Christian market, Acappella’s latest album, Radiance, ($15.98, available at www.theacappella company.com) isn’t going to help.
The newest incarnation of the vocal super group, launched by Keith Lancaster nearly a quarter of a century ago, delivers an album that’s high on precision but low on excitement.
The songs on Radiance feel distinctly unenergetic — lacking the sense of excitement and levity present on other Acappella albums, including Set Me Free, Travelin’ Shoes and Rescue. Each track on Radiance possesses the production values that have defined Acappella since the 1980s, but the group’s characteristic sense of adventure is lacking.
Radiance does provide a few standout tracks. “Be Devoted” is a great (albeit short) song with a memorable, follow-the-leader hook. “Lord Save Me” will have you tapping your toes to the rhythm, and “Temptations of Christ” is a great retelling of Matthew 4.
But few of the songs are memorable enough to replay themselves in your mind, even after multiple listens. There’s no “Who is Gonna Tell the Child?” on this album, no “Hush” or “I Feel Good” — or even a song like “Emergency” off Acappella’s previous release, Heaven and Earth.
For high-energy a cappella, check out Awesome God ($15.95, available at www.theacappellacompany.com), the first release in The Acappella Company’s “Praise & Harmony” series.
Instead of using a quartet (or quintet) of singers, Lancaster assembles a group of more than 200 church members and leads them through 25 church favorites, including “Ain’t No Rock,” “My Life is in You,” “Hide Me Away, O Lord,” and “It’s All Right.”
The album includes a training disc with all 25 selections sung by four solo voices. (You don’t even need to read shaped notes to learn the parts.) Sure, a lot of us have sung these devotional songs for years, but few of us have taken the time to learn the parts — and they do have parts.
Awesome God is more than a teaching tool. Church members, especially those in small congregations, should really enjoy this album, which flows between songs seamlessly and makes the listener feel like part of a big, spirited worship service. You can’t help but sing along.
A unique addition to the world of a cappella music comes from First Call. The instrumental group from outside Churches of Christ experiments with traditional hymns and pure vocals on its latest release, Rejoice! ($15, available at www.firstcallhymns.com).
Since they’re used to performing with instruments, the members of First Call approach a cappella music like it’s new and experimental. There’s a unique, staccato pulse on “The Solid Rock,” better known to many of us as “My Hope is Built on Nothing Less,” and the group gives new life to “Come Thou Fount of Every Blessing.”
And how many a cappella groups have tackled “O Sacred Head, Now Wounded” on their albums? First Call makes it work, and even gives it a slightly Celtic twist.
I should point out that First Call does “cheat” a little bit, using violin intros and muted drum beats on a few of the tracks. But the core of each selection is performed a cappella.
Most importantly, First Call seems to have a lot of fun recording with voices only. Not everything they try works (sometimes their music borders on silly), but Rejoice! nonetheless captures the joy they seem to feel by escaping the boundaries of instrumental recordings.
A cappella music could use a Simon Cowell or two, I think. But it also occurs to me that the people who sing it best listen to what God puts in their hearts — not what guys like Simon Cowell think.
ERIK TRYGGESTAD is assistant managing editor of The Christian Chronicle.

Filed under: Reviews

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