Album Review – Seven Stars (Chris Haines)

My good friend Chris Haines released his first album But God back in 2011, and I you had a chance to hear it, you’ll be pleased to hear that the eagerly anticipated follow-on album was released earlier this year.

In Seven Stars, Chris takes his considerable talent as a singer, songwriter and musician, and treats us to another collection of thoughtful and deep songs, all beautifully arranged.

The album kicks off with the upbeat yet intimate song of worship More of You, and is followed by Face of Flame which reflects on the theme of the glory of God.

The next track, Nothing can Separate is probably the most up-beat on the album, with a catchy tune rejoicing in the truth of Rom 8:38. It’s followed by gentle, almost lullaby-like prayer of blessing, Watching over You.

Augustine’s Song is lyrically one of the richest songs on the album, drawing from the thought of Augustine, backed by lovely guitar work. Lost and Broken showcases Chris’ talent for layered harmonies, and Agape is a intimate love song.

If I had to pick a favourite from the album, it would probably be one of the final three tracks. No Treasure features more of Chris’ signature use of doubled vocals and layerered harmonies, beginning as a melancholic prayer of surrender, before slowly building into an majestic orchestral climax. Strangers has a simple yet beautiful melody, and like so many others on this album, starts gently before gradually building into a crescendo, before stripping it right back down again.

The final, and title track Seven Stars, draws from the imagery of revelation, and builds a powerful sense of anticipation of Christ’s second coming.

Overall, I would say that this is another top album from Chris, with the quality of arrangements particularly impressive. They move effortlessly between waves of peacefulness and intensity, making the listening experience both relaxing and inspiring. Why not treat yourself or a friend to a copy for Christmas?

New Album–From Jerusalem to Rome

If you’ve followed this blog for some time, you’ll know that I occasionally post about my home studio recordings. One project which I have been working at on and off for over a decade now is a concept album around the life of the apostle Paul. The songs were all written by my friend Ali back in 2001, and we recorded the vocals to all 13 songs in just a few epic late night sessions in a spare bedroom with Ali singing into a cheap microphone through a pair of my wife’s tights stretched over a coathanger.

I was left with the task to work out some arrangements and record the backing tracks. It took far longer than intended (five children has had something to do with that), but this year I decided I wanted to put the project to rest, and finished off the final two songs (Suffering Servant and Demas Blues).

The other reason for my reticence to release this album is that really all the songs could do with being re-recorded for one reason or another. I’ve learned a lot about recording, and improved a lot as a musician over the last 10 years, and some of my earlier work makes me cringe (in fact most of my current work does too). But I’ve found Graham Cochrane and Joe Gilder at the Simply Recording podcast to be very inspiring. Their advice to set time-limits was just what I needed to hear.

If I had to pick my favourite three of Ali’s songs I think I’d go for My Life for your Glory, Opposition and Joy, and the reprise of Teach me to Fall. Even if you’re not a big fan of the blues, make sure you check out the lyrics – Ali has an excellent way with words. I’ve put the whole album up on bandcamp so you can listen for free.

Album Review–But God (Chris Haines)

This is an album I have been anticipating for a long time, the first solo album from my good friend Chris Haines, a man gifted with the rare combination of being a great musician, singer, song-writer and theologian. Whilst Chris is also a worship leader and has written a number of excellent congregational songs, this is not your typical “me too” worship leader album in the style of Tim Hughes. Instead, I would describe this as a set of theological reflections on the gospel.

The opener and title track, “But God”, brings together ideas from Romans, Ephesians, and the parable of the prodigal son to describe the transformation that has taken place in our salvation. The chorus “You’re so rich in mercy” is a memorable one, and has stuck in my head the past week.

Track two, Glorious, has become a congregational favourite at King’s Community Church, and is one of my favourites on the album, a worship song focusing on the mystery of the cross. This is followed by Epignosis, probably the most beautiful melody on offer, an intimate worship song with some well crafted lyrics from Chris & co-writer Neil Cornish.

The mood shifts slightly for Troubled, a nice adaptation of Ira Sankey’s hymn “Able to deliver”. Track five is Amazed, and the first of two tracks that previously appeared on the King’s Community Church worship album “Magnify”. Amazed is probably the most successful congregational worship song Chris has written, but here he presents it in a fresh way, reimagining the harmony for the verse.

Track six is Search me, which was for me the best song on the Magnify album, featuring a great guitar solo. This time, Chris opts for a slightly gentler version of this lovely adaptation of Psalm 139, sadly lacking the solo, although the new arrangement fits well with the restrained mood of this album. Always good features rather melancholic sounding verses, before building to an uplifting chorus. God who sees is a gentle song, with a simple yet beautiful melody.

The final two tracks are also co-written with Neil Cornish, and feature some of the most interesting and creative lyrics of the album. The garden returns again to the theme of “but God”, exploring the gospel as a reverse of Adam & Eve’s expulsion from the garden of Eden. From my window is based on the warning of Proverbs 7 against the seductive charms of the adulterous woman. At first glance, this may seem a slightly strange way to end an album themed on the gospel, so it is fitting that the song finishes on a note of grace.

Though this is an independent release. the quality of musicianship, recording and production is very high throughout. The quality of Chris’ guitar playing shines through, and the subtle vocal harmonies add depth to the production. But this album offers a lot more than just a nice sound. With lyrics rich in grace and hope, listening is an edifying and uplifting experience.

Make sure you visit the But God album website allowing you to preview the tracks, peruse the lyrics and order your own physical or digital download copy. I am told that it will soon be available on iTunes and am already looking forward to see what Chris comes up with next.

The Eutychus Song

Liam Thatcher recently posted a poem on his blog entitled “Ode to Eutychus”. I liked it so much that I began experimenting to see if I could put a tune to it. Inspiration struck and before long I found myself writing a chorus for it, which is almost a song in its own right.

Liam’s original poem contains some long words, so a dictionary may be needed (see his post for the glossary):

Through the night St Paul orated.
Eutychus, he hibernated.
Thus he got defenestrated,
Hit the ground; absquatulated!

All the crowd vociferated.
Paul felt quite incriminated.
Earnestly he supplicated,
’til he was reanimated

And here’s the extended chorus I have added:

Oh Eutychus, how could you do this to us?
While Paul was preaching through the night
You gave us such a fright

Oh Eutychus, were you seeking for attention,
were you trying to get a mention
in the book of Acts

Oh Eutychus, why did you interrupt our training
Just as Paul began explaining
Why women should wear hats

Oh Eutychus, it was anything but boring
but still you started snoring
And then we heard a splat

Oh Eutychus, that was such a nasty fall
And I’m so grateful to St Paul
That you lived to tell the tale

Oh Eutychus, I’m so glad that you’re not dead,
I really am so sorry,
I only meant to wake you
I didn’t mean to push you
I hope that you’ll forgive me
Eutychus, O Eutychus

Sadly I don’t have the time to make a proper recording of it, but here’s a quick and somewhat ropey rendition in front of my webcam for your entertainment:

Where have all the OT songs gone?

Matt Hosier’s post on fatness stirred up some memories of a classic old song we used to sing in my youth growing up in restorationist circles, based on Isa 55:2 in the King James Version. My favourite line went "and your soul shall delight itself in fatness, in fatness, in fatness" – a great Biblical justification for a second helping of cake. Along similar lines, I always felt that the song based on the prayer of Jabez "O that you would bless me, and enlarge my borders" sounded like a request for a bigger waistline.

It made me ponder how Scripture saturated many of the songs we used to sing in those days were, especially rich in Old Testament references, which have virtually been expunged from modern worship songs (with the exception of the "safe" bits of Psalms). I think this is due in part to the seeker sensitive movement and in part to the lack of systematic coverage of the entire Bible in the church’s program of teaching and preaching.

For instance, we would often sing of Zion: "Awake, awake, O Zion and clothe yourself with strength" (Isa 52:1), "Sing and rejoice O daughter of Zion, for lo I come" (Zech 2:10) or "O Zion, O Zion, that bringest good tidings, get thee up into the high mountain" (Isa 40:9).

Other songs picked up even more obscure Old Testament references: "I hear the sound of rustling in the leaves of the trees" (2 Sam 5:24), "the trees of the fields shall clap their hands" (Isa 55:12), "Pierce my ear O Lord my God" (Deut 15:17), "Within the veil, I now would come" (Lev 16), "Lord our God, he runs in the heavens, he rides on the clouds" (Ps 104:3), "Lord give me also springs of water" (Josh 15:19), and even "I will not be like those of Ephraim, who carrying bows, turned away when the heat of the battle came" (Ps 78:9).

I’ll just mention a couple of other favourites. One song contained the line "I will extol your love more than wine" (Song 1:4), which always struck me as somewhat odd in a strictly teetotal church. Damning with faint praise anyone?

There was less squeamishness in those days about the more abrasive portions of Scripture. We would sing about "the horse and the rider he has thrown into the sea" (Ex 15:21) and "God’s enemies shall be crushed beneath our feet" (Rom 16:20).

For years I sang about the "guard of my salvation", before realising that this was just Ern Baxter’s way of pronouncing "God of my salvation" in his broad American accent.

So, what classic OT allusions do you miss? And who’s going to redress the balance? Let’s have some new songs about the wine of Lebanon, the balm of Gilead and the jawbone of a donkey. Who will be the first modern songwriter to mention Melchizedek or Canaan? Sadly, my own contribution based on the song of Deborah, has yet to gain widespread acceptance.

Spotify Albums of the Month – Nov 2009

It’s time for a bumper Christmas special. The good news is that there so much Christmas music on Spotify that you could play carols non-stop through the 12 days of Christmas without having to hear the same album twice. The bad news is that most of it’s not worth listening to. Most albums seem to include at least a few of the following:

  • Tired, overwrought regurgitations of the same old carols, barely indistinguishable from every other album also featuring O Holy Night and O Come, O Come Emmanuel.
  • Intolerably twee songs about Santa, snow and stockings
  • Woeful attempts at modernising carols by performing them in heavy metal, polka, bluegrass, hip hop, and every other genre utterly unsuited to Christmas music.

But after wading through sackfuls of seasonal offerings, here’s my guide to the mountains of Christmas music on Spotify…

Chris Tomlin – Glory in the Highest (2009) (Listen on Spotify)

This recent release features a mix of traditional and modern songs, with a live worship feel. Angels We Have Heard on High works really well. He offers a new take on the magnificat with My Soul Magnifies the Lord. He sometimes breathes new life into carols with an alternative chorus or verse melody. After an upbeat start, Glory in the Highest marks the start of some more reflective songs, including a few guest appearances from other worship leaders. The closing track, Born That We May Have Life sounds like belongs in a Christmas musical production. Christianity Today complained that they didn’t like the live worship style, but I thought it made a nice change from most other Christmas albums.

Rating: ★★★★½

Casting Crowns – Peace on Earth (2008) (Listen on Spotify)

Mostly traditional carols, nicely performed of course, but that isn’t enough to make this one stand out from the crowd, despite getting off to a good start with I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day. While You Were Sleeping is the most interesting on offer, starting off as a reworking of O Little Town of Bethlehem, before bringing in a prophetic edge (spoiled by dispensational left-behind overtones). The album closes with a instrumental piano & strings rendition of the beautifully mournful O Come, O Come Emmanuel.

Rating: ★★★★☆

Jars of Clay – Christmas Songs (2007) (Listen on Spotify)

Having enjoyed several of their other albums, I was a little disappointed to see that they succumb to seasonal sentimentality with tracks like Wonderful Christmastime. Musically though, they keep things a bit more interesting than most, with the traditional carols they choose getting major overhauls. My favourite is Love Came Down At Christmas.

Rating: ★★★½☆

Sara Groves – O Holy Night (2008) (Listen on Spotify)

Another one that lets a bit of sentimental mush sneak in, including a small child reading the Christmas story in a cute voice. Groves offers some new tunes to It Came Upon a Midnight Clear and O Holy Night. Apart from the irritating Toy Packaging, this was a pleasant listen.

Rating: ★★★☆☆

Michael W. Smith – The Ultimate Christmas Collection (2009) (Listen on Spotify)

This three disk special provides plenty of material to provide a soothing backing track to a leisurely Christmas dinner. It sounds like a Christmas movie soundtrack, with piano and plenty of full-on orchestral crescendos. We are spared no cliché, including choirs of children and plenty of jingling bells. These are rounded off with a generous helping of musical interludes and orchestral renditions. If Disney were to make a “Magic of Christmas” album, this is what it would sound like.

Rating: ★★★☆☆

Sufjan Stevens – Songs for Christmas (Listen on Spotify)

A collection of five short albums, featuring mostly traditional songs, but played in Stevens’ distinctively folksy style. We are treated to several short instrumental extracts, as well as full length songs. There is a good number of classic carols and even hymns (such as Come Thou Fount of Every Blessing), in addition to a selection of more light-hearted Christmas tunes such as Get Behind Me Santa. This collection would benefit from being pruned down a little, especially as a number of songs feature twice across the five disks.

Rating: ★★★☆☆

Graham Kendrick – The Gift (1988) (Listen on Spotify)

Overlooking for a moment how dated this sounds, it is apparent that this is a landmark production from one of the UK’s most respected song-smiths. Rather than fobbing us off with an album full of traditional carols, Kendrick has crafted almost 20 fresh Christmas songs. OK, some of them (actually, come to think of it, most of them), are really cheesy in a “Christmasy” kind of way. But what this album offers is an escape from the overly familiar lyrics of the traditional carols, allowing for some genuinely fresh light to be shed on the wonder of the incarnation.

Some highlights include a brief extract from his superb hymn The Servant King (a song which sadly seems to have fallen into disuse). Good News while being a little on the jolly side for modern tastes, deserved to have been sung by more churches. God With Us, is my favourite track, with great lyrics exploring the way Christ identified with the human race through his incarnation.

Spotify’s version of the album is bundled with another of Kendrick’s Christmas albums, “Rumours of Angels” from 1994. It would be great to see some other CCM artists attempt similar projects, rather than churning out yet more covers of carols. Maybe Stuart Townend will oblige?

Rating: ★★★☆☆

Amy Grant – A Christmas Album (1983) (Listen on Spotify)

To my mind, Amy Grant is the queen of Christmas albums, having produced a series of successful seasonal releases over her illustrious career. Somehow, where others fail, she manages to pull off the Santa, sleighbells and snow lyrics without ending up in the kitsch category (or maybe I’m biased because it brings back happy memories of listening to this album as a 7 year old at Christmas). There are several Christmas albums from her on Spotify, but I have picked out her earliest, mainly because it features my favourites  Emmanuel, and Love Has Come.

Rating: ★★★½☆

And if all that isn’t enough for you, I must also point you in the direction of my favourite Christmas album, sadly not available on Spotify, but can be obtained for free from Noise Trade. It is Sojourn Music’s Advent Songs, and is well worth checking out.

Spotify Albums of the Month – April

I have been enjoying listening to a variety of new albums on Spotify again this month, so here’s another round of recommendations for you to try out.

Jars of ClayThe Long Fall Back to Earth.

 

This album was released only a couple of weeks ago, so it provided the perfect opportunity for me to check out yet another popular and successful Christian artist that thus far had passed me by. It took me a few listens before I really got into it. I would describe it as a consistently good album with no real stand-out tracks. There are lots of gentle, atmospheric melodic tracks interspersed with a few more upbeat numbers, and shades of Coldplay here and there. My favourite tracks on the album are Hero and Heart.

Jon ForemanFall, Winter, Spring, Summer EPs.

Jon Foreman is lead singer and main songwriter with Switchfoot, but last year he completed a series of four solo EPs, one for each of the four seasons, with a more acoustic and stripped-down backing than the Switchfoot albums. The quality of lyrics is high, with some songs telling poignant stories, and several based on Scriptural passages. The backing is mostly acoustic guitar with various orchestral instruments quietly in the background adding interest.

Here’s my pick of the tracks from each album. Fall: Equally Skilled. Winter: Behind Your Eyes. Spring: Your Love is Strong. Summer: Instead of a Show

Chris TomlinHello Love

Having enjoyed his last two releases (See the Morning and Arriving) I had high hopes for this album, but must confess to being a little disappointed. Its not that there is anything ‘wrong’ with it per se, it just seems too similar to everything that has gone before.

Opening tracks Sing, Sing, Sing and Jesus, Messiah essentially carry right on from where he left off before. Perhaps he would benefit from working with a different producer and band on future albums. I’m not sure that many of the tracks will have the enduring appeal of previous congregational worship hits such as Indescribable and How Great is Our God. He covers Bluetree’s God of this City, which gives extra exposure to an excellent song. The title track Love, complete with Watoto Children’s Choir would be more suited as a theme tune to a forthcoming Lion King movie.

Jimmy NeedhamNot Without Love.

Christianity Today magazine gave this album a rave review and even compared his passionate lyrics to Keith Green. I decided it was worth a listen even though the “jazz-inflected acoustic pop” is not quite my normal choice of music. The opening track champions the apologetic power of love over mere words and arguments, but its hard to be provocative when your making a point everyone agrees with. There’s a nice mixture of moods. My favourite tracks are Before and After and The Author. The spoken closing track is certainly passionate, but in my view a little overwrought. I skipped it on subsequent listens. Overall a refreshing change from my normal listening habits, but probably only one for occasional listening.

PS Apologies to any readers in regions where you can’t access Spotify. I’m sure there are equivalent ways of checking these albums out.