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Date: 19 January, 2007

Sugar Queen by Brian Houston

 

'Judging by the clips on offer, it seems that the concert filming was directed by a Guy Ritchie wannabe who's seen too many episodes of 24.'

To give a musical start to the New Year, George Luke looks at the latest releases in the Christian music scene.

Given that she’s something of an institution in Christian music, it’s hard to believe that Amy Grant hasn’t recorded a live album in over 25 years. Anyway, she’s finally rectified that with her latest offering.

Time Again… was recorded in Texas over two nights last April. Aided by a fine six-piece band, Amy works her way through 17 of her greatest hits, including Lead Me On, Eye to Eye, and her 90s UK chart hits Every Heartbeat and Baby Baby.

Her husband Vince Gill does a guest spot playing mandolin on Saved By Love. Amy went for a laid-back, intimate feel (she even had a sofa on stage and referred to the venue as “my house”). This worked for a while, but somewhere in the middle it got a bit too laid back for me.

Short-changed

The album comes as a two-disc set (CD and bonus DVD), but the DVD left me feeling short-changed. Most bands these days give you the entire concert (or at least a “making of” documentary) on DVD when they do packages like this.

But all we get from Amy is four songs and a plug for the full-length concert DVD, available for sale separately. Judging by the clips on offer here, it seems that the concert filming was directed by a Guy Ritchie wannabe who’s seen too many episodes of 24.

I like Brian Houston a lot. And I’m in good company, because “Whispering” Bob Harris likes him too; he says so in the liner notes he’s written for Brian’s latest album, Sugar Queen.

Sugar Queen has been out for a few months now, but has just recently been picked up for distribution by ICC (which now officially makes it a Christian album, I guess).

The Irish singer-songwriter wears his Americana influences boldly on his sleeve here; finely crafted melodies sit somewhere between blues and ‘alt-country’ with some nice harmonica playing thrown in.

Brian matches upbeat melodies with downbeat lyrics in a very deceptive manner. This is most noticeable on Childish Things, in which he reminisces about the unhappier side of his childhood, and how he was told as a kid not to have too many high expectations in life.

Hell

The song gets really dark when he tells us about his grandfather, whom he doesn’t see anymore because he “had a heart attack and went to hell.”

Less dark – but equally touching – are the songs dedicated to his other half: the title track, A Woman’s Touch, and Red Badge of Courage – the blokiest love song I’ve heard in a while.

The album ends on a light-hearted note with the live recording of It’s a New Year Baby - rather appropriate for this time of year. At times Brian sounds too much like Van Morrison for his own good. But there are worse people to be influenced by, I suppose…

To disco fans of a certain age, Patti Labelle will always be remembered primarily for the ode to a New Orleans prostitute she recorded back in 1974.

But let’s forget Lady Marmelade for a minute, because Patti has gone churchy on her latest recording… and the result sounds like heaven.

The Gospel According to Patti Labelle sees Patti (like countless other soul stars before and after her) return to her gospel roots. The album boasts an impressive line-up of guests, including Mary Mary, CeCe Winans, country star Wynona Judd and hip hop’s man of the hour, Kanye West.

For the most part, the songs here are very contemporary in style. The one exception is God Ain’t Through, to which the Soul Seekers bring a fine performance of the old Gospel Quartet sound.

Classy

The Gospel According to Patti Labelle is as classy and well-produced an album as anyone would expect one of America’s first ladies of soul to come up with. In the absence of Ready Brek, a quick blast of this CD should provide you with ample warmth to face those cold winter mornings.

Switchfoot were catapulted out of the Christian music bubble into the mainstream when their song Meant to Live was featured on the Spider-Man 2 film soundtrack a few years ago.

Their latest album is titled Oh! Gravity and it’s brilliant. And it’s not just the music, either; you just might want to unfold the CD cover, frame it and hang it on your wall.

Jonathan Foreman’s songwriting skills remain the band’s biggest asset, though his influences aren’t hard to spot. I can hear shades of Green Day in the title track and American Dream, with the killer couplet “When success is equated with excess/the ambition for excess wrecks us.”

Faust, Midas and Myself shows a great knack for storytelling, and Head Over Heels (In This Life) is classic Switchfoot, very much in the same vein as their Spider-Man song.

The legendary British producer Steve Lillywhite serves as executive producer on the album. Lillywhite also produced the track Awakening (the obligatory U2-soundalike track no self-respecting Christian rock band’s album should be without).

Oh! Gravity made a few Christian rock critics’ “Best Albums of 2006” lists, despite the fact that it was only released in America on Boxing Day. At the time, that seemed hasty at best, or like a bad case of zealous hype at worst. Having heard the album now, I can safely say the accolades were deserved. Hasty, yes. But deserved all the same.

Buy the albums from amazon.co.uk using the links below, and Christian Aid receives part of the cost for its work around the world.

Brian Houston – Sugar Queen

The Gospel According to Patti Labelle

Amy Grant – Time Again… (live)

Switchfoot – Oh! Gravity