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Date: 31 January, 2008
George Luke reviews the best new releases from the Christian music scene
Now I discover that underneath Kevin Max’s arty rock posturing, there was another soul boy struggling to get out.
Kevin’s new album, The Blood, is basically Kevin acknowledging the black side of his musical upbringing. It’s an affectionate tribute to the Negro spirituals and soul and gospel music that have influenced him, with covers of songs by the likes of Stevie Wonder, Curtis Mayfield and Andrae Crouch.
Amy Grant and husband Vince Gill join Kevin on “Up above My Head I Hear Music in the Air”. Erica Campbell (one half of Mary Mary) lends her vocals to “People Get Ready”.
We’re given a foretaste of the dc Talk reunion fans everywhere want to see happen when Kevin teams up with the other two for a trippy, sitar-laden cover of Prince’s “The Cross”. For the closer, Kevin goes all country on us with “One Way One Blood” – a duet with Joanne Cash (sister of Johnny).
The Blood is a lot more accessible than Kevin’s previous solo efforts, but still has that unique Kevin Max stamp on it. Absolutely brilliant.
If Kevin’s homage to black gospel puts you in the mood for some of the real thing, there’s good news: the Blind Boys of Alabama have a new album out.
Down in New Orleans sees the gospel legends collaborating with some of that city’s most famous musicians for the first time in their nearly 70-year-long career; a truly stellar line-up which includes pianist Allen Toussaint (on “Down by the Riverside” and “If I Could Help Somebody”), and the Preservation Hall Jazz Band (“Across the Bridge” and “Uncloudy Day”).
The Blind Boys take the opportunity to pay tribute to Mahalia Jackson (a New Orleans native herself), by covering two of her songs – “If I Could Help Somebody” and “How I Got Over”. They also do a gospel re-working of “Make a Better World”, an old hit by blues singer Earl King – another of the city’s dearly departed treasures.
If adjusting to the New Orleans musicians’ style was a challenge for the Blind Boys, it certainly doesn’t show. The fusion of traditional gospel and swampy jazz is seamless; just listen to “Free at Last” or “I’ll Fly Away”. Fantastic stuff – even though for some unexplained reason, I can’t hear a New Orleans brass band or horn section play without thinking of Live & Let Die.
But the album’s concept is more Fight Club than Rocky. Take a closer look at the cover picture and you see that the boxer with his gloves in the air and the one lying on the canvas are both the same person.
A quote from the 'Message Bible' sums the album up perfectly: some of our biggest battles are the ones fought in our own heads. Kirk is disarmingly frank and open about his own shortcomings, which makes the tough love he dishes out a lot more palatable than it would otherwise be. And boy, does he dish it out!
Musically, The Fight of My Life contains some of the funkiest, most soulful grooves this side of Earth, Wind & Fire (try “Hide Me” or “Still in Love”, for instance). It’s great to see someone making good quality urban music without raiding their parents’ record collections for oldies to sample.
As for the singing… well, Kirk never actually sings, does he? That much hasn’t changed – but we wouldn’t have it any other way.
The first time I met Sara Groves, she had just returned from a trip to Rwanda. And even though she had an album to plug, she was more interested in talking about the people she’d met on her travels. Those people made a big impact on her – along with the ones she encountered in 2005 when she, her husband, father-in-law and some friends drove a bus to New Orleans and delivered a trailer load of baby supplies to victims of Hurricane Katrina.
Half the songs on Sara’s new album, Tell Me What You Know, were inspired by such extraordinary people: genocide survivors, former slaves, women trafficked into the sex trade, Deitrich Bonhoeffer and Sara’s great-grandparents.
Sara weaves their stories into a collection of beautiful, haunting songs. The pain in “I Saw What I Saw” is balanced by the optimism in “In the Girl There’s a Room” (co written by Charlie Peacock) and “Love is Still a Worthy Cause”.
Tell Me What You Know is an intense journey, but one that leaves you both challenged and enthused at the end of it. It’s not hard to see why some critics have hailed Sara one of the most thoughtful songsmiths of her generation.