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VIP by Manic Drive VIP by Manic Drive
Canadian pop-rock group Manic Drive (brothers Shawn and Michael Cavallo and friend Anthony Moreino) have released their fifth album, VIP. When the record begins, pulsing opening track “Electric”...
Traces of Mercy by Traces of Mercy by
Originally posted on my blog, ReadLove.

I’ve enjoyed...
There You'll Find Me by There You'll Find Me by
Originally posted on my blog, ReadLove.

This was my first experience...

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Fun Time, If Transient | Posted November-12-2014
Canadian pop-rock group Manic Drive (brothers Shawn and Michael Cavallo and friend Anthony Moreino) have released their fifth album, VIP. When the record begins, pulsing opening track “Electric” makes it clear the guys have hearts intent on reaching the younger generation. Heavy beats, programmed synth, and guest rap spots from popular Christian colleagues (Trevor McNevan of Thousand Foot Krutch and Manwell of Group 1 Crew) help to keep the sound current, accessible, and danceable. This is a project designed to be a fun, feel-good listening experience. But don’t forget: this is Christian Music, so there is also an underlying message designed to point to the strength and hope found in God’s love.

Some tracks deliver this message more successfully than others. Though their lyrics can fall into cliches, when the guys keep their approach simple, they fare better. For example, upbeat “Street Lights” likens God’s illumination of one’s path during times of doubt to street lights brightening a darkened avenue. Similarly, “Good News” is an energetic, straight ahead number about brimming over with an excitement that can’t be contained — sharing the “good news” of the gospel with the world. Eager to speak a language that is relevant and modern, Manic Drive draws upon worldly imagery and analogies. And sometimes this backfires. When in “VIP,the group makes membership in the Kingdom of God analogous to the extravagances and luxuries of life as a VIP in the clubbing and music scene, they undercut their message by undervaluing God’s love for us. Interestingly enough, they use similar images to different and better effect with “I Hide You Seek” which shows Heaven and Hollywood are indeed vastly distant realms.

When Manic Drive slows it down with numbers like “King of Mercy” and “Song to Sing,” they sing with an unquestionable earnestness. And these worship driven numbers are as easy to listen to as the more rhythmically aggressive tracks. Indeed, from top to bottom, the album is sonically pleasing and polished with strong production values. However, when one looks past the shiny exterior, the lyrics often leave something to be desired. And, ultimately, it’s this need for deeper, more challenging, more creative songwriting that keeps VIP from being an album that I would return to for repeated listens.

Verdict: 3 of 5 Stars. High Production Value + Lackluster Lyrics = Fun Time (While It Lasts).

With their latest effort, VIP, Manic Drive has written and recorded a set of songs that should give listeners a musically good time. Lyrically, though, there isn’t quite enough depth to inspire repeated listens.

Visit my blog before November 13th at 8PM ET for a chance to win a copy of this album! Enter here:


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| Posted May-24-2014
Originally posted on my blog, ReadLove.

This was my first experience with both NetGalley and Jenny B. Jones (thank you, Thomas Nelson!). I'm happy to report it was a positive one. I don't have a lot of experience reading Christian fiction, so I was a little surprised that There You'll Find Me felt very contemporary. In fact, in the early pages, I was looking for differences to set it apart from similar mainstream releases like Anna and the French Kiss. On the surface, these two titles seemed similar: an American teenaged-girl goes abroad for school and drama and relationships ensue. A hotel heiress whose rebellious ways made her a tabloid star meets a Hollywood big ticket vampire boy. A young Paris Hilton and Rob Pattinson in a Christian book? And Finley is a cynic? The differences were not obvious, but who says Christian books can't be hip and funny?

Luckily, I enjoyed There You'll Find Me a lot more than I did Anna and the French Kiss. This novel succeeds in many areas. It has humor without ever being rude or vulgar. You won't find any underage drinking in this book -- Finley's rebellious time immediately following the death of her brother is mentioned, but we are not given details. Finley's family comes across as loving and supportive. This is a rare treat to see in a teen book! Emotions feel genuine. When Finley is upset, she never sounds whiny. Given that she's still grieving the loss of her brother, her occasionally standoffish attitude makes sense. Her grief gives a context and a meaning to her actions, and Finley is very self aware. Her character is one that many girls will be able to relate to. She's very hard on herself. In fact, one aspect of Finley's personality quickly became bothersome: her compulsive counting of calories! This annoyed me for some time, as I felt like the book was looking the other way. In actuality, though, the novel turns this behavior into a discussion point and successfully deals very plainly and honestly with a difficult subject.

The relationships in the novel were realistic and solid. Love was real. Finley and Beckett develop a legitimate friendship and have good conversation. They forge bonds based on trust and caring. This is no heated, lusty teen angst style romance. Finley's friendship with Mrs. Sweeney also develops in a believable manner. Nothing comes too easily or quickly. The two learn slowly how to trust each other and communicate in a productive way. There is a lot of humor and a lot of heart in the dynamic between Finley and Mrs. Sweeney. I laughed and cried while reading this book, and it's rare for me to find myself laughing out loud or with tears trickling down my face while reading. Have no fear, this is not melodrama; it's more subtle and measured. And you'll cry because events unfold in a way that is neither forced nor manipulated. Additionally, when Finley starts dealing with her emotions, you'll find that Jones does not sugarcoat things or bring resolution too quickly. Isn't this how life works? We struggle and we fight, and we may or may not succeed. But we don't learn to fly overnight. I loved that Jones doesn't oversimplify things.

There You'll Find Me is indeed a Christian book. I think you'll notice some of the differences I've outlined above. The novel succeeds in presenting the story of a girl struggling to find God and hear God's voice during a time of personal upheaval in a manner that is current, subtle, and even-handed. Readers will never feel they are being preached to. Finley's questioning is shown as healthy and normal. It's encouraged. And when Finley prays, it feels like it's coming from her heart and her mouth, not the voice of an authoress on a soapbox. We see characters care for and love one another. I believe they all hear God's voice through their heartfelt efforts to help each other and their desire to know one another. Again, this is life. And as such, any reader should be able to read this book without feeling discomfort or exclusion.

The only quibble I have is a minor one: the author may have taken on too many plot elements. In doing so, some areas or characters are left unexplored or underrepresented. For instance, I would have enjoyed seeing more daily life interaction between Finley and her host family. And though at times, the various narrative pieces felt hard to manage, I feel this was an intentional effort to highlight Finley's struggle: She is trying to juggle grief, expectations and pressure surrounding her music school audition, issues surrounding life and death in her burgeoning friendship with Mrs. Sweeney, her relationship with Beckett, issues with control and self-image, as well as her quest to find God again. That's an awful lot to deal with! But this is a reality many are faced with every day.

I highly recommend There You'll Find Me.

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| Posted May-24-2014
Originally posted on my blog, ReadLove.

I’ve enjoyed several Michael Landon, Jr. features lately, namely his productions of the first two books in Beverly Lewis’ The Heritage of Lancaster County series, The Shunning and The Confession, and more recently, his work with Janette Oke’s When Calls The Heart. The latter has quickly become a favorite TV series in my house. So when I discovered he had a hand in writing Traces of Mercy, I had to read it!

Given Michael Landon’s, Jr.’s background in film, it’s only natural that he and Cindy Kelley would chose to thrust us immediately into the action. And that means straight into a Civil War battle in border state Missouri. We follow a Rebel sniper with eyes trained on one target after another, before something goes wrong when he encounters a Union soldier saying goodbye to a mortally wounded comrade who turns out to be the soldier’s little brother.

Soon the war ends, and we find that the sniper, who ends up being treated by the town doctor, is actually a woman. The doctor diagnoses her with amnesia, nurses her, and quickly grows fond of her. Because it wouldn’t be proper to keep this lady patient, whom he calls “Missy,” the good doctor takes her to live with nuns who are preparing to minister to children orphaned by the war. Drama ensues!

The beginning of the novel is gripping, and you’ll find yourself caring about this amnesiac woman, later dubbed “Mercy” by the nuns because of a Mercy Medallion she is wearing. Mercy is headstrong and independent, but disoriented by her lack of memories. Through portions of her thoughts as written in her journal, readers will come to sympathize with Mercy.

I like to think of Traces of Mercy as similar to Jane Austen but set in post-Civil War America rather than Victorian England. It has a flair for the dramatic, which if not taken too seriously, is refreshingly entertaining. Emotions run hot, those darned conventions like decorum and societal norms are inescapable, characters make mistakes and tell lies, while the plot ever thickens.

Themes center around showing mercy and giving forgiveness. Additionally, the consequences of dishonesty are examined as well as the importance of respecting others. When some of the characters take certain actions under the guise of revealing the truth, it turns out their actions don’t always stem from pure motives. Happily, most learn from their missteps. This is, after all, a Christian novel.

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A Living God | Posted March-11-2014
Wes Hampton is best known as a member of the Gaither Vocal Band. Though his tenure dates back to 2005, Hampton has gone a bit overlooked, perhaps in part because the GVB’s most recent lineup included three juggernauts. Like the other members, when the Vocal Band has down time, Wes gets out on the road to do solo shows. In 2011, he released his first solo recording, A Man Like Me. And if there was any doubt what Wes Hampton could do when stepping from a supporting role into the spotlight, his followup record, Reality, crushes it.

Some would argue that God is not a reality; that He is a construct created by man. Wes Hampton’s new project reminds listeners that the truth is the opposite: God made us, and He continues to shape our world, our lives, our meaning. On title track “Reality,” Hampton, with the support of Jason Barton of 33 Miles, asks God for reminders: “You’re the only one that’s real / You’re the only one who’s truth... / the only one who’s love...the only one enough.” Indeed, no matter how things may appear in our limited view, God’s eternity is our reality.

Because God is our reality, our need for Him is great. Hampton addresses this on several songs. On the spirited country-flavored “Need Him The Most,” Hampton and The Martins profess their reliance while bubbling over with joy at God’s provision. On the delicate “Wrestling The Wind,” Wes and friend Charlotte Ritchie sing about the perpetual tug-of-war we play with ourselves trying to go it alone, before ultimately throwing our hands up and returning to God in humble admission: “I can’t live without You / Not even one breath without You.” Finally, upbeat “Weakest Part” acknowledges that our weaknesses create opportunities for God’s redemptive power: “My out of luck is Your chance to win / My out of time is the moment when.”

Reality includes two songs written from a loving father to his children. On the beautiful “Nothing Can Take You From Me,” Hampton ably lends a soothing voice to our Heavenly Father’s eternal promise to remain at our side. Wes makes a similar pledge on “Me And God” when he sings to, and with, his own children. Though he admits that he “can’t fix everything,” he assures his sons that He and God will always be there with love and support. The song speaks in language that applies to children’s everyday lives, so as kids sing along with the Hampton boys, the message will seep into their hearts.

Hampton and GVB “brother” David Phelps are both in fine voice on “My Father’s House,” a melodic open-invitation to come “and leave all [our] burdens at the door.” Though we are invited to enter God’s house, we might be reluctant to invite Him into our hearts. Luckily, nothing deters Christ in His pursuit of us. Indeed, “You Can’t Hold Me Back” is what Jesus declares.

David Phelps and Steve Green guest on one of the album’s finest cuts, the dramatic “Echo Of You.” Together the three pour out their deepest prayer to the Lord: “Let my life be the echo of You.” As inspiring as the arrangement is grand, this track will spur listeners to aspire to be led by a heart that desires to be a reflection of God’s love.

Reality challenges its listeners to re-dedicate, re-focus, and re-prioritize. Questioning whether “the hands that we’re using to throw these stones [will] ever open and refocus their power,” soulful “Cross On A Hill” points us directly to Calvary to “find the Father’s will.” While “Eternal” reminds us that love defines our lives and, when our earthly days have ended, it is love that survives us and is remembered by those we leave behind.

Hampton began by demonstrating how God shapes our reality, so it’s fitting that, in a sparkling live moment, Wes and friend Marshall Hall should revisit God’s omnipresence with the Kirk Talley composition “He is Here.” “Listen closely,” they implore, “hear Him calling out your name / He is here, you can touch Him / You will never be the same.”

Closing Thoughts:

Though Wes Hampton has heretofore gone relatively unheralded, his presence has solidified the Gaither Vocal Band’s beautiful harmonies. Now, with the help of gifted songwriters like two-time Dove Award winner Sam Mizell, whose credits include seven No. 1 songs, as well as Kip Fox and Kenna West (to name a few), Hampton lingers no longer in the shadows of his GVB cohorts. Wes has crafted an engaging, stylistically diverse record that showcases his substantial talent. Reality points listeners to the truth -- that our Father is a living God who keeps His promises and never leaves our side.


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Founded on Faith | Posted March-04-2014
Now into their fourth decade, the one constant in the Gaither Vocal Band, besides Mr. Gaither of course, has been change. Recently the band announced new members: Lead, Adam Crabb and Baritone, Todd Suttles. Before Michael English and Mark Lowry departed, however, the all-star lineup (English, Phelps, Hampton, Lowry, and Gaither) recorded one last project, Hymns, as a parting gift. And what a gift! With the album’s sharp focus on the gospel, this version of the GVB could not have ended on a better note.

Hymns is clearly a group effort. Perhaps nowhere is this more evident than on opening track “Amazing Grace.” Each member gets a chance to shine on a fresh, creative arrangement that breathes new life into this oft over-tread hymn.

In the hands of the GVB, other commonly sung hymns are given legs. The band’s treatment of “The Old Rugged Cross” is fittingly somber but never sleepy. The contrasting light and dark tones by English and Phelps lend the perfect balance between contemplation and celebration. And just when you’re worried the arrangement might become staid, English and Phelps are instrumental in bringing added oomph and energy to “I’ll Fly Away.”

Gaither’s bass provides an especially warm moment on “God Leads Us Along,” but the support from Lowry, and later English, with harmonies from David Phelps, elevates the folksy number to a powerful piece.

Indeed, it’s difficult not to view this project as a swan song of sorts for English and Lowry, at least as far as their participation in the Vocal Band. Lowry’s biggest moment in the spotlight occurs with the Gaither classic, “More of You.” Mark employs his smooth baritone over a beautiful string melody to croon his desire for a fuller relationship with God, while the rest of the band lends beauty to the background.

With his soothing tones, Mark also holds down “‘Til The Storm Passes By,” before Wes Hampton takes a turn, and the group finishes big.

Though his voice can summon a power that mirrors his stature, what makes Michael English unique is the breadth of his vocal palette – he can paint a song with many colors. English’s performances here are exquisite, particularly his aching, nuanced vocals on the repentant “Lord, I’m Coming Home.” Michael’s voice is complemented by a gentle, emotive piano on the breathtaking first verse, and it becomes clear what a challenge it will be to fill his shoes.

On “Love Lifted Me,” another English standout, Michael sings over Hammond organ and blues guitar as his GVB counterparts lend support. The result sounds much like an old black spiritual. No one sings from a point of repentance and heartbreak better than Michael English. His plaintive voice sounds near breaking on “Pass Me Not, O Gentle Savior,” while Phelps and Hampton sing perfect counterpoint.

Phelps fans will be ecstatic, and likely want to skip and dance, when they hear their favorite tenor on the lively Celtic-infused take on Fanny Crosby’s “Redeemed.” I’d be hard-pressed to recall a performance of a hymn that better embodies the joyful gratitude of a simple sinner “redeemed by the blood of the Lamb.”

Phelps, Hampton, and English all turn in terrific performances on “My Faith Still Holds.” You’ll not doubt their sincerity as the ensemble together proclaims, “I gladly place my trust in things I cannot see / My faith still holds onto the Christ of Calvary.”

The GVB finishes Hymns by planting us “At The Cross” where, because of Jesus’ pain and sacrifice as “He groaned upon that tree,” “the burden of [our] hearts rolled away.” With superb harmonies throughout, the Gaither Vocal Band faithfully leads us to the feet of Jesus, inspiring us to finish our experience with prayer, praise, and thanksgiving.

Closing Thoughts:

Mark Lowry and Michael English are given ample space to shine on this, their last project with the GVB. This is a near-perfect hymns record, and with the focus squarely on the cross, I can't think of a more fitting close to this special chapter of the Vocal Band.


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Oh, What A Quartet! | Posted February-03-2014

Ernie Haase & Signature Sound is one of the premiere quartets of today's Southern Gospel scene. The beloved group has seen several roster changes, but the current lineup— tenor Haase, lead Devin McGlamery, baritone Doug Anderson, and bass Paul Harkey— seems to have gelled.

EHSS has scaled back their touring a bit, giving Devin, Doug, and musical director/pianist Wayne Haun a chance to purse solo careers and other endeavors. Still, the quartet plays over 100 tour dates a year. On August 17, 2013, EHSS performed at the Carson Center in Paducah, Kentucky. This concert was recorded for their latest music release, available February 4th, Oh, What a Savior.

Of the 17 tracks on Oh, What a Savior, ten are from their two most recent studio releases, Here We Are Again and Glorious Day. As such, the project serves as both a great introduction to the current group as well as a recorded snapshot of what they do on stage.

EHSS was backed by a full band for the show, complete with a brass horns section. This gives extra oomph to their performance, helping the fellas bring the crowd immediately to their feet with opening number "When the Saints Go Marching In." The group also brings a good deal of energy to inspired performances of "Glorious Day" and "Every Time."

Haase got his start singing with legendary group The Cathedrals. Though Ernie has kept EHSS forward-looking and progressive, the quartet always keeps one foot in tradition, regularly singing songs that were Cathedrals favorites. This performance is no exception, as several songs from the Cathedrals song treasury are covered. The first, "Heavenly Parade," is a jaunty number supported by a banjo that gives bass Paul Harkey his own Johnny Cash moment.

You may recognize the second selection, "Noah Found Grace in the Eyes of the Lord," as popularized by the Statler Brothers. On "Noah," the group really flourishes. The perfect vehicle for their humor and personality, this number is sure to become an Ernie Haase & Signature Sound live staple. Additionally, "Climbing Higher and Higher" gives the guys a chance to show what they can do with minimal musical support, while on finale "Oh, What a Savior" Ernie proves that the ol' man can still deliver!

Despite his own considerable skill, Haase is careful to make certain that each member has ample opportunity to shine in his own right. With an award winning writer and producer (Haun) and two members whose solo work has earned Dove Awards (Anderson and McGlamery), it is no wonder Haase is happy to share the spotlight.

Newest member Harkey shows his mettle with his audition song, "Scars in the Hands of Jesus," while Doug Anderson takes a commanding lead on the moving "Sometimes I Wonder." Here the group pauses to briefly visit the hymn "How Beautiful Heaven Must Be" before Doug, who excels at letting his feelings come through, wraps the song up alone. The recording captures a tell-tale catch in his voice that, to me, is a Doug Anderson hallmark. Devin McGlamery's golden moment comes on the beautiful "That's Why," which McGlamery recorded (with the help of the rest of EHSS) on his Dove Award-winning solo album Love is a Verb. Finally, pianist and musical director Wayne Haun takes his turn with Duke Ellington song "Blue Again" from his record Old Soul.

As further evidence that Haase is a team player, two highlights on the disc are courtesy of special guests. Friend and former Signature Sound member Wesley Pritchard shares in the joy when he joins the group on stage for "Up Above My Head (I Hear Music in the Air)," another song from McGlamery's Love Is a Verb. You'll not want to miss Broadway performer J. Mark McVey, backed by EHSS, on a showstopping rendition of classic "Climb Every Mountain" fromThe Sound of Music. If you love it, rejoice, for there will be more to come! You'll see further collaboration, on stage and on record, between McVey and EHSS in the near future.

As I mentioned earlier, EHSS has scaled back their touring. Not only does this allow for solo dates and side projects, but it helps veteran Haase preserve both the range and power of his distinctive tenor voice. His tenderness is evident when he sings one of Elvis Presley's gospel songs, the pretty "Walk With Me." And since Ernie's days with The Cathedrals, "Oh, What a Savior" has been his trademark song. When Haase closes the show with this piece, he brings the house down!

Closing Thoughts:

Oh, What a Savior is a top-notch live recording that captures the infectious energy and remarkable talent of Ernie Haase & Signature Sound. From opening number "When the Saints Go Marching In" to the concluding song "Oh, What a Savior," the quartet ensures that their listeners will have a smile on their faces and a song in their hearts.

Part of what sets EHSS apart is their dynamic stage performance. With their camaraderie, charm, humor, and occasional choreographed dance moves, Ernie, Devin, Doug, and Paul are just plain fun to watch! Happily, the CD release, presented as part of the Gaither Gospel Series, is only half the fun. A DVD recording of the same name, available separately or sold alongside the CD in a bundle, also releases February 4th.

Song To Download Now: 

"Glorious Day"

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Beacon of Hope | Posted February-02-2014

City Harbor teammates Molly Reed and Robby Earle are poised to become Christian music's favorite new pop duo. The Sparrow Records pair (in case you're wondering, they're not married) chose their name out of a desire to create music that offers a safe haven where people can gather to wait out the storms of life.

Molly, who is married to Mike Grayson from Mikeschair, has already established a name for herself in Nashville as a songwriter. Her songs have been recorded by Christian artists like Amy Grant, Francesca Battistelli and Point of Grace, as well as Country artists like the legendary Wynonna Judd and The Voice winner Danielle Bradbery. She has chosen to join her pen and her voice to those of twenty-two-year-old newcomer Robby Earle.

City Harbor's eponymous debut is the full-length follow up to their Come However You Are EP. City Harbor offers up seven new songs in addition to three of the four songs from the EP for a total of ten tracks. The project, produced by Ben Glover, David Garcia, and Matt Bronleewe, shines a bright spotlight on these two youthful songwriters.

From the get-go, City Harbor is musically bright, pointing to an eternal hope that exists even in a dark, broken world. In its verses, "Like I Am" examines the insecurities we all have that serve as obstacles to our belief that we could be not only loveable, but worthy of God's acceptance. The chorus expresses thanks to God for His unconditional love: "Even with my complications / Your love has no hesitation / You see the good, You see the bad / And You love me, You love me like I am."

The songs on City Harbor don't shy away from hard topics. Addressing the question of pain, "Your Love Still Wins" reminds that God never promised us an easy life: "I know that we are all broken people born into struggle and sin / You never said You would keep us from heartache / But I know You've stood where we stand." Having suffered himself, Jesus uniquely understands our strife, and because He conquered death and the grave we can trust His promises: "I hold on to the things You've promised, yeah / This world will put up a fight / but You've conquered it / Whatever comes in my life, Your love still wins."

"I Still Believe" confronts the realities of darkness and despair while resting in God's steadfast love– "a love I know is here even when that's not how I feel." Similarly themed songs "I Will Rest" and "You're There" lend comfort as they paint the picture of an unshakeable, unchangeable, ever-present God who renders fear impotent.

Just as we may deal with hardship, we might also witness others' misery. With the impassioned "Somebody Tell Them," City Harbor implores their listeners to share the hope of Christ with "a sea of broken hearts that are longing to be washed away by an ocean of truth." With current single "Come However You Are," the duo takes their own advice. Drawing inspiration from His words in Matthew 11:28, City Harbor brings Jesus to the lost and hurting, offering as panacea a loving, forgiving God with open arms: "Come however you are / Come with all your heartbreaks / Come with all the mistakes you've made / Lay them down at the cross / Give them to the God who loves you / hurt, scarred, falling apart / Come however you are."

City Harbor further entreats us to surrender our lives to Jesus with "Lift It Up" and "Leave It Here." The latter is a beautiful song about letting go of the past and its disappointments. Rather than holding onto hurts like "a box of stones," the song employs vivid imagery to encourage us to unburden ourselves: "Take the wounds and the weight / every layer that you wear / And just leave it here." I picture one shedding hindrances like shame and fear, heartache and loneliness, peeling them off like layers of an onion, until his or her heart feels weightless and free. This is what it feels like when we make Jesus the center of our lives, our "Heartbeat."

Closing Thoughts:

The album, which looks at both the good and bad of life, retains an optimistic sound full of shimmering major key numbers. Whether trading off vocals or complementing and supporting one another, Molly and Robby are in fine form throughout. Their words and voices are earnest, genuine, and compelling. The album's only downside is that it ends too soon. However, fewer songs help the record achieve a tight focus.

A strong debut from a promising new duo, City Harbor is a beacon of hope, safely guiding troubled hearts through life's sometimes unsafe waters to find respite in the arms of a Savior who is an impregnable stronghold. According to their website, City Harbor's songs "come from a desire to know Christ and to make Christ known to the world." Mission accomplished!

Song to Download Now:

"Come However You Are"

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Taking Another Step | Posted January-17-2014
Starting in 2012, Martin Smith independently released four EPs in the U.K., each containing four songs, titled God's Great Dance Floor, Movement One through Movement Four. With the April release of God's Great Dance Floor, Step 01 in the U.S., the songs from these EPs began to reach a broader audience. Step 01 was heartily received, and Smith has followed with God's Great Dance Floor, Step 02. Like its predecessor, the album is comprised of the songs from two EPs, this time Movement Three and Movement Four. And Smith has yet again thrown in new songs for good measure. 

Of the three new songs, two are top-notch tracks that are among the cream of the overall crop: opener "You Are My Salvation" and the Matt Redman co-write "Great Is Your Faithfulness." The first, written with Hillsong's Reuben Morgan, starts quietly with a Rhodes and a beat before swelling into a grander number while still retaining a beautiful intimacy. The latter is not the classic hymn, but I'd wager to say that it can stand beside it. It's a glorious, sweeping modern hymn suitable for corporate worship.

The third new piece, "Emmanuel," co-written by Smith, Redman, and Nick Herbert, while spirited and strong, lacks some of the originality that elevates the other two. Still, it's a good song that brings energy to the project.

Of the previously released songs, the Tomlin co-write "God's Great Dance Floor" is obviously the most well-known. A great tune any way you crack it, Martin's version has its own swagger. And his daughter gives a nice, albeit altogether too brief, guest vocal. While Step 01 centered around the rousing "Back To The Start" – which I still prefer to its cousin reprise – Step 02 takes a more reserved overall tone, perhaps in large part due to the influence of the gorgeous poetic stunner "Song of Solomon," the lynchpin of this recording. If the song sounds familiar, it's because Smith performs it on the Jesus Culture project, Live From New York.

Another highlight, and a song that listeners may already know, is "Grace." Co-written with Michael W. Smith, this tune is featured on Smitty's albums Stand and A New Hallelujah. Here, Martin shows us why "Grace" has become a well-loved Smitty staple. Honest and pure, it's a beautiful tune.

While I won't touch on all the songs, two others stand tall: "Redemption Day" and "Angel." The latter, Martin's closing number, is an update of sorts to the Delirous? song "There Is An Angel." To honor his wife Anna, Martin has written new verses. With a tender vocal reminiscent of John Lennon, and exquisite lyrics, the result is arresting: "I'm leaving earth to fall in love with you / So hold me in your arms, we'll make it through / I don't need wings when I've got you."

Closing Thoughts:

While the songs on God's Great Dance Floor, Step 02 are not, as a whole, as memorable as their counterparts on Step 01, Martin Smith has crafted a more than suitable follow-up. It's a shame the two records were not released as an official double album. The combined listening experience would surely be remarkable.

Like God's Great Dance Floor, Step 01, a large part of what makes this project so enjoyable is that it doesn't feel commercial. That's not to say it doesn't carry mass appeal. Rather, I'm trying to underscore that Smith made this record without any expectations or constraints. And, happily, it shows. Importantly, rather than relying on clichés, Smith crafts worship songs with real honest to goodness heart and soul. Smith's lyricism and artistic integrity enable him to create and sustain a sincere attitude of worship. And that's something worth dancing about!

Song to Download Now:

"Song of Solomon" (Get it on iTunes here.)

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Worshiping the King | Posted January-16-2014
Elevation Worship is the worship team from Elevation Church, which got its start in 2006 in Charlotte, North Carolina. Much like Hillsong UNITED, the group is a large family unit of sorts. Under the guidance of Pastor Steven Furtick, who helps with the songwriting, Elevation Worship is Mack Brock, Chris Brown, London Gatch, Brad Hudson, Wade Joye, Andrea Smith, and Jane Williams. Before finally signing with Essential Records, the group released three indie projects. Last year, their sophomore major label release, Nothing is Wasted, debuted at No. 1 on Billboard's Christian Albums chart.

The group is clearly excited for their third Essential album, Only King Forever. Beginning on Jan. 1, the band has promoted the new record by streaming a track per day on their website. With its 13 new songs, the 14-track CD is filled to the brim with 79 minutes of guitar-driven contemporary worship exalting Jesus Christ, risen Savior and eternal King.

Lively opener "Only King Forever," with its driving drum beat, is akin to a Chris Tomlin-led Passion number. While not particularly original, the track brings a reverent yet vibrant spirit that kicks off the record in fine form.

"Grace So Glorious," four tracks deep and the first song to really grab my attention, is without a doubt the album's centerpiece. Chris Brown, along with Pastor Furtick and Israel Houghton, penned this song that draws inspiration from Ephesians 1:5-6, which states that God has adopted us "to the praise of his glorious grace." Moving beyond formulas, this musically dynamic and lyrically inspired piece allows the listener a genuine moment for spiritual connection and prayerful reflection. Indeed, when the group pauses to allow Pastor Furtick to speak on "Grace So Glorious (Reprise)," the scriptural truth behind the song comes shining through.

After this high-water mark, only a few songs leave a memorable impression. First is "The Love of Jesus" where guest Darlene Zschech, proving that sometimes less is more, proclaims the simple yet powerful line: "The love of Jesus is enough for me."

Another highlight, "Last Word," was written for their church's sermon series on the "expectation gap," where we may be discouraged by the fact that our expectations often exceed our eventual experience. The song puts life into biblical perspective, recalling that it is Jesus who has final authority: "You have the last word / It is finished." It is His resurrection and victory over death that promises the same for us so that we may sing, "My fear is silenced in Your love / My hope is endless."

"I Will Sing" begins small then bursts out into a mass sing-along, corporate worship style. Doubtless a great live moment and one that will be embraced by fans of the group and the genre, it doesn't translate to disc in a way that will grab the ear of a new listener.

If Elevation Worship is going to make a splash, it will more likely happen with "Raised To Life." Written for their baptism series, the group enlisted the writing help of none other than Matt Redman. Celebrating new life in Christ, "Raised to life with Christ, the Savior," the group exclaims, "Sin was strong but Jesus is stronger / Our shame was great, but Jesus You're greater!"

Closing Thoughts:

There is a LOT of music on this record. While I've covered the stronger material, much of the remainder, though pleasing, doesn't yet set the group apart in the worship scene. Should Elevation Worship vary their sound a bit, focus on writing lyrical content with theological depth that raises it beyond the formulaic, and more frequently utilize their strong female vocalists, the band might strengthen and broaden their appeal. Unfortunately, aside from the Darlene Zschech guest spot, the female-led songs were pushed toward the back of the record. That's a shame, for sequenced where it is, the beautiful "Everlasting Father" will likely be overlooked.

With Only King Forever, Elevation Worship presents a packed-full record. For fans of the group and the modern worship genre, this project may provide a transcendental worship experience. However, for some it will be a lesson in patience and endurance. Don't get me wrong, there is some solid stuff here, but I would have appreciated a more concise, more selective record. While showing great promise on Only King Forever, Elevation Worship ultimately falls just short of lifting off.

Song to Download Now:

"Grace So Glorious" (Get it on iTunes here.)

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A Jazzy Noel | Posted November-21-2013

With Christmas comes tradition, especially when it comes to music and carols. The best Christmas tunes will conjure feelings unique to the season, while stirring memories and supporting traditions and honored family customs.

For me, it often begins to feel like Christmas in late November when there is a chill in the air and a scent of coming snow. Or when I take a brisk winter walk and smell wood fires burning in neighborhood chimneys. Alternately, I can turn on Nat King Cole's classic Christmas record and feel like I'm sitting by a cozy fireside on a cold winter's day even in the middle of summer.

It's this kind of ambient Christmas magic that pianist and composer David Ian hopes to create on his latest effort, a holiday EP titled Vintage Christmas Wonderland. Generally mild and tranquil, the five track jazz offering is a combination of instrumentals with and without vocal accompaniment.

Depending on your perspective and musical tastes, instrumental tracks "O Little Town of Bethlehem" and "The First Noel" may be peaceful and calming, or just plain sleepy. I enjoy the swing-inspired sounds of Michael Bublé and the sometimes jazzy leanings of Sinatra, Crosby, or Como. However, I find Ian's pieces more closely resemble the musical backdrop provided by a department store pianist than my Christmas favorites emanating from a fireside speaker. In particular, the latter track is a challenge to my non-jazz ears. The melody is lengthened and stretched, and at times played so quietly, that without the aid of the CD track listing, I would be hard pressed to identity the song.

Ian adds interest to the balance of the EP by enlisting the voices of Andre Miguel Mayo as well as Tal and Acacia. Mayo is featured on "Winter Wonderland." While perhaps aiming for the easygoing flare and style of Johnny Mathis, the track, though pleasant, falls a bit short. Acacia sings solo on "Angels We Have Heard on High," which departs from tradition with an altered melody that detracts somewhat from her smooth vocal. The EP's strongest track comes with the final song "Jingle Bells" on which Tal and Acacia accompany Mayo in a fashion that gives a nod to the Andrews Sisters. To my surprise, the creative liberties taken with the chorus don't bother me a lick. Rather, because the repetition in the original can be tiresome, I found this playful rendering refreshing.

Closing Thoughts:

While listeners with jazz-leaning ears may welcome Vintage Christmas Wonderland with open arms, others will find these recordings lack that certain spark that elevates Christmas songs from agreeable ambient music to memorable and beloved classics.

I applaud David Ian's obvious respect for Christmas traditions. His vision is clearly fueled by a heart looking to pay homage to time-honored favorites of the past. Nevertheless, rather than ushering in the Christmas spirit, the EP seems more suitable for putting a mellow coda on the big day.

Song to Download Now:

"Jingle Bells" (Get it on iTunes here.)

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