Stories and Sermons
Posted April 17, 2016
By MarcusHathcock_NRT, Staff Reviewer
I'll start by saying this: I was a huge Avalon fanboy back in the day. Loved them. I was even in a vocal group called "Adonai" during my college years, and could sing every single word to their biggest hit of all time, "Testify to Love." (You can read more about my thoughts about that here.)
I also was a huge fan of Avalon singer Jody McBrayer's first solo album, This Is Who I Am, which came out at the height of his group's success. While Avalon was considered edgy for the CCM crowd, McBrayer took things a step farther, creating a gritty pop album that was stylistically as avant garde as anything Christian music had made up until that point.
In the years to come, McBrayer would step down from Avalon and fade out from performing life, due to some pretty substantial health struggles, among other challenges. He emerged from a decade-plus sabbatical with a new sense of purpose, calling and excitement. (Check out his interview with us, where he shares the whole story.)
Now, McBrayer has released what is certain to be his first album in a new second act for the singer, titled Keep Breathing.
Right away, fans had to know this would be a very different album for McBrayer, as it was announced this would be released on his new record label home, StowTown Records--a predominantly Southern Gospel label.
And indeed, on Keep Breathing, McBrayer departs from his aggressive pop stylings in favor of a much more subdued, yet emotional musical experience that draws from his personal redemption story. Fans of Avalon's popular ballads "Adonai", "Can't Live A Day" and "Everything to Me" will find some familiar ground and somewhat of a stylistic home with McBrayer's new effort.
Musically, there's really just one instrumental palette at play here: piano, prominent bass guitar, simple electric guitar licks and a smattering of B3 organ for flair. Regardless of the unwavering composition, McBrayer's vocals have never been stronger, as the ultra-tenor showcases power, soulfulness and passion in his stratospheric vocalizations.
Thematically, the majority of the songs follow more of the Southern Gospel/early CCM writing style, where they either retell a vivid story from the Bible or a testimony (like on "Me", "What It Takes to Be a Savior", "He Gave Me More Love"), or they provide a musical sermon of sorts--driving home big theological ideas or encouraging one-liners meant to directly edify the listeners ("When We Look Back", "Keep Breathing", "This is a Son").
While it's a departure from much of what we hear on Christian radio these days--which is dominated by poetic (and vague?) poetry mixed with vertical worship songs--it's a refreshing hearkening back to an earlier, simpler time in Christian music.
Speaking of those musical sermons, it's fun to hear McBrayer sing the powerful musical sermon "God Is In Control" with his former Avalon bandmate Melissa Greene. It's an inspiring contemporary style duet that carries "God is in control, though godless men conspire ... His ways are higher than our ways ... Take heart and know God is in control."
"Keep Breathing," the title track, is a rousing encouragement to the down and out to take every moment at a time. It's a powerful and very personal song for McBrayer, as it relates directly to his own story, and his passion is especially felt in this song, the standout track. A soulful choir behind him provides some extra gravitas.
The simple, hymn-like, piano-and-upright bass song "With Each Borrowed Breath" has the most widespread potential (and even crossover potential), carrying a simplicity and congregational appeal like that of Keith & Kristyn Getty's "In Christ Alone" and Chris Rice's "Untitled Hymn (Come to Jesus)." It's my favorite track of the whole bunch, and it's intriguing to see McBrayer possibly delve into the world of worship.
Jody McBrayer is back. His distinct voice has been missing from the Christian music landscape from far too long, and it feels good to have it back--even if it's in a bit of a different format than fans might've expected. The truth is, after coming through the fires of challenge in his life, McBrayer's songs are laser focused on proclaiming the truth of Jesus and His hope and redemption in story-songs and musical sermons that leave no room for doubt. Keep Breathing is a milestone for McBrayer that could only improve with some more variety in the production and arrangements.
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