Wednesday, February 21, 2018

Even Now by Foolish Things

Reviewed by Cory Clubb
"Lyrically, these guys don’t hold back. The originality and heart-on-their-sleeve style shows their astounding enthusiasm for Christ and their music."
I have always had an affinity for underdog bands out there. The bands that maybe not everybody has heard of, the ones who have that raw hardworking talent that goes overlooked. This is something that I believe indie rockers Foolish Things have as a group. Their latest album release Even Now provides proficient evidence of that fact. Like most, I had never heard of the band until I visited their Myspace page and listened to a few clips of their music and did some research on their history as a band. Foolish Things has been playing and ministering for ten years as a band, starting off as worship leaders for their youth group. Now, they travel the nation spreading the word of Jesus using the diverse musical gifts God has given them.
Their first album, Let’s Not Forget the Story, was released with critical acclaim. Even Now is their sophomore effort. The first cut on Even Now, “Shooting in the Dark” paves the road with heavy hitting guitars and boom’n beats. The next track, ”Who’d You Put in Charge”, doesn’t slow down the momentum and becomes a catchy stand out anthem about the choices we make in life and how we are effected by them. The title track, “Even Now” reaches a spiritual status that gets your heart beating and tingles your soul as if it is speaking directly to you.
Foolish Things bring a variety of sounds to Even Now that displays the band’s diversity as heard on tracks “Fight” and “Love Atmosphere” which give the band a different sound. Yet a certain downfall they seem to have in this release is their will to keep the listen focused and fresh. Their sound seems to be a bit jostled and unsure. Tracks like “Love Chained Me Here” and “Keep Us Together” aren’t bad songs--they just seem to slip through the cracks and don’t hold up well on this album. Other tunes such as “Hold On To What Is Easy” do pick up the pace of interest, but lose their footing and place within the album.
Lyrically, these guys don’t hold back. The originality and heart-on-their-sleeve-style shows their astounding enthusiasm for Christ and their music.
The first thing I recognized on this record is the band’s straight-forward message and openness. They are not worried what others may think. They don’t skirt around with mysterious lyrics. They just put it out there; it’s what gives Foolish Things their “raw” element.
I am new to the tunes of Foolish Things and am pleasantly surprised at their abounding talent. They sound like a cross between fellow artists Rush of Fools and Downhere with a dash of U2 thrown in, a sound that has been heard before. Even Now is a good release, but Foolish Things seems to still be growing and looking for their place as far as a band and a unique sound.


Air by Margaret Becker

Reviewed by Michael Ehret
" amazing return to form for Becker. A 'must have' for fans and as good of an introduction to her as any for those unfamiliar."
Nine years. That’s how long it’s been since Margaret Becker’s last full length, all new, studio album. In that time, she left Sparrow Records, the only label she’s ever recorded for and went independent. Over the years she has come to understand an essential truth about Christianity: We humans complicate it far more than is necessary.
Of course, during those nine years Becker wasn’t silent – far from it. She spoke at Christian women’s conferences, recorded numerous group praise and worship albums, released Just Come In an album of five new songs and six re-recorded songs from previous albums, produced and championed other artists, particularly indie artists, and wrote books.
Now she returns with Air, a companion piece to her latest book, Coming Up For Air. Becker, CCMs true Renaissance woman, has smashed expectations with Air, turning out certainly one of the best projects in her impressive career, if not the best.
The disc opens with “Coming Up For Air,” and Becker gets right into her overall subject of rebirth and rejuvenation with these lines: “Been a really long time coming/You think I would have known/When you lay down on waves of worry/You wake with vertigo/Out of breath and short on everything it takes to go/I’m coming up for air.”
There are no accidents on this disc. Becker writes, sings, and plays as if these songs, like air, are essential to her being, to her existence, and that emotional investment pays off repeatedly as each song sounds like a personal communication from her heart to the listeners’.
Musically, this is pop/folk + soul. Similar in sound to 1999’s What Kind of Love, but modernized to fit comfortably in today’s musical landscape. Becker and her collaborators hue to the classic Maggie B sound, though less heavy on the rock and roll and more focused on the pop/soul elements, following the same maturation process as her audience.
Each song, with one possible exception, is a highlight.
“Surrender” encourages those who have tried everything else to “try something old and new like surrender. Let it all fall where it must and just, trust, trust, trust.”
The beauty of Becker’s songwriting is that it is infused with her Christian worldview. So much so that there’s no need to take pains to indicate that she’s writing about God. But on the other hand, there’s also no doubt about her intent.
But she can still write an obvious praise song, as well. One such song is the gorgeous “You’re Still God,” which exalts God for his constancy despite all of the distractions and discouragements we face. Becker writes: “Mountains tremble when you least expect/I am shaking, I’m a mess, but/You’re still God, You’re still God/I pray for comfort, I pray for rest/I lay down worried and I wake up blessed because/You’re still God, You’re still God.”
The song rides effortlessly over a bongo-styled beat, with Becker adding instrumentation as the song builds and builds and then backs off again in celebration and awe of the presence of God.
The one song that is questionable? That would be the closer, “To Be An Indian.” Musically it is beautiful, but lyrically it doesn’t connect with me. It seems to be based on the idea that Indians are more closely connected to nature than others – and that seems a bit of a stereotype to me.
Overall, Air is an amazing return to form for Becker. A “must have” for fans and as good of an introduction to her talents as any for those unfamiliar.

Monday, February 19, 2018

Colors and Sounds by Article One

Reviewed by Adrian B. Martinez
"This fresh sounding album and personable songwriting is a must for fans who are missing Creed or who cannot wait for the new Dave Matthews Band album."
What an appropriate title Article One selected for its sophomore release from InPop Records. From start to finish, Article One has crafted an amazing collection of Colors and Sounds on this release.

Showing influences that range from The Fray, Vegas Rockers the Killers, to French Alternative Rock Band Phoenix, this 14-track project boasts an impressive 1-2 punch in founding members and brothers, Nathan and Mattew Piche. The brothers Piche, in addition to writing a majority of the tracks, supplying vocals, guitars, piano and violin have also taken to producing on this set. Rounding out this quartet is Dave DeSmit (drums and vocals) and Mark Laidman (bass).

Taking their name from the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (featured on U2’s Vertigo Tour), which states that we're all born equal and should therefore treat each other equally, it's the Canadian trio’s way of reminding themselves of Jesus' command to love others, while also reflecting their desire to reach Christian and secular audiences alike.

With Colors and Sounds they have managed to create an enjoyable Christian album, combing three-part harmonies, piano-based pop/rock, colored by Matt’s violin throughout. Just listen to “Love you tomorrow”. Lyrically we understand that it is the Lord who is saying, “… Whatever comes, if it be joy or sorrow … I promise you that I will love you tomorrow...” it is just so beautifully done. As the song comes to what the listener would assume is its natural end, we are treated to a relaxing instrumental send-off cradled by the violin.
This song and many others on this album offer subtleties in their lyrics that make it accessible to secular audiences. Make no doubt about it though, there’s Christian inspiration behind almost every track, and I am not referring to the obvious “Angels” or “Looking for Angels”. Article One tackles the uncertainty of life (“Without you” (I’m Not Alright), friendship (“Never too Late to Call”), and the realization of the Lord in your life (“Above all Else”).

This fresh sounding album and personable songwriting is a must for fans who are missing Creed or who cannot wait for the new Dave Matthews Band album. They even conclude their album with an instrumental track worthy of inclusion on a Mannheim Steamroller album. Who does that? Article One, that’s who. 


Come to the Well by Casting Crowns

Reviewed by Bert Gangl
Mark Hall and his companions return for their sixth studio album, which features more than a few welcome surprises.
During Casting Crowns’ Until the Whole World Hears tour in early 2010 lead singer Mark Hall related a humorous story about befuddled fans who would ask him why his group didn’t play their most famous hit, “I Can Only Imagine,” at their concerts. The aforementioned humor, of course, lies in the fact that the hugely successful single was a hit for fellow CCM artists MercyMe and not for Hall and his band mates. Whimsical though the account may be, it nonetheless hints at what has become an all-too-frequent critique of the lion’s share of the artists who inhabit the Christian Hit Radio Top 40: the fact that a good many of them are virtually indistinguishable from one another.
In their defense, Hall & Co. were among the progenitors of their now-familiar brand of radio-ready pop/worship music and the performers who sound like them could arguably be classified as followers rather than contemporaries. Be that as it may, many a newcomer to the inspirational pop genre would have a hard time distinguishing the bulk of their work from that of, say, MercyMe, Sanctus Real or Tenth Avenue North. The good news, for those who don’t mind the comparison, is that Come to the Well is chock full of slowly-swelling, prototypical mid-tempo pop/rock/worship anthems like “Jesus, Friend of Sinners,” “Wedding Day” and the now-ubiquitous leadoff single, “Courageous” – all of which sound as if they could have been pulled from any of the septet’s previous five albums. In fact, the bulk of the new effort finds the Crown cooperative sticking, for the most part, to the tried-and-true formula that helped make them one of the top-selling artists in Contemporary Christian Music history.
Perhaps sensing that, after a decade together, now is the time for a change, Hall and his cohorts shake things up a bit this time out. The slightly haunting, piano-driven “Already There,” which sounds a good bit like early Coldplay, is a decided, and welcome, side excursion away from the band’s signature lite pop/rock inclinations. The droning melody line of the bluegrass/folk/country hybrid, “Spirit Wind,” helps lend the nearly five minute track a likewise distinctive quality when compared to the bulk of the group’s back catalog. And the poignant storytelling of “Just Another Birthday,” which was co-written with country songwriter Tom Douglas, will undoubtedly strike a resonant chord with fans of Miranda Lambert’s exceptional country ballad, “The House That Built Me,” which Douglas also helped write.
Elsewhere, though, the seven piece makes an ill-advised foray into modern rock with “My Own Worst Enemy;” a clear case of form at the expense of substance. Similarly, the otherwise engaging Gospel flourishes that grace “The Well” are all but overwhelmed by the cut’s overly generic construction and lack of a memorable melody – traits shared by several other tracks on the project as well. And the lyrics to “Well” and “Angel,” which visits the all but threadbare theme of romantic love as salvation, score precious few points in the arena of insight or originality. That said, violinist Melodee DeVevo instills the tender ballad, “Face Down,” with the sort of sincere poignancy that can only come from having walked through the trials she sings about. The likewise unforced “So Far to Find You” perches Hall’s moving account of the adoption of his daughter, Meeka Hope, atop an absolutely beautiful melody for what turns out to be, far and away, the record’s most memorable moment.
In the final analysis, Come to the Well sounds, for the most part, fairly similar to just about every other Casting Crowns album. This news will, of course, be welcomed (or not) in direct proportion the listener’s love of the group’s previous material. That said, the band deserves at least a degree of credit for their willingness to toy with what has thus far been such a winning formula. There aren’t any instant classics on the order of “Who Am I” or “Praise You in This Storm,” but songs like “Face Down” and “So Far” are easily as good as anything the band has ever written. And, taken as a whole, the new record, in spite of its intermittent musical tangents – or perhaps because of them – winds up being one of Hall and his cohorts’ most cohesive, and impressive, releases to date.

Michelle Tumes by Michelle Tumes

  Reviewed by Michael Ehret
"Tumes shows great courage with this release. Courage to follow her passion, her creativity."
Remember when Michelle Tumes first came on the scene in 1998? Remember how fresh her sound was and how cool it was to hear her debut single “Please Come Back To Me,” the story of the prodigal set to music? Her breathy, ethereal vocals surrounded by layers and layers of orchestration all laid over a pulsing bed of percussion ushered the prodigal, and all listeners, right into the embrace of God.
Then remember how Sparrow Records tried to get her to “update” her sound over the next several years to become more of a pop princess? This attempt reached its nadir with the songs “Do Ya” from her 2000 disc, Center of My Universe, and the title song from her Dream album in 2001. Neither song was bad, but they were not the Michelle Tumes we loved from Listen.
That artist returns, finally, with her fourth album rightly titled Michelle Tumes and self-produced by Tumes and her husband, Doug Higgins, independently. Everything that made Listen such an out of the box success is back. The whole Enya via Tchaikovsky via Bjork vibe is intact, along with Tumes’ always stellar songwriting.
In-between 2001 and now, Tumes wrote beautiful songs for others (including Sheila Walsh) and recorded a trio worship album with Christine Dente (Out of the Grey) and Susan Ashton called Lost in Wonder: Voices in Worship.
But when the new disc opens with “Introit,” a celebratory anthem proclaiming that God is with us in the midst of everything, and continues with the first single “Domine,” which implores Domine (Lord God) to “make my path run straight” away from “the lies of calamity,” the extended period between albums evaporates along with every bit of apprehension about which Michelle would show up on disc.
Tumes shows great courage with this release. Courage to follow her passion, her creativity, regardless of the outcome. She said the hiatus was necessary to allow her to reconnect with God – and with her vision.
“I really needed some time to regroup, to get back to where I started in every way,” she said. “I knew I needed to get back to just writing what I love, and leave the rest to God.”
The second single of the project, “Fair Weather,” is dramatic, epic even, and proclaims God’s steadfastness. “Oh my love you greet me now//In this tempest night I’ve run aground//And the day has rolled on into never//But you won’t wane in winter’s cold//And in my dark your lights go on//Feel my heart held to your tether.// … You’re the windfall in the rainstorm//Stay with me//Never fair weather//You are never fair weather.”
When listening to this song it is impossible not to picture a storm raging on an open sea with sharp rocks round about between your ship and the shore – but God’s hand is on the tiller guiding you to a safe landing.
Other songs worthy of note: “Break Through,” a song that speaks of God storming “the tower of my heart;” “Caelum Infinitum,” a song about how the beautiful circumstances of this life mirror heaven; and “Let It Rain,” which explores the refreshing presence of God.
Now that Tumes has found her voice again, let’s hope it’s not another five years before she records again.


Thursday, February 15, 2018

Let's Not Forget the Story by Foolish Things

Reviewed by Tracy Darlington
"Fresh group with a modern 80's sound."
“Foolish Things sort of stumbled into being a group,” Isaac Jorgenson (vocals/guitar) says. Nate Phillips (bass) agrees. “It’s actually a really good name for us. We have absolutely nothing to boast about. We’re just a group of friends who wanted to serve our youth group.” But things mushroomed far beyond the youth group’s walls. It wasn’t long before Foolish Things was playing in coffeehouses and area youth events. In 2000 the band won the acclaimed “Seminar in the Rockies” music competition in Estes Park, Colorado. Soon after, they recorded a four-song demo with the help of Ronny Cates, former Petra bassist.
Released on Peter Furler’s Inpop label, Let’s Not Forget The Story marks a new season for Foolish Things—their chance to speak to the masses. And speak they do. Right off the bat this album resonates. Kicking things off with the worshipful “Who Can Compare”, they’re off and running strong. The first five tracks are fast-paced, pop/rock numbers that manage to avoid the repetition so often found in young bands, while still maintaining a consistent, recognizable sound. Think Delirious meets Downhere. Throw in some early U2, a dash of Edison Glass, and a slight melancholy feel, and you have their winning recipe. They’ve pulled out some unique instruments and novel electronic effects in several cuts, such as in “Fight” which opens with harmonic tinkling bells. “Spirit Come”, the band’s first single, is definitely radio friendly with worshipful lyrics and tenor vocals eerily similar to Martin Smith of Delirious. In fact, many of the tracks remind me of Delirious’s crisp, 80's rock sound.
Lyrically, the band is straight forward. “First Lie” talks about killing off the sinful nature, and “Hey You” encourages the light of Christ to shine in our lives. “Capital P” challenges believers to stay pure in their relationships and has some unexpected skillful, stoccato guitar crawls. One thing is certain---Foolish Things is unashamed of their faith. Says Nate Phillips, “From the beginning, we’ve used music as a tool to strengthen and challenge the body of Christ, as well as to reach out to the lost.”
Sometimes it’s hard to believe Let’s Not Forget the Story is this band’s first album. Their mature instrumentation and thoughtful lyrics shout quality. Foolish Things is one band you’ll want to keep watching. And listening to. There’s enough top-ten material on this album to keep their songs rotating for years to come.


Beautiful History by Plumb

Reviewed by C.J. Darlington
"...a great choice for new listeners as much as it is a reminder to longtime fans why we love Plumb so much."
When Tiffany Arbuckle Lee (aka Plumb) released her last album Blink, some fans wondered if the ballad heavy record with rich themes of motherhood marked a change for the artist. Because it did indeed mark a change in Plumb’s personal life. She’d just birthed her second son Oliver and had been entertaining the idea of putting her music on the back burner for the sake of her children. Thankfully, she’s set those notions aside. Says Plumb, “ I realize that my children’s mom is Plumb. She’s not just Tiffany, although that’s part of her.”
These are calming words to hear from an artist releasing a Greatest Hits collection. Often a “collection” release either signifies a well run dry or an attempt to keep a dying career afloat. But rest assured, this is not another The Best of Plumb, which was produced to fulfill a contractual obligation with Essential Records back in 2000 and contained no new songs.
A Beautiful History does of course include hits like “Cut”, “I Can’t Do This”, “In My Arms”, and “Real”. But what sets this one apart from your standard hits fare is the inclusion of complete remakes. “Stranded”, “Here With Me” and “God-Shaped Hole” were all originally released on her sophomore effort candycoatedwaterdrops (1999).
These versions still bring the flavor of the originals, but there’s an added layer of richness which transforms their old nineties vibe into hit worthy songs of today. It’s like hearing a song on an album and then hearing an artist play it live. The original core is all there, but when a musician plays live they might add a few extra bars during the chorus, or the singer might belt the bridge in a different key. In the case of “Stranded” (Plumb’s most requested song to date) the arrangement is fuller and less acoustic.
1999's “Here with Me” clearly utilized electronic drums and percussion, but the 2010 version definitely feels like it’s being performed in concert with driving guitars and real drums. And whereas the original electronically alters Plumb’s voice, now her vocals have matured into a stronger and slightly deeper tone in no need of manipulation. You can hear the intense passion as Tiffany sings, like she’s finally performing the song the way she’s always wanted to perform it.
Several years ago you could sense Plumb’s struggle with whether to identify herself as a Christian artist. She’s clearly a devoted Christian, but sometimes her lyrics would leave the listener wondering if their meaning was meant to be spiritual or not. In these remakes, subtle additions of a line or phrase erase all questions. The I can’t do anything without You / You give me strength to do anything / I can’t be everything I try to / You saved me from the everything I couldn’t be is sung with such passion on “Here with Me” and reinforced with Plumb’s added line “You save me”, it’s clear where her beliefs lie.
The re-make of “Damaged” (originally appearing on Chaotic Resolve) is another glimpse into Plumb’s heart. Dealing with the topic of sexual abuse and sung from the perspective of a girl who feels she can’t move forward and be loved again, the redemption extended version was, as Plumb says, created when she and her band experienced God’s anointing on stage one night. “It literally wrote itself. With a sea of eyes full of tears in the audience, it became clear that it wasn’t just that those who feel this way [about sexual abuse] could be loved . . . they needed to know the they already were.”
The inclusion of “God Shaped Hole” also shows the value Plumb places on her message. In 1998 she didn’t want to record the song. But now she says, “In the last decade it has come to mean something very different to me . . . and today, much like my pink wig from my debut photo shoot . . . I’m very glad I did it.” Originally beginning with acoustic guitars and maintaining that feel throughout, the new version begins softly with the plucking of an electric guitar, but quickly crescendoes at the inclusion of powerful drums, piano and additional guitars.
Listening to these Plumb remakes makes the old versions sound tired in comparison. However, there are two new songs on the record as well. “Hang On” and “Beautiful History” are more ballads than rock anthems and could possibly be called the weaker cuts of the album, but it’s great to hear new material from a much-loved artist, and these two songs are close to Tiffany’s heart. She calls “Hang On” her own personal anthem for life with its message of hope and tenacity.
Even if you own the entire Plumb library and aren’t interested in remakes, Beautiful History is worth adding to your collection just to get your hands on Disc 2. Casual listeners might not realize that many of Plumb’s recent songs have been remixed into dance club hits. “In My Arms” and “Hang On” both hit number one on the Billboard Dance Charts. Before now they were only available as digital releases. Eight remixes are included on this disc of Beautiful History, including two each by Bimbo Jones, Bronleewe & Bose, and Digital Dog as well as singles remixed by Dave Aude and jRyann. “Hang On” the remix is even better than the original.

With 20 songs in all, Beautiful History is a great choice for new listeners as much as it is a reminder to longtime fans why we love Plumb so much.


Wednesday, February 14, 2018

Gospel by Joanne Cash

Reviewed by Carol Kurtz
"...truly a spiritual and musical experience you won't want to miss."
Part of being a Johnny Cash fan is loving his family, as he is inexorably intertwined with it. But Joanne Cash deserves fans of her own. In this, her twenty-eighth recording project, Joanne tells her story of faith, family, triumphs, and tribulations. But faith in her Savior is the sustaining note throughout. “I don’t think we have much time left before Christ comes again, and I want to be everything I can be for Jesus,” Joanne says. “I’ve seen so many people try and build their kingdom in music, but I don’t worry about any of that earthly gain. When you let God do it, that’s when the real effectiveness happens.”
A true Gospel record, as its name implies, Joanne has the perfect voice (like a younger Dottie Rambo) for old favorites like “It is Well with My Soul” and “I’ve God Jesus” (featuring Bill Nash). She also treats us to home spun songs that tell us stories of the Cash family’s history and heritage. In “Glory, Glory” she sings about her childhood and her brother Jack, and we can feel that it’s a happy memory. The song is cheerful, crisp and clear, the way country used to be. The picking, the slides, and the upbeat rhythm in many of the songs will have you tapping your feet and smiling. You get that Joanne is the product of a family rich in faith and love, making her what she is today.
Johnny Cash may have gone on to heaven, but he makes a few appearances in Gospel. “Meet Me in Heaven” (a poignant title, considering the fact that Johnny is already there) begins with an older Johnny Cash telling the story of the joyful passing of their father. He talks casually in “When He Comes” about his experience visiting Jerusalem. When the two siblings sing together, we almost feel like God has let Johnny come back for a brief visit. Their voices mingle and blend like two similar instruments.
But the crowning jewel of the cd is the bluegrass favorite “Will the Circle Be Unbroken”. No matter how many versions of this you’ve heard, this one shines. Every bit as good as the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band’s collaboration from the 70's (sung by Johnny Cash’s mother-in-law, Mother Maybelle Carter), this Cash has the tone of voice this classic needs. As if they were made for each other.
There’s a worshipful feel to a few of the cuts, rounding out the album with reverence. It’s unfortunate the band behind her isn’t given credit, because they are as talented as she. Joanne Cash Gospel is truly a spiritual and musical experience you won’t want to miss.


Tuesday, February 13, 2018

Three Wooden Crosses:

The Inspirational Hits of Randy Travis

Reviewed by Tracy Darlington
"...a must for Randy Travis fans and a great start for the uninitiated. It blends country, Gospel, and rich vocals into a delightful mix."

He wasn’t always known as Randy Travis to the world of country music. At the age of ten he and his brother started a duo called the Traywick Brothers. Their father hoped Randy would be a country singer, so at sixteen he entered a talent show. After winning the competition hands down, Travis was encouraged when he was asked by a club owner to play at their night spot. But soon after that this country music mainstay was turned down by nearly every record label. He finally signed his first record deal in 1985, but it wasn’t until the late ‘80's that Randy took country music by storm, and he still is.
I saw Randy Travis perform “Three Wooden Crosses”, the title track of Travis’s inspirational collection, in Branson MO a few years back. It was just Randy’s deep baritone and an accompanying guitar. The cut on the cd has the same simple acoustic feel. The first half of the project features Travis’ versions of the old hymns we have known and love, while the second half showcases more of Randy’s authentic country style.
Southern Gospel fans will find “Swing Down Chariot” right up their alley. Mac Powell of Third Day joins Randy on vocals in “Love Lifted Me” . The number “Pray for the Fish” is sure to put a smile on your face as Travis champions wildlife as he sings Preacher said people take a moment or two / there’s something we need to do / Pray for the Fish. Lord be with them. They’ve done nothing, please won’t you leave them just a little bit of room to swim... You won’t be able to keep you toes from tapping to it’s upbeat and catchy rhythm.
The final track is perhaps the crowning glory of the collection as Randy makes the classic song “Will the Circle Be Unbroken” all his own. “Three Wooden Crosses - The Inspirational Hits of Randy Travis” is a must for Randy Travis fans and a great start for the uninitiated. It blends country, Gospel, and rich vocals into a delightful mix.

Not Afraid by Stephanie Smith

Reviewed by Tracy Darlington
"This upbeat album is sure to have you rolling down the windows in your car and turning up the volume ... a sure-to-be hit cd with a great message for teen girls..."
Stephanie Smith is a new Gotee artist who’s song “Superstar” hit the airwaves with a boom. Since then she’s also released several other singles including the title cut from her album “Not Afraid”. Her music is uplifting and energetic, and her positive message is just what the world needs.
It wasn’t until her senior year in high school that Smith became passionate about music. As she laid it before the Lord Stephanie felt released to pursue it for His glory. “This album is really an autobiography of the last year or two of my life,” she says. “It’s the best first record I could make, and I hope people will be encouraged and inspired in their walk with Jesus when they listen to this project.”
Add this cd to your playlist and you are in for a treat. The album opener “Beauty” could be the perfect theme for a girls’ conference like Revolve, talking about how God loves us no matter what we look like on the outside. The pop beat and positive lyrics make it hard to sit still to when it’s at full volume - “Hello, world Here I am today. I didn’t feel like putting on make up, is that okay?”
“Love out Loud (written by Stephanie, Britt Nicole, and others) is quick paced with its rock and roll rhythm. And Smith showcases her fun side in “Over It” - it’s almost as if Alyssa, Lauren, and Becca of Barlowgirl have joined her on this number.
Stephanie’s favorite song on the cd is “In My Eyes.” And it’s easy to see why, because it’s the most rock oriented cut in the mix. She sings of how we can look into a person’s eyes and know exactly what they are feeling. The worshipful ballad “You Alone” immediately brings to mind Natalie Grant’s hit “Held” - it’s a mellower moment on this mostly pop/rock album.
Smith’s vocals are a cross between Sara Acker (Inhabited) and Brooke Barrettsmith, with a sprinkle of Krystal Meyers thrown in for good measure. The finishing touch to the project, “First Words”, describes what Stephanie was feeling on the day she met her father for the first time. Every cut has Smith’s prints all over it - she co-wrote every one.
This upbeat album is sure to have you rolling down the windows in your car and turning up the volume, although it would have been nice if “Not Afraid” were longer than 39 minutes in length. Stephanie’s not exactly breaking new ground here, but her enthusiasm and positive lyrics make her music a cut above the rest.
Overall, Smith has delivered a sure-to-be hit cd with a great message for teen girls, but any contemporary music lover will enjoy it . Can’t wait to see what she has up her sleeve next time around.


Monday, February 12, 2018

The Yearbook by KJ-52

Reviewed by Tracy Darlington
"KJ's vocals are clear, the lyrics understandable, and the music crisp ... up to par with anything Kanye West and Scarface are dishing out..."
It’s been a great year for KJ52. His album sales have surpassed 500,000 units, he’s won a Dove award, and he’s been nominated for two more. His latest self produced project, The Yearbook, gives you a snapshot of what this hip-hop Tampa Florida rapper is capable of. Seven years and five albums into his career he’s had such hits as “Five-Tweezy” and “Dear Slim” (a song written for Eminem). KJ says, “I am both thrilled and awed by the things that have taken place recently, and I can’t wait to share them with the world.”
This latest album branches out from his predominantly hip-hop feel to a wide variety of musical styles: rock and roll, rap, urban hip-hop, with a little 60's, 70's, and R&B thrown in for good measure. Fans of the many pop culture references he’s been so fond of using on earlier cds need have no worries, as this project is full of them. KJ’s sense of humor shines through in “Do Your Thang”, which also has the most catchy bass line. Rock and roll purists will appreciate the cut “You’ll Never Take Me Down” (featuring Kevin Young of Disciple). Keeping with his tradition of including guest appearances from other bands and artists, he also includes Toby Morell of Emery, Ayiesha Woods, Blanca Reyes of Group 1 Crew, and Liquid.
KJ seems to deal with more serious issues on this project, when he’s not being silly, that is. Like “Fanmail” (think “Dear Slim”), which is based on actual letters he’s received from fans. And “5 Minutes In the Garden” focuses on Jesus’ Garden of Gesthemane turmoil: “Through the trees the soldiers sped from the west – They’re getting closer and closer for me to arrest.” But there are also some strange and quirky lyrics in The Yearbook. Unforgettable lines more consistent with his previous albums abound: “It smells like an animal died between your teeth”. KJ’s vocals are clear, the lyrics understandable, and the music crisp.
The Yearbook is up to par with anything Kanye West and Scarface are dishing out in quality. Only his message is edifying and non-violent. You can hear he’s having fun, and you’ll have fun too. A must for the iPod as well as the car.

Five Two Telvision by KJ-52

 Reviewed by Tracy Darlington

"KJ dishes out another vibe that’s sure to please fans young and old."

It’s been two years since we’ve heard anything from 34 year old Florida native KJ-52. Now he brings his latest offering Five-Two Television. “I wanted to create a record that is almost like a TV station,” he says. In typical KJ fashion, this project isn’t your normal length. With 24 tracks to its credit, we’re treated to a four-act, spoken-word biography starring the fictional character Chris Carlino. The segments represent who KJ might have been had it not been for Christ crashing into his life at age 15.
KJ channels Justin Timberlake on the stand-out track “Calling You”. This is a totally danceable tune with it’s dominating downbeat. “Fuego” has a hip-hop, salsa/Latino flavor and will help you brush up on your foreign language skills, as the lyrics are in Spanish. As with most of his albums, KJ isn’t afraid to share mic time with other musicians. J.R., Trevor McNevan (Thousand Foot Krutch), Rob Beckley (Pillar) and Group 1 Crew help this project to rival anything we’ve heard from Kanye West or Jay-Z lately.

Five-Two Television is rife with KJ’s trademark pop culture references about Facebook, Twitter, and even some texting lingo. But sadly no reference to Starbucks this time! With ten CDs under his belt (include remix albums), KJ dishes out another vibe that’s sure to please fans young and old. Don’t plan on sitting still through this one

Wednesday, December 27, 2017

Introducing Ayiesha Woods by Ayiesha Woods

Reviewed by Tracy Darlington

 "Fresh, eclectic sound from new Gotee artist."

Growing up in Bermuda, Ayiesha Woods never dreamed of being discovered by TobyMac. After hearing her song “Crazy” on the radio while he was vacationing in Jamaica, Toby quickly found her contact information and called her. 27 year old Ayiesha says, “I wasn’t home when he first called. I was in disbelief; I couldn’t believe it was him!” Although caught off guard by the prospect of working with Toby, she knew this was the exact direction God was calling her--to bring her own brand of diversity, quality and purpose into music.
This project has way more heft and depth than your average debut album. The cuts are anything but repetitive, and you can feel the unique urban sound in her music. From cut to cut Ayiesha transcends a broad spectrum of musical styles, making it tough to find a central theme, unless the theme is skillful versatility. For example, she reminds me a little of Nicole C. Mullen in “Crazy”, an upbeat Caribbean hip hop number. “I Don’t Mind”, which was written as an encouragement to her mom to let her know God cares for her, has an Aretha Franklin flavor to it. Beyonce might even come to mind in a few songs.
Ayiesha wrote “The Only One” for a wedding where she was the surprise guest. The bride loved her music, and her performance of this song was a gift from the groom. She was more than happy to be asked, and she can’t wait for the newlyweds to hear it on this album. Tobymac’s signature vocals back up “Big Enough”, a song that reminds us how great God is. But it’s Ayiesha’s first radio single “Happy” which is hitting the airwaves and taking off across the country. This song has a catchy pop/country sound, with a little of the vocal chops of Melissa Etheridge.
I can already see Ayiesha becoming a stand out name in Christian music. Listeners will not be disappointed with this album and will surely flock to buy her next. It’s a winning total package that I keep playing over and over again. Positive, top notch quality. Now get in the car, crank up the volume, and get ready to groove.