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Slow down as you approach the gate, and have your change ready....
I cringe each time an artist or a group announces they are going to record a hymns record because it usually means they have run out of ideas and are either filling time--and the market--or are merely fulfilling a contractual obligation to release an album. So, when 4Him released Hymns: A Place of Worship, I approached it with some trepidation. I don't know if this project fulfills a contractual obligation or if the group saw it as merely filling time--but I can tell you that the group has not run out of ideas. Sure, the songs are all familiar ones--they are hymns, remember--but what these four guys do with them, for the most part, is very inventive.
Take a listen to the opening song. Really, it's a combination of two well-known hymns: "Faith of Our Fathers" and "The Solid Rock." It starts out sounding very traditional through the first snippet of "Faith of Our Fathers," but as it segues seamlessly into "The Solid Rock," the men of 4Him bring their own style to play. The harmonies, the instrumentation, the sharing of lead vocal duties--this is classic 4Him and the hymn benefits from the updating. Yep, there's tons of production and it doesn't go verse-chorus-verse-chorus-verse-chorus like a typical hymn. There's a great mid-song bridge used to good effect and a chorus was created to tie the song together quite nicely.
Another track that benefited from some jazzing up is a Beatles/Beach Boys treatment of the classic "Savior, Like A Shepherd Lead Us." This song would feel at home on an album of songs styled like their hit from Streams, "The Only Thing I Need." Complete with a George Harrison guitar sound, piccolo, and trumpet, the song sounds, musically, as though it would have been at home on the Beatles' Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band. In the process, 4Him takes the song from “old-standard-find-it-in-the-hymnal” stuffiness, to modern, singable, pop music. Wonderful. The lyrics of the old hymns remain as vital, as universal, as ever--however, by updating their sound the hymns have a chance to become relevant to a new generation raised only on worship choruses. What the singers and producers have accomplished, for the most part, is the transformation of 1000-year-old sacred songs into new sacred songs.
Does it always work? No. "Be Thou My Vision" receives an unsympathetic "Titanic/My Heart Will Go On" type of arrangement, complete with a pennywhistle opening. By the time the bagpipes (yes, bagpipes) come in, the song is mired in it's production to such an extent that the wonderful depth of the lyrics nearly is lost. Another unsettling "update" is the minor-key arrangement, dirge-like treatment, offered on "O Sacred Head, Now Wounded." Yes, the content of the song is the crucifixion and all the hurt, pain, and anger that goes with that, but the opening arrangement sounds like it was borrowed from Elton John's "Funeral for a Friend" from his Goodbye Yellow Brick Road album.
Other highlights: "The Love of God," with its very cool bouzouki sound and an otherworldly chant; the contemporary pop flavor of "Great Is Their Faithfulness;" and "Fairest Lord Jesus" with a smooth Boys II Men sound.
Clearly, 4Him put a lot of effort into their hymns offering--it shows not only in their song choice, but in what they did with the songs. This is a project both hymn purists and innovators can enjoy.
Mike L Ehret