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Atist: Phil Keaggy
Label: Strobie Records
Time: 12 tracks / 46:00
The long-awaited ‘vocal album’ by Phil Keaggy is finally here, and it’s a must-have for the collection of any Keaggy fan, although it might not exactly be the album we’ve been dreaming about. Dream Again is a departure from Phil’s recent purely instrumental work, and is, in fact, Keaggy’s first album featuring his signature vocal work since 2000’s Inseparable. After no less than nine instrumental projects (including two released this year), Keaggy fans received the news about a new CD of ‘love songs’ featuring Phil’s vocals as well as his guitar work with excitement and speculation: would this be the ‘pop/rock’ album of commercial songs that would give this master singer/songwriter/musician the recognition he deserves? One listen to “Love Is The Reason,” which was available for pre-listening on Phil’s website (www.philkeaggy.com) convinced me that an album of songs of this caliber would put Phil right over the top. Having listened to Dream Again several times, I see that the album is not the commercial breakthrough project that was hinted at (and that’s not a bad thing) but is instead a collection of songs that are a very personal emotional inventory - a reflection on family and other issues that strike more closely to the heart of a man who feels the importance of introspection as he looks at the world and how it’s changed over the span of more than four decades. A commercial album? No. But Dream Again is an important album by a major artist named Phil Keaggy, and includes two of the best tracks he’s ever recorded.
In a sense, this CD is Way Back Home part II, but where that album was about Phil’s early life experiences, this one reveals how years of living have molded and changed him. Perhaps it was the nostalgic mood that these songs created that caused Keaggy’s various influences to show up throughout the tracks, or maybe it was by design - but one can’t help but hear hints of The Beatles, Nilsson, Dylan, Larry Norman and others drifting throughout the project. The CD starts off with the title-track, an appropriately dreamy song that catches the listener off-guard by introducing a major-to-minor melody right off in the first verse – this is jarring at first, but creates a Lennon-like ethereal quality, which is then transformed to a calming, almost tropical feeling (“…and when I wake up smiling…”) that recalls Nilsson in his prime. Phil follows this track with the first of two appearances by his son, Ian, who ‘speaks’ the lead vocal (don’t call it rap – it’s not) on “Why.” The somewhat low-key song features a basic ‘why-is-the-world-the-way-it-is’ verse, but really comes to life on the chorus, where Phil gets to rock out and throw in some short, stinging guitar bursts.
“Redemption” poses the question, “do I want to be right or be redeemed?” and features an unusual stylistic choice for Keaggy the vocalist, as he delivers the lyrics in a Dylan-esque phrasing. This song typifies much of the feel of this project, featuring an emphasis on more of a strummed-chord style than an electric, melodic guitar approach. One gets the impression that many of the songs might have started out simply - with Phil the Troubadour strumming his acoustic and singing.
Tom Shinness dresses up “Thank You For Today” nicely, with harmonium and cellos adding to this simple, but catchy song introduced by Phil phrasing the opening vocal line in a style reminiscent of Larry Norman ‘doing’ Leon Russell.
The fifth track is one of the more revelatory songs on the disc – “Revive Me” recalls the singer’s earlier days, when inspiration came more easily…. It’s a confessional prayer for inspiration and passion for today (and, don’t worry – it’s still there, in Phil’s case), and is one of the stronger, edgier tracks on the album – the vocal starts with a low, breathy delivery and the song builds steadily to a powerful end.
“There With You,” a song for Phil’s daughter Olivia, is a pleasant rock-shuffle with a memorable, melodic riff that floats through the song like a ribbon in the wind.
Earlier, I mentioned that this album contains two of the finest songs that Keaggy has ever recorded: “Traveling Light” is one of them. The only pure instrumental on the disc, the song is an acoustic masterpiece of melody and technique. When you hear it, you’ll understand what I mean.
“Micah 6:8” (you can find a lyric sheet in your Bible) is a very brave and very successful track. Phil and his daughter, Alicia, whose voice turns out to be an amazingly pure and effective instrument, share the vocals. The song is almost middle-eastern in its construction – parts are sung call-and-response style, almost like instruments in an Indian raga. Keaggy plays eastern flavored guitar lines to add spice to the very atmospheric, almost hypnotic soundscape.
A song in tribute to Phil’s sister, Kathy, follows. “Kathy’s Song” is a very good, but unremarkable tribute in the form of a pop song.
“It’s You and Me” is a song for Bernadette, Phil’s wife. Right from the opening riff, we’re sure that this is a song that harkens back to youthful days, and memories of the music of the late fifties and early sixties. The lyrics and the intro to the song suggest a bouncy, energetic, ‘cute Beatle’ type of song, much like Crimson and Blue’s “Love Divine,” but the song seems to be lacking the energy it’s looking for. A faster tempo or a true ‘live band’ performance could have given this track the extra energy it needs. I wonder if Phil was sitting down when he recorded the basic tracks for this song?
“How Can I Thank You” is Phil’s way of saying ‘thank you’ to his sister, Mary Ellen, and it’s a warm, simple, lovely tribute, indeed. That the melody briefly suggests elements of “Gentle On My Mind” and Larry Norman’s “Song For A Small Circle of Friends” is somehow appropriate for a song that is so much about strong life relationships.
The album closes with the second of the two tracks that I’ve called among the best that Keaggy has ever produced. “Love Is the Reason” is about as close to a perfect pop-love song as you can get. Impeccably produced and arranged, flawlessly performed vocally and instrumentally, lyrically poetic and accessible, and full of hooks. …This song is a pop masterpiece. The opening musical phrase immediately recalls The Beatle’s “Real Love” single, setting the stage for a classic love song that McCartney himself probably would be proud to call his own. String arrangements are classy and just enough, thanks to Jonathan Willis, Ringo-like drumming is by Mike Radovsky, and piano work is by Jesus Music veteran Tom Howard.
_Dream Again_ was produced by Phil Keaggy and ‘JB’ with Phil writing all of the songs except “Redemption” and “Thank You For Today,” which are written by Phil with lyrics by Todd Albertson. Phil played and sang everything, except where noted above, and had help on the drums by Chris McHugh (“Dream Again,” “Revive Me,” “There With You”) and Mike Radovsky (“Why,” “Thank You For Today,” “Kathy’s Song,” “It’s You and Me,” “Love is the Reason”). While this is too personal and reflective to be the Ultimate Phil Keaggy Project, Dream Again grows more and more on the listener with each playing, and is a worthy addition to your collection of Phil Keaggy albums.
By Bert Saraco