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A Hymns Collection
Label: Sparrow Records (2006)
Time was, it seemed almost a given that any act signed to a major Christian label would put out at least one praise and worship album at some point during their tenure. A close cousin, perhaps, to the modern worship trend that carried the members of the CHR Top 40 along in its far-reaching wake during the second half of the 1990s, Christian artists in the post-O Brother, Where Art Thou era are lining up record the songs their parents and grandparents sang on Sunday mornings. From Amy Grant’s Rock of Ages to Jars of Clay’s Redemption Songs, CCM’s favorite sons and daughters are finding the material of the venerable church hymnal surprisingly amenable to the pop/rock format.
Six studio releases, one Christmas record and a greatest hits collection into their career, the members of Avalon have now tossed their hats into the hymn-based ring for their ninth project. The album-opening “The Solid Rock” weds the quartet’s trademark note-perfect vocals, soaring harmonies and full-bodied production to an unexpectedly well-fitted organic percussion aesthetic. The equally stellar “In Christ Alone” shares the satisfying middle ground between the foursome’s characteristically buoyant AC-inclined pop and the austere modern folk-pop of efforts like the City on a Hill worship series. Perhaps most remarkably, cuts such as “Blessed Assurance” manage to remain similar enough to their original incarnations to please the dyed-in-the-wool faithful while staying just different enough to warrant their creation – an impressive feat, and one which the group pulls off splendidly.
Elsewhere, though, the group’s light shines far more dimly. The exasperatingly over-the-top delivery of “It Is Well with My Soul” all but robs the honored song of its subtle stateliness and poignancy. The foursome confuses cloying for reverence on the similarly overdone “Great Is Thy Faithfulness,” making it sound like something one would hear at a beauty pageant rather than, say, a first communion. The recently-penned “Total Praise” is helped along somewhat by its spirited old time gospel-styled backing vocals, but the otherwise plodding track has little else to recommend it. And the gratingly manic “Jesus Medley” sinks like a stone thanks to the group’s seemingly gratuitous tendency toward the melismatic.
Interestingly enough, for a group who claim to fame is its imposing singing abilities, Faith’s only truly transcendent moments come when the Avalonites step away from their vocal acrobatics. Indeed, the intrinsic rhythm and tunefulness of the slightly ambient "How Great Thou Art" are enhanced by the group's decision to lay back in its groove rather than trying to sing over the top of it. The collective shows a similarly razor-sharp wisdom and restraint on the barreling, best-of-album "Joyful, Joyful, We Adore Thee," which turns out to be a remarkably convincing foray into the modern pop/rock domain.
Those who know the church songbook front to back may well balk at the inclusion of recently-penned hymn/worship hybrids such as "Total Praise" and "In Christ Alone.” Conversely, those in the alt-pop collective who favored the obscurity of the lion’s share of Jars of Clay's Redemption Songs may not take a shine to hearing "Blessed Assurance" and "Great is Thy Faithfulness" for the hundredth time. That said, the worshipful inclination of Faith’s newer tracks assures that they hold a thematic, if not a temporal, association with the rest of the record. And even though the group tackles mostly familiar material on the new release, they introduce just enough stylistic variation to keep things at least reasonably interesting. Hardly the Avalon cooperative's crowning moment (the preponderance of weaker material guarantees that), Faith is nevertheless a mostly pleasant effort that should appeal to fans of the group's previous work.
Bert Gangl, (14 Mar 07)