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Tell Me What You Know
Artist: Sara Groves
URL: www.saragroves.com www.myspace.com/saragroves
Label: INO Records
Time: 11 tracks/46:41
About seven years ago a relatively unknown female artist released an album called Conversations. The songs were intelligent, refreshingly honest, and laid out in a straight-forward manner, full of the kind of simple beauty and profound truth that we, unfortunately, don’t always see coming from the CCM community (even though that’s exactly where such music really to be coming from). Sara Groves, several albums later, is still delivering songs of simple truth and beauty, now mingled with more life experience and an expanded view of the world. Always closer to a Joni Mitchell sensibility than to the latest choreographed, demographically-programmed Christian Music teen idol, Groves has not only maintained her artistic integrity on her latest project, Tell Me What You Know, but has perhaps reached the high water-mark of her recorded output.
Sara Groves has obviously lived a lot of life in the past seven years, including having children (this album was written and recorded just before the birth of her third child) and witnessing firsthand some of the horrors of the poverty and tragedy in Africa and closer to home. There’s a maturity and depth of ‘soul’ about this CD, but also a joy and sense of freedom that sets it apart from other one-dimensional ‘message’ projects. In many ways, this is Sara’s _Lead Me On_ (Amy Grant), which, for many people (myself included) was Amy’s shining hour – a ‘coming of age’ recording where life and art met head-on. In Sara’s case this is not a sudden turn-around, but a natural progression from album to album, culminating on Tell Me What You Know with a stunning mix of intelligent, insightful lyrics, well-structured, melodic music (with no shortage of hooks), and impeccable musicianship. Under the steady hand of producer Brown Bannister, Sara and the core players – Steve Brewster on drums, Matt Pierson on bass, Blair Masters on keyboards, and Scott Dente and Jerry McPherson on guitars – deliver a mature pop/rock/folk/jazz masterwork that will please the ears and enrich the soul; this is music that’s easy to enjoy for its own sake, but manages to find its way not only into your body, but into the deeper layers of your soul. Yes, Sara knows how to groove. Sara Groves – Sara grooves.
Tell Me What You know starts off with a song written by Sara, to her sons – not the most original concept, but executed with style. Instrumentally sparse, the track features fast percussion and a very up front vocal, effectively double-tracked on the chorus. Sara’s voice is a pleasant, familiar and versatile instrument, and is very inviting and easy to listen to. Her vocals on this project are no-doubt the best she’s ever done, achieving impressive results without sounding as if she’s trying to impress, but to communicate …which she certainly does. The song has a fairly fast tempo and effectively slows the vocals against the bridge, with its’ busy percussion, creating an impressive musical contrast and bringing what could’ve been a clichéd song to a higher level.
“In The Girl There’s A Room” is one of two songs that Sara co-wrote: this one, with Charlie Peacock. The song is a powerfully funky, jazzy composition with lyrics full of creative imagery that reaches past the mind at first, but gets to the heart on a deeper level. The song recalls the free-form masterpiece, “Boxer,” from Sara’s The Other Side of Something album. This is an amazingly sophisticated song that achieves an infectious groove while offering such insightful lyrics as these, from the song’s hook: “…oh, tell me what you know / about God and the world and the human soul / how so much can go wrong / and still there are songs…” These words are part of the key to this project: the world is a serious place, but there is hope, and there are songs.
Next is a more conventional song: “Say a Prayer” is a strong track with a great melody and a gentle flow to it. Paul Franklin’s pedal steel guitar, sounding right out of classic Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young, brings the lyrically poignant song up a notch to make it a classic.
“Love is Still a Worthy Cause” is a radio-ready, encouraging, upbeat song that doesn’t indulge in the ‘everything is wonderful’ fantasy, but recognizes that there’s a hope that’s worth the risks in life. Groves has written a catchy song with a strong melody and strong lyrics like, “friend I know your heart is raw / but love is still a worthy cause…” and, “… in the midst of passing bravery / in the face of our own injuries / is the constant generosity of grace…” This certainly isn’t light-weight stuff. Thanks to Brown Bannister’s production (and maybe to McPherson’s playing, as well) this could almost be an out-take from the afore-mentioned Lead Me On album.
“When the Saints” follows, and is a wonder of simplicity and elegance in a pop/rock format. Sara’s perfect vocal phrasing is effective and affecting, detailing themes deeper than most pop songs usually get. The semi-military cadence of the drums and Groves’ wonderful vocal delivery of her wise and introspective lyrics make this a special piece of music that will, indeed, stir you as you listen.
The project moves on here to a song inspired by the writings of no less than Dietrich Bonhoeffer (“Honesty”), followed by the Joni Mitchell-like “Abstraction,” which features an amazing guitar solo and an all-around excellent job by this excellent group of musicians, who play like a real band, and not as hired studio players.
A wonderful song of self-discovery through exposure to real-world suffering follows, as Sara and John Catchings basically turn in a duet, with Sara on piano and Catchings on Cello. “I Saw What I Saw” features haunting, challenging lyrics: “your pain has changed me / your dream inspires / your face a memory / your hope a fire / your courage asks me what I’m afraid of / and what I know of love…” This song inspires inner growth, self examination and other-awareness. On the basis of this song alone, Sara Groves should be esteemed one of the great song writers around today. One singer / songwriter, a piano and a cello player: quite amazing.
Following, is an almost seamless segue to “It Might Be Hope,” the second song of what can be thought of as a ‘reflective trilogy’ that continues with “The Long Defeat.”
Ending the album is a very up-beat, somewhat Beatle-influenced song the that sounds very much like a like the kind of track that would have been at home on Phil Keaggy’s Emerging album: “You Are Wonderful” is bright and hopeful, with an enthusiastic performance by all concerned, showing us just how energizing and fun good pop music can be. Kudos to Gordon Kennedy, who co-wrote this with Sara.
Tell Me What You Know establishes Sara Groves as a dependable artist of consistent quality. Not content to merely give her audience easily digestible ‘Christianese’ in a generic pop format, Groves has created a strong work that will not become dated, because truth and beauty don’t have an expiration date. This is simply a wonderful project that should convince any listener that Sara Groves is a compelling, important artist who needs to be heard by a wider audience, and has perhaps just given us one of the best albums of the year.
By Bert Saraco