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Paradise Sky – official soundtrack to the movie Fallen Angel
Artist: Randy Stonehill
Label: Red Road Records / indie
Time: 11 tracks / 48:17
Christian rock music has only a handful of legitimate icons, and Randy Stonehill is one of them. This past year we saw people like Amy Grant and Phil Keaggy celebrating twenty and thirty year anniversaries of classic works (Amy’s Lead Me On, and Phil’s The Master and the Musician, respectively), while veterans like The 77s and Kevin Max re-examined the roots of Christian/gospel/rock music with projects like Holy Ghost Building and The Blood. Retrospection seems to be in the air, and Stonehill has offered us a look back, and a reinterpretation of eleven of his own classic songs, on Paradise Sky.
There is, of course, always a danger in reinventing ‘the wheel’ of classic songs: the target audience already knows and has catalogued each nuance, each vocal inflection, each guitar lick and snare hit: the music is indelibly etched into their emotional and musical memories in a way that defines not just the music, but the entire milieu of life when the songs were new. Of course, as with any release by any artist, the music has to stand or fall on its own merits.
The truth is, that these were, and are, very good songs – good enough to stand up to scrutiny more than three decades later. These eleven songs, one from Born Twice (1971), six from Welcome to Paradise (1976), three from The Sky is Falling (1980), and one from Equator (1983) are performed by Stonehill, who reprises his vocal and acoustic guitar roles, drummer Ronnie Ciago, bass player Baba Elephante, and guitar-wizard / keyboard player / back-up vocalist / producer / arranger Mike Pachelli. Elephante and Ciago function ably as session players, but this is certainly a showcase for the talents of Stonehill (who still delivers vocals in his distinctive ‘Stonehillian’ style and has grown as a guitarist since the days of the original recordings) and Mike Pachelli, whose versatile guitar work has enough of a Keaggy edge to evoke the early days of Jesus music while providing a technical skill that will delight fret-heads everywhere.
So, did they do the songs justice? For those who laid needle-to-vinyl repeatedly through the ‘70s as they wore out copies of the original releases, it will be a hard call to make. The original arrangements were wonderful in their rock and roll simplicity, and I must admit that I miss Larry Norman’s wonderful harmonies when I hear the new versions. Emotional nostalgia aside, the original takes on songs like “Keep Me Runnin’,” “King of Hearts,” and “I’ve Got News For You,” are pretty hard to improve on, and even though Stonehill, in his liner notes, writes that one of his goals was to strengthen the songs ‘sonically,’ I’m not really sure that these wonderful songs have gained musical strength. Certainly, as you listen to “Keep Me Runnin’” there’s an improved skill in the musicianship and a deftness in arrangement right off the bat, that makes the song more impressive, but perhaps less distinctive than the original. The same can be said of “King of Hearts,” which is a delightful mix of melody (altered slightly), Stonehill’s tender acoustic, and layers of stunningly beautiful guitar-work by Pachelli. The track is wonderful as it stands, although the original is still the classic for me. On the other hand, “Trouble Coming” is somewhat lead-footed compared to the original, and might suffer from too much musical polish and too little punk.
Because of the Lennon / McCartney love/hate relationship of Norman and Stonehill (come on – that’s the 500 pound gorilla in the room, isn’t it?) there will be a level of curiosity and discussion about this project that will be less about the dynamics of the music than the dynamic between these two iconic figures that were so pivotal to the early days of Christian rock music. On the bottom of the cover of the album are the words “official soundtrack to the movie Fallen Angel,” which is David DeSabatino’s documentary/biography of Larry Norman. The CD is also being advertised (with or without Randy’s knowledge - I don’t know) as “a tribute to Larry Norman.” Side-taking aside, it’s hard to see how Randy Stonehill recording new versions of his own songs, but this time without the involvement of the late Larry Norman, is in any sense a tribute. One has to wonder about the wisdom of stirring the pot by even going there, when this could have simply been promoted as Stonehill revisiting his early work for the sake of the music, period. “Norman’s Kitchen” and the beautiful 1983 track, “Even the Best of Friends” (which features Lance Abair on sax and John Campbell on piano), are fitting enough tributes in their own right.
Certainly, this is a must-have for anyone who is a fan of Randy Stonehill, or grew up on the Jesus-rock of the ‘70s. It’s hard to say exactly where these newly-arranged songs fit on today’s musical landscape. Certainly, I don’t think I’ll be alone in saying that the spoken interlude on “Counterfeit King” was a mistake, or that Randy’s observation about his improved guitar-playing skills on “Norman’s Kitchen” are a bit too self consciously delivered – but Uncle Rand is entitled to his fair share of goofiness (I don’t think he’d have it any other way). The songs still hold up.
Ain’t that real good news? Go and hang up your blues.
It seems for those who have survived the origins of Jesus Music/Contemporary Christian Music its time to look back and reflect. They have certainly had their Big Chill moment when, Larry Norman, one of the pioneers, founders and most controversial artists of the period succumbed to heart disease at age, 60. As legendary now as Ray Manzarek meeting Jim Morrison the Venice Beach in California, is Randy Stonehill's visit to Norman's kitchen where Stonehill received a full-blown, spirit-fired transformation and conversion to Christianity. From this point and through most of the 70's Randy Stonehilll and Larry Norman were like two ragged, bohemian versions of Sinatra and Martin. From this relationship and the ensuing legal, emotional psychological battles that ensued, filmmaker, Bo Di Sabatino (Lonnie Frisbee: The Death of a Hippie Preacher), is about to release, a new documentary, Fallen Angel . Since, due to the Norman families objection to the film and the inability to use Norman's music, Stonehill has released Paradise Sky in support of the new film.
Remakes of classic songs is not always a good idea unless some new vision can be brought to the songs. As good as remakes may be, its important to bring a dimension, a re-interpretation which then becomes relevant today and in some way ageless. This CD misses this crucial mark. Beyond some sweet musical enhancements, as on Stonehill's touching "King of Hearts,' and a nostalgic, "Norman's Kitchen," there's nothing new here. The album consists of replications with Stonehill's trademark vocals power still intact, but somehow the core passion of the original versions missing.
This songs are wisely drawn from his first three albums, Welcome to Paradies, The Sky is Falling, and Equater, which chronicle Norman and Stonehill's artistic work together. This was the time when Stonehill's music and ministry formed and was, at the time, among the edgist singer-songwriter to merge true '70's rock and rollwith Chistianity. He remains to this day a vital, passionate and original artist. Paradise Sky serves as a reminder of how strong that passion began like listening to Elvis or Dylan in their early days. The main value of this album is the affection, perfection and love with which these gems are returned to modern technology and are brought to a full sound dimension not available during those times. It is also a reminder of how timeless many of these songs are. Bascially there is not a bad song on the album. But, the best tracks are drawn from the original, now historic, Welcome to Paradise. "Keep Me Running," I've Got News For You," and especially the string-embellished "King of Hearts," sing with the marriage between truth and art in song.
As my 19 year-old-son listened to this disc, he asked, "Is this Christian music?" I said, "Yes, it from back in my day." He said, "This is really good. Better than the newer stuff." That's the strongest endorsement one can receive from one Southern California punk.
For more about Paradise
Sky go to http://
Kudos to Randy Stonehill for grace under the recollection of unpleasant memories. The arguable clown prince of the Jesus movement's musical division maintains his composure admirably when speaking of his late mentor in his extensive interview segments in the recent Larry Norman documentary, Fallen Angel.
A body couldn't blame Stonehill were he to have blown a gasket in that movie. It's not everyone's mentor who runs off with his protege's wife and almost swipes his song publishing rights, too, as Norman is portrayed as doing in director David Di Sabatino's controversial feature.
Since those aren't the only unsavory occurrences in Norman's life recounted in Angel, it's unsurprising that the executors of the late Norman's estate weren't going to allow their charge's songs to comprise a soundtrack album. Fair copyright use allowed Norman's music in the movie, but the dilemma of a soundtrack comes as blessing in disguise for Stonehill.
Fittingly, for Paradise Sky Stonehill revisits mostly songs from his early albums for which Norman once held the publishing rights. And the old Jesus hippie folk rocker has aged well.
Generally minimal arrangements complement Stonehill's seasoned, quavering tenor. Occasional saxophone, piano and occasional classical strings add sophistication to the electric and acoustic guitar dominance of the 1971-83 originals. Textually, many of the numbers relflect on Stonehill's relationship with Norman, either intentionally (the conversion story in 'Norman's Kitchen," a plea for reconciliation in "Even the Best of Friends" or perhaps by inference and extension ("Counterfeit King," "The Winner").
And though Stonehill's voice really hasn't changed from his shaggier Born Twice and Welcome To Paradise days, his phrasing has. Where once he was dryly bemused, he now can be wistful ("...Kitchen"). Though he was once urgent, he's now all the more so as the Second Coming gets closer ("Trouble Coming").
A shame though it is that
mainstream cCm has only so much use for elder statesmen such as Stonehill,
his recent collaboration with Phil Keaggy and this revisitation to catalog
classics convince that he still has it in him to bend heartstrings and
sing with a vulnerable honesty. No matter the bittersweet memories dredged
up in the process.