The Phantom Tollbooth
October '98 Pick of the Month

Phil Keaggy
Artist: Phil Keaggy
Label: Myrrh Records
Music: 11 tracks/50:24 min.

After thirty years of making music, Phil Keaggy still both defines and transcends CCM. His work is certainly contemporary, distinctively Christian to a fault, and just plain great music. If the community of CCM listeners gave out such titles, Phil Keaggy would be the great guitar guru of our particular niche. Unquestionably. Irrefutably. Even arguably the rest of the world as well. Yet his artistic gifts far surpass his unequaled fret-board facility. He is also a skilled songwriter and composer with a definitive sound all his own. If there were ever doubts, his new self-titled album further refutes them. More like squashes them.

Phil Keaggy functions both as a look back and a look forward, yet always with respect to past accomplishments. On Sunday's Child, he paid a fond tribute to a Sixties sound. With this new album, Phil Keaggy pays tribute to himself. Some fans favor the full-on jazz-infused rock edge of such albums as Crimson and Blue, while others prefer the gentler, quieter acoustic-oriented offerings of Way Back Home. This self-titled album offers bits of both without fancying either extreme in a collection that smartly summarizes Keaggy's diverse career. The overall sound, reminiscent of Keaggy's greatest moments, is also notably traditional in its orchestration and instrument choices. For example, there are real drums and keyboards, not the drum tracks and/or poppy synthesized bits that marked albums like True Believers, Getting Closer, and Underground Volume One. Keaggy also avoids some of his past indulgences, like personal songs such as "Olivia" or "The 50th," in favor of more universal fare with wider appeal. Furthermore, the sentimentality that some listeners have branded as quaint has been substituted here for songs that are appropriately emotive without being sappy. Regardless, Keaggy has always championed both God and family in praiseworthy, heartfelt fashion. Fans have come to expect it, and here he neither disappoints nor draws disapproval.

Best of all, Keaggy has never sounded better vocally. Whether he is merely singing more in his range or benefitting from voice lessons is unclear, but the results are appreciable. Keaggy has always had an amply pleasant voice, yet here he sounds less strained, more relaxed and in complete command of both his range and tone. Admirers of his guitar talent, however, are treated only to fleeting demonstrations of Keaggy's singular skill. The guitar work is, of course, considerable throughout.  Splashy solos are kept to a minimum, however, in a conscious decision to be less flashy in favor of serving the songs. Consequently, for those wishers pining for another Blue, this album could be less fulfilling initially until overall appreciation of the album's merits is cultivated by repeated listens.

One stand-out cut, "A Sign Came Through a Window," rocks with the kind of enthusiastic energy that Keaggy hasn't produced since Crimson and Blue--it is this album's "John the Revelator."  Although it bellows "hit,"  its presence as the opening track is somewhat deceiving. The rest of the songs don't equal this jamming intensity, although a few like "My Unspoken Words " and "Chase the Bad Away" come close. The second cut, "Beneath the Blood-Stained Lintel," inspired by H.A. Ironside's book A Continual Burnt Offering, creates an appropriately old-English folk sound complete with Irish Pipes by Hunter Lee. "Above All Things," adopting some of St. John Chrysosotom's writing on weddings, also offers musical nods to days gone bye. Keaggy experimented with Celtic sounds on True Believers and 220, and these songs are two current examples where he does the same to an even greater degree of success.

Notwithstanding the amount of lyrical collaboration he has done on this album, every song sounds like vintage Keaggy. The lush pop track,  "Tender Love," is another of his notable homages to The Beatles--one of the best ones he has performed to date and an easy highlight. Geri Bobeck, Keaggy's sister, co-wrote this one as well as "My Unspoken Words," and both songs focus on God's loving kindness and illumination. Keith Moore helped with "A Little Bit of Light" which is a poetic pop song about a struggling soul. The references to Van Gogh and Faulkner, as well as plenty of picturesque imagery, contribute to a catchy song that also recalls James Taylor's finer works.  "Under the Grace" and "Days Like You" are just plain pure Keaggy and offer glimpses of God's unending mercy. The album closes with "Jesus Loves the Church," with lyrics that Sheila Walsh wrote for her friend nearly a decade ago. Although not quite as powerful an album-closer as Keaggy's remake of "The Survivor" was on True Believers, "Jesus Loves the Church" accurately captures his heart for encouragement and proclaims the much needed message that, despite our great foibles, our Lord and Groom loves us all completely. It is a hymn worth hearing.

Following over thirty albums in as many years, this is the one Keaggy has chosen to carry his name as the title. Most artists self-title their first albums, or maybe a mid-stream album that marks a change or restructuring of their previous sound. In this case, he uses his name to signify this album represents what he has always been about; Phil Keaggy is as close to a coda to the legendary guitarist's thus far substantial career as you can find. Not only a welcome album for his fans, new and old alike, but one of the best albums of his career. After all, it is good enough to bear his name.

By Steven Stuart Baldwin (8/20/98)

When you've been playing music for as many years as Phil Keaggy, you tend to want to experiment and break beyond genres. It's not surprising then that this latest release moves quickly from a Beatlesque opener to Celtic influences and even pulls in a couple of moments of Eastern sounds. Much has been said of Keaggy's vocal similarities to Paul McCartney, and they are fairly obvious on the first few tracks here, as are connections with former collaborators PFR. The guitar playing throughout is of an extremely high standard, although this release is not a showcase for the man's immense talent in the way that its predecessor, Acoustic Sketches, was.
 
Unfortunately, in its eclecticism this recording seems to have lost something of the spark it promised. The playing throughout is great, but it's not as tightly produced as it could have been, and the closing track in particular seems to lack substance. The guitar introduction to "Beneath the Blood-Stained Lintel" is great, and the percussion is interesting, but that is fairly rare on the album. Keaggy completists will want this, and it's not a bad album, but I for one had been hoping for something more complete and focused.
 
By James Stewart (11/17/98)

Phil Keaggy's latest contribution to the Christian music scene is at least his 24th project as a solo artist depending on how you count these things.

The album starts out with a strong acoustic guitar/percussive piece, "A Sign came Through a Window." It seems to be a call to the listener to take a look at the signs that God has given us to come to faith in Him. "Beneath the Blood-Stained Lintel" has a wonderful melody and instrumentation evocative of the Middle East and Celtic music, with almost sleight-of-hand guitar work. It is a short song, two verses, that powerfully parallels the Passover with death passing over those who stand under what Jesus has done. The words to this and another song, "Quite Suddenly," are from a devotional titled The Continual Burnt Offering by H. A. Ironside.

The song "Above All Things" has a strong Celtic influence. With music by Keaggy and words adopted from the writings of St. John Chrysostom, it includes interesting female vocalizations that add greatly to the "Celtic-ness" of the piece.

"Jesus Loves the Church," written by Sheila Walsh, is a haunting reproach about how Christians deal with one another:

Probably one of the strongest songs, which is a hard thing to determine on a solid project like this, is "Under the Grace," a tender song about the struggle to make some sense of it all: Another stand-out song, "My Unspoken Words," written by Mr. Keaggy and his sister, Geri Bobeck, speaks of being silent before the Lord: Mr. Keaggy's fantastic guitar playing is something his fans expect, but this album offers so much more. The melodies are unique and the lyrics poetical. His vocals are passionate and distinctive. Instrumentally, the craftsmanship is excellent. If this is one’s first introduction to Phil Keaggy's work, this album will be a real treat and an encouragement to listen to his past recordings.

By Elisa Musso (1/14/99)