3WBNew music by any combination of Winans is always exciting – here's a new one by Marvin, Carvin, and BeBe...

Foreign Land
3 Winans Brothers
eOne Music / BMG
13 tracks / 56:08

The Winans family are legends of gospel music, and with good reason. Although they don't have a catalog that stretches back as far as Shirley Caesar or The Mighty Clouds of Joy, they've made inroads into popular culture, working with the likes of Michael Jackson and Stevie Wonder, and have recorded powerful songs ("Tomorrow") that have become standards. Breaking into the public's consciousness as The Winans (Marvin, Carvin, Ronald and Michael), the family soon branched out with the successful siblings, BeBe and CeCe, solo albums, choir projects, and the combined, all encompassing 'Winans Family' - which included sisters, brothers, and the patriarchs, Mom and Pop Winans. The latest musical incarnation is a trio project: Three Winans Brothers (or 3WB) featuring Marvin, Carvin, and BeBe Winans.

Foreign Land features the tantalizing combination of Carvin's high tenor (often in falsetto), BeBe's more contemporary R&B stylings, and Pastor Marvin's stunning gospel-soul phrasing all together for the first time. The brothers frequently take on individual verses of the songs and come together for three-part family harmony when the need arises. Carvin and Marvin wrote three songs each with BeBe writing four and co-writing two more with Daniel Weatherspoon. The songs range from strong gospel ballads to mid-tempo tunes to a few expected up-tempo songs designed to get you dancing.

This album works best when these gospel veterans are allowed to do what they do best – stir our souls with passionate, soulful performances with as little studio interference as possible between artist and listener. Starting off with the excellent ballad written by Marvin, "Your Love Will Never End," we get exactly what we were hoping for – each of the brothers takes a verse (offering further proof of my claim that Marvin Winans possesses one of the greatest soul-gospel voices of all time, by the way), building on each other's strengths – all surrounded by traditional instrumentation (augmented by some programmed percussion, out of place but kept in-check). A stunning start. BeBe's, "If God Be For Us" continues in the same way, adding a more 'churchy' feel, with a strong back-up choir in the powerful end section.

The expected Winans funk shows up on the third track, "I'm Not Ashamed," where we also hear the first noticeable programming on the project, used more appropriately here than it is on later songs. Marvin manages to insert a bit of Stevie's "Higher Ground" before the song is over. The electronic percussion and programming becomes more intrusive on Carvin's "I Choose You," odd synth choices making the song less than it could have been. This problem persists on the album's title track, with ponderous percussion hits accompanying a meandering melody, making "Foreign Land" a somewhat awkward trip.

"Move In Me," comes right in the middle of the project, giving us the classic Winans souind: upbeat, full of energy and hooks, great horn charts, Marvin shouting out front, and Carvin and BeBe putting the vocal icing on this Winans cake by adding snappy post-Temptations back-up harmonies. In many ways this is the logical sonic follow-up to the great Winans hit, "Let My People Go," from their album of the same name.

There are hits and misses on this collection - and the misses, for the most part, are in the production. While the remaining songs on Foreign Land have good moments (the unique and interesting "Just Between Me and You" certainly has a wonderful melody and a unique ending, and “I Really Miss You” is a touching ballad about the late Ronald Winans), many are saddled with intrusive programming. Like trying to wear clothes that just aren't your style, the producers too often dress up what is otherwise good songwriting in a sound setting that's too electronic, too programmed, and quite simply, too faux hip-hop to properly serve the visceral qualities of these gospel icons. One track even uses auto tuning on the vocal. Auto tuning? Really? For a Winans? In the hands of a producer like Tommy Sims (who produced Marvin's solo project, Alone But Not Alone) or Luther "Mano" Hayes, who breathed such new life into the recent Andrae Crouch live album, I think Foreign Land could have captured the inherent power of some of the songs here that suffer from an approach that - in my opinion - is counter to the kind of musical engine called for.

All things considered, this is still three Winans brothers, which is something to get excited about. Even if Foreign Land doesn't deliver as much as I'd hoped it would, I'll take as much Winans as I can get – 'cause when they're good they're very, very good!

-Bert Saraco