Duo translates the many colors of hymns into rural magic.

Holy Week, Vol. 1 EP
Middle River Hymnal
Label: Gospel Song Records
Length: 5 songs/23 minutes

If you record music, you know something about peak levels. When the recording levels go too much into the red, there is distortion. Initially, it’s what unsettled me about the acoustic guitar on the opening “Great is Thy Faithfulness.” The high notes sound a little fuzzy, like they are bleeding into the red. I suspect this might be intentional, as this recording has a loose, raw feel; maybe a little like a garage band except it’s not heavy. Whatever the intention, it’s far removed from being sterile, polished and overproduced.

This rural magic works to the advantage of “Jesus, I My Cross Have Taken,” the next track, which I had never heard before. I like it when hymn recordings introduce old and maybe seldom covered songs that are new to me. I imagine that this captivating melody is original since it sounds so lively and has a strong hook. How can I not like it when it includes banjo playing?

Plus, Diaz sounds a little like Michael Stipe of R.E.M.. If you ever wanted to hear someone like Stipe singing a hymn, check this out. Don’t laugh, it can happen. Steve Winwood does a beautiful rendition of “Now the Green Blade Riseth” (see https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vpU01KQIUJM).

The verses are packed with spiritual riches. It’s so dense with truth and wisdom that I’m discovering more on each listen. Talk about treasure in a field where one gives all to make a purchase. This is worth having just for this track alone.

By the way, the rustic sound, which you hear throughout this release is better known as Americana. Whatever you call it, the music is anchored by the warm tones of acoustic guitar and piano, augmented by bass and drums, and the occasional other instrument, including some brass in the background.

The group is an indie duo consisting of Josh Diaz and Laura Creel. After collaborating for years in their local church they signed with Gospel Song Records in 2020 with the intention of reconstructing their worship experience through the “richness of hymns.” Whereas contemporary songs tend to be on the nose, “Hymns use so many more colors to try and describe the indescribable,” explains Diaz. They succeed in translating these colors into vibrant sound.

This includes the spirituals “Give Me Jesus” and “Were You There,” both sung by Creel with Diaz harmonizing. They cover them well, given the sparsity of words and simple framework. That’s not to take anything away from the profound meditation in two songs that are worth knowing. They also provide a wonderful quieter contrast to the more animated hymns that precede them.

It seems like “How Great Thou Art” is more often than not done with music that is more on the traditional or southern gospel side, not that there is anything wrong with that. It’s just a pleasure to hear it anew with finger-picking on the guitar. It’s not overly dramatic, favoring a less is more approach, which adds to its appeal.

Don’t limit this to passion week. Listen at any time. I will enjoy hearing more from this duo if I have the opportunity. Long live hymns and spiritual songs!

Michael Dalton