Casting Crowns - Come to the Well, as reviewed by The Phantom TollboothIn the autumn of 1981, Ric Ocasek and his cohorts in The Cars exhorted us to shake it up. Some three decades later, the members of Casting Crowns seem to have taken that advice to heart.


Come to the Well
Artist: Casting Crowns
Label: Reunion Records
Length: 12 tracks (53:13)


During Casting Crowns' Until the Whole World Hears tour in early 2010 lead singer Mark Hall related a humorous story about befuddled fans who would ask him why his group didn't play their most famous hit, "I Can Only Imagine," at their concerts. The aforementioned humor, of course, lies in the fact that the hugely successful single was a hit for fellow CCM artists MercyMe and not for Hall and his band mates. Whimsical though the account may be, it nonetheless hints at what has become an all-too-frequent critique of the lion's share of the artists who inhabit the Christian Hit Radio Top 40: the fact that a good many of them are virtually indistinguishable from one another.

In their defense, Hall & Co. were among the progenitors of their now-familiar brand of radio-ready pop/worship music and the performers who sound like them could arguably be classified as followers rather than contemporaries. Be that as it may, many a newcomer to the inspirational pop genre would have a hard time distinguishing the bulk of their work from that of, say, MercyMe, Sanctus Real or Tenth Avenue North. The good news, for those who don't mind the comparison, is that Come to the Well is chock full of slowly-swelling, prototypical mid-tempo pop/rock/worship anthems like "Jesus, Friend of Sinners," "Wedding Day" and the now-ubiquitous leadoff single, "Courageous" – all of which sound as if they could have been pulled from any of the septet's previous five albums. In fact, the bulk of the new effort finds the Crown cooperative sticking, for the most part, to the tried-and-true formula that helped make them one of the top-selling artists in Contemporary Christian Music history.

Perhaps sensing that, after a decade together, now is the time for a change, Hall and his cohorts shake things up a bit this time out. The slightly haunting, piano-driven "Already There," which sounds a good bit like early Coldplay, is a decided, and welcome, side excursion away from the band's signature lite pop/rock inclinations. The droning melody line of the bluegrass/folk/country hybrid, "Spirit Wind," helps lend the nearly five minute track a likewise distinctive quality when compared to the bulk of the group's back catalog. And the poignant storytelling of "Just Another Birthday," which was co-written with country songwriter Tom Douglas, will undoubtedly strike a resonant chord with fans of Miranda Lambert's exceptional country ballad, "The House That Built Me," which Douglas also helped write.

Elsewhere, though, the seven piece makes an ill-advised foray into modern rock with "My Own Worst Enemy;" a clear case of form at the expense of substance. Similarly, the otherwise engaging Gospel flourishes that grace "The Well" are all but overwhelmed by the cut's overly generic construction and lack of a memorable melody – traits shared by several other tracks on the project as well. And the lyrics to "Well" and "Angel," which visits the all but threadbare theme of romantic love as salvation, score precious few points in the arena of insight or originality. That said, violinist Melodee DeVevo instills the tender ballad, "Face Down," with the sort of sincere poignancy that can only come from having walked through the trials she sings about. The likewise unforced "So Far to Find You" perches Hall's moving account of the adoption of his daughter, Meeka Hope, atop an absolutely beautiful melody for what turns out to be, far and away, the record's most memorable moment.

In the final analysis, Come to the Well sounds, for the most part, fairly similar to just about every other Casting Crowns album. This news will, of course, be welcomed (or not) in direct proportion the listener's love of the group's previous material. That said, the band deserves at least a degree of credit for their willingness to toy with what has thus far been such a winning formula. There aren't any instant classics on the order of "Who Am I" or "Praise You in This Storm," but songs like "Face Down" and "So Far" are easily as good as anything the band has ever written. And, taken as a whole, the new record, in spite of its intermittent musical tangents – or perhaps because of them – winds up being one of the Crown collective's most cohesive, and impressive, releases to date


Bert Gangl