Damn that Maria McKee can really sing.
That may be the single greatest understatement in the first 370 post on this list. But really, if anyone can find a better way to express the sheer power, passion and presence of McKee’s vocal virtuosity, have at it. It was said co-Producer Little Steve (E Street Band) remarked that McKees vocal performance on “Inspiration” was the most powerful and passionate vocal he had heard since Bruce Springsteens “Adam Raised a Cain.” Mighty high praise indeed. And well deserved.
More commercially appealing than the debut, Shelter infused a little more country rock and significantly less cow punk. It is better produced (in some spots a bit over-produced) and the songwriting is more accessible with superior ballads and a more consistent sound. It should have been the record to make Lone Justice rock stars. Rather, it became their swan song.
I Found Love and Shelter were both that singles that just never broke through, though they ended being covered by a few CCM artists including Geoff Moore. But the real strength on this album is on the deeper cuts and ballads. Beacon, Belfry and Dreams Come True all rock with great guitar work and McKe’s emotive presence. And as mentioned earlier, Inspiration is just an emotional vocal tour de force with a once in a lifetime performance.
The two side-ending ballads should also be noted. Wheels is a beautiful country song that should be covered by a more modern country female vocalist. The album closer, Dixie Storms, is just haunting and would point to the direction McKee would follow in her solo career.
FREE AT LAST (1992)
After the rather comical (at times) debut and a decent sophomore release in Nu Thang, the band that would eventually own the CCM world with the release of “Jesus Freak,” released an album that was such a leap in quality, authenticity and “hip factor” its actually difficult to believe that this is the same group that release the debut album just a few years previous. Free at Last would also introduce the mainstream music world to Christian rap with appearances on Jay Leno, MTV and ESPN.
Though still a rap/hip-hop group at this point, the band also began experiment with the rock leanings that would dominate the historic Jesus Freak release. Lyrical themes ranged from racism and racial reconciliation to sex and social justice. Lead rapper TobyMac really began to take hold of the musical direction here and that was a very good thing.
The band also broke down the boundaries of musical videos within CCM. Previous videos were always mediocre or down right awful, but several from this release are quite exceptional. Both Hardway and the cover of the Doobie Brothers classic, Jesus is Just Alright, were leaps and bounds beyond other videos for the day.
The album also really broke the band out of the “boy band” market and into a legit rock/hip-hop group. With FAL, DC Talk was suddenly being listened to be college students and guys as well as the female tweeners. The content of the lyrics were becoming less straight evangelical and more social and even political.
As states previously the rumblings of what would come just a few later are found here, but the album stands on its own as a great work. In fact, as I recall, CCM Magazine listed this album the album in the Top 10 of all time in their initial Top 100 list. Great production, killer songs with lasting impressions and an eternal message that never sounded forced or phony.
ALTER THE ENDING (2009)
Though originally considered a “side project” for Further Seems Forever front man Chris Carrabba, the band actually released its first EP before FSF actually released their debut with Carrabba. Carrabba only stayed for the FSF debut (something FSF seemed to deal with constantly) and put his efforts into Dashboard Confessional.
DC would initially be known as an emo band, but with Alter the Ending a more pop sensible rock band emerged. Some bemoaned the transition, but the more pop tune fan in me appreciates the new direction. The new direction allows the songwriter in Carrabba to develop as the message, melody and depth of the song would not be hidden behind the emo dramatics. Simply put, what was always there (the ability to write a great melody) became the focal point on ATE.
The first track, Get Me Right, may contain some of the obviously evangelical content of anything since the FSF debut (and the handful of hard to find independent worship projects) from Carrabba. The allusions to the “old man” and the struggle with sin is a common theme expressed here in a great melody and monster hook…shhh, he even says “Jesus” in the lyric.
The single, Belle of the Boulevard, made great strides for the band on radio and should help with future releases. Until Morning actually sounds like something the Goo Goo Dolls could release while the piano driven “Everybody Learns From Disaster” just sticks with the listener.
The only version of the album worth owning is the deluxe double CD where every song is repeated in an acoustic arrangement. Several songs are actually better on the second disc and show Carrabba to be a maturing and smart songwriter. Many may complain about the direction change and start adding the label “sell out” to the band. Others wisely see a growing and maturing songwriter expanding his musical base and relying more on the song than on the theatrics associated with a genre.
A MATTER OF TIME (1993)
I remember reading a review in the Orange County Register some time in 1993 the week Syn’s “A Matter of Time” was released. I was intrigued both by the name of the artist (a person not a band) as well as the reviewer and interviewer’s discussion of the struggles that artist faced when his faith conflicted with his his art.
Of course I could only do one thing: buy the darn album!
Despite never being able to talk to anyone about the album since no one I knew ever owned it, it has remained a long time favorite and has withstood the test of time musically than many releases from that same time period. To list comparisons always prove to be unfair and futile, but for a point of reference you can think Michael Hutchins (INXS), Joe Cocker, The Wallflowers and Adam Again. Pounding rhythms and groove driven rock and soul with more than touch of Terence Trent D’Arby, Lenny Kravitz and Adam Duritz.
Emotional, raw and provocative. For those who are squeamish regarding flowery language there is an expletive or two but they seem to fit the artist and the message. I have long past dismissed the issue of language in music and will not reintroduce the debate here. Plus, DW Dunphy says swearing in songs is cool!
“Love on My Side” starts the album with a cool, light bluesy riff and soulful vocals reminiscent of Trent D’ Arby with a sore throat, a soulful growl aged in a bottle of gin and spilling out into the speakers. This song oozes with a subtle raw emotion that builds slowly. In an odd way the song is both glossy and raw and works with the message of faith and redemption. Great gospel tinged backing vocals complete the revival theme as the song crescendos to finish.
“Bleed” is heavier and with a riff comparable to INXS meets Pearl Jam, Syn’s soul is poured out like the blood he sings of. This song is musically the heaviest on the album and has a blues guitar solo that steals the show. The song, like the whole album, matches brutally honest lyrics with a vulnerable and passionate vocal performance.
The wah-wah guitar just rips through as a killed Hammond organ keeps things melodic and constant. But here again it’s Syn’s vocals and the pain expressed that makes the song believable. At time Hendryx is brought to mind, not for the guitar but the vocals that influenced the likes of Kravitz, Duritz and obviously Syn.
The first ballad on the album is “Suicide” that immediately reminds me of some of Michael Anderson’s best songs, but sound a little more like Van Morrison here than anywhere else on the album. The slurred vocals takes a higher register and is subtly accompanied by drums, organ and acoustic guitar.
“Hey John” is a tribute to John Lennon and remembers the Beatles death and even contains some Beatles references. Though not the strongest song musically, nor the most memorable, it does contain some of Syn’s better lyrical touches with references to Strawberry Fields, etc interlaced throughout.
The other ballad is the beautiful “Please Be There,” the only direct “love song” on the album. Accompanied only by the acoustic guitar Syn vocals strain with a longing and emotional touch that is absent from the rest of the album and fits the message perfectly.
The title track closes the album and is closer to “Bleed” than anything else on the album, The song starts slow with just acoustic guitar but does not stay there. As the song build and progresses so does Syn’s performance. Chris Cornell inspired vocals drives home this six minute closer. The song is one of lost and regret that summarizes the pain, frustration and longing that weaves throughout the entire project.
AWAITING YOUR REPLY (1978)
“Our thousand dollar winner will be announced two hours from now, so hand in there as we play music by…Resurrection Band? How’d that get in the stacks? Oh well, heeeeer’es hopin'”
And so the world was introduced Resurrection Band by mock rock DJ Jolly Jonah Jamison. What would follow would literally change the face of Christian music forever. A Led Zeppelin blues grooved guitar attack and pounding drums drive male and female shared lead vocals through an onslaught of rock that had never been attempted by a band claiming the name of Christ.
Waves just rocked your face off as the album’s lead track and with it brought a train full of controversy. Critics accustomed to reviewing the Gaithers and The Archers didn’t get it. Youth Pastors trying to sneak in Love Song didn’t get it. Pastors didn’t come even close to getting it.
Who got it?
A bunch a rock starved teens in youth groups around the world being fed Evie like brussell sprouts and told to like it. They didn’t. But they loved Resurrection and made them a household name within a few years.
The album was made for literally nothing and Star Song Records had nothing to lose releasing it to Christian bookstores as long as they could duck and cover long enough for the brouhaha to wane. It never did. Over the next several years Resurrection band was the poster child for the demon rock hating televangelist and youth pastor’s bent on making kids love their favorites like Amy Grant and Sandi Patty.
What was missed amongst all the ground breaking, door smashing and hair pulling was that this little band out of a Chicago commune had crafted a damn great album filled with great songs, powerful social messages and unforgettable rock and roll. In fact, some of the bands finest compositions were released on this album.
One of those “finest” was “Broken Promises.” The seven minute blues driven tune (think Clapton before he discovered guitars could be unplugged) features one of Glenn Kaiser’s finest vocal performances. So heartfelt and authentic you did not only believe him, you felt him.
The plainly proclaimed Gospel has always been a trademark for the band along with their social justice agenda and the title track is an altar call set to music. Questions, doubts, fears all relieved by a letter that was “signed in blood, mailed into my heart.”
Lightshine is the one chord wonder rocker that sounds great today and works in spite of it’s simplicity. Glenn Kaiser once joked with me over dinner that the song was written when he couldn’t sing and play guitar at the same time. The album closer, “The Return,” is such a great melody and the perfect way to end the album. Here again Kaiser’s vocals shine with authenticity and transparency.
“Well, I guess that’s all folks…”
FAITH, HOPE, LOVE (1990)
I have seen King’s X live on three occasions. I still have no idea how they pull off their sound live with just three guys. It is really impressive. Of course, one of the times I saw them they were the band for CCM pop artist Morgan Cryar. They played at the infamous “lighthouse” in Orange County.
With their third release, Faith, Hope, Love, King’s X were positioned to become the next great rock band, and even though they have garnered a stellar track record and decent fan base, the world just some times doesn’t “get it” when it comes to great and significant rock.
Possibly more “commercial” than the first two release, FHL, is still a rocking album and filled with the bands unique, creative and progressive rock music. The Beatlesque vocals married to big and heavy rock just seem to work so well, especially here. The single, “It’s Love” is a brilliant song that deserved even more radio support than it did.
But like most King’s X projects it’s deeper into the album that the real gems shine though. “Fine Art of Friendship” has such a killer groove that sticks with you and a wonderful message of reconciliation. “We Were Born to Be Loved” just flat out rocks…hard! And the spoken vocal just works perfectly.
Many prefer the debut because of it’s greater progressive and creative influence, but FHL delivers such a consistent and listenable sound that it bears more repeated listening.
THE ONE AND ONLY (1997)
After releasing the impressive Commonwealth album and touring non-stop with CCM heavyweights Newsboys, Plankeye entered the studio and returned with a much more polished pop album than anyone probably expected. This was a long way from Spill and Spark with their grungy punk and aggressive musical attack. Here is a bad that over the years had learned the fine art of writing a pop song.
The One and Only title may be in reference to God but I always like to think it had more to do with the Newcastle Brown Ale slogan. The album made stride lyrically as songwriters Eric Balmer and Luis Garcia took more control (this would be the last album for lead vocalist Scott Silletta) and infused the lyrics with a growing appreciation for Reformed theology, especially Postmillennial eschatology.
The band was being more and more influenced by the teaching of the late theologian and thinker, Greg Bahnsen. This influence stemmed from the fact that Bahnsen’s son David was also the band’s manager. Like the Supertones, the band began to study deeper theological ideologies and this became an integral part of the bands lyrical output.
The above is most notable in a personal favorite, Playground. The great punk rock groove drives a song criticizing the popular “imminent rapture” and their belief that the world has a long way to go and that the Gospel will accomplish in history its intended purpose.
This change in direction is dealt with “Landmarks.” Other themes include forgiveness, repentance, friendship and God’s sovereignty. The growth is musicianship and lyrical depth allowed the band to create their finest work, which, in the rare case in CCM, also became the bands best selling album.