FOOL’S WISDOM (1973)
Malcolm & Alwyn
The first authentic Jesus Music album to crack the Top 100, Malcolm & Alwyn’s “Fool’s Wisdom” was the first Christian album I remember owning (or at least permanently borrowing from my brother of sister). I can sing every song and may be one of my personal favorites because of its impact in a ten year old in Anaheim, CA.
Often called Christian Music’s Simon and Garfunkel, the truth of the matter is that they were probably closer to Christian Music’s acoustic Lennon and McCartney. The musical influence of the Beatles is unmistakable though the vocal harmonies do scream S&G.
By early 70’s standards this record was Godsend production and musical quality wise. This sounds as good as any pop album for the time and the US audience ate up this British duo almost immediately. But before the album hit the American shores they were household names (at least in Christian homes) in their homeland of England.
Larry Norman would mention them in one of his songs (Dear Malcolm, Dear Alwyn) and their credibility amongst the Jesus Movement was solidified. Norman was a fan as at that point in his life he taken up residence in England and encouraged many young converts to use their talents for the Lord. Two of those would be former “Zodiacs” members Malcolm Wild and Alwyn Wall.
The album sports a great supporting cast including members of King Crimson, Edwards Hand and Hudson Ford. Myrrh released the album in the US and it became a huge hit by the standards of those days. Everyone knew the title track and it became an anthem for the Jesus Movement alongside Norman’s “I Wish We’d All Been Ready.” Pastor Chuck Smith of Calvary Chapel really loved the duo and had them play at Calvary Chapel on a regular basis. Both are now Calvary Chapel Pastors.
Primarily simple acoustic rock with Beatlesque string accompany songs of evangelism and the Second Coming themes found in abundance in the Jesus Music era music. But the quality of songwriting and performance separated the duo from nearly everything else releasing at the time.
The “rockiest” tune kicks of the album with “Say It Like It Is.” A little Buffalo Springfield like with the acoustic rock production and tight harmonies, the sound in quintessentially British. The song is a call to the Church to stop putting Jesus in a box and preach the word as it is written.
The title track follows and would easily make the top 10 of greatest songs in CCM history (another blog, hmm?). The beautiful acoustic guitar and tight harmonies that show a touch of the Everly Brothers as well as the aforementioned Simon and Garfunkel. Using Paul’s (Apostle not McCartney) words that the things of God are foolishness to the perishing, the duo proclaims them as fool’s wisdom. The melody is so memorable and captivating it is hard to not click on repeat as I write this review. This is just a classic in the previously mentioned sense of the word.
“Tomorrow’s News” is the duo’s shot at writing an “I Wish We’d All Been Ready.” The song is successful at presenting a terrifying picture of life of those left behind. The song starts with a lilting, melancholy sound but builds as it progresses into almost an acoustic Emerson, Lake and Palmer sound with the string arrangement and musical changes.
“Growing Old” starts acapella and moves softly through a beautiful ode to the singers’ child. A lullaby of sorts, the song encourages the youth to consider what it likes living a Christian life and not to make the same mistakes the father did. The second verse deals with the loss of the father and the struggles of an aging mother. Every one is growing older and each are addressed here.
“Thing are Getting Better” sits in juxtaposition to “Tomorrow’s News” where the duo express the wonder of revival taking place amongst the youth in their British homeland. I can’t skip commenting what a great string arrangement this song possesses.
“Heaven of Hell” continues the evangelistic theme as the options are plainly laid out. This theme will dominate Side Two of this release. The electric guitar makes a rare appearance on this song and is a perfect fit for the arrangement.As the song builds into a medium tempo rocker the theme of soon coming judgment and the eternality of hell are expressed as warnings to the lost.
“Seed of Corn” takes its content from Matthew 13 and the story of the great harvest while “The World Needs Jesus” is self-explanatory. It is easy to see why the evangelically minded Calvary Chapel of the early 70’s would be so profoundly supportive of this duo.
“Always on My Mind” recounts the crucifixion and for who Christ died. More theological than anything else on the album, the Gospel presentation becomes more complete with the presentation of the sacrificial work of Christ.
The album closes with “It’s here the Answer Lies,” with a wah wah guitar subtly in the background supporting the most 60’s sounding song on the album. Not quite psychedelic, but more bluesy and pysch rock then anything else on the album. At 5 minutes it is almost an epic compared to the rest of the album. But it should be noted that a lot is going on musically here and it is great classic rock sound that was a but absent from the Jesus Music movement at the time.
Outside of Larry Norman, Love Song and Randy Stonehill, Malcolm and Alwyn may have been the most important artist of the decade. Not only for the evangelistic accomplishments but because the authenticity of the sound and the quality of the music created. It was current and then, not a few years behind. It was real and honest and lasting.
They would do another album together before breaking up and going solo.
Both would go on to do a few solo albums (a few listed previously). After a great solo album (Broken Chains) Malcolm would the create the Mirrors and their one album would actually kick off this entire list. Alwyn Wall would do two solo albums. One, The Prize, is a must own and the other is a great Larry Norman release.
The early 90’s saw the demise of Frontline Records. Yet it would be several years before the birth of Tooth and Nail. Christian music was filled with horrific “chick pop” and hair bands that didn’t know a new decade had dawned. Rap was in its infancy and no where near the authentic form it is today. Quite frankly Christian music was in its “sucky years.”
Really great albums were few and far between and Point of Grace and Avalon were becoming the household names. Even the rock and alternative scene’s seemed to be further underground than normal and a few years behind the times. The 77’s were pretty much shopping for a label with every release and Charlie Peacock was producing other people rather than himself, except once every few years.
But right in the middle of the early ’90’s doldrums came Undercover’s “Devotion.” After the intensely dark and difficult “Balance of Power,” Undercover found the light at the end of the tunnel and came out rocking with their best foot forward. Heavy, yet creative and some smoking guitar and drums. This would sadly be the last album featuring what is know as the “best” Undercover line-up. In fact, the follow-up release, Forum, is difficult to even call an Undercover album given the radical line-up changes and lack of cohesive band.
Songwriting responsibilities once again fall into the hands of keyboardist and band leader, Ojo Taylor. Gym Nicholson plays his best guitar, Gary Olson remains on drums and lead vocalist Sim Wilson is less operatic and dark and much more rock vocalist here. Think more Axl Rose and less Jim Morrison.
But with “Devotion” there is a sense of urgency and artistic freedom that oozes out of every song. Without falling into the grunge trap, the band rocked hard without any punk leanings, but also no angsty, doesn’t life suck mentality. That’s not to say there are no expressions of difficulty, darkness or struggles, but rather there is more of a sense of hope here than on the previous.
Oh yeah…and the album just totally kicks ass!
“Work It Out” kicks off the album with a vengeance. The high maintenance lifestyle found in Ojo Taylor’s Southern California home takes the bite of criticism here. A sense of futility arises as the simplicity of life is crowded out in a me first world.
“Man, Oh Man” is a real highlight on this album. From the best produced drums in Undercover’s history to the added brass section (with help from Rob Watson) and driving rhythm this is one to put the top down and hit the gas with. The song asks Adam “what was he thinking” when he used to walk in the cool of the evening with the lord and yet still rejected this lifestyle for one of sin.
“Sea of Tranquility” sports a sexy GnR type rock and roll from the gutter hipness. Groovy and heavy without sounding cliched at any time. Nicholson’s lead is a bit too far back in the mix but still a great work. The slowed down bridge fades into an acoustic piano the leaves the message of loss haunting the listener. Brilliant musical arranging there.
I don’t know why, but for some reason “purple Flower” reminds of the heavier Mad at the World sound that was also being released at the time. The wah wah guitar mixed with the restrained vocals and pounding rhythm just work though. A love song of sorts (not the kind normally associated with CCM) the song speaks like the Song of Solomon to both the physical and spiritual realities simultaneously.
The title track possesses some of the darkest musical expressions on the album with the heavy groove and more difficult content. Wilson’s voice is also a bit darker and hearkens back to the previous album a little more. But it works given the difficult content of loss and desiring truth. perhaps looking at the Church from the perspective of the women whose only desire was to touch the hem of Christs garment. How does the Church treat those in similar situations in today’s culture?
“Promenade” sounds initially like a Dylan tune from the late 60’s with a call to community and unity. Terry Taylor helps with the vocal arrangements and one doesn’t need to read the credits to recognize that. This could have been one of those songs where the audience sways back and forth with upraised lighters swaying in unison. In some ways it feels out of place, while it also seems to fit perfectly.
The more pop driven “Where I Should Be” follows. The theme of longing for belonging remains here. Again this is also how the album separates itself from the previous release. There is more of a sense of hope and that the twinkle in the eye will return. Wilson gets a bit more rock and roll here and it works as the song closes.
“Dark Night” again expresses the tension of both the spiritual and physical realities in human relationships, especially those of an intimate situation. The “water” expresses this commonality.
Terry Taylor helps out again in “All That I Am.” The song is limited lyrically with only 8 lines making up the entire content. But the truth and the presentation contained within the 4 plus minutes is spell binding. Taylor’s vocal arrangement helps carry the song and Nicholson’s restrained and tasteful bluesy guitar work seals the deal.
“So Wonderful” closes the album with a beautiful song of freedom and release. I wish I knew the story behind the song as it is dedicated to Rose, but I am not familiar. perhaps the back story would help with the review, but the song itself is stunning. A great keyboard created string arrangement supports a song where Wilson’s voice is at its very best. The chorus is just beautiful and bring this amazing to a hopeful and encouraging close.
This will not be the last Undercover album to grace the Top 100, but when it was released it was the most important and possibly best thing going in CCM.
THE BIG PICTURE (1986)
Michael W. Smith
It has been said here and elsewhere (and quite often) that a CCM album’s depth, quality and creativity will be inversely proportionate to its sales success. Meaning; the better the album the fewer the people that will purchase it. This appears to remain true even for CCM’s golden boy and most popular and prolific male artist, Michael W Smith.
The Big Picture, Smith’s artistic triumph remains his weakest selling album and the only album in his career not to reach even gold status. After a strong debut and the utterly forgettable argyle sock of a sophomore release (aptly titled “2”), Smith grabbed the CCM world by the throat with an album that was sonically, creatively and musically miles ahead of the rest of the Nashville pablum for the time.
From the dark purple and gold hues of the artwork to the tasteful technological advances and superior production, the Big Picture is great from start to finish. What keeps the album from falling off the tracks in a travesty of technological traps is that the songs themselves are very organic and real. Taking themes from the culture and wrapping them in modern sounds with a clear and poignant response to the baggage those theme bring along makes the album the one worthy release from Smith in the Top 100.
The album start with the ode to nihilistic escapism in “Lamu.” The once-thought fictitious paradise is actually off the Kenyan coast and serves as the backdrop for the person who hopes to escape the world and its struggles by venturing off to the furthest point they can think of. But, as the song contends, you can never escape the “One inside of you.”
The song starts with nearly a minute of musical introduction and cost the song any chance of radio reception. In fact, the entire album is filled with 5 and 6 minute musical expressions and and radio airplay nearly impossible. The heavy guitar solos and pounding electronica probably didn’t help as well.
“Wired for Sound” is the perfect example of medium meeting message. Here the electronic gadgets employed in the production of the song match the message of a world consumed by technology. This technology clouds many from seeing the truth and the song warns of this danger.Even Smiths voice is given electronic embellishment to subtly continue the message.
“Old Enough to Know,” the most “organic” sounding song on the record with limited technology. The song could have been the biggest hit from the album if it wasn’t a warning against pre0marital sex. Not that the warning was seen as a negative, but it was simply a subject CCM radio avoided like the plague. the heroine, Rebecca, is encouraged not to gibe into the pressure and Smith twists the common phrase about being old enough to have sex and uses it to declare she is old enough to know not to.
Continuing in the youth oriented themes that populate the album, “Pursuit of the Dream” is a very positive call to achieve your dreams and goals. It is also here where the album takes its name. Often in the pursuit of the dream one will miss out on the big picture and accomplishing what God wants for the individual.I recommend listening to this song (and the whole album for that matter) using headphones as there is simply a ton of “stuff” going on musically here that fills every nook and cranny of digitized tape.
The one monster hit from the album (still a rather lengthy 4:30) was the song Rocketown. The title namesake became a youth oriented hang out/nightclub for Christians soon after. The ironic thing is that in the song, Rocketown is a bar where people are looking for sex and fulfillment without Christ. The song itself is very creative for a radio single, especially given the time period. the bass line though as a bit of a mellow “Man in Motion” thing going for it. In the song there is a mysterious Christ-like character that enters Rocketown and entices a young man (Smith) to follow Him to truth. Smith’s own label would also bear the name.
The nearly 6 minute “Voices” sounds the most like Smith’s previous work with the worship like feel and classical musical landscape. Really, it sounds like a song recorded for the first two albums but was “suped up” for the Big Picture and made more musically relevant.
“The Last Letter” returns the album to the more technologically driven rock. The weakest of the songs lyrically and musically, it still sounds better than most of his later work. The lull does not last long, though, with the following “Going Thru the Motions.” This is just a great song from melody to music. It also has the biggest hook of any chorus on the album and served as a great concert song. The song decries the common complacency that sets in on many Christians who simply go through the Christian life without making a difference. In the end they are living a lie Smith exclaims.
The one 3 minute number is a rocking instrumental “Tearin’ Down the walls.” the song does just that. Great groove, killer guitar work and a ton of technological experiments jammed into three minutes.
“You’re Alright” is the most straight ahead rock and roll on the album. Guitar and drum driven with the keyboards acting in support. The song deals with maintaining a positive self-image through Christ by working on the inside rather than on the outside. This is the last song on the album other than a piano outro the closes the trip to the Big Picture.
Producer John Potoker had worked with Brian Eno, Madonna and a host of others and had a huge influence on the musical direction and big production sound. Many will obviously find the music and production technique dated, but one of this lists presuppositions was to judge albums based on the time they were recorded and what was happening musically. And for that, this album is the most “current” album of Smith’s career.
He would record about 10 more albums in a row that are completely indistinguishable from one another. But the strength here lies not in the production (or over-production) but in the strength of a songwriter album to have his songs outlast even the dated production technique.
BOW AND ARROW (1982)
Ten years removed from Love Song and ten light years removed musically, Bow and Arrow was an original artistic revelation in 1982.
I had just begun working for a small buy relatively aggressive Christian Bookstore in orange, CA called The Pink Lady. The store with odd name was kind of a crazy combination of ice cream shoppe, Bible bookstore, Hallmark store and music store. Half of the music department was dedicated choral and instrumental music with instruments, cantatas and several rooms for private instrument instruction. Yet, at the same time, the music department carried Bruce Cockburn, U2 and Bill Mason band along with Amy, Michael and Larnelle.
One of my first days working there the owners daughter was training me and had put a brand new album from Maranatha Music on the in store turntable. After several songs I mentioned that I thought this was, by far, the best Phil Keaggy album I had ever heard!
The album was “Bow and Arrow” by former Love Song drummer John Mehler and I bought the album that night.
The album was produced by Mehler with help from Bill Batstone who also played bass on the album. The muscial direction will always find comparison to Phil Keaggy because of Mehler’s voice having such an uncanny resemblance to the guitar virtuoso. Keaggy’s providing some of his best recorded guitar work helped to add luster to the comparison.
But there are to be found touched of early 80’s new wave and a dash of the Police. And within the framework of the 9 songs one will find nine brilliantly written, produced and performed songs. As pioneering Love Song was for the early Jesus Music days, Mehler’s Bow and Arrow was just as captivating, original and significant.
The album received very limited promotional and radio support as it was at this time that Maranatha Music decided to no longer do artist oriented releases and focus exclusively on worship and children’s albums (Psalty). This is one of the great travesties in the history of the industry that the album was never picked up by another label and was left to disappear into many a cut out bin. That same album now fetches a pretty penny on the open market as audiophiles and fans recognize what a great album it was. In fact, a recent HM Magazine countdown of the Top 100 Rock albums in CCM history listed Bow and Arrow amongst many of the great releases.
The album was essentially the work of a power trio featuring Mehler, Batstone and Keaggy with help from Randy Mitchell (guitars) and Bill Cobb (drums). The album kicks off with “Trust in the Lord,” an arty, medium tempo rocker driven by bass and drums with a jangly guitar finding it’s groove in the chorus. The huge wall of sound vocals in the bridge fully deliver as Keaggy’s guitar builds steam in the final minute.
The opener segues without a break directly into “Just Like You,” the most “Keaggy sounding on the album, reminiscent of the style found on “Play Thru Me.” This is the most upbeat and pop song on the album and should have been a huge radio success in a perfect world, though the guitar work probably would have been a detriment as CCM radio at the timw was fearful of rocking guitar solos, and this one definitely rocks.
“His Love For You” is classic British influenced rock with a great hook and has a touch of Paul McCartney from the Wings era. Again we find great, yet subtle guitar work work filling every empty space and Batstone’s other worldly bass lines driving a distinctly classic rock influenced pap number. Much more “arty” than anything for it’s day, one hear The Police and even Rush influences. What stands out though, is amongst the artistic and creative verse and instrumentation in a monster hook of a chorus. The backing vocal interaction with the lead as the song closes is brilliant.
The title track remains one of the finest rock songs in CCM history. Period! Great staccato guitar rhythm and Phil Spector “wall of sound” vocals drive a songs that builds brilliantly and passionately. Keaggy clearly earned his pay on the guitar solo here. I don’t know why but I’ve always wanted to hear Charlie peacock cover this song. In fact, Peacock’s “Lie Down in the Grass” with much heavier guitar work is the only CCM reference I’ve ever been able to give this song, and it does not do the song justice.
The worshipful “Be Strong in the Lord” adds a touch a traditional Church music with an organ in the instrumental bridge accompanying the great guitar work. There is a touch of Paul Clark here that fans may find as a good comparison. Nearl atmospheric and other worldly at time, the song doesn’t pound and build like the rest of the album, but more like envelopes the listener fully, surrounding them with the sound and feeling.
Alright is a groove driven rocker that sounded like it must have been a fun ride in the studio. Every once in a while a song just sounds like fun. If John Mehler ever reads this I can only hope my guess is correct. Like the rest of the album the song touches on the common Jesus Music theme of the Second Coming. This theme is woven into nearly every song, though it should be noted that this album may contain more direct Scripture quotations as part of the lyrical content than many other contemporaries as the bridge of this songs shows.
“Little Drummer Boy” in a rock instrumental version of the classic Christmas carol, but i would venture to guess that no one has done an arrangement quite like this one. Primarily driven by extremely well produced drums and electronic keyboards, the song eventually morphs into an amazing drum solo. I’ve always been a sucker for a drum solo and outside of few later released live albums by a few CCM rock bands, this may be the last real drum solo in CCM.
Some have complained that drum solos are indulgent, yet at the same time those same people never complain about a lead singer vamping or a long guitar solo as being indulgent and self-oriented. Yet it is the drums that Psalm 150 commands be used to praise the Lord. After the solo the song blows up into a full fledged rock instrumental for the final minute.
Returning to the eschatological undercurrent, “The Seventh Seal” follows with another instrumental that fits so well back to back with the previous.
The album’s closer in the beautiful worship song, “My Strength.” Again, the amazing wall of sound vocal approach makes a common worship song an angelic experience. Driven this time by keyboard strings and acoustic piano, My Strength is the perfect closer for this amazing project. Stunning, beautiful and God-centered.
It should be noted here that this is sonically one of the best albums of its day. The production quality is tremendous and is easily one of those albums that deserves a CD release. I really wish I owned it on CD. The sound is worthy and the album is more than worthy!
Mehler would go on to record another project five years later and a live album. In between there would also be two great instrumental jazz albums (I can’t recommend “Light the Night” enough), countless studio sessions, ministry opportunities, concerts, teaching, etc. But for one all too brief moment in CCM history, one of the truly great albums found a home on my turntable and remains “one of the greatest Phil Keaggy albums ever!”
Here they come…
Just a warning that there may be more time between each review in the Top 100 as I hope to spend more time discussing the albums and that will mean more time re-listening to these incredible classics. Please be patient, one day this will all be over and the griping can begin!
Hope the ride has been fun and hope everyone is looking forward to the Top 100 as much as I am!
LIFE IN GENERAL (1996)
Christian music’s best and most prolific punk band created their magnum opus of sort with 1996’s “Life in General.” The last album directly for the Christian market for Tooth and Nail records before signing a major label deal with A&M, the band wrote and recorded 17 killer pop punk tunes that continued the bands earlier look at life growing up, this time a little more mature.
The album would also be the one that took them from a west coast phenom to a national spotlighted band with an ever growing following. Never a band with blatantly Christian lyrics, the album continues discussions about girls, God and being a rock star. But it would be the tongue firmly planted in cheek ode to the “cool dude” that would make the band a household name.
The song, and hilarious accompanying video for “Chick Magnet” remains one of the best tunes the band ever recorded and the best video by any Christian punk band. The “nerdy” drummer Yuri plays the suave and debonair chick magnet with cool and panache, using every table top magic trick a 17 year old knows. Brilliant and hysterical.
Move to Bremerton showed a maturity in musical direction and vocal harmony. If there was any justice in 1996 the song would have been a huge radio hit. It had everything Green Day offered, including an unforgettable hook. I was living in Gig harbor, WA at the time and remember the cool factor the song gave to the little Northwest town.
As a whole the album is a bit less frenetic than it’s predecessors. This is possibly due to the maturity in songwriting and a more creative musical approach. Don’t misunderstand here, the 17 songs still clock in at under 45 minutes, so there are no Stairway to heaven’s here, but rather a more classic pop sound infused into the aggressive punk sounds.
The band still creates great music and is just a viable today as in any time in their career. Life in general was just a perfect record for the time and one that will still sound cool, fresh and fun in another 15 years.
CHUCK GIRARD (1975)
This one could easily be labeled an essential Jesus Music album that belongs in everyone’s collection. Just a few years after leaving the seminal Jesus Music pioneer group, Love Song, Girard recorded his eponymous debut. The album features some of the best music the Jesus Music era had to offer including one worship song that is most definitely considered a classic.
The album is filled with what could be called the “California” sound reminiscent of Brian Wilson with a little country feel a la The Eagles. Most notable amongst the rockers is the lead track, Rock n Roll Preacher. Sounding a bit like Cliff Richard here, the song is a rollicking good tune that would have fit right in with the general market musical scene is 1975.
Where Love Song stayed within the acoustic folk/rock safety zone Girard branched out a bit beyond those borders and some struggled with the more “rockin'” Girard. This is not true of the younger Christians eager for anything resembling legitimate rock or Top 40 music. Girard would most definitely fit into the later category as his music was very radio friendly, if there was such a thing in 1975.
But despite the pop and rock that dominated the album, it would be the nearly 6-minute worship song that closes the album that would not only be the biggest hit from the album, but also become the signature song of Girard’s entire career. “Sometimes Alleluia” would find its way into nearly every church through hymnals, worship songbooks and youth group sing-a-longs. Though not the first “contemporary worship” song recorded it easily ranks amongst the first and the most enduring. It would go on to be recorded countless times by other artists and may be the most important worship song of the era. That being said, it is also a wonderful song and easily considered a “classic!”
Though not the ground breaking music of Love Song, for it’s time it was the very best the Jesus Music scene had to offer. legitimate and authentic pop music with a distinctly eternal message.