Guest Post: CD Review: A Tribute to the Cathedral Quartet by Signature Sound
This is a guest post from NewSoGoFan.
Eight years ago, Signature Sound released their debut album. At the time, George Younce had these words to say about them and about his experience as he listened to the project:
So many memories came rushing in as I realized that this is the “sound” and the style of songs Glen and I always insisted upon down through the years as the “Cathedral Quartet.”
…It is evident that the goal of this quartet is to remain faithful to their “High Calling,” to their gospel roots, and to the audiences for which they will be privileged to sing.
Though this is just their first project, I think you’ll agree that the “Signature Sound Quartet” definitely has that “signature sound,” and with the Lord’s help, these young men are destined to be a positive force in this industry for years to come.
For this young, promising group, George’s words would be amply borne out, as they went on to rise very swiftly to the upper echelons of the genre. Now eight years later, they have paused on the journey to look back and pay their respects to George and Glen. These men were honored in their generations and were a glory in their days. Their legacy lives on through the men who served with them. With their own groups, they continue the ministry today, as they continue to render thanks and honor to the memory of George and Glen. They are a privileged few, for they can close their eyes and remember these two old men—with hope in their hearts and a song on their lips.
This is a great trust, and as George’s son-in-law, Ernie has carried a special responsibility with him through the years with his group. Yet he and they have carried that banner with class and excellence. With this project, they have not only paid worthy tribute to the Cathedrals legacy, but they have also set a new standard for themselves. There are moments that especially stand out, but as a whole, it remains remarkably consistent across its 19-song span (plus two bonus cuts). The result is both a wonderful trip down memory lane for those who remember the Cathedrals and a perfect introduction for those who are discovering this music for the first time.
So let us begin…
Wedding Music: This is a very classy way to kick off the project. It’s a low-key number, but it’s a perfect opening song. The simple strumming of an acoustic guitar sets the stage for a tasteful re-visitation of this classic, creating an air of expectation for what lies ahead. “Is that wedding music I hear?” Understated and smooth.
Step Into the Water: As the Cathedrals’ longest-running #1 hit, this song was an obvious pick for the project. It’s just a great song, with a terrific message in the lyrics. I have always especially loved verse one: “It’s time we the people stand up for what is right/It’s time we squared our shoulders back and raised our swords to fight.” Amen! Sometimes I think the church tends to slip into “group hug” mode without remembering that we got a war going on. God is raising up an army indeed!
This arrangement remains very true to the spirit of the original but adds a few twists. There is some tasty banjo strumming in the background which gives it a bit of a country flavor. Doug and Ernie’s duet on verse two is a real treat. Their voices complement each other superbly. At the end of the song, an extra refrain is added that works perfectly to tie it off—a great example of how to give a classic a new touch without detracting from its power.
Boundless Love: This song provides the project’s most unusual moment, and that’s the “We Will Rock You” rhythm that kicks it off and continues in the background for the first part of the song. It’s fresh and creative, to be sure, but it’s generated mixed reactions. My verdict is that while it’s a fun idea, it creates a musical clash of worlds that doesn’t quite work, aesthetically speaking. There’s a very literal sense in which that rock rhythm gives a downbeat feel to an upbeat song. The effect is even more noticeable when listening with headphones. It’s simply too heavy for its musical context. But after the second verse, that rhythm fades away, and it is then that the arrangement really takes off. At that point, we’re back to that country/gospel rhythm of “clap, clap, clap, clap” instead of “boom, boom, CLAP.” It fades back in briefly later, but by then it’s too late—the song has already moved beyond it. Overall, this is an excellent arrangement, and it is best appreciated live with several encores. Like many of these songs, its full flavor only comes through on the DVD, because the live energy just adds so much.
I Thirst: This is the project’s first single, which is a very nice touch considering that it was not the best-known song off of its original project (the stellar High and Lifted Up). The arrangement is handled tastefully and gracefully, different from the original, but without losing the golden touch. They begin with an introductory acapella tag. Doug then takes the lead on the first verse and communicates the poignant lyric very effectively. Ernie takes over on verse two after a key change. The closing harmonies are hauntingly rich. This version may not replace the original, but it stands on its own as a lovely piece of music.
This Ole House: This concludes the first rough “quarter” of the album, and so far the guys are batting a thousand. Once again, this version doesn’t stray far from the original, but it is somewhat different. The lush, sweeping orchestral feel of the original has been replaced to an extent by a brighter, jazzier sound—sparkling piano, bits of electric guitar, and some big band brass. However, the country/western fiddles are such an integral part of the song that of course they could not leave them out. On the transition into “When the Saints,” they briefly switch to a fun marching-band feel, even throwing in a parade whistle (!) The song ends with great energy. Tim Duncan does an excellent job with this arrangement. Nobody can communicate the lyric like George, of course, but Timmy is a natural and the song suits him very well.
Champion of Love: This arrangement has generated a lot of buzz because of the decision to give pianist Wayne Haun the main feature, a nice historical nod to Cathedrals pianist Gerald Wolfe’s breakout performance. While the lyrical metaphor comparing Jesus to a prizefighter may not be to everyone’s taste, Wayne does a good job carrying this rendition. He’s no Wolfe, but he possesses a clear tone that’s easy on the ears, reminiscent of Wesley Pritchard. As for George’s spliced-in intro, it was obviously designed for live performances, therefore it makes a little more sense there than on the studio cut. But in any case, kudos to Wayne as he continues to establish himself here as a capable vocalist in his own right.
I’m Gonna Live Forever: This is a lesser-known number, but Ernie probably decided to cover it because of his nostalgic ties with the Talley era of the group. It’s a catchy little ditty.
Can He, Could He, Would He: This arrangement starts with a strumming banjo and moves into a fun “New Orleans street band” sound. Devin takes the lead for most of the song (obviously having a great time), with some moments from Timmy as well. The vocals overall are tight and smooth, and the production is clever and amusing. Of particular note is the sousaphone, which is even more fun to watch on stage (see upcoming DVD review).
Wonderful Grace of Jesus: Fantastic arrangement, following the Cathedrals original pretty closely with a few tweaks. The addition of Wayne Haun as a vocalist to make the group into a quintet prompts the question of just how much they could do with this configuration. For example, might they perhaps choose to tackle some Glad arrangements? I could definitely hear them covering material like “You Put This Love In My Heart” and “Just As I Am.”
Sinner Saved By Grace: This arrangement had to grow on me a bit, but honestly you can’t lose with this song. The production has a bit of a pop flavor, and the vocals also have a somewhat contemporary sound. Doug delivers a beautiful solo on verse one. Devin’s solo on verse two could stick closer to the melody and still be effective, but he also does well. The orchestration is very well done on the chorus in particular—it brings out the dynamics of the song. There’s a key change at the end that happens very quickly but lifts everything up to a new level. Bottom line: It just works.
An Old Convention Song: This arrangement follows the original almost note-for-note, both instrumentally and vocally. However, they throw in a funny twist on the verse about other styles of gospel songs. The phrase “country flavor” has a country flavor, and the “modern sound” sounds, well, modern! The vocals are deliberately distorted for a brief moment, poking some light fun at that pretentious, “weird for the sake of being weird” kind of music. But we quickly return to the comfortable familiarity of the old convention song.
Perhaps they could follow this number up in concert with an actual convention song (maybe an impromptu rendition of “Give the World a Smile?” 😉 )
Mexico: As popular as this song is, the tribute could probably have managed to limp along without it ( 😉 ), but it is fun to watch on the DVD (see upcoming DVD review for more details).
God Delivers Again: This is a “hidden gem,” and it’s one arrangement on here that I can unhesitatingly say is better than the original. The production is superb, as the piano and b-3 Hammond start things off with a bang. The piano remains a solid anchor throughout, and the b-3 hangs around too. The vocals are also great: Timmy nails verse one, and Ernie’s solo on verse two packs a terrific punch. He communicates the triumph of the lyric wonderfully. I feel like shouting “Yeah!” or “Amen!” or something similarly exclamatory after he sings it. If this don’t pull you out of bed on a discouraging Monday morning, nothing will. This is also a terrific live number.
Life Will Be Sweeter Someday: Obviously a large part of the magic on this number when the Cathedrals did it was Roger Bennett’s inimitable piano turnaround. While there’s no attempt to duplicate that here, this is still a very enjoyable cut. The piano is replaced by a guitar in this version. It’s more laid-back than the piano, giving the arrangement a relaxed, bluesy sound. Fun to listen to.
Moving Up to Gloryland: The wonderful thing about tiggers, is tiggers are wonderful things. Need I say more? Moo-hoo-hoo-hoo-HOO-vin!
Plan of Salvation: This is a truly lovely rendition of a simple, beautiful song. While the group did it live for quite a while (including the version off their self-titled DVD as a bonus cut on Get Away Jordan) this is the first time they’ve done a studio version. It’s definitely a highlight of this project. I love how the piano part is given just a little bit of a fresh sound without losing any of the beauty of the original. The original was more distinctly country, while this has a somewhat more delicate touch. The strings also add a lot—very warm and evocative. Great stuff. It’s high time they pulled this nugget back out and started re-introducing it into their repertoire.
We Shall See Jesus: Expectations ran high about this arrangement—who would take the lead? Would Ernie let Doug handle it, toss Devin into the deep end, or perhaps take the arrangement in a different direction altogether? Well as everyone knows by now, Devin steps up to the plate for this one, and I must admit he exceeded all my expectations. I was in the audience when they debuted this song live. It was unplanned, but Ernie decided to call it at the last minute. Needless to say, it was an incredible moment and generated probably the biggest response of the night.
Amazingly, Devin already had improved significantly by the time he gave that performance from when he first cut his part in the studio. However, he does a beautiful job here, and the rich timbre of his voice shines through very handsomely in the first verse especially. The harmonies in the minor modulation are then handled beautifully, a little bit different from the original but still preserving that haunting, eerily lovely sound. Ernie’s piercingly sweet tenor really stands out here.
Then Devin takes the climax and delivers it very powerfully, although he brings even more power to the table today. As everybody knows, the group has taken to using a video of Glen Payne for the climax, but I’m glad that they still let Devin take it all the way sometimes. He truly is capable of doing the song justice, and that is saying a lot. Perhaps they could perform the song with Devin singing right up through the climax on a future DVD, thereby giving us both versions in high quality video.
I cannot fail to mention the orchestration, which is wonderfully dramatic and has a strong Lari Goss feel, right down to the woodwinds. Wayne should be very proud of his work here, because it is simply magnificent. I consider it to be just as good as the original in its own way.
Yesterday: A personal favorite of mine, and I guess Ernie and I have something in common, because he’s cited this as a favorite as well. The instrumentation has a gentle sway to it, almost like a slow dance. The strings are used particularly well, and there is some light electric guitar work that also finds its way into the mix. Vocally, this rendition takes a different approach from the original bass feature. The first verse is sung in unison, and Devin sings the second verse. His solo is rich and full. He really hits his sweet spot vocally when he sings in this range, with this style.
The message of the song never gets old, and they couldn’t have treated it more gracefully. The harmonies are absolutely gorgeous. Everything about this rendition comes together just right.
Gaither Medley: This concludes the “main body” of the project. These are all Gaither songs the Cathedrals recorded, and they include “Gentle Shepherd,” “Something About That Name,” “I Will Serve Thee,” and “Jesus, We Just Want to Thank You.” Signature Sound has also recorded all of these songs except “Jesus, We Just Want to Thank You.” All four are beautifully braided together here and served up very tastefully. The production is spot on—once again, strings and guitar make a great combination. For the final song, George’s spoken prayer from the original Cathedrals cut is included in the middle, which is a very, very nice touch. Everybody needs the reminder of these simple words. I know I do.
This medley, or at least parts of it, would work great for the group to use as a live number around the piano. This would really capture the “Cathedrals spirit.”
Included at the end are two bonus tracks, “Oh What a Savior” and “He Made a Change,” which are the live performances from the DVD taping. While I might have wanted a couple more never-before-recorded arrangements of Cathedrals classics, obviously both tracks are excellent. I’ll be saying more about them in the DVD review.
Final thoughts: The Cathedrals’ catalogue is such an embarrassment of riches that even a 20-song project could not do it full justice. The emphasis with this project was on the more instantly recognizable numbers from that catalogue, with a few hidden gems in the mix. This means that die-hard Cathedrals fans who own every record the group ever made may not find everything they are looking for here. Truth be told, even I, a relatively new fan, might have suggested some changes in the selection. But the fact is that you can’t please all the people all the time, especially with a project like this. All things considered, Signature Sound has done an exceptional job, and there’s really very little to gripe about here, for anyone. However, I look forward to seeing which songs they go back and grab for future projects. I’d love to hear their takes on the likes of “Hard Trials,” “Even So, Lord Jesus Come,” “High and Lifted Up,” and “When the World Looks at Me.” It would also be great if Ernie revived some of his own features with the Cathedrals like “Death Has Died” or “I Want to See Jesus.”
Vocally, the group as always delivers at a very high level of quality. Tim Duncan continues to prove why he is one of southern gospel’s best-loved basses. He received quite a few features on this project, and he handles them all superbly. While George may have been the more versatile singer, Tim brings a quality of his own to the songs that allows his versions to stand on their own wonderfully well. Doug Anderson has several features on this project (“I Thirst,” “Sinner Saved By Grace”), but interestingly there aren’t any new songs that he carries all the way through. Perhaps that’s natural, as for this project it makes sense to spotlight George and Glen’s counter-parts, Devin and Tim. Nonetheless, Doug really shines where he is featured, and like everybody else I always love hearing him sing—on just about anything, really. Wayne has said that he’s always getting requests for “more Doug songs.” Wayne, the people have spoken, and I hereby and forthwith toss in my own bid: More Doug songs! More Doug songs! More Doug… Okay, I’ll stop now. But a Doug feature on “When the World Looks at Me” could be a potential tear-jerker… just sayin’!
Some wondered whether the group’s trademark seamless blend would alter significantly with the addition of Devin this year. After seeing them in concert, I have to say that although Devin does bring a different dynamic to the group, that “signature sound” is still there. The only thing I would say, speaking as somebody who listens to a wide variety of vocalists, is that whatever talent a singer has, it is best realized when he allows it to speak for itself. Devin obviously has a certain stylistic flair that he enjoys and has fun with, and there’s nothing wrong with that. But at the end of the day, he could do no better than to follow the example of his own hero, giving the natural beauty of his voice its clearest, cleanest possible expression.
As for Ernie, he has retained a remarkable amount of clarity and strength for a tenor at this point in his career. And incredibly, he sang virtually every one of these songs even better completely live on the DVD. He is a true professional—a tenor’s tenor.
For whom would I recommend this project? Honestly, for anybody who loves good songs and good gospel music sung well. Whether you are a Cathedrals fan, a Signature Sound fan, both, or just a newcomer to the genre looking for high quality music, this album will not disappoint.