Guest CD Review: Declaration (Booth Brothers): Another View
Remember our thousand comment contest? Here’s what our winner did with the grand prize, a copy of the Booth Brothers’ latest release, Declaration. Also, after the positive response NewSoGoFan received to the review of Ernie Haase & Signature Sound’s Influenced II, is there any doubt an encore performance is in order? – Daniel
I loaded up my iTunes library with this album expecting great things after reading the exceptionally thorough mega-review of it that went up here and on multiple SG blogs some weeks ago. I’m pleased to report that I was not disappointed. I had recently begun to discover the Booth Brothers’ music but had only heard a small handful of songs by them. At this point, the general consensus appears to be that this is the album to have for new and old fans alike. As a new fan, I concur. What little I’ve heard of their music aside from this album is easily surpassed here. I predict that it will become a landmark project, not just for the Booth Brothers, but for gospel music as a whole.
Now…on to the breakdowns!
A Higher Throne: I thought it was a classy move for the guys to begin the album with something by Keith and Kristyn Getty, who’ve been making a splash recently as pioneers of the new hymns movement in the Church. While the Gettys have produced stronger efforts, this is still a good song. As Daniel pointed out, Lari Goss has definitely taken this version several notches up from the original by re-vamping it for a full orchestra. The melody isn’t as exciting as it could be, but the lush majesty of the orchestra helps to make up for that in this version. The key changes are expertly handled and lend some welcome musical variety to the piece. The climax makes you feel like you’re almost ascending to the throne room—terrific harmonies. This cut lets you know right off the bat that this isn’t going to be your average SG album.
God Did It All: The piano almost caught my ear more than the big orchestra on this track. It’s a key instrument in this arrangement, laying down some beautifully rich minor chords at the beginning. As for the song itself, I like it, though I feel like it takes a little long to really get going. This is largely a musical issue, but it’s also partly because the second verse seems lyrically stronger than the first. But it’s a wonderful lyric overall with a powerful chorus. My favorite bit of lyric comes from the second verse: “God sent his own Son here/Redemption was won here/By blood streaming down from a cross.” As for the encore, I think it makes the song longer than it needs to be. The key change is great, but I feel like it should have been woven into the song direct instead of being tacked on at the end like that. This would kill two birds with one stone by at once shortening the song and making it more musically interesting. At this point though, I definitely agree with Daniel that they should cut the encore if they release it to radio (though it wouldn’t be my first pick for a radio release anyway).
I See Grace: This is where the album really begins to pick up the pace. A chiming electric guitar (which continues to provide a rhythmic backbone throughout the song) leads into a vibrant mid-tempo number. It’s mainly carried by the strings in pulsating, 6/8 time. There’s a real freshness about this one from beginning to end. Exciting music, powerful words. The second verse is particularly well-written, and as others have noted, the song’s defining lyric is the last two lines of said verse: “Those who have come through unbearable loss/Not defined by the past, but defined by the cross.” Jim Brady co-wrote the song and carries the lead for it as well. I’m very impressed with his vocals on this cut in particular and just with his voice in general. He’s a real anchor for the group, easily their most powerful singer. Memo to Michael: If Jim asks you for a raise, give it to him. For that matter, give him anything he wants that will keep him happy and in the group. He may not be a bro, but he’s a keeper. 😉
The Gospel Song/Before the Cross: This is one of only a few tracks where I have literally turned right around and hit repeat after listening through it once. A blend of two songs, it is an absolutely stunning cut, easily my pick of the album. The acapella harmonies on the first song are truly breathtaking and very tricky to pull off in places—some of the chords are so counter-intuitive that it must have taken a lot of practice to get them just right. And the song is incredible, but then again, that goes for practically everything with Bob Kauflin’s name on it. Interesting that it’s called “The Gospel Song”— probably a deliberate bit of humor since this song is about as un-gospel as it gets. And yet it is a “gospel song” in the sense that it presents the gospel. I love the way the last line, “By His death I live again,” is held out in a prolonged suspension…and then resolved. It’s the perfect musical complement to a lyric about life after death. It’s like stepping out into the warm sunshine after the rain, or waking up in the morning to hear your dad whistling after a bad dream.
Some gentle instrumentation kicks in right at the end of “The Gospel Song” for a seamless segue into “Before the Cross,” a product of Sovereign Grace Ministries. I’d heard some other stuff from Sovereign Grace and was underwhelmed, but “Before the Cross” is truly lovely. Michael said they were looking for a good song about the wrath of God, and they certainly found one here (although as we’ve discussed elsewhere on this blog, he had to venture outside of SG to find it). This song is just stuffed with great doctrine. While it recognizes God’s wrath, it points the way to Jesus as our high priest, our intercessor who pleads for us. And the melody flows along beautifully—I believe it was none other than Bob Kauflin who said that the trademark of a good melody is that you can remember it and you want to remember it. I believe this one qualifies on both counts. And it’s all wrapped up with Lari Goss’s special production touch. The first verse and chorus is quietly done, with a woodwind instrument (pennywhistle?) adding some Celtic flavor. There’s a beautifully low-key guitar solo between verses, but I love how the orchestra suddenly swells at the end of it to take the song to a new level of power. The guys trade off individual lines, but Michael is the main vocalist featured on this cut, and he does a great job with it. He’s not the most powerful tenor ever, but this song plays to his strengths. There is a clarity and a purity to his voice that really shines through here, especially on the high falsetto ending…really, the only good word there is “wow.” Vocally, the brothers’ work on this one reminds me of the old Phillips, Craig & Dean. Similar harmonies, similar sound.
All Over the World: This is the first of two back-to-back Steve Green covers on this album. I generally don’t go for stuff with a “world music” flavor, so I’ve never really been able to get into this one. But the lyrics are thoughtfully done, and some of the Spanish guitar work is exceptionally dexterous. However, I feel like the melody is too random—it jumps all over the place without much of a clear direction. I’d probably peg this as the weakest track on the album. But it’s more sophisticated than your average up-tempo SG song, so it was probably chosen on purpose for that very reason.
We Believe: Ponderously slow, but then it was ponderously slow when Steve did it too. I’ve always liked this song, but at the same time, I’ve always thought it took kind of long to unfold. However, this version has grown on me with repeated listens, and even while none of these guys is the vocalist that Steve is, each has a beautiful voice in his own right, and this track really showcases that. I like the way they have each vocalist individually sing “I believe,” then change to “We believe” when they all come together.
As slow as it is, this is a powerful song. Once it gets going, it packs a punch, and the brothers do a great job building up the excitement. I thought it was interesting that they added some extra lyrics at the end—sort of a re-cap of all the verses. I think the song is long enough as it is that they could have left that off, but it’s a nice idea.
Really the only flaw in this arrangement is the electric guitar that keeps cropping up towards the end of the song. Don’t ask me what it’s doing there, but it’s the piece that doesn’t belong. Interestingly, I didn’t have the same feeling with “I See Grace.” Perhaps that’s because the guitar was used more sparingly there—it filled in the holes instead of interrupting the orchestra.
I Still Believe In the Church: Cool jazz for a hot day. The intro to this song makes me think of popping open a soda can in 90 degree weather. This one had to grow on me, but now it’s one of my favorite tracks on the album. Love those jazz harmonies! I counted a total of three key changes throughout the song—all handled with incredible smoothness and dexterity. And the lyrics are terrific—a very honest, down-to-earth look at the Church. Basically, yeah, she’s a mess, but God still wants her and loves her. And as hopeless as it seems at times, she’s still doing good work. This lyric sums it all up: “Well she’s been through the flood/And she’s been through the fire/Not always what she should/But she’s still his desire.”
Now excuse me while I go grab a lawn chair and take this one outside with me (along with that soda can and my coolest pair of sunglasses). I’m lovin’ it.
Then I Met the Master: This song appears to have been done to death. But I’m a New SoGo Fan, remember, so this was actually the first recorded version of this song that I had ever heard. To put it technically…wow. Ronnie’s tone is so rich and fits this song like a glove. And the arrangement is just epic—it really takes you on a journey, from the minimalist acapella opening to full, climactic orchestral splendor. Hearing this arrangement unfold is like watching the sun rise—first, a thin yellow sliver pushing its way up into the cool morning. Then the light grows gradually brighter and richer as more of the sun reveals itself…until finally it’s just hanging there, warm, golden, and radiant. That’s what this arrangement sounds like, and I can’t describe it any better than that.
This is the Day/I’m Gonna Keep On Singing: I found the intro to this one a bit jarring after the last song—vigorous drums and guitar announce another up-tempo number. But it’s very enjoyable and easy to get into. Obviously it’s not on a level with the true gems of this album, but it’s a fun detour nonetheless. Only thing is, it’s ungrammatical in one place… “I will lift up mine eyes to which cometh my help.” I thought at first that it had to be “to whence cometh my help,” though I’m not sure if that’s even quite right, but their own site lyrics have it written as “which.” Oops.
Absolute Peace: Nice music, sweetly sung, though I prefer the Collingsworths’ “Fear Not Tomorrow” along similar lines. Lyrically, that song is definitely stronger. But this is a soothing listen. Musically speaking, it’s very similar to Signature Sound’s “Reason Enough.” The melody even begins the exact same way.
In Christ Alone (medley): Even though the concept of putting the two “In Christ Alones” (the Getty song and the Michael English hit) together is nothing new, I like the fact that the brothers take several steps away from the Phillips, Craig & Dean arrangement and make it their own. They sing the first three verses of the popular worship song, then conclude with the chorus of the CCM hit.
Goss’s production here is exceptional. I love it that he doesn’t immediately go into the same riff everybody else uses as an intro for the worship song. It’s a unique arrangement, perhaps my favorite version ever of this song (though Steve Green’s is right up there too). I was actually getting a little misty-eyed the other night just listening to the beginning of this cut again—the sheer beauty of what Goss has done with it can’t quite be captured in words. Just one small detail that caught my attention: At the intro, a woodwind instrument (clarinet?) plays a small scrap of the melody from the CCM “In Christ Alone” right before they start singing the Getty one. Then at the very end when they’ve just finished the chorus of the CCM one, that same instrument plays a bit of melody from the Getty one. See, it’s little details like that…they show a true master’s touch.
Vocally, everybody nails it. Ronnie Booth gets the main feature and does a terrific job with the first verse of the Getty song. But Michael really steals the show with a high power note at the climax in the second “In Christ Alone.” That part of the song just screams for somebody to nail it, and Michael knocks it out of the park.
I thought it was interesting that they never got around to the “No guilt in life, no fear in death” verse. I like that verse a lot, but I think they made the right choice to leave it off. The track would have felt too long otherwise. This is the perfect way to close the album, and I don’t see how they could make it any better.
And I won a pre-release copy in the contest, so I can’t offer a full analysis of the bonus track, which is the Booths’ arrangement of “Statement of Faith.” I have heard the song though, and my impression of it is that it would neither add to nor take away from this album.
Radio Picks: I See Grace (these aren’t in any particular order except that this should go to radio first, ASAP), I Still Believe in the Church, Before the Cross, In Christ Alone
Conclusion: This album was a very ambitious experiment because it was such a departure from this group’s usual sound. The fact that it was such a departure makes it all the more impressive that they succeeded. Sure, it’s a little cumbersome in places, and sure, you can tell that they don’t generally sing this style of music, but it’s a noble effort. Really, the very fact that I could write an entire review of my own while largely avoiding overlap with an eight-page mega-review indicates the quality of what we’re dealing with here. It’s a multi-faceted tapestry of music that only grows richer with repeated listens. Incidentally, I’ll be interested to see whether they continue to pursue this sound on future projects or go back to something more comfortable, but less innovative.
Now, regarding the complaint that it’s too ballad-heavy: I think I agree with Brandon that it’s almost impossible to listen to this whole album in one sitting. It’s like trying to force yourself to eat five pieces of pecan pie all at once—rich, good, but almost too rich. Too much to try to stuff down in a hurry. The general consensus seems to be that the brothers should have evened out the mix better with a couple more up-tempo songs. Myself, I’m not sure that more up-tempo stuff would necessarily have improved things. The big ballads are all wonderful and belong here for a reason (and some of the lighter pieces they did include were less good than the “biggies” anyway).
I’ll say this much though—it might have helped if they had made some of them less “big” by simply shortening them. This is most true of “God Did It All,” but they could have done the same thing with other songs like “A Higher Throne” and “Then I Met the Master” by either (a) doing the key change(s) sooner, or (b) just not doing as many (or in the case of “We Believe,” stopping the song where it stopped before instead of adding extra lyrics). This would shave off at least a minute and possibly more from each song, thereby easing that feeling of being overwhelmed on the part of the listener. And in some cases, like “Before the Cross,” they hit the balance just right—not too short, not too long. I’d say they might even want to use that song as a model for themselves on future big ballads. So that’s my two cents on the song selection from a listening perspective.
Now, from a song-writing perspective, I thought the song selection was brilliant. Not only did Michael go outside of SG for a lot of these songs, but he went to some of the finest songwriters in the Church today—writers like Keith Getty and Bob Kauflin. And when he went to cover CCM, he didn’t just go with any kind of CCM, he picked one of the most consistently excellent artists in its history—Steve Green. Not to mention that the CCM “In Christ Alone” is notably above-par for its field. Yet at the same time, they’re far from abandoning their SG roots, whether they’re breathing new life into an old classic (“Then I Met the Master”) or introducing fresh material from the likes of Dianne Wilkinson or for that matter their own Jim Brady. (As a side note, I find it interesting that Jim was working with Tony Wood on “I See Grace,” because I’ve lost count of the number of great CCM songs with Tony’s name on them.) All of which is to say that I can tell Michael was committed to finding and choosing only the best for this project. What he has accomplished is a challenge to fellow SG artists to think outside the box. I trust and hope that others will soon follow his example.
The vocals: Honestly, if you had told me before I listened to this album that the Booth Brothers were cutting a record made up almost entirely of dramatic, heavily orchestrated ballads, I would have had my doubts as to whether their voices were up to it. They had struck me as smooth, rich, easy on the ears, but not the power ballad types. More country than inspo. This album was a pleasant surprise for me. Each guy steps up to the plate very impressively here. As I said, it’s not their usual style, and I still feel like they’re a little overwhelmed by the orchestra at times, but overall they more than hold their own. “The Gospel Song” in particular really shows what they’re capable of—more of the same, guys, please? Like, maybe, an entire acapella album perhaps…? 😉
I’m not one to throw away a compliment. This is fast becoming one of my favorite albums, not just in SG but in any genre. If you don’t have it yet…go get it! Go get it even if you’re not a fan of southern gospel. Shucks, just get it if you like good music. Guaranteed satisfaction, or Scott Fowler will give you your money back. Right, Scott? 😉