CD Review: Testimony (Mark Trammell Quartet)

Testimony is, for all intents and purposes, the Mark Trammell Quartet’s debut CD as a quartet. Though it’s technically their second, Vintage Gospel (review here) was originally released as a trio CD and was later reissued with new bass singer Pat Barker’s vocal added to the mix.

When word started getting out that the new Mark Trammell Quartet CD was going to be released by Lari Goss, anticipation started building. Goss had, of course, risen to the top as a producer after several high-profile releases in the 1980s, most notably the Cathedrals’ landmark recording Symphony of Praise. Trammell was a member of the group at the time, but had not worked with Goss during the two decades between his departure from the Cathedrals and the recording of Testimony.

Prior to Testimony’s release, group members were careful to point out that it wasn’t going to have the heavily orchestrated sound of a Greater Vision or Hoppers project—that the group was aiming for a sound more akin to the Cathedrals’ 1984 project The Prestigious Cathedral Quartet.

Stylistically, Testimony hits that mark. There is a rich mixture of classic quartet songs, a few jazzy songs reflecting songwriter / lead singer Dustin Sweatman’s influence, and, naturally, a Gossian big ballad.

Ironically, given that the goal of the group was to produce a project more like Prestigious than Symphony, the one big ballad reminiscent of Symphony’s Goss arrangements is actually a cover from Prestigious! On the original rendition of “It’s Almost Over,” Trammell sang the baritone part as Glen Payne took the solo. Here, he steps out front for the lead, delivering a rendition that not only does the original justice, but one that stands as its equal. The rendition stays fairly close to the original, though a few lines from the Bill Gaither song “Going Home” provide a new unnecessary but unharmful bridge.

The other fully orchestrated track, “Calvary Medley,” is a medley of hymns and Gaither songs that mention the Cross. The medley sounds as though it was arranged for choral, but whatever the original intent, Mark Trammell and (towards the end) new tenor Joel Wood offer spot-on solos.

One sleeper highlight—a song that might not stand out on first listen, but grows after the first twenty spins—is the second to last track, “When Jesus Comes.” While a less charitable reviewer might say that the song can’t make up its mind whether it’s a ballad or a convention song, that assessment would miss the point. This Dianne Wilkinson manages to capture the energy of a convention song and the power of a ballad in the same song, an incredibly rare feat. Dustin Sweatman’s lead vocal may be the best of his career to date.

The group’s last mainline release, Always Have a Song (reviewed here), was generally acclaimed as the group’s strongest effort to date. Does Testimony surpass it?

Let’s compare song selection. Convention songs and big ballads are to a Southern Gospel CD what the tenor and bass are to a Southern Gospel quartet. Not only are they the songs noticed first—they’re also often the longest-lasting favorites. For convention songs, Always Have a Song offered two incredibly strong numbers, “Coming Out and Moving In” and “Called In, Called Up, Called Out.” Testimony offers one similarly strong entry, “Ransomed and Redeemed.” (Another convention song, “I Love to Call,” does not detract—but it’s been done by so many groups over the years that I’ll just leave it out of this discussion).

For big ballads, Always Have a Song included two of the best new ballads of 2008, “Loving the Lamb” and “If Only Just a Few.” Testimony revisits a twenty-six year old Cathedrals classic, “It’s Almost Over.” The song deserved to be brought back and the magnificent rendition did it justice. But since Testimony doesn’t introduce any new anthems, Always Have a Song has a strong edge there, and a slight edge with the convention songs.

While Always Have a Song will still set the mark to beat in song selection, Testimony is the best sounding album the group has produced. Adding one of the finest bass voices in the business and putting Lari Goss at the helm resulted in a project that sounds so consistently good that the project has accumulated a higher play count than any other project reviewed on this site this year (337 song plays, an average of 33.7 plays per song).

Not every project can raise the mark. That’s just a fact of life. But even if it doesn’t raise the mark, neither does Testimony miss the mark. It is a strong effort that should stand the test of time.

Produced by: Lari Goss. • Available from: Artist (though not via website). Review copy provided. • Song list: How Long Has it Been; Ransomed and Redeemed; It’s Almost Over; Testimony; God Knows How Much Mercy I Need; I Want to Know; Calvary Medley; One Drop of Blood; When Jesus Comes; I Believe, I Believe, I Believe. • Average song rating: 3.8 stars. CD rating: 4.5 stars.


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22 Letters to the Editor

Southern Gospel Journal welcomes letters to the editor. We will post the most thoughtful and insightful submissions. Ground rules: Don't attack or belittle groups or fellow posters, or advance heresies rejected by orthodox Christianity. Do keep comments positive, constructive, and on topic.
  1. Good review! I’m still waiting patiently for my copy. For some reason I never have an easy time getting MTT/MTQ projects.

    On the live videos of some of the songs on Youtube, “One Drop” stood out to me as a great potential radio hit. I know you didn’t mention it in your review, so I thought I would. Great song penned by Dustin.

    • Pat had a great solo there, showing his versatility.

    • Brian, upon your recommendation of “One Drop”, I searched Youtube and found the song. Was NOT disappointed. I was blown away; Pat Barker is able to hold his own with any bass singer today. I can’t wait to see the Mark Trammel Quartet when they venture out to Texas.

  2. Another thing…how long have you had this CD? 337 song plays already? You are a machine.

  3. “Not every project can raise the MARK.”

    Is this intentional? lol!

    • No! 😀

    • I noticed that right away too, Matt.

  4. Man I can’t disagree more about this release. I had hoped to get my review up by the first on AG/SGN – but I didn’t have time to write it. Needless to say, I was more than disappointed with this release…

    • Could it have been a little better? Yes.

      But it’s not a bad CD by any stretch of the imagination.

      • Here we go again… 🙂

      • Bad CD – not by a long shot. However, it was a major disappointment in my book…

      • Chris

        What recent new release hasn’t been a major disappointment in your book? It seems like you don’t like anything. Just curious!

      • I would guarantee that it would be something towards the progressive end of Southern Gospel – perhaps Sisters or Brian Free & Assurance.

      • Chris can tolerate loud, thumping CCM, so anything that even remotely approaches that side of the spectrum is a plus for him. 🙂

      • I’m guessing I would like the CD then! lol. Sorry Chris 😉 When I heard ya say that Great Is Thy Faithfulness “doesn’t work” for Legacy Five… I didn’t think we would be agreeing on too many subjects!

      • Booth Brothers – Declaration
        Sisters – Healer of My Heart
        Bowling Family – Shine

        Those are the three best SG releases of the year – IMHO.

        As far as “loud, thumping CCM” – I guess I do enjoy it (thinking of acts like Red, Skillet, The Almost, and Anberlin), as well as soft melodic CCM like Fernando Ortega or Selah. I also enjoy the occasional hip hop record from the likes of B.Reith or Group 1 Crew (though it has to be more pop based and not so straight up rap). I also love what most consider more euro-styled pop/rock like Leeland and Phil Wickham, as well as more straight ahead rock ‘n roll like David Crowder Band, The Afters, Needtobreathe, and Hawk Nelson.

        My favorite form is music is more radio-friendly pop/rock like Mark Schultz, MercyMe, Brandon Heath, Downhere, Tenth Avenue North, or Jars of Clay as well as stirring singer/songwriters like Andrew Peterson, Chris Rice, Cindy Morgan, and Ronnie Freeman.

        What don’t I like? Heavy metal (a la Underoath or Emery), straight up rap, and most modern worship (to listen to – I enjoy singing it in worship services).

        The best releases in all of Christian music this year to me are Andrew Peterson’s Counting Stars, MercyMe’s The Generous Mr. Lovewell, The Bowling Family’s Shine, Cindy Morgan’s Hymns: Some Glad Morning, and House of Heroes’ Suburba.

      • Chris,

        There was one shocker for me in that list. That we would both have a certain album in our top three—let alone both at #1—is rather incredible, and goes to show that Declaration is going down in the history books as a classic.

  5. Pat Barker is one of the smoothest basses in the biz. He’s fantastic on “I Want to Know.” That one has a great Cathedrals sound!

  6. I heard the MTQ three weeks ago and purchased both CD’s. The Daywind project was in a plain wrapper. Though I thoroughly enjoyed their singing – my first impression of the TESTIMONY CD was not very good. My second listen was much louder – and I thought much better. It was almost as if the mix wasn’t the quality you would expect with Daywind projects.

    I really like the MTQ. I would love to see them get a good pianist and let Mark grab the bass more often. Dustin Sweatman is a top quality accompanist – but I think the best singing comes when you’re standing together and singing together – feeding off of each other.

    Just selfish on my part…

    JEB

  7. I got the album in the mail today and I will say that the Mark Trammell Quartet did a wonderful job with this album. I am not disappointed with this album and I also love the fact that not every project can raise a mark. This is indeed a fact of life.

    As for my favorite songs, my favorites include (1) “How Long Has It Been”, (2) “It’s Almost Over”, and (3) “Calvary Medley”.

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