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.
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.