Hallowell is the name for Jospeh Pensak’s first project since participating in Bifrost Arts’ “Come, O Spirit!” From 2007. Pensak is a Presbyterian pastor in Burlington, Vermont, and the Hallowell album features a plethora of Vermont-based musicians. Pensak worked with composers and vocalists, including a chamber music collective and a chamber folk band, to bring this album to fruition for its early 2019 release.
If you’re familiar with Bifrost Arts and the spectrum of musical flavors encompassed by the related musicians, then you will recognize both the production values and instrumentation of Hallowell. For those uninitiated, the soundscape that Hallowell evokes is a combination of somber folk tones (guitars, pianos) with a wash of string arrangements that provide the foundation for simple melodies with raw harmonies. Vocals are softly sung, and instruments are softly played, inviting the listener (or participant) to rest and reflect on the lyrics and storytelling that occurs in each song. Several hymns are re-tuned and given new life by the rich instrumentation. The songs are pitched in safe spaces for congregational participation, and the melodies are certainly sing-able in their simplicity. Musically, there are a few sounds that a local church may not be able to replicate, from the larger string ensemble to some of the ambient tones that swirl in the background. The chordal structure and melodic range are replicable in various contexts, illustrating the strength of the songwriting.
Notable songs include the hymn rearrangements of “Soul, Adorn Yourself with Gladness” and Fanny Crosby’s “Pass Me Not O Gentle Savior.” Since these songs have recognizable lyrics, they may be most accessible for smaller churches seeking to adapt these songs for use, even if simpler instrumental choices must be made. Also notable is a particularly haunting re-tuning of the John Newton (author of “Amazing Grace”) hymn “I Will Trust and Not Be Afraid,” here re-titled as well, “Tho Dark Be My Way.”
Although this album may best be experienced on vinyl, worship leaders may find inspiration for personal worship through these songs and may find a gem that could work in a local context. The energy of this album is more relaxed and contemplative than much of the music marketed as “worship” music, and thus Hallowell may also fill a musical space neglected in one’s collection.
Review provided by David Calvert, who is the Creative Arts Director for Grace Community Church in rural North Carolina and a PhD graduate in Theology and Worship from Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary.