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Album Review – Chris Tomlin, “Holy Roar”

The Context

“Holy Roar” is the newest full-length release from Chris Tomlin. Tomlin is arguably one of the most influential songwriters of contemporary songs for worship, in part because of his intimate connections with Christian radio. Tomlin has been leading worship through song in some capacity since the mid-90s, and his ability to adapt to new pop music forms ensures that his music will continue to play on the radio and affect congregational singing in Western contexts. “Holy Roar” is positioned to become yet another best-seller, joining the over 7 million records Tomlin has already sold.

 

The Content

Musically, this record follows the trajectory of acoustic-arena-pop that has characterized Tomlin’s previous records. Most songs are playable from an acoustic guitar and have the feel of songs written originally for that instrument. Many of the songs include an ensemble of voices, reflecting the intended use for Tomlin’s songs and inviting the hearer to sing along. Tomlin is a pure tenor, so any song adapted for mixed congregational use will need to be re-keyed appropriately. One of the strengths of Tomlin’s songs is the relatively small melodic range, so once a song is re-keyed the melody is easily attainable. There is also a relative simplicity to the melodic rhythm of the songs, so the strong melody and simple rhythm allow these songs to be adapted to many contexts. Lyrically, Tomlin’s songs include many Biblical references and themes that have been features in his songs – praise, anthems, freedom, love, and the person of Jesus. He continues to write songs that can be utilized across denominational and doctrinal lines.

Notable songs include: “How Sweet it Is,” “Goodness, Love, and Mercy” (an adaptation of Psalm 23 co-written with members of Needtobreathe), and “Nobody Loves Me Like You.” Of special note is the song “Is He Worthy,” originally written by Andrew Peterson and Ben Shive as a call-and-response, derived from Revelation 5. Although Tomlin’s cover of the song has raised the key to fit his voice, the choral response to the lead vocalist’s questions are a surprisingly liturgical inclusion for a Tomlin album.

 

The Conclusion

It is inevitable that someone in your local church has heard or will hear one of Tomlin’s singles on the radio this season, and they will ask for the song to be sung or performed in church. It is always important for leaders of worship to have an awareness of significant releases in the “Christian & Gospel” genre. Although there is not necessarily a “How Great is Our God” or “Amazing Grace (My Chains are Gone)” on this record, listeners are led to consider the love of God in Jesus Christ, and Tomlin’s songs likely will make their way into listeners hearts by way of the radio or streaming services.

 

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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.

 

The Context

“Living Hope” is the 8th full-length album by Phil Wickham. It could be counted as the 11th, if you factor in the three “Singalong” live albums he has recorded and given away over his 15-year career. Wickham is the child of a worship pastor, with a Calvary Chapel background. In 2014, while his career was mid-ascension (with the hit “This is Amazing Grace”), Phil was placed on complete vocal rest and ultimately had surgery to remove a polyp, followed by a continued season of rest. This album is the 2nd album released out of that crucible, and listening to Wickham’s powerful vocal performance betrays none of that struggle.

 

The Content

The alternation between produced album and sing-a-long album in Wickham’s work is actually an example of the alternating production of songs on “Living Hope.” The album is a mixed bag in terms of congregational singing. Although he may very well record another “Singalong” album that would include many of these songs, the average congregant would be hard-pressed to match Wickham’s soaring vocals and effortless switch between chest voice and head voice. That said, there are several songs that are standouts: “Living Hope,” “How Great is Your Love,” “Anthem,” “Song in My Soul,” and “Christ is Risen.” These five could be easily adapted to many different congregational contexts. “Living Hope” and “Christ is Risen” incorporate rich biblical and theological language coupled with singable and memorable melodies. “How Great is Your Love” and “Anthem” are simpler, repetitive refrains with a clear focus. “Song in My Soul” has an R&B flavor that may limit its use in smaller or more rural contexts, but the melodic and lyrical strength may allow it to be rearranged. Wickham enlisted various producers and cowriters for this album, and accordingly each song seems to represent a slightly different genre (pop, acoustic, R&B, arena rock). To his credit, Wickham’s distinct vocals tie the album together.

 

The Conclusion

Leaders of worship and liturgists may indeed find one or two gems on this album that will enrich congregational singing in their contexts. Personal worship may be enriched by the entire album, but corporate worship may only be served by some of the stronger melodies that can be rearranged to fit contexts other than a concert venue. The lead single, “Living Hope,” is the strongest offering, but intergenerational congregations would be served by lowering the song a step or two for broader participation.

 

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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.

 

The Context

While in the midst of the regular production of arrangements of songs for worship through The Worship Initiative, Shane & Shane have taken a break to record an album of re-arranged hymns under their own banner. Shane Barnard and Shane Everett are prolific songwriters in their own right, with over a dozen albums to their credit, but over the last several years they have focused their efforts on songs for the evangelical church by releasing rearranged songs and musician tutorial videos through The Worship Initiative. This “Hymns” album is released under their name, but with clear influence of their work in The Worship Initiative.

 

The Content

“Hymns Volume 1” contains five “classic” hymns from the 19th-20th centuries, and five hymns from the 21st century. Of the five classics, three of them have newly-written refrains or “choruses.” This is a common songwriting element for re-arranged or re-tuned hymns, and is certainly a debatable practice, especially when a hymn already contains a refrain. Three of the new hymns are penned by Keith Getty, illustrating the growing connections between songwriters in the conservative, evangelical network. All 10 of the recorded songs have a very similar dynamic range and instrumentation comprised of guitars, pianos, drums, and ambient sounds elicited from all of the above. No song is less than 4:40, with lots of instrumental space serving as connective tissue for the vocal parts. The songs flow into one another as if the whole album is a “worship set,” and each hymn is slowed down from its original tempo (some considerably so), which leads to a listening experience of contemplation and reflection.

 

The Conclusion

As a listening experience, this album leads those familiar with the hymns included to reflect on them differently and leads those unfamiliar with them to consider their lyrical value. The collection of songs chosen spans several generations of hymnody, unifying them with the acoustic-pop arrangements. Musically, the lack of dynamic diversity and the curious melodic choices may hinder this album from being more broadly useful for encouraging congregations to sing these hymns. Full disclosure: I am personally a fan of Shane & Shane’s music, and was a bit underwhelmed by this album from the perspective of a worship leader seeking new resources for encouraging singing in my local church.

 

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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.

 

The Context

Rend Collective, previously “Rend Collective Experiment,” hail from Northern Ireland and are known for their unique instrumentation and singular energy that characterize their live show. Both the interesting instruments and abundant energy are well-represented on their albums. They have released 8 albums in as many years, proving to be fruitful songwriters. A key feature of their recordings, from the perspective of congregational song, is the inclusion of gang vocals or chorus vocals throughout their albums. Not only does the whole band sing along, they also desire for their listeners, and the Church, to sing.

 

The Content

Sonically, comparisons to early Mumford and Sons are not unfair—in fact, Rend Collective musically resembles a smash-up of Mumford and Needtobreathe. Gruff baritone lead vocals, many stringed instruments, stomps and claps, and intermittent choruses of “hey!” are woven through the songs. Rend Collective stands apart from other artists in the “worship” music genre by focusing on acoustic instruments with sparing use of arena-rock, ambient guitars (and only 1 notable appearance of synth samples). Many of the melodies are catchy, yet in a few cases the rhythmic complexity may be difficult for an intergenerational congregation that may be used to sight reading. Especially memorable melodies include “Nailed to the Cross,” “Life is Beautiful,” and “Rescuer (Good News).” The song “No Outsiders,” penned by this Northern Irish group, is a timely anthem to remind the American church of the power of the gospel message to the “other” or outsider.

 

The Conclusion

Listening to this record replicates the energetic, live experience, and the presence of many vocalists on the songs encourages the listener to participate. A discerning music leader may find much to use, in various contexts, from this album. Songs tend to focus on a melody that requires prime unison for the congregation, so the key of a given song may need to be adjusted for congregations who sing split octave. The banjo, ukulele, dulcimers, and other folk instruments may be difficult for some smaller congregations to incorporate, but the melodies are strong enough to withstand rearrangement with fewer instruments. The deluxe edition of the record, used for this review and linked below, contains “acoustic” arrangements of “Nailed to the Cross” and “Rescuer (Good News)” that illustrate this.

 

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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.