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Album Review – Joseph Pensak, “Hallowell”

The Context

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.

 

The Content

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.”

 

The Conclusion

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.

 

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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

You have probably heard Pat Barrett’s songs, if you have any exposure to Christian radio. This self-titled album is his first solo release, however. Barrett is a frequent cowriter, with previous songs appearing on the Housefires albums. He is also the author of the popular song covered by Chris Tomlin, “Good Good Father.” After that song’s success in 2017, Tomlin signed Barrett to a new Tomlin-produced imprint on Capital Records. This album is the first release on that imprint. Barrett’s songs work well in charismatic worship contexts, with a focus on the Holy Spirit, extended extemporaneous sections in songs, and personal/colloquial lyrics. He frequently collaborates with the Bethel songwriters, who operate from a charismatic theological context.

 

The Content

Barrett’s smooth tenor voice and acoustic guitar-driven songs are very much at home in the “worship” genre of popular music. There are a few moments in this album when guest musicians or guest vocalists add layers of complexity, but otherwise this album is firmly resting on the simplicity of Barrett’s voice and guitar. Cowriters on this album include Daniel Bashta, Aaron Keyes, Ed Cash, and Matt Redman, with guest vocals by Steffany Gretzinger and Amanda Cook (from Bethel). There is not much chordal complexity, so songs should be adaptable to many contexts, whether a church has a full band or simply a piano or guitar to undergird singing. Melodic rhythms are a bit more complex, as they reflect more conversational language, but can be learned with the repetition that is characteristic of these songs. Lyrically, the themes vary between a focus on individual worship and God as the object of worship. This reflects another element that is resonant with charismatic congregational singing. Notable songs include “God is So Good,” “Build My Life,” and “Sing to the Lord (Banner).” The first brings the 20th century chorus into a new arrangement, the second is a strong melody coupled with a chorus that moves outward, and the third includes both lyrics from the Psalms and the Doxology.

 

The Conclusion

Barrett has a significant stake in the “worship industry” with several hit singles already to his credit. One or two of the songs from this album will make their way onto the radio, so worship leaders should be familiar with Barrett’s ability to craft a singable hook. His theological convictions, which manifest in the lyrical content and lyrical focus of the songs, should be weighed for a local context. This album seems more appropriate for private/personal worship based on the lyrics, yet is written for groups or congregations to sing.

 

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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:

“Pillars” is the second album from singer/songwriter Jeremy Moore. This album is a rearrangement of several hymns with pop, indie rock, southern rock, and folk sensibilities. Moore’s previous album is more in the intersection of jazz and singer/songwriter genres, which still manifests in moments on “Pillars.” Moore is based in Birmingham, Alabama, and has collaborated with Zac Hicks and other worship leaders in the Birmingham area (Advent Birmingham) for the album “Our Strivings Cease.” This album is a self-described effort to maintain the “ethos, tone, and structure” of what would appear in a hymnal, yet arranged with “updated” musical choices.

 

The Content:

Moore has chosen an interesting selection of 18th through 21st century hymns to rearrange, from “Love Divine, All Loves Excelling” and “Rejoice, the Lord is King” by Charles Wesley to “How Deep the Father’s Love for Us” by Stewart Townend & Keith Getty. The hymn melodies are largely preserved, although Moore makes some dynamic alterations and some small adjustments to serve a song’s new musical setting. The consistency in melodic movement may help congregations who are generally familiar with the song to sing it in its new form, but congregations who are intimately familiar with these melodies and their rhythm may find it difficult to adapt to some of the changes. The first listening experience draws fresh attention to the songs but does not necessarily invite participation, and in this way is more conducive to personal rather than corporate worship. The instrumental choices may also preclude some smaller local churches from directly representing these songs, as Moore adds layers of strings and ambient sounds to the hymns. Generally, the songs are pitched well for intergenerational participation, though it seems some songs have been adjusted to allow for Moore’s tenor voice to make an octave jump or other performance moment.

Notable songs include “Jesus, What a Friend for Sinners” and an intimate arrangement of “Give Me Jesus” in addition to the aforementioned Wesley hymns.

 

The Conclusion:

“Pillars” combines a 21st century indie/pop instrumental palette with the lyrical content (and mostly-intact melodic content) of a variety of well-loved hymns. The album is very appropriate for personal worship, and a few of the arrangements may be reproducible in local church contexts in which skilled pianists serve. This album is an example of a conscientious attempt to contextualize hymnody for a specific musical space.

 

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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

Hillsong Worship, not to be confused with Hillsong United or Hillsong Young & Free, is a behemoth in the “industry” of music for Christian worship. Considered individually, each team of Hillsong’s writers has a slightly different generational or demographical focus, with Hillsong Worship being the more “adult” or cross-generational of the three. Each release by Hillsong Worship contains several singles that are given heavy Christian radio airplay, although it is just as often that a new song makes the rounds on social media via a viral video clip. Most of the songwriters on this album are longtime contributors to Hillsong such as Reuben Morgan, Brooke Ligertwood, and Joel Houston.

 

The Content

Though these songs are ostensibly written for the Church to sing, the live versions on this album are arena rock—driving drums, soaring guitars, pads and synths, and lots of reverb. The final four tracks on the album are “acoustic” arrangements that are a bit more accessible for the average church and volunteers who serve in music ministry. In both cases, the key for songs may need to be adjusted, as these songs are intended to be sung in prime unison. Even songs led by Brooke Ligertwood are pitched low for men singing split octave. Average song length on the record is more than five minutes, so several of the songs would also need to be rearranged with less ambient space and/or repetition. As is often the case with Hillsong’s pop songs, the anthems of the song are found in both the chorus and the bridge of the respective song, with a jump of an octave or a fifth guiding the dynamic changes. Singles that have already been well-received from this album include “Who You Say I Am” and “So Will I (100 Billion X).” The strongest songs on this album are the ones that provide opportunities to sing Scripture—“God So Loved” is a powerful setting of John 3:16, “The Lord’s Prayer” adapts just that, and “Remembrance” celebrates the benefits of the Supper.

 

The Conclusion

Each Hillsong release usually contains one or two songs that have strong enough melody/lyric resilience to survive the rearrangement that smaller or more local churches must conduct in order use the song in corporate singing. Although the theological distinctions of Hillsong Church peek through in certain lyrical turns, the songs are rooted in biblical concepts and often paraphrase the Scripture in ways that are adaptable to many languages and contexts. It remains to be seen which song(s) from this album may take hold in the global 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

The Porter’s Gate is a collaborative effort between many songwriters and artists, spearheaded by Isaac Wardell. Their stated goal is “… to build an ecumenical community that invites conversation and collaboration in an exploration of faith.” This “sacred arts collective” desires to provide a welcoming and deeply moving soundtrack for the Church’s presence in the world. This specific album focuses on the labor of God and labor of the Christian, thus the title, “Work Songs.” Participating artists on this project include Audrey Assad, Josh Garrels, Latifah Alattas, Liz Vice, Paul Zach, David Gungor, Joy Ike, Madison Cunningham, Aaron Keyes, and Urban Doxology.

 

The Content

The diverse voices of the participating artists are each given a moment to feature on the album. The joy and lament of the gospel genre of music are manifest in the songs performed by Urban Doxology, the folk genre is well-represented by Paul Zach and others, and classical music shines through in string arrangements and certain moments from the piano. Historically, one of the ways that the world has been invited to consider the gospel is through goodness and beauty. This album seeks to reclaim this invitation through goodness and beauty represented in song. The natural reverb of the church in which this album was recorded is a subtle reminder of the resonance of congregational singing and the organic beauty of musicians worshiping together. Notable songs include “Wood and Nails,” “Establish the Work of Our Hands,” “In the Fields of the Lord,” and “Father Let Your Kingdom Come.” Although songs are generally pitched for the voice of the performing artist, the strong melodies could be easily re-set for congregational singing. Similarly, although arrangements may include instruments not common in some smaller churches, the strong melodic movement and simple yet profound lyrical content could be rearranged for different contexts.

 

The Conclusion

This album is an important resource for personal worship—one would be hard-pressed to listen through this work and not be moved to consider the majesty of our merciful God. The variety of musicians who participated bring a refreshing eclecticism to the flow of the album. Although the arrangement of the songs may limit its use for congregational singing in smaller churches, several strong melodies and some rearrangement may help adapt these powerful songs for the participation of the local church. The focus on vocation and the Christian life is an important supplement to hymnody in the American church, especially.

 

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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

As the title clearly reflects, this album is a collection of songs whose lyrics are either directly drawn or adapted from the Book of Common Prayer. The artist, Greg LaFollette, is a Nashville singer/songwriter and worship leader who has been involved in over 100 records during his career. He has participated in cowrites or touring with artists such as Andrew Peterson, Audrey Assad, and Sara Groves. This album in particular reflects his commitment to community songwriting, as it features guest female vocals on 3 songs (Taylor Leonhardt, Sara Groves, and Sarah Masen). Overall, a very appropriate endeavor for songs adapted from the “work of the people” (or “liturgy”) that is the album’s namesake.

 

The Content

The lyrical content of this album, as mentioned above, consists of collects, prayers, and liturgical readings from the Book of Common Prayer. The album is shaped much like a service of worship, moving through the various moments of the liturgy from gathering to sending. The three songs that accompany the Table in the liturgy (“The Lord’s Prayer,” “We Cry Mercy,” and “Prayer After Communion”) work together such that I was drawn into a longing for participation at the Table—I wished after listening that I had actually been participating in the liturgy. The musical content of the album is along the lines of All Sons and Daughters, with a strong male and female harmonization and intimate, acoustic arrangements for most songs that may occasionally blossom into larger movements with ensemble or gang vocals. LaFollette’s voice is soft yet distinct and clear, though for congregational use this collection of songs may need to be re-keyed. The melodies are otherwise memorable and suitable for the texts. Of particular note are the song of confession, “Most Merciful God,” and “Prayer After Communion.” Many evangelical churches would be well-served by these songs and the rich prayers they adapt for congregational singing.

 

The Conclusion

For Christians who have been formed by the language and structure of the Book of Common Prayer, this album may be a refreshing and deeply meaningful setting to music of words hidden in their hearts. For Christians who are from more free church traditions, this album should point to the rich source material in the Book of Common Prayer for singing rich biblical and theological prayers. Although the keys of songs may need to be adjusted and this may impact harmonies and some dynamics, this would be a small concession to make for the greater joy of having these songs available for a 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

“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.