Confession: I'm not a big fan of worship music, or at least the sound and style that's come to be associated with it. But there are some albums, like Glo by delirious or A Collision by David Crowder Band, that I'll never forget hearing for the first time, albums that challenged my assumptions and reinvented all I thought the praise style could be. They took their songs beyond church choruses and hand-raising to a mysterious and artistic place, musically huge without sacrificing the intimacy of simple, heartfelt devotion. Music like this is a special discovery indeed, and I get a taste of that feeling when I listen to Gungor's newest project, Beautiful Things.
Gungor (formerly known as The Michael Gungor Band), is a family affair of sorts, with Michael and his wife Lisa sharing writing and vocal duties, and friends Brad Waller and Josh Ramsey rounding out the band on guitar and bass. However, their sound is anything but the typical worship quartet. It dances among styles ranging from blues and indie to rock and folksy acoustics. The title of "worship band" hardly does their eclectic sound justice, but what else can you call it? The songs find their anchor in a central theme of creation and rebirth, of God breathing life into death and making "beautiful things out of the dust," as the title track says.
My favorite track on the whole record comes right at the start in the surprisingly dark "Dry Bones." A soft, Latin-style guitar solo opens the way for Michael singing "My soul cries out / My soul cries out for you," and it builds a haunted feeling before the full band brings a storm of a rock opera chorus that feels more like something you'd hear by Queen than Chris Tomlin. The lyrics are simple but poignant, and Gungor's voice grows more urgent until the song's climax crashes down into the quiet acoustic intro of "Beautiful Things."
Lyrically, these songs are simple and vertical, and they are often lengthy and quite repetitious. Little sonic twists give them an extra touch, like Lisa's delicate harmony on "Beautiful Things," or some fun instrumentation courtesy of some horns and Michael's now-signature toy piano on "The Earth is Yours." And though a few of the songs are short on lyrics and long on sound, "Cannot Keep You" gives some thought-provoking commentary on our often limited view of God ("We cannot keep You in a church / We cannot keep You in a Bible / Or it's just another idol to box You in").
The album's overall effect is creative, but still just safe enough to keep it from getting too out there, as in the church rock flavor of "Brighter Day." Probably the oddest (maybe awkward?) moment is the blues/gospel tune "Heaven," featuring guest vocals by Israel Houghton. A collaboration makes sense as Houghton has a history of writing with Michael Gungor, but it's so gospel it feels like a Houghton song plopped into a Gungor project. It's a fun song with some cool blues riffs... just strange in the context of the other songs. The second half settles into a comfortable, mellow sound, and the record wraps as nicely as it began with the almost-ten-minute closer "We Will Run." Lisa Gungor carries the bulk of the vocals on this one, and her voice is a lovely counterpoint to the song's cries to God to "heal Your world / make all things new." Just when it seems to be over, the quiet sound of crickets lead into the song's exit, a beautifully layered instrumental that builds to a powerful climax.
This isn't the most radically different worship album you will ever hear, but there's something special about this band that defies labels. As new artists experiment with sound to create passionate art that's more about the heart and words than crafting a church-friendly sound, it looks like more innovative music is arriving to give us a new sense of what worship can be. Beautiful Things may not quite be a masterpiece, but it is definitely a work of beauty and sincerity, making the newest incarnation of Gungor an artist to watch for sure.- Review date: 2/15/10, written by Jen Rose of Jesusfreakhideout.com
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