Last Spring, producer/artist John Mark Painter and singers Bethany Dillon and Matt Hammitt began collaborating on a unique modern hymns project which would eventually be known as In Christ Alone: Modern Hymns Of Worship. The hymns included are all relatively recent pennings, with the oldest song dating back only to 1995 and the rest being no older than six years. Because of this, many of the songs have a very contemporary worship feel instead of a classic hymns vibe (hence the term "modern hymns"), with the original writers including the likes of Stuart Townend and Keith Getty, Marc Byrd, Matt Maher, Martin Smith, Tim Hughes, and even Vicky Beeching. In Christ Alone is clearly not your usual project for Painter, who is probably most known for his work in husband/wife duo Fleming & John, and the end result of this collaborative effort is rather surprising.
Painter seems to be aiming for a more corporate worship format with In Christ Alone: Modern Hymns Of Worship. Some songs enlist the help of The Church at Argyle Kid's Choir which brings a youthful, congregational touch to them - even if it doesn't exactly work. Most of the songs feature Hammitt and Dillon taking turns on vocals ("In Christ Alone," "Joy Has Dawned"), or backing each other up in a more subtle way ("Clinging To The Cross," "On The Third Day"), or one will sing the song entirely solo. All of the songs herein are rearranged by Painter himself, which may explain why some are a bit overdone at times. With Bethany Dillon's best work to date being when things are kept simple and organic, it seems a disservice to turn the album into anything but a stripped-down, intimate hymns project. Matt Hammitt, whose fans know him best for being the vocalist for pop/rock band Sanctus Real, is quite versatile, but after hearing him stretch himself in exceptional ways on his band's most recent release, We Need Each Other (which released a month prior to this album), it makes his work here seem more reserved and if anything a step backwards, paling in comparison. Hammitt's usual listeners will be most used to hearing him leading a rock band and not - at times here - leading a children's choir.
In Christ Alone: Modern Hymns Of Worship gets off to a strong start with "Clinging To The Cross," a Martin Smith and Tim Hughes original that is given a piano-based treatment here as Bethany Dillon leads in vocals and Hammitt provides some background support. From here, it's a downhill slide. The title track that follows kicks off with a drum and tambourine beat with Matt's vocals leading the way, before the vocalists trade back and forth a bit. "In Christ Alone" is a modern hymn with a classic feel, however it's been getting the cover treatment a lot lately, from FFH to Avalon to more recently Natalie Grant, and it's starting to feel a bit commonplace. It's a decent rendition and also one of the better uses of the big choir sound on the record. Unfortunately, "Jesus Is Lord" has a bit of a cheesy, overly dramatic orchestral/trumpet accompaniment that just doesn't seem to fit - or work - on the record. It plays out more as a Christmas carol than a modern hymn. Hammitt and Dillon share vocals on "Joy Has Dawned," which is given an almost Eisley-esque vocal delivery. The strings also seem a bit over the top here. "O Church Arise" is another sore spot, propelled by a rather monotonous and mundane tone while Hammitt does his best to otherwise carry it alone. "God Of Justice" continues the onslaught of awkwardly arranged tracks as it opens with a misplaced Kid's Choir solo before Hammitt is forced to carry the Tim Hughes song by himself. "On The Third Day" gets off to a nice start with Dillon singing and Matt on BGV's, but Painter overdoes it again, taking it into a rather campy direction by incorporating trumpets and some sort of drum march. In Christ Alone works best when it's at its simplest which happens all too scarcely. When things escalate to try to build the mood, it feels too contrived or unnatural. The rest of In Christ Alone continues with all the same kinds of odd arrangement decisions - from a fluffy little flute accompaniment on the could-have-been-beautiful "How Deep The Father's Love For Us" to an oddly edgy guitar riff on "Adoration" to the album's finale of "The Wonder Of The Cross," which is not only overly dramatic but doesn't even use Bethany Dillon at all on the closer of an album that's meant to be a collaboration. It doesn't take too many listens of the album to realize why there wasn't much hype for a project that would join the talents of John Mark Painter, Bethany Dillon, and Matt Hammitt. It's a grand disappointment.
In Christ Alone: Modern Hymns Of Worship is one of those instances when an idea may look great on paper - or even sound good in conversation - but fail in actual execution. The separate parts that make up In Christ Alone might not be entirely bad by themselves, especially when considering Hammitt and Dillon's vocal deliveries are far better than most modern worship leaders, but the musical accompaniment chosen to support these singers not only doesn't complement their vocal styles, but simply doesn't do the songs or this project any justice. Great things are expected from someone like John Mark Painter, and I can assure you that In Christ Alone: Modern Hymns Of Worship, sadly, is not one that lives up to our expectations.- Review date: 3/8/08, written by John DiBiase
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