In 2000, then-Newsboys bassist Phil Joel released his debut solo project, Watching Over You through bandmate Peter Furler's own label, Inpop Records. Since his noteworthy solo career launch, Joel released two follow-ups, one two years later and the next three more years after that, both while still with the Newsboys (not counting the kids project). His third record, the deliberatePeople. album, first released independently before getting national distribution through Indelible Records the following year prior to announcing his departure from Newsboys. Joel's fourth full-length release, entitled The New Normal, is his first release since parting ways with the band and is currently entirely self-released, even being made available for free via Noisetrade.
So far, Phil Joel seems to be rather hit and miss with his studio records. The debut was a great way for Phil to establish his own identity apart from the fun-loving pop group, while Bring It On seemed to be a bit more rough around the edges. 2005 saw the release of what is arguably Joel's greatest achievement, the deliberatePeople. album, a thoughtful, mostly acoustic-driven worship-themed album that is both intimate and easy to listen to with more than just a couple moments of beauty on the record. And that is what makes The New Normal both instantly a surprise and a disappointment. The New Normal opens with "Shout," a Joshua inspired anthem for overcoming adversity. The music brings back more of the pop/rock sound that Joel established with Watching Over You and a little more of the edge found on Bring It On, but when the singer belts out the word "shout" for the song's ambitious chorus to pay tribute to the Biblical story, it's an abrasive sound that seems more like he's in pain than anything else. Not only does it sound like his hand fell victim to the full force of a large hammer to warrant issuing such a blood curdling yell of agony, but it makes the song just about as pleasant to listen to. While we wouldn't want Joel to repeat himself from deliberatePeople to New Normal exactly, it's a far cry (no pun intended) to open with a song as sloppy as "Shout" when the record that preceded this one opens up with a wonderful piano ballad like "Time Alone" that is all about spending quality time with our Savior.
Sadly, "Shout" does set the tone for the record that unfolds, but it wouldn't be fair to write off The New Normal entirely based on its shaky opening. "Call Unto Me" captures a bit of what worked so well on deliberatePeople in its pop rock balladry with piano highlighting; "Go Home" is an average, quirky little song that urges those fired up for changing the world to start at home with their loved ones; "Every Knee" slows things back down to contemplate the day when all will bow down at the Lord's feet; and then the album begins to go back downhill. "Best Thing" is an odd little pop track that mixes a fast beat with deeper vocal delivery by Joel; "DWYL" (AKA "Don't Waste Your Life") incorporates some punk influences (and a rather tasty drum beat) for what ultimately ends up being an obnoxious anthem for making the best of your time here on earth; the title track mixes classic rock with an occasional electronic vocal effect that should never have become a musical trend in the first place; and "Pink Elephant" is just so bizarre that it may be a sort of left-handed album highlight. At first listen, it seems almost as obnoxious as some of the album's other tracks, but the feel of the song and its lyrics (the chorus cries, "Shine the light on big ol' pink elephant / Shine the light on / He's no friend of ours") work with the theme of the track (which does, however, have the vibe more of a hidden track than an album finale). In the end, still, Joel's strength lies with his ability to perform the more melodic songs masterfully. So in the midst of the downfalls of much of the latter half of the record, it's songs like "You Belong To Me" and "Carried Me Home" that are sweet breaths of fresh air - spiritually, as well as musically.
So not only are the Newsboys not quite the same without Phil Joel's vocal talents or stage presence, but his latest solo offering doesn't do much for his musical pursuits on his own. Fans of his previous work will find parts of The New Normal to love, but with Joel having produced greater batches of songs than these in the past, his latest record is mostly a letdown.- Review date: 9/16/08, written by John DiBiase
Record Label: None
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