november 2009

Gaither Vocal Band
Gaither Music Group

Released at about the same time as the Issacs’ …Naturally, the Gaither Vocal Band’s Reunited could hardly be more different while advancing the same message of redemption, salvation and enduring faith. The Isaacs’ new album is a stripped-down, near a cappella affair; Reunited makes no pretext to subtlety—it’s about big, booming orchestral arrangements, lush washes of strings, a thundering beat and highly emotionally charged singing and harmonizing. It’s built for big spaces, not the quiet confines that would best serve the Isaacs’ new long player. What both have in common is a bunch of Bill and Gloria Gaither songs—a half dozen on the Isaacs’ album, a baker’s dozen here. There are some interesting textural things going on in Reunited—the soothing “I Am Love” is not only a subtler, more introspective arrangement than most on the disc, but the fellows’ tight, close harmonies are more in the style of a contemporary R&B group than a gospel quartet. Those who recall one of Elvis’s greatest gospel moments, on Bill Gaither’s “He Touched Me,” will find the song appealingly reprised here in resonant four-part harmony with silky strings sensitively deployed at key junctures, along with a soaring, triumphant final chorus. In an arrangement worthy of a big-screen epic, Gaither himself takes the lead on“It Is Finished,” and over the steady roll of a snare drum sets the stage for a morality tale pitting his own tortured soul against the hard-won knowledge of the sacrifices Christ on the cross made for him. The title refers to the singer’s acknowledgment of his complicity in his own despair before being saved. With the full orchestra and band roaring, the singers proclaim the battle won as the music coalesces into a final, majestic chord—the only thing missing is the audience’s overwhelming applause at the end. The applause, though muted, does show up at the albums’ close, in a live version of “There’s Something About That Name,” which is mostly a narrative by Gloria Gaither describing the unvanquished power of the Son of God through the ages, despite all efforts to at least marginalize if not remove him altogether from history’s pages. It sends the album out on a thoughtful note, as the GVB—Bill Gaither, Mark Lowry, David Phelps, Wes Hampton, Michael English—re-enter for one final, calming chorus. The subdued arrangement and Gloria Gaither’s melodramatic but low-key performance are a nice change of pace from the intensity of the preceding tracks, but no less powerful in the message imparted. Nice work by all concerned. —David McGee


The Issacs
Gaither Music Group

In this quiet, thoughtful but unflaggingly energetic gospel rumination, the wonderful Isaacs quartet has, arguably, reached the pinnacle of its 21-year history. The harmonies as always as superb and measured, and in Sonya Isaacs, of course, the group is blessed with one of the finest bluegrass and gospel voices of our time. The songs are both traditional and new, including a bevy of well-crafted originals from Bill and Gloria Gaither (Bill produced the album), and in the context of this mellow, emotional outing, even Stephen Foster’s “Hard Times Come Again No More”—was ever a song more timely?—comes off as a heartrending hymn of resilience and faith. The album title is rather a triple-edged sword, if such an oddity existed. The voices are certainly natural—Gaither has close-miked them so that their presence, solo and ensemble, has the feel of not only a single-mic gathering, but exceedingly live, as if they’re in the room with the listener. You might also say the deep conviction infusing the group’s readings is second nature to the siblings—natural, you might say. But also, as per the subtitle “an almost a cappella collection,” herein the singers are either unaccompanied by instruments, or with spare, tasty support, such as the merry banjo and washboard effect (courtesy, respectively, Bryan Sutton and Tom Roady) infusing an old-timey flavor to the album opening jubilation of Sonya’s cheery, self-penned “A Little Bit of Heaven.” For an outing trumpeted for its stripped down approach, though, Gaither and the group have assembled a formidable, A-list band of players: the aforementioned Sutton and Roady, of course, but also Aubrey Haynie on mandolin and fiddle, Rob Ickes on slide guitar (most profoundly felt in the stark, haunting moans and rippling riffs he adds to “Hard Times Come Again No More,” which is further enhanced to haunting effect by Erik Darken’s softly clattering percussion), Kelly Back on tremolo guitar, Nathan Fauscett on cajon, Jesse Stockman on fiddle, with Ben Isaacs on bass. Hats off to everyone, though, because the voices are paramount throughout, giving the album the feel of a casual, living room gathering, sort of the after-hours counterpart to Gaither’s celebratory, rousing “Homecoming” celebrations. At times the group’s vocal blend is absolutely mesmerizing—on the a cappella hymn of devotion, “I Will Praise Him,” with Ben taking the lead, the vocal effect is as pristine and otherworldly as the Fleetwoods’. Or, if other vocal group comparisons are in order, how about Fleetwooods contemporaries The Browns, given how the Isaacs do an exceptionally fine job with the arc-of-life drama of “The Three Bells,” approaching it with a down-home sincerity that honors the Browns’ dramatic interpretation of the French song “Les Trois Cloches” first popularized by Edith Piaf and Les Compagnons de la Chanson,  but amazingly finds its own rich turf apart from the earlier versions. Behind fiddle, mandolin and guitar, the singers give Dotti Rambo's wonderful country lament, “Mama’s Teaching Angels How To Sing” a tender, close harmonized and considerably tear-stained treatment that honors a mother’s virtues even as it looks forward to a Heavenly reward with her. In addition to the Stephen Foster song, the Isaacs dip again into topicality in a percolating, doo-wop influenced take on Gary S. Paxton’s “No Shortage,” which catalogues all manner of deficits in corn, wheat, beans, meat (“all the things we needed we just can’t buy,” it adds), but friskily points out the undiminished well of God’s love. That’s rather the message of the entire album—hope in the face of despair, the promise of faith to sustain us through our earthly trials and the reward of God’s love in Heaven. And in the lilting, uplifting rhythm and melody of Kobi Oshrat and Shimrat Or’s multi-lingual “Hallelujah” is a message of spiritual unity binding the whole of humanity in the common cause of salvation. Since somethings can’t be said enough, much gratitude goes to the Isaacs for making sure to say them well, and in a timeless fashion at that. —David McGee

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