I emailed ACL and asked if they had lyrics and lead sheets available and heard back from them very quickly. ACL is a great church and I’m excited that they’re able to put out this great project.
In just one paragraph from Book 1, Chapter 5 of A Tale of Two Cities, Charles Dickens teaches a master-class to those of us who would use similes to make communication more vivid.
The faintness of the voice was pitiable and dreadful. It was not the faintness of physical weakness, though confinement and hard fare no doubt had their part in it. Its deplorable peculiarity was, that it was the faintness of solitude and disuse. It was like the last feeble echo of a sound made long and long ago. So entirely had it lost the life and resonance of the human voice, that it affected the senses like a once beautiful colour faded away into a poor weak stain. So sunken and suppressed it was, that it was like a voice underground. So expressive it was, of a hopeless and lost creature, that a famished traveller, wearied out by lonely wandering in a wilderness, would have remembered home and friends in such a tone before lying down to die.
I’ve added a new category to the website: Preaching.
I preach occasionally at our church and have recently come to be more interested in what it means to preach Biblically, clearly, and to the heart. It’s not completely outside of the realm of this website, either, given that it is an integral part of the corporate worship of God. And, the lines between the content of the preaching and the content of the worship service should be consonant.
John Witvliet said at the Where Are the Psalms? Conference that one of the goals when composing a sermon should be to ask and answer the question, “What Psalm should we, as a congregation, sing or pray in response to this passage?”
I can’t promise that the preaching material will be insightful or ground-breaking or even learned. After all, I’ve spent many more years as a musician than as a preacher. Hopefully, though, the preaching material will be cogent, clear, and helpful.
Though I have limited opportunity to preach, I enjoy preaching and have a very high view of the calling of the preacher to faithfulness and clarity.
In previous posts, I’ve discussed Sojourn Music’s new album, Over the Grave: the hymns of Isaac Watts, volume 1. This final post is a brief discussion on which songs would work best in a congregational singing situation.
Before we look at a few songs from Over the Grave, however, let me make a few comments on finding songs that “work” for a congregation. I’ll admit that part of the process is subjective, but there are some criteria that I look for. I’ll only include criteria here that relate to what makes a good congregational song, not a good song in general. (For example, if the lyrics are poorly written, there’s no need to even consider a song for congregational singing.) In no particular order, they include:
- Vocal Range:
- This doesn’t mean appropriateness of the key. If it did, 99% of Chris Tomlin’s songs would be disqualified. It means, “Can I fit this song into a key where the vocal range is at most an octave and a fourth?” An octave and a major second is even better.
- Rhythmic Simplicity/Complexity:
- This is probably the most subjective of a list of subjective criteria. To put it simply, “Can this song be sung well by folks who have only heard it a few times and do not own a recording? Will they know when the words fall?” If the answer is no, we should reject the song.
- Melodic Interest:
- Simply, is the melody memorable and singable? Are there any weird leaps?
On this album, I would recommend (and plan on using) three tunes for congregational singing:
- Only Your Blood
- May Your Power Rest on Me
All three of these songs are very well written both musically and lyrically and meet the criteria that I listed above.
Why not some of the others? As I said, it’s a subjective call. (And for me to want to use 3 songs from a single CD is a large number to begin with.) “Warrior”, for all of its creativity, would not transfer well to a congregation of all ages (think of Aunt Noreen trying to get out all of the words on the verses at the right time). “Living Faith” has a range of an octave and a sixth; one of the reasons that it works well as a song is because of the soaring chorus – but this is precisely the area that would be trouble for anyone in our congregations who isn’t a soprano or tenor. The other songs that I haven’t mentioned just didn’t work as well for congregational singing for me as well as the three noted above.
I’m sure that Sojourn Church uses most, if not all, of these songs in their worship services. Good for them. Indigenous music is a lost art in the church. However, the songs have come directly out of their congregation. They are reflective of that church in a way that they’re not reflective of mine. Sure, I could expect folks from my church to buy the CD if they really want to know the songs we’re singing. But I’m of the opinion that if someone needs to own a CD or listen to Christian radio to really learn a song for corporate worship, the song is too difficult.
My one disappointment with this album was that there were relatively few songs that I felt would work well with a congregation. This surprised me. Of course, not all songs on hymn albums are meant to be sung corporately (there are many songs on the Indelible Grace CDs, for instance, that are not congregational and some on my own CD won’t work for congregations), but I expected that at least half of the album would be adaptable for corporate singing. However, I’m reading my own expectations into a review of someone else’s art and that’s not entirely fair. Just because I would have liked them to have a more corporate focus doesn’t make their work poor because it has a different focus.
To sum up all four parts of a lengthy review, I love Over the Grave. I hope that more churches and musicians will take on projects like this one. Buy it. Listen to it. Use these songs. Support these musicians.
When I originally sat down to do this review, it was set to be one post. Later, it had grown into three, which I advertised on the @psalmsandhymns twitter feed. By now, we’re at at least four posts. Today, we’ll look at the second half of the album.
There have been quite a few settings of “Alas! And Did My Savior Bleed”, from Hugh Wilson’s MARTYRDOM to the sing-songy “At the Cross”. This is an interesting setting. It’s slowly growing on me. This is the only song on the album that’s a setting of Watts’ original text.
“May Your Power Rest on Me”. Isaac Watts joins Evanescence. That’s probably a bit unfair but captures the feel of this song quite well. Piano-led accompaniment with rock drums and pads supporting a female vocal at the very top of her chest voice register. Hopefully, this doesn’t come across as a negative description of the tune; it’s very good. Lyrically, this is one of the strongest songs on the album.
Though the trial still goes on,
Your grace will be my song.
For I can bear all things when temptation springs,
For you sustain me all my days.
And then we come to “Refuge”. This song was featured on the YouTube video teaser for the album and helped make me impatient over the many months it took to come out. I could describe the simple piano-octaves that open the song or the text of reliance upon God at all times or the use of the choir in the background but that would obscure what I love most about this song: it’s just fun. Think Coldplay meets Wilco meets the Psalmist.
“We Are Changed” takes the jazzy, gospel vibes from other songs on the album and runs with it. Rhodes electric piano drives this song about the work of God in salvation. The chorus reminds me of Gomez’ cover of the Beatles’ “Getting Better”.
The final track on the album is “Savior King”, a rocking 6/8 setting of Isaiah 52.
How happy are the ears that hear this joyful sound,
Which kings and prophets waited for, and sought but never found.
How blessed are the eyes that see this heavenly light:
Our Savior King.”
Musically and lyrically, this is a solid album from beginning to end. The drumming is especially solid. I am already looking forward to “Lo-Wattage”, the next volume in this set.
In part 4, we’ll look at the question that all worship musicians should ask when looking to incorporate songs from this or any other album into corporate worship: “What about congregational singing?”
Yesterday, I began reviewing Sojourn Music’s new album Over the Grave: the hymns of Isaac Watts, volume 1. Today and tomorrow, we will look at the individual songs more in-depth. Finally, we’ll ask the all-important (and oft-neglected) question, “Can the congregation sing it?”
Yesterday, I said that this wasn’t an “indie-rock” album but that I didn’t mind because of the variety of musics used. (I love the word “musics”, which I got from Harold Best. Incidentally, if you’d like to see an interview with Harold Best and Mike Cosper, one of the producers of this album, you can see it at Sojourn Music.)
My friend Tim Sharpe delivered me a copy of Over the Grave while we were at General Assembly in Orlando. I listened to the first song, expecting indie-rock, and instead got the funky “Warrior”. After the funk influenced verse, we get just a snippet of the chorus, complete with Eleanor Rigby-like strings. Actually, the verse is a little like chant or recitative, in its minimalist reduction to repeated notes and cadences. This is a a fun song. Lyrically, it’s great to hear a song about the Lord as the conquering King!
“Living Faith” is a mid-tempo rocker that boasts a soaring vocal.
For some reason, “How Long” reminds me of Johnny Cash singing gospel. Up an octave, of course. With 21st century guitars, of course. Any settings of the psalms of lament are welcome, though I wonder if this song needed another verse to more completely capture the pleading cries of Psalm 13 (upon which it is based).
“Only Your Blood” is one of my favorites for several reasons. The production, while intricate, never gets in the way of the lyrics, a great setting of the second half of Psalm 51. Like “Refuge” later on the album, the use of the piano in octaves provides a great chime-like texture. Lyrically, the third verse stands out:
No bleeding bird, no bleeding beast,
No hyssop branch, no priest,
No running brook, no flood, no sea
Can wash away this stain from me.
When I first heard the song, however, I heard a mondegreen:
No bleeding bird, no bleating beast…
I like that lyric even more than the original.
To call “Reveal Your Love” high-energy would be a tremendous understatement. The lyrics would have been helped by some variation in dynamics. Even if the song does vary in loudness, it’s all energy all the time.
“Over Death”. Isaac Watts’ called this hymn “Victory over Death”. The song is based upon 1 Corinthians 15.55ff.
Joyful, with all the strength I have
My trembling lips should sing:
“Where is your boast of victory grave?
And where is the monster’s sting”
This is the kind of song that should be sung at funerals, not schlock like “I’ll Fly Away”. Our hope isn’t that we’re going to escape this bad, old world but that death has been defeated. We praise the “God of victory” that death has no power over the Christian, we will be resurrected on the last day.
Tomorrow, we’ll cover the second half of the album. As always, I’d like to hear others’ comments on the album if you’ve been able to get a copy.