New music from Toby Mac, Tenth Avenue North and Hillsong Live

This month features some highly anticipated new releases

Toby Mac– Eye On It

As noted earlier in the fall, this has been one of Christian music’s most successful albums, debuting at the no. 1 spot on the Billboard Top 100.   Commercial success doesn’t always translate to great music but on this album, we find contemporary pop that would be at home on any secular radio station.  “Me Without You”  is an incredibly catchy lead single off the album, which emphasizes the futility of chasing for the riches of the world without God.  The title Track “Eye On It” is a edgy rock/pop number with inventive loops and clever effects whereas “Unstoppable, ” which features Blanca from Group1Crew, makes it hard not to want to get up and dance.  Lyrically, the album is definitely focused on the spiritual.  A great example is the song “Forgiveness,” with a rap supplied by Lecrae who is appearing on all sorts of Christian albums these days.  There are a few weak moments on the album, such as the song “Family” which sounds far too similar to “City on a Hill” from the previous release.  In his live performances, Toby Mac and the DiverseCity band creates a fun party atmosphere and this is definitely reproduced here on the album.  There is also an interesting autobiographical aspect to the album with songs such as “Thankful for You” for his fans,  “Mac Daddy” about son Trudog and “Made for Me” which is about the love of his life.   In short, great phat fun beats makes this album one that I highly recommended

Tenth Avenue North– The Struggle

This is one hard-working young band!  Tenth Avenue North have now released four albums in as many years.  This album has done very well, debuting at no. 9 on the Billboard charts.  The album starts promisingly with “Shadows“, which focuses on the theme of finding God in the midst of stuggles.  This is actually the emphasis lyrically through all the songs on the album, which reflects a deeper, more mature outlook from the band.  This is definitely a welcome change.  There are many great tracks like “Where Life Will Never Die” and “Losing, ” both which reminds one of the hugely successful Christian band, Mercy Me.    In an attempt to create a more mid-tempo and reflective mood, however, some of the intensity of previous releases has been lost.   Tenth Avenue North continue to deliver solid projects.  This is one which will do very well on Christian radio.

Hillsong Live– Cornerstone

This is the latest and twenty-first release from the Australian magachurch Hillsong .  As with many of the Hillsong recordings, this one is another one that is recorded in a live setting.  Unlike their previous worship albums, this one was inspired by a news event- the mass killing of 77 youth in Norway in 2011.  This album brings together several Hillsong Worship artists such as Reuben Morgan, Darlene Zschech and Hillsong United among others.  There is the signature Hillsong sound (U2-ish guitars with rousing anthems and arena-rock sound), which many of their detracters complain about, but the variety on this one is its strength as compared to previous Hillsong releases.  This is a pleasant listen, but still with a sense of deja-vu through many of the songs.  The album definitely has strengths in the songs “Endless Light“,  “I Surrender” and “Hope of the World.”  At the end of the day, however, it matters little what this reviewer says.  The Hillsong fans will buy this album in droves and will turn many of these selections into Evangelical church worship hymns all over the world.

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News Update: Critical Mass nominated for Canadian Gospel Music Association music award

My band, Critical Mass, has had its album “15 (1997-2012)” nominated for a Canadian Gospel Music Association Award for the 2012 Special Events Album of the Year!   The band has been involved in Christian music for 15 years and the album is a compilation of our best songs over the years along with three new songs, including War !

News update: Toby Mac’s “Eye On It” is Christian music’s first no. 1 on the secular Billboard charts since 1997!

Toby Mac has just notched 60,000 sales of his album,, “Eye On It”, in its first week of sales, making it the first album by a Christian artist to hit no. 1 on the Billboard charts since Bob Carlisle’s “Butterfly Kisses” in 1997.   Get ready for a review to come shortly but, suffice it to say, this album is hot!  In the meantime, check out the video for “Me Without You”!

Reviews: Audrey Assad, Mercy Me, Fireflight, Kari Jobe, Jesus Culture

As students head back to school and the thoughts of summer turn into happy memories, some new recordings have come across my desk that punctuate an otherwise slow summer in Christian music releases.

Audrey Assad– Heart

Catholic artists have been gradually impacting the broader Christian market.  Matt Maher, Ceili Rain and, in Canada, Chris Bray, are all getting radio exposure.  This release from Audrey Assad continues the trend, with one of Christian music’s most promising new voices to appear in years.  The sweet and clear vocals are reminiscent of Sarah McLaughlin, with a lyrical depth that is refreshing.  Assad honestly talks about the struggles and joys of the Christian walk.  “Blessed are the Ones”is a celebration of marriage without watering down the inevitable struggles and “Even the Winter” encourages the listener and gently conveys a message of hope.  “Won Me Over” has radio hit written all over it, with an extremely catchy hook.  The piano driven “Lament” is another special song with its hauntingly ethereal vocal stylings.  “Slow” meditates on how life often unwinds in God’s time, not ours, and is one of the best examples of Assad’s unique song-writing abilities.  Often, after a successful debut, artists run into the sophomore jinx.  Assad has not only avoided this but has produced an album that is a significant leap forward in artistry!

Mercy Me– The Hurt & The Healer

Mercy Me is now taking a role as one of Christian music’s more seasoned artists, a decade after their monster hit “I Can Only Imagine” crossed over into the secular airwaves.  These veteran artists do not disappoint here as this is a very good release.  “You Know Better” is a mid-tempo rocker to open the album, with its familiar Christian radio sound, but the album kicks into high gear with “You don’t care at all”, which is an aggressive piece, but sweetened with Mercy Me melodic sensibilities. The title track honestly deals with the realities of Christian life with a very catchy yet still emotionally moving song.  The fun and quirky “To Whom it May Concern” shows that Mercy Me can definitely write songs that lie outside a generic Christian sound, as does the song “Best of Me”, which is one of my favorites.  The other songs have a bit more of an Adult Contemporary sound with a slight country and blues flavoring. Overall, definitely an album to check out.

Fireflight– Now

This is an excellent Grammy-nominated band that I have never reviewed.  “Now” is their fourth studio album and it is a winner.  This is a hard rock band featuring the clean and powerful vocals of Dawn Michelle.  If you are a fan of the band, Evanescence, then this is a similar sounding band, albeit grittier and more raw.  “Stay Close” opens the album with intense power chords and clever loops.  “Escape” features the juxtaposition of a female voice with male background vocals, and is a highlight.  Lyrically, most of the album sings from the point of view of youthful angst, crying out for a Saviour. This is evident in songs like “Ignite” which says “Don’t hesitate to explode/burn the pain inside your soul/ don’t hesitate, let it go/ start a fire, embrace the Light.”  The title track “Now” is one of the best hard rock songs of the year.  In fact, this is one of the best hard rock albums released in 2012 and is getting heavy rotation in my mp3 player!

Kari Jobe– Where I find You

This is Kari Jobe’s sophomore album and focuses on worship music.  Thansfully, some of the songs sound quite different than the cookie-cutter songs often found on Christian radio.  Although not as original sounding as Assad’s album, this is still a very solid effort.  Jobe has a distinctive delivery and the acoustic-based pop with her sweet expressive vocals makes this album special.  “Steady my heart” is a great way to start off the album with a powerful pop performance.,   Another highlight, “We Are,” is an anthemic praise song whereas “We exalt your name” is the most distinctive song on the album, and features Matt Maher.  Now, there is a bit of sameness to the songs after a while, which is a slight caveat.  That being said, this album elevates Kari Jobe to the level of other top worship artists, such as Chris Tomlin and Hillsong.

Jesus Culture– Awakening (Live from Chicago)
Jesus Culture is a highly regarded worship band that I have never reviewed.  The group is a bit unusual in that they do not tour but put on the famous Jesus Culture conferences that have been running over the past decade, with a similar impact to that of the Catholic Steubenville conferences.  This is an album very similar to the Hillsong live worship albums, with its big arena sound, full rock production and repeating singalong lyrics.  Each of the vocalists- Kim Walker-Smith, Chris Quilala and others- bring a different flavor to these songs, but the highlight for me is the heartfelt “Father of Lights”.  This is a double album and, as such, won’t be for everyone as the live setting means that some of the pieces are quite long and repetitive.  Recommended for fans of worship music.

Kingdom Bound 2012 and the state of Christian music

It has been a yearly tradition for my family to go to one of the biggest Christian Music Festivals in the United States, Kingdom Bound, and this year was no different.  We pack up all 16 of us (my 9 kids invite along their friends to bump up the numbers) and go for 5 days of rides and the best in Christian music.

This year, however, there was a marked change in the atmosphere.  Attendance appeared to be down significantly.  Some of the stages were shrunk significantly from the past   Now, one can blame some of this on the state of the economy but I believe there may be another factor at play here.

I observed that many of the artists playing the main stages were pretty much the same artists that had been appearing since I started going to this festival almost 15 years ago.  Toby Mac, Third Day, Phil Keaggy and even Switchfoot are examples of such acts.  Even Matt Maher and David Crowder, two of the newer acts I saw, have been in the music industry for some time now.  They all put on great performances, especially Phil Keaggy who put on display why he is considered by Guitar Magazine to be one of the top acoustic guitarists ever.  However, there was no sense of excitement or discovery which is really is what is needed to keep the momentum with the younger audience.

It is my hope that the Christian record companies and radio stations will start taking a risk on independent acts, and that these festivals will start to give a voice to new and upcoming acts.  Otherwise, my fear is that the Christian music industry will start to fade into irrelevance in contemporary culture.

All the old Catholic Register articles are now up!

Check out the widget to the right… all the articles I have written (except for a few missing here and there.. if you have them, I’d love to get a copy) are in box.net.  It is a bit cumbersom to scan through but the first 2 digits represent the year.  For example, 03 means 2003.  I put the artists from the article in the filename to help with the search for articles.

Some of these interviews are especially meaningful for me so here are links directly to those articles:
1. Interview with Steve Taylor
2. Rich Mullin’s last ever interview
3. Phil Keaggy article
4. Kathy Troccoli interview
5. Steve Bell interview
6. Ceili Rain interview
7. Scarecrow and Tinmen interview
8. Natalie MacMaster interview
9. Leahy interview
10. Rachael Lampa interview
11. Interview with Brian Volmer of Helix
12. Chris Pagdett interview
13. Janelle
14. Matt Maher interview

Mike Mangione- Full time Catholic Musician!

Mike Mangione is one of the few Catholic artists who does music full time. He is known for collaborating with Christopher West with his Theology of the Body conferences and has released three albums, “There and Back”, “Tenebrae” and “Offerings”, which have been well received by critics. I had a chance to interview Mike at a recent concert.

Dave; Can you tell me how you got started in music, and how you became
involved in Catholic music, particularly with Christopher West?

Mike; I started playing at an early age because my mother didn’t want her kids fighting.  I started playing drums and my older brother, Thomas, started with guitar.  Our eldest brother Pete decided to opt out.  Over time, Thomas and I started playing together eventually forming a band. 

Christopher West started listening to our music back in 2005 and began to really rest in it.  He loved the ache in the writing and performance….it was pretty raw stuff when he started listening and it spoke to him.  He and I stayed in touch and would get together pondering the idea of working together and one day we did.

Dave: Your music is difficult to categorize as it is a blend of acoustic and electric instruments, as well as a blend between folk and rock.  What
are your influences and how did you evolve into such a unique sound.

Mike: When I started writing, I wanted to sound like all my favorite artists and I wanted to write about the subject of what it means to be human.  We always emulated artists who wrote about things bigger than themselves. John Paul II speaks of entering into the mystery.  A lot of artists I loved as a child, like Bob Dylan, U2, Van Morrison, Tom Waits, Peter Gabriel, would write in a way that transported the listener out of their realm and toward the mystery.  Over time, I began to develop a taste for a little more soul and movement. I started listening to some blues artists like Muddy Waters, Howlin Wolf even some Robert Johnson stuff.  My brother got really immersed in the blues and fell in love with Hubert Sumlin and Son House.  These artists all wanted to know who they were and where they were going… so these songs resonated with me.  

Dave; You have been a performer at the past few World Youth Days.  What are the positives of being involved at that level?  What have been some of
the hardships. 

Mike; The positives are the positive of just being there.  It is the Universal Church made visible.  It is amazing just to be with people from all over the world and focus on your similarities.  It’s beautiful.  As an artist, you get to tap into the electricity the crowd gives off. You don’t even need to plug in! 

The hardships have been lack of organization and respect towards the artists.  It is such a large scale event and the majority are just volunteers so the understanding of event management and performance can be pretty limited.  That would be fine and workable but sometimes the tempers get high and that is never what you want when you’re thousands of miles away from home.
  
Dave; As one of the few full time Catholic musicians, what would you say and advise to those artists who may feel called to do something similar
for a career. 

Mike: Search out the Catholicity in the secular and let it inspire you.  You will have a bigger pallet to work with and your work will resonate with a broader audience for all the right reasons.  

To sample Mike’s music, check out the following videos