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AMANDA COOK : State of the Union.   (Provident Label Group)

This is Amanda’s debut worship album for Provident.  “State of the Union looks at where we intersect with God, with each other, and with ourselves,” she explains. “It’s about relationship and healing the way that I relate to everything. We can’t control or manipulate anything that happens out there, the only things we can control are our thoughts and what’s in our hearts. The fact that we get to bring our thoughts to the Christ-mind is incredible. Sometimes I forget how kind he really is, and that we can sit in His love and compassion.” I was immediately struck by Amanda’s voice – a sort of cross between Julie Miller and Leigh Nash. At times, the vocals come across as vulnerable, but also fly with great power at others. If you were expecting a typical, contemporary, worship album, then you would be sadly disappointed. And, that’s a real plus! Amanda weaves words of worship into an array of very distinct songs. ‘Miracle of the Mind’ features some lovely string sounds, while ‘Light on the Mountain’ benefits from its simplistic backing. The latter is quite beautiful. That’s followed by the atmospheric ‘Honestly,’ in which she sings; “Here at Your feet, I am home. Where I belong.” On songs like ‘Time’ and ‘Where the War Ends,’ Amanda lays bare all the hurts of life, and also asks “Don’t you think it’s time to forgive yourself?” I found these tracks to be very moving. In fact, this album is such a breath of fresh air, that I love it. 10/10.

MONIQUE : Timeless.   (Spaghetti Records)

Timeless is a collection of songs that Monique wants to express her worship to Almighty God. The title track kicks things off, with a lot of brass sounds accompanying the vocals. It’s modern gospel, with a twist of old style thrown in. I liked the medium paced ‘No Alternative.’ It’s a song of worship with simple lyrics that sets the focus of “There is none like You.” ‘Mayowa’ has a nice, tropical feel to it, while ‘Nothing Dies in My Hands’ begins with a Bible quotation, but seemed to move into a rather cluttered production. It’s a similar story with ‘Women for Jesus.’ Beginning with a rallying cry from the artist, the lead vocals often get lost behind the backing singers’ contribution. When she shines, Monique does sing well. With the reggae styled ‘Nobody Can Worship You for Me,’ she leads a song that stands out from many of the others on the album. Sadly, her voice is let down on the final song, by out of tune instruments. The guitar and saxophones are especially bad. I’m not sure if this track was recorded live (warts and all) but it really does Monique no favours. A real pity, as she does show real quality elsewhere.   5/10.

LEON REMNANT : Faith Over Fear - F.O.F   (https://www.instagram.com/leon_remnant/?hl=en-gb)

Leon says; “Faith Over Fear” is a project God put in my heart for some years now. I’m very transparent in this project by expressing my artistic creativity through the whole project. We live in a chaotic world filled with violence, health crisis, anxiety and other socio-economic issues. But this album is aimed at building our hope and faith to trust in God.” For those hearing the name of Leon Remnant for the first time, his musical style is hip-hop based with a touch of Afrobeats. No, not everyone’s cup of tea, but I always approach this style with an open mind. On ‘Hold On’ he shares vocals with Naomi Mac. The message is to hold on in your troubles because God is working on it, whether you realise it or not. Sometimes the vocal delivery of hip-hop is hard to decipher, but on tracks such as ‘Like you,’ I had no trouble. This time, Leon duets with Mike Abdul and they declare that they want to live like Jesus. It’s got a catchy tune, and was an early highlight of the album. The artist seems to duet with a host of different artists on the album, such as Ruffman, Cmion and A’dam, to name but three. Sometimes, it works better than others. A positive collaboration is with Omolade, who joins Leon for the song ‘Power.’ Again, the theme is giving God glory and praise, and I enjoyed this one very much. Overall, the album’s lyrics are encouraging, and should have greater appeal to a younger audience than me. Nevertheless, worth a 6/10.

JOHN ELEFANTE : The Amazing Grace.   (Escape Music)

Despite being with that band for only two albums, John Elefante is often best remembered for his impressive stint in the early 1980s as frontman for rock outfit Kansas (replacing Steve Walsh). From the evidence of this new eleven tracker it is clear that the now 64 year old hasn't lost his pitch-perfect rock voice. In the intervening years he has also shown considerable talents as a songwriter, multi-instrumentalist and producer. With many projects for other bands now under his belt (including Christian rockers Petra) there have also been solo releases, with 2013 album 'On my way to the sun' featuring ex-Kansas members. This latest solo offering repeats that previous album's formula of intelligent arrangements and excellent production but in some ways moves the game on, with a musical depth rarely found within the genre. 'Won't fade away' is probably the prime example here, with its complex drumming and changing time signatures. Lyrically the songs are not overtly Christian but nevertheless positively faith-based, representing John's longtime Christian beliefs. “The Amazing Grace was recorded during a dark and very unusual two year period in all of our lives. COVID-19 rocked our world in a way we’d never experienced, at least not in my lifetime. It made me reflect on my own mortality, my family and those who I love.” The songs here present a heady mix of quality lyrics, melody, construction, production and delivery, all with that superb voice – often multi-tracked – soaring above. Many full-length releases begin with something upbeat, but the opener in this case is the slow-paced and powerful 'City of grace'. This points the way for what is to come, and a longer version is also used as an effective closer. The heavy-ish rock 'Time machine' is one of my standouts and has John looking back on his life (“What would I do to change me?”). The poignant piano-led 'And when I'm gone' (“will you remember me?”) provides a musical contrast to the heavier leanings of the rest of the album. 'Little brown book' is a straightforward heavy rock track (reminding me most of Kansas, as it happens!) and for me the least satisfying musically. This is however a most worthwhile release overall, and even comes with good sound quality. 9/10. Dave Deeks.

SUNDAY DRIVE : Breaking Boundaries.   (https://sundaydrivemusic.com/home)

Sunday Drive are an award winning family from Tennessee. They consist of Dusty, Jeff, and Misty Teece, and this new album has been produced by Wayne Haun. There’s a bright opening number called ‘Grace and Goodness’ which I hoped would set the tone for what was to follow. Misty takes the lead vocals on ‘In the Meantime’ and there’s a touch of Karen Carpenter about her voice! Tracks flow seamlessly along, including the title track, which benefits from some unobtrusive banjo sounds. Dusty joins Misty on vocals for ‘Shine Down on Me.’  It’s got a choppy beat, thanks to the accompanying piano, that celebrates the Lord, Him being a “a strong Saviour, a storm shifter, you’re so much bigger.” There’s more praise and worship on ‘My God,’ while the closing ‘Worth It When He Says Well Done’ is a poignant number where Misty’s vocals are just delicious, once more. With this release, Sunday Drive look certain to continue their popularity in the southern gospel genre.   8/10.

THE DOWN EAST BOYS : The Stories We Tell.   (Sonlite Records)

This new album features the current line-up of (lead vocals) Ricky Carden, Baritone Daryl Paschal, Bass Alex Utech and Tenor Doug Pittman. The Stories We Tell offers a sampling of all the elements that have contributed to the success of the group’s musical ministry – uplifting songs; thoughtful, creative arrangements relevant to today’s faithful while keeping strong links to tradition; and, above all, singing that gives each voice an opportunity to testify within a tight-knit quartet setting.  The rousing ‘Good in the Good Times’ is a strong opener, but I was dismayed to see that the album was only 7 songs long. This seems to be quite a trend with southern gospel recordings of late. ‘The Altar’ is a slower song that remembers the moment when Jesus came into your life. “He gave me victory, and I was finally free.” The tempo gets even slower on ‘Before the Cross,” but celebrates, once more, meeting Jesus for the first time. Things get moving again, with ‘Don’t Want a Maybe So.’ I’m not sure if it’s a mandolin or a banjo that drives the song along, but it works very well. Vocally, I can’t fault the guys. Whether solo or harmonising, they are first class. I just felt a little short-changed by the lack of more songs.   7/10.

BRANDON HEATH : Enough Already.   (Centricity Music)

As I start this review, it may help the reader to know that I am old. This album would probably be better suited for my children, but, I will continue with my thoughts. The release has a very contemporary sounding start, with lots of repeated vocal lines. And, that is how it grows on you! There are nice harmonised vocals throughout - just enough, not overbearing. I quite like. For me, by track 3 (‘This Changes Eveything’), the reverb is bugging me. There’s just too much. It seems to be an attempt to give a slightly live feel, but I wasn’t keen. Pleasingly it disappears as the album goes on. ‘That’s Enough’ is the best track so far. The hook on the chorus works very well, and the lyrics are good, with a simple message:  “God is good and that’s enough.” I would have liked a little more guitar coming through but the arrangement is full and well- constructed. ‘See Me Through It’ has a jazz/gospel feel and works quite well, while ‘Another Song About Love’  reminded me of Sparky’s Magic Piano on the chorus! The backing vocals appear to be through a processer giving a Fender Rhodes sound. ‘He is Not Worried’ is more of a ballad and I really liked this one. No, it’s than that. I really, really liked it! It’s a song which encourages and strengthens you through a few different scenarios. Good arrangement and, bearing my earlier comments re age, it speaks to all generations. Great song. The title track reminds us that God takes us as we are. We are enough already and don’t have to try impress Him. Finally, ‘Human Nature’ is an acoustic version of the first track and more in line with my tastes. Overall a good album, with interesting songs  - and I like the non-cliché lyrics. A good, honest release, which will speak to many people. 7/10.   Noel Donaldson.

LABA PRAISE : The Gratified EP.   (https://www.instagram.com/labapraise01/?hl=en-gb)

Laba Praise is a Nigerian Gospel Minister & singer. “The Gratified” is a 5 track EP that was birthed from a heart of gratitude that has been under the influence of God’s supernatural providence, Guardians, protection and supply. There’s a bouncy beginning with the song ‘Overcomer.’ The style is afro-pop, while the lyrics include; “’Cos’ Ive got Jesus; He lives in me; I am a winner.” The following ‘Great and Mighty King’ is another song of worship but, this time, in more mellow tones. Indeed, I much preferred Laba Praise’s vocals in this one, compared to the first. ‘My Desire’ is a very atmospheric song, which lasts for nearly 7 minutes. The problem I have with it, is that neither the melody or backing ever seems to change. The result is quite an uninspiring song. I did wonder if it was recorded during a time of spontaneous worship, but remain undecided. ‘Come Let’s Celebrate’ sees the singer get things just right, with an uptempo delivery of this praise song. Finally, we come to ‘Emmanuel.’ A shuffling rhythm comes to life when Laba raises her voice for a touching chorus that lifts Jesus high in praise. The closing guitar and brass sounds are fairly awful and what was a promising song becomes rather annoying to the ears. Another thing that I noted throughout the EP was the rather thin sound from the backing singers. Better production would make this a more creditable release, as there’s certainly some good ideas from Laba Praise.   5/10.  

CHARLES BILLINGSLEY : The Shadow of Your Smile.   (Club44 Records)  

This album finds Billingsley tackling 15 jazz standards and the album will be his debut for Club44 Records. Charles says; “After 30 years of making music, I felt like it was finally time to record some of these great tunes that people all over the world love-songs that evoke fond memories and nostalgia. The past few years have been hard, and so many of us seem to have lost our smile. I hope The Shadow of Your Smile will help bring some joy back." Well, the opening song certainly brought a smile to my face! ‘Perfect’ is an effervescent love song that I really enjoyed. The following tribute to Frank Sinatra, was a full swing version of the classic ‘It Had to Be You.’ With a full brass orchestra taking the lead, it’s a super sound. Slower numbers like the sumptuous ‘If Ever I Would Leave You’ and the Taranda Greene duet ‘The Very Thought of You’ are top notch recordings. Another highlight comes with the wonderful version ‘Time to Say Goodbye’ with Adelaide Trombetta. It’s one of those performances that makes the hairs on the back of your neck stand on end. It is THAT good. Charles has a great voice, and I wonder why it’s such a while since I heard anything from him. Other well-known songs include ‘Beyond the Sea’ and ‘Smile’ and the whole collection was really pleasing to the ear. 9/10.

MR WEAVERFACE : I May Never Die.  (https://www.facebook.com/mrweaverface/)

Independent Christian rock musician Brendon Weaver, known as the artist Mr. Weaverface, has recorded five Christian rock songs over the last year. With a previous background of playing in alternative rock bands, Brendon has been leading church worship for more than a decade. This latest song is based on 1 Thessalonians 4:17 and begins with heavy drums and crunching guitars. Vocal FX give his initial vocals a telephonic sound, before he launches into a chorus of layered voices. “Because of sin, this world is lost; There’s only one who paid the cost; So trust in Jesus so that you can stand, in glory.” The middle eight works well, with a different pace, before the tempo picks up once more. This is my introduction to Mr Weaverface, and this song is very impressive.   9/10.

MATTHEW HAWK : Running on Empty.   (https://www.matthewhawkmusic.com)

Matthew is a singer-songwriter and actor from Atlanta, Georgia. He has appeared playing guitar and/or singing on films such as Pitch Perfect 3, The Change Up, What to Expect When You're Expecting, Boy Erased, Come Sunday, A Question of Faith, and the television shows, The Vampire Diaries, The Baker and the Beauty, and American Soul, with live performances on a variety of television programs such as AtlantaLive.  This is the first release from his upcoming album. Crisp acoustic guitars and vocals start of the song, before being joined by some percussion. Lyrically, Matthew sings; “Running on empty; Running on fumes; I need your mercy; fill me with you. I’m dry and I’m broken, I need your touch; Come and fill me Lord.” The production is excellent on this recording. Vocals and instruments sound so good that it’s almost as if Matthew was in the room with you. Another new artist for me, and a super release.   9/10.

THE WILLIAMSONS : Above Everything.  (REAL Southern Gospel Records)

Above Everything is the group’s debut album for the REAL Southern Gospel Record label. Featuring 14 powerful songs from the top writers in Southern Gospel music, such as Kyla Rowland, Gerald Crabb, and Dave Clark, plus, multiple songs penned by Lisa Williamson. In typical style, the songs on this album vary from slow ballads, like ‘Out of Harm’s Way,’ through the medium paced ‘Above Everything’ and faster numbers like the engaging ‘You Made the Mountain.’ Vocally, things are fine and there’s some good musical backing, too.  A personal dislike was ‘Jesus Leading His Children Home.’ I just felt that it came across as a miserable tune. An instant comparison, for me, likened this collection of songs to similar releases by The Collingsworth Family. Overall, it’s a tried and trusted style, and there’s nothing wrong with that.  Other highlights included the big production of ‘The King Eternal,’ the joyful ‘Message to the World’ and touching sound of ‘The Story.’ On this release, The Williamsons present an admirable record that stands up well with others in this genre.   7/10.

BEE CEE MOH : Just for Me.   (Macmomoh Music)

On this new single, Bee Cee Moh reflects on the price Christ paid on the cross for our sins and made us free: “You died just for me, You bled on the cross just for me, Your death brought life to me” She sings. Accompanied by some simple bass lines, Bee Cee Moh praises the Lord for everything He has done in her life. Her voice delivers each word with feeling. Occasionally, there’s a distant backing vocal, which works really well on this stripped-down recording. The only downside appears right at the end of the song, when some a very odd guitar phrase is heard. It’s rather strange, and sounds completely out of context with the rest of the song. Nevertheless, I’m happy to give this song a 7/10.

TASHA LAYTON : How Far.  (BEC Recordings)

How Far, is the long-awaited full-length debut from one of Christian music’s leading female artists, Tasha Layton. My only previous knowledge of Tasha’s music was a single release of 2021 called ‘Look What You’ve Done,’ which I reviewed favourably. The pop-orientated ‘Help Me Let Go’ reminded me of 80’s CCM starlet, Kim Boyce. A “sugary” little number that was quite good. There’s far more substance in the subsequent title track. The production has a much fuller sound as Tasha sings of the indescribable lengths God’s love reaches. ‘Catch My Breath’ has a similar sound, and these two songs were early highlights. In fact, I thought that these type of songs really showed off the singer’s vocal quality. On ‘Good Things’ there’s a nod to trusting God, while on ‘Thank You for the No,’ there’s a realisation that when God says “No,” He’s been saving you for something else further down the road. And, if you are at the point where you feel the ground beneath your feet is crumbling, Tasha reassures us of God’s greatness with ‘Into the Sea (It’s Gonna Be Ok). On this outing, Tasha can be well satisfied with her album.   8/10.

ALEXANDER PAPPAS : Older.   (Capitol CMG)

Alexander Pappas is the co-frontman of two-time GRAMMY nominated Hillsong Young & Free. Of this new single, he says; “OLDER is an anthem to remind myself to chase that better version of me and with a little help, live in the moment the way we were intended.” The song is a guitar driven, number in the mould of, say, Del Amitri and the like. It’s a catchy number that is one of those that keeps popping up in your head, long after you’ve finished playing it! The song’s theme is clear, and the lyrics can give everyone a nudge in the right direction. Super song!   9/10.

IAN YATES : God You’ve Never Failed Me.   (https://www.7coremusic.co.uk)

‘God You’ve Never Failed Me’ is the second single from Ian’s sixth album ‘Between the Joy and the sorrow’. Written in Sept 2021. Ian already had the chorus idea and was inspired by his close friend Tim, who was going through his journey with cancer. Tim and his wife Tash’s updates on a friends and family Facebook group shaped the rest of the song and Ian dedicated this song to Tim. Before Tim passed Ian had the pleasure of sharing the song with him. As you might imagine, the song itself is both reflective and reassuring. Beginning with just an acoustic guitar backing, Ian’s vocals are clear and sung with love. As the chorus comes in, there’s additional backing, but it’s not obtrusive. “God you’ve never failed me; In every high and low; you’ve never let me go.” A quite touching piece from Ian, who continues to show his versatility in his writing.   7/10.

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