04.26.2010

A little over a week ago I was both surprised and flattered to receive an email from a digital media company asking me if I’d like to review Sandra McCracken‘s upcoming CD, In Feast Or Fallow. I was planning on getting the CD for myself anyway, so I said I’d be more than happy to listen to the CD and post my thoughts.

In Feast Or Fallow, which was produced by Sandra’s frequent collaborator and always husband Derek Webb, is a followup to her 2005 album The Builder and the Architect. Both albums are comprised mainly of old hymn texts set to new music, sometimes written by Sandra herself and sometimes written by others, and several new songs written in a hymn-like style. She created a new website for this project, http://www.newoldhymns.com, which has information on her two hymns albums and includes a bunch of resources for reviving old hymns for a new generation. I am a big fan of The Builder and the Architect, and I’m eager to hear what Sandra and Derek have done on this new album.

I say I am eager to hear it, because I’ve decided to “liveblog” my first listen through the album: blogging as I listen, rather than writing my collected thoughts afterwards. I thought it might make for an interesting read (feel free to disagree in the comments if you don’t think it’s as good as a regular post). So, starting with track 1, here we go:

Track 1, “Petition” – The album starts with some interesting electronic sounds, heavily reverbed piano and shimmering high picking. Immediately something different from anything Sandra’s done before. The rhythms and meter are more syncopated and modern than the sometimes stiff rhythms of The Builder and the Architect. I like ’em a lot. That album used acoustic instruments almost exclusively, heavily focused on guitar and piano, and none of the songs had a full drum set; this album starts at least with a wide variety of acoustic and electronic instruments, and I like the sound. Wish the vocals were mixed a little louder.

Track 2, “Can’t Help Myself” – Sandra sings “I confess the things I am afraid of”–she’s said that this CD is 15 different ways of asking the question, “What are we afraid of?” Nice layered vocals in the middle–a whole chours of Sandras. “Oh, trust the Lord, my soul, and all that is in me”: the answer to the fear.

Track 3, “A Narrow Cradle” – Instrumental track: a gradually growing progression of not-too-realistic but intentional samples. Something Derek did on his album Mockingbird, though in his case with real instruments. I dig it.

Track 4, “Justice Will Roll Down” – A more typical upbeat guitar/bass/drums groove. Adds an organ on verse 2; a great picture of the “new old hymns” idea. Noticing that the songs are pretty long; first was 5 minutes, second was 6, this one is 4 (rewritten hymns can tend to go by pretty quickly).

Track 5, “New Wonders” – Slower, more ballad-like, but the chord progression grabs me more so than any of the songs so far. Very Sandra-sounding, with idiomatic guitar sliding progressions and lots of suspended chords. The organ makes another appearance.

Track 6, “Give Reviving” – More production elements back in this song. I like the give-and-take between a more traditional sound and a more produced one; both feel natural rather than forced, and it makes for an album that’s never dull to listen to. Again I wish the vocals were just a little hotter in the mix; they tend to get just a little obscured by everything else.

Track 7, “This Is The Christ” – Again back to acoustic guitar and piano. I like the texture, with the picking guitar providing the main movement, and the piano providing only punctuating chords. The march snare beat is a little clichéd, but interesting in that it’s panned to the left and right on different beats.

Track 8, “Bands Of Angels” – The snare roll is carried over from the last song (without the marching beat). Another short instrumental track. I like the way that they break up the vocal songs; provides some variety on a pretty long album (15 tracks).

Track 9, “Hidden Place” – The high glockenspiel-type instruments/guitar pairing, along with the dark piano bass notes, reminds me of the sound of Sandra and Derek’s Ampersand EP album. The album recalls a lot of Sandra’s earlier works in multiple ways (chord progressions, instrumental textures), but simultaneously represents something totally new.

Track 10, “Eighty-Eight” – Starts with an accompaniment of only strings–creative texture, not just boring block chords.

Track 11, “In Feast Or Fallow” – The title track starts with a different singer (I think it’s Thad Cockrell), and also features Derek singing verse 2. The determined guitars make it sound like an anthem–albeit an anthem with much deeper and more meaningful lyrics than anthems typically have. I like the harmony of the three of them singing together, but the blend isn’t as tight as I’d like.

Track 12, “I Glory In Christ” – A song made up almost exclusively of produced sounds; reminiscent of Derek’s latest album, Stockholm Syndrome. Again a nice change-up from the guitar-based acoustic sound, and not at all out of place.

Track 13, “980 Anne Steele” – A bit of shifting meter here. Not as musically interesting as some of the other tracks, and the slow tempo makes it feel a little dragging. Kinda disappointed in this one.

Track 14, “Sweet Sorrow” – Nice finger-picking, but I was hoping it would be a little bit faster and more upbeat to pick up where the previous track took me down. Ending (particularly with the drums) feels a little awkward.

Track 15, “Faith’s Review & Expectation (Amazing Grace)” – This is, of course, one of the greatest and one of the most overdone hymns of all time; but Sandra said she wanted to record a version unlike anything you’ve heard before. She certainly succeeds with me. Starts off with just vocal and organ, but then the percussion and guitars kick in, followed by drums and organ. Rollicking in a folky kind of way; not what I’d call “rockin’,” but fun and upbeat nonetheless–and certainly very different. A few of her chord changes are unconventional and serve to change up the progression nicely. I’d like the texture to change a little more throughout the song, and particularly on the last verse to build rather than repeat a texture we’ve heard before. But she delivers a version of “Amazing Grace” simultaneously different from any I’ve heard and very patently her own.

My overall impression is of a record that is unmistakably a Sandra McCracken record, while taking her music in an entirely new creative direction. The juxtaposition of acoustic instruments and new electronic sounds is a perfect symbol of what she’s doing with the “new old hymns” concept, and produces a surprisingly coherent and natural synthesis that balances perfectly throughout. A very worthwhile listen, and one that makes me look forward with anticipation to what Sandra will do next.

In Feast Or Fallow officially releases tomorrow, April 27th, and can be bought on iTunes, Amazon and Sandra McCracken’s website.

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Comments

  1. Gravatar

    Noel@Best Acoustic Guitar Strings on 04.27.2010

    I’m listening to “In Feast Or Fallow”. Love it!

  2. Gravatar

    Idhrendur on 04.27.2010

    I like this style of review. And you may well have convinced me to get the album.

  3. Gravatar

    ajharbison on 04.28.2010

    Noel: Thanks for stopping by!

    Idhrendur: Thanks–I kinda liked it too. I hope you enjoy the album!

    AJ Harbison

  4. Gravatar

    carebear2 on 05.10.2010

    Sandra’s voice is sweet and pure.
    The songs are very well done.
    So glad I made this purchase!

  5. Gravatar

    Emily on 05.30.2010

    I’m listening to “In Feast Or Fallow”. Love it!

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