I’ll admit it. Before even clicking play on Google Music, I was inclined to not like this album. I’m not a big fan of Vertical Church, James MacDonald, and I have a staunch belief that it’s impossible to compartmentalize your theology. For example, if you believe God is desperate for people to accept Him, when you evangelize, you’ll do so in a way to try to convince people to accept Him as opposed to telling people about their need to be saved.
So then, considering the problems we’ve seen from James MacDonald and his church in the past few years. (see here (scroll down), here, here, and here), it’s reasonable to believe that a band that sits comfortably under his pulpit may exhibit some similar tendencies to compromise. It’s also reasonable that such compromise is likely to spread to many areas. Perhaps even to the area of how we worship. Plus, they not only sit under MacDonald’s pulpit, but are directly associated with the church, in furtherance of its ministry. Theology and practice are important questions for a worship band to face particularly since worship bands not only worship, but lead others in doing so. Our theology drives our practice; and our practice is a model that is followed when we teach (intentionally or unintentionally).
Also, I think it’s reasonable to have reservations when we choose worship music. Obviously, perfection can’t be our standard; but we also should have less of a tolerance for errors and so forth when it comes to worship music. Why? Because the way in which we worship God, matters; and the music we use to express our worship is necessarily linked to that worship. We wouldn’t tolerate swearing (for example) during a prayer; we shouldn’t tolerate silliness (for example) during corporate worship.
All of that said, the band, and the people in it, are NOT James MacDonald. While I believe it wise to listen to their music with the knowledge of their background in mind, we should take the music and the lyrics at face value.
Church Songs is the third full Length Album from this rather large band and debuted in 2015 after releasing an EP the previous year. Meredith Andrews is probably the best known individual artist among Vertical’s conglomerate. She’s released a few solo albums, tours under her own name, and has even won a few Dove awards. She’s as much a part of the Christian Music Industry™ as anyone. Meredith has her own Wikipedia page, Vertical Church Band does not… which ought to tell you something about the relative difference between the two.
In my limited experience with Meredith Andrews and Vertical Church Band, I found their persona in music to be different than their persona outside of it. SOME of their music demonstrates a reverence for God and a certain clarity about the Gospel, or at least parts of it. The rest of their music is either rather theologically vapid or problematic, much like what I know of their personas outside of their stage performances. Is it just an act? Are they another cog in the Christian Music Industry™ machine that writes songs like the Secular Music Industry™ writes them; formulaic, full of buzzwords, familiar tunes, and non-specific themes/feelings?
How Vertical Church Band answered these questions was fresh on my mind as I dove into their latest release.
Track by Track
All the Earth: A catchy upbeat opener for the album. The audience clapping makes it clear from the onset that this is a live album, which I think is important for them. One thing is immediately evident for me… this is my musical style. When I was in my church’s worship band (a ministry I tremendously enjoyed), I most relished playing songs in this musical style. Unafraid of drums, featured guitar, but not so emphasized as to draw attention away from the lyrics. The lyrics of this song are a good start to the album. They’re Christ-centered, exalting of Jesus, and thoughtful. The chorus does repeat but in a way that choruses should. The repeats don’t become “too much”. Truly it felt like a worship song -focused on Jesus with a high view of Him, music that matched the emotions instead of forcing them, and not in the least bit distracting to the point of worship. Good tune!
Do What You Want To: Meredith Andrews makes her lead-singing debut for the album on this song. They have a talented drummer, I’ll give them that. I admire a guy who isn’t afraid of fills and rolls, but doesn’t over use them as well as being able to keep the beat without resorting to sounding boring and predictable. There’s an art to it. The synth lead was an interesting choice. I’m of the opinion that synth should offer fill and depth to a song, not carry it along. It’s not terrible though. Also brought to light in this song is two themes that tend to fill the album 1) They’re repetitive and 2) They’re formulaic. This song is ABC rock (Verse, Chorus, Bridge) through and through which means it’s a formula with repeats built in. They repeat their first verse and then throughout the song sing the chorus repeatedly. I was a little tired of it after 3 minutes. A part of the problem with such formulas is that it lends itself to be crafted around the musicians, so instead of challenging themselves musically, they get comfortable and do what they like. This is a good example of this. Andrews riffs in the middle of the bridge singing random phrases only tangentially related to the song itself. How many times have you heard her do that? Do you really like it or do you just put up with it? Why do worship bands do this? Lyrically, we see the first theological problems creep in with
the opening line “It’s Your high we’re searching for…” (The line is actually “It’s your HEART we’re searching for”. I regret the error.) and “Let Your glory fill this place”. The first line is simply terrible and they ought to never sing it again. The second is Charismatic buzz words, which lead to the chorus of “We surrender all to You, do what You want to, do what You want to!”. Sure, I can sing that, but do I mean what they mean? I’m not really sure. Could’ve done without the bridge too.
Lamb of God: A change of pace to start off with. Piano driven for the quiet first verse, which was nice and sets up the thundering chorus. Excellent use of the bass guitar throughout this song too. Vertical Church Band really knows how to build tension throughout a song. The first chorus builds really well for the second chorus and later bridge where they unleash everything they have. That matches the lyrics nicely and is just what worship songs ought to do… complement the words. Speaking of lyrics, this is good song writing even if it feels like it needs another verse and maybe more depth on the bridge. “The Lamb of God, in my place! Your blood poured, my sin erased! It was my death You died, I am raised to life, hallelujah the Lamb who died!” Wow. Great stuff.
Spirit of the Living God: Meredith is back. She… AGAIN… repeats the first verse. It’s like a law when she’s singing. Good voice though, rich in tone, easy on the ears. The lady has a gift. The backup vocals also were a nice touch. A simple piano lead, and a synth offering some fill, with occasional drum fills assisted by the bass. Musically, it was well done. It also applied their predictable song structure formula to offer a bit of a different take on what a chorus should be. The bridge is the same ole same ole, though. Quiet contemplative first version with a driving, bold response, and (say it with me) repetitive. The lyrics again hint at the charismatic theology which I expected with a song about the Holy Spirit. They talk about the Spirit moving, filling the room, and (atrociously) wanting to hear the Spirit’s voice. Read the Bible, guys, and write a different song.
Psalm 96: The song opens with a spirited reading of Psalm 96 set against the background of a synth offering a “pad” effect. Whoever is reading is reading from the RSV I think. Meh, could’ve done better, could’ve done worse. The crowd bursting into applause throughout is something I could have done without, but crowds are crowds, what’cha gonna do? I wish he wouldn’t have shouted some of the lines, though. You don’t need to spice up the Bible. Just read the thing. They’re the words of life after all, they don’t need your help. They sing a song in response, which was very simple, and lyrically sound. They added a nice acoustic guitar for the song and all in all I thought it was a good response to the Psalm.
It’s Who You Are: Opening with an acoustic fingerpicked lead, this subdued song sets the right tone to focus on Christ and sing about His greatness. Of course the song characteristically builds and teases the build throughout. They add drums, bass, and electric guitar but keep their basic harmonies intact which, musically, drive the song more than a particular instrument. The lyrics are lather, rinse, repeat. What I did like is how the chorus is more of a classical chorus that answers the call of the lyrics. They declare some truths about Christ in the verse, and answer them in the Chorus. No bridge too. Nice song.
If I Have You: A different female vocalist set against electric guitar and bass guitar. Of course she has to “get in the mood” to start things off by improvising a little something before the song begins and adding her “comments” throughout. Honestly, worship bands, stop doing that. The song really doesn’t have much depth musically. If I told you to think of the song worship teams play when they want to get their congregation in a quiet mood to “get into the spirit”, trust me, this is the song you’re thinking of. Lyrics are nice enough, nothing special.
Shout it Out: (I can almost hear Todd Friel making fun of this song. “Yeah, let’s get punchy for Jesus!” “Feel the beat!”, LOL, I miss the old Todd Friel days) This is probably the worst song of the album. It’s too fast, musically uncreative, and feels rather disjointed. Way too much playing around among the instruments to come together in any sort of coherence. The lyrics are as blase and can be. ‘Everybody dance, shout, and take Scripture out of context because we’re free and Jesus kinda stuff!’ Yeah! Hated it. Moving on.
Come Ye Sinners: I was prepared to say this was the best song they wrote for this album, but I had a nagging feeling it wasn’t theirs. And sure enough, they’re covering this hymn (although they change the refrain). But, you know what, GOOD FOR THEM. I’m actually thrilled to hear a band like this cover a hymn and do a fine job of it too. Let’s not forget the old hymns, they’re great music. Led by a nice acoustic guitar riff, with drums that don’t overwhelm, this simple hymn turns into a full band song. Vertical Church Band builds on their strengths here and eschews their weaknesses. They’re talented musicians and so-so songwriters. If they released an album where they did nothing but cover old hymns, I bet it would be one of my favorite albums. I haven’t said much about their male lead vocalist and I should because that guy just owns this song. Such a good job. Could do without the improvised comments, but his voice soars and his inflections and emphasis’ were near perfect. Good stuff here.
None Like You: The longest song on the album. It is darn catchy and is destined to be one of those earworms you just can’t shake. It’s the first song we hear interplay between male and female vocals and it works for them. Mostly the music is straightforward. A lead electric guitar is a little interesting, but for the most part it feels like the instruments are just sort of in the background and not offering much. It felt like they left a little on the table in that area, like they could have made a few tweaks in arrangement and stood out. But, sometimes less is more too. I can’t complain about it too much. I like the lyrics too. The verse opens with the majesty of God, and mimics God’s answer to Job (“Where were you when I laid the foundations of the Earth?”). Yet, the songwriting doesn’t become bombastic either and stays grounded with a certain simplicity that is both appropriate and charming. It gives the feeling that the song was important to whoever wrote it. The chorus is something that any church can sing and feel good about which puts this song near the top of the list for this album. Even the bridge, though repetitive, is a sublime refrain and complements the chorus with which it echos back and forth. The one drawback is that the song is about a minute and a half too long. Their characteristic improvisation takes over and it almost ruins the song. At one point some dude (sounds like the same voice from Psalm 96) is singing “Your love is holy, Love.” or “Your love is wholly love.” I can’t tell (and that’s a big problem if you stop and think about it). If it’s the first… ick! If it’s the second… why? These guys, like most of the Christian Music Industry™, don’t know when to end a song.
Restore My Soul: Meredith Andrews makes another appearance. Just her and a piano, and a little congregational singing for the verse. They don’t add much for the chorus; mostly some underlying bass, a little drums, and accents on electric guitar which continue throughout the rest of the song. The focus is on Andrews’ lead. She’s honestly never better than in songs like this, a vocalist made to be a soloist. Impressive range in this song from her too. I think this song is a cover of a hymn. It doesn’t feel like their style for some reason. A Google search and a browse through my hymnal turned up empty so I’ll grant them the songwriting credit. If that’s the case, they do a nice job with it. I expected a song called “Restore My Soul” from a semi-charismatic band to be filled with nonsense about rushing rivers of life washing over us and blah blah blah. None of that here, and it was a welcome relief. Also, credit to them for breaking out of their own box and writing a song that, lyrically, sounds different from the rest and credit for not taking the ripe opportunity to add senseless improv at the end.
Bound for Glory: A very Mumford and Sons sound for this one. I liked it, actually, partially because it was different and partially because it had a certain draw to it. You find yourself wanting to clap along and sing, which is a nice feeling when you’re singing the right stuff. Their guitarist demonstrates some talent here, but the electric guitar is mildly disappointing. The one musician that really impressed me throughout this album was their drummer, who as far as I can tell possesses immense talent. He’s not Neal Peart overwhelming you with his skill, but he complements the rest of the music, keeps a steady beat, and shows enough flair to be noticed and liked. He shines here. The lyrics are pretty good. A happy song about being “bound for glory” with a good perspective about our time on earth. Not earth shattering, but not vapid either. Simple, but that’s not bad. Sometimes when it comes to lyrics, simple is good. I could see myself teaching this song to my kids and singing it when I feel overwhelmed. When the song is that ingrained in your mind already, it’s a good song. A spectacular way to end the album.
While there’s some downright lamentable stuff on the album, I don’t think we should toss out the baby with the bathwater. I’d feel completely comfortable being in a church that played some of the better songs on this album during worship, and I wouldn’t feel funny about another Christian thinking these guys are the bee’s knees. Yet, I don’t think they’re the bee’s knees. From the needless improvisation to the over used formula to the occasional doleful theology, I don’t think this album will end up on my year end “Best of 2015” list. It was a 2 star review initially, but on the whole, the objectionable content isn’t overwhelming, just enough to be noticed. Still, it will stay in my music collection and I will want to hear it again in the future. I’d buy it, but I wouldn’t necessarily recommend others do the same.