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Christian Music - Reviews, News, Interviews

Fernando Ortega

  • reviewed by Russ Breimeier Copyright Christianity Today International
  • 2004 1 Aug
  • COMMENTS
Fernando Ortega
Sounds like … Ortega has subtly shifted his soft AC pop sound toward a mellow alt-folk approach reminiscent of Bebo Norman, James Taylor, Emmylou Harris, Rich Mullins, and Daniel LanoisAt a glance … Ortega stretches himself sonically and lyrically with this sometimes melancholic, sometimes inspiring record, and it pays off for him big timeTrack ListingCalifornia TownDragonflyWhen the Coyote ComesSleepless NightShameNoonday DevilMildred Madalyn JohnsonAll That TimeRock of AgesImmortal, InvisibleTake Heart, My FriendMore Love to Thee

It's typical for a new artist to debut with a self-titled album, but a bit unusual when established artists release an eponymous project well into their careers—like The Beatles, Genesis, and Bob Dylan. Such a move often represents an artist's attempt to reintroduce and reinvent, either to establish a new creative path or to connect with more personalized songwriting. That certainly seems to be the case with Fernando Ortega, who, after 15 years and 11 previous albums, now releases a self-titled project—his first for Curb Records.

Ortega is apparently inspired by the creative freedom he's enjoying on a different label. Though his previous albums have sold fairly well, earning acclaim from fans and critics, they seemed to follow a set pattern of hymn covers, gentle inspirational ballads, and soft upbeat pop on hits like "Light of Heaven" and "This Good Day." Great stuff, but in a way it's left Ortega spinning his artistic wheels—though he has continued to improve, as heard on 2001's excellent Storm. Collaborating yet again with longtime writing partners Elaine Rubenstein and producer John Schreiner, Ortega seems even less restricted this time, coloring outside the lines and stretching himself creatively with impressive results.

Most obvious is the new direction of the sound, which takes Ortega's music in more of an alt folk/pop direction that builds on the inspirational AC typified on his previous albums. It's punctuated by a terrific band that includes bass legend Leland Sklar (James Taylor, Phil Collins); percussionist Steve Hodges and bassist Larry Taylor (Tom Waits); fiddle and dobro by bluegrass musicians Gabe and Michael Witcher (Willie Nelson, Nickel Creek); and up-and-coming guitarist Rich Nibbe. Listen especially for the edge in the folk reggae of "Dragonfly," which sounds more like something you'd hear from Los Lobos than one of Christian music's most beloved inspirational artists. "When the Coyote Comes" embraces more of a folk/country rockabilly blues shuffle, and "Noonday Devil" takes on a straightforward Southern roots rock sound. This is certainly a shift from Ortega's past work and the sort of progressive AC that readers of Paste magazine will take a shine to.

Ortega additionally takes a more personalized and introspective approach to the songwriting, appropriately intertwining everyday life with expressions of faith. The charming and picturesque "California Town" is about nothing more than enjoying a quiet night on the town with his wife. "Mildred Madalyn Johnson" pays sweet tribute to an elderly friend and her faith so evocatively that you can almost picture her in your mind. Ortega pulls at the heartstrings even more with "All That Time," about a family gathered around a father's deathbed and sadly reflecting on his life with regret of things left unsaid.

The aforementioned "Coyote" may seem deceptively frivolous, but there's a spiritual allegory to be found in imagining Ortega's two housecats trapped outside while in peril from a predator. Likewise, "Dragonfly" simply contrasts the insect's worry-free lifestyle with the stress found in ours. "Noonday Devil" expresses spiritual dryness and a longing to feel God's presence in a way reminiscent of country music and the Psalms.

But fans needn't worry about Ortega abandoning his winning approach. This album includes three hymns, including a sparse interpretation of "Rock of Ages." The melody has been altered for "Immortal, Invisible," matching the words with an ethereal treatment reminiscent of Daniel Lanois or Ortega's own "Our Great God." Ortega closes the album prayerfully singing at the piano for "More Love to Thee," which Schreiner sang at his wedding years ago. There are also the requisite inspirational ballads like the melancholic "Shame" and the Rich Mullins styled "Take Heart My Friend." Many will relate to the restless worries and anxiety expressed in the album's first radio single, "Sleepless Night," which finds Ortega praying to Jesus for peace: "Hear my anxious prayer, the beating of my heart/The pulse and the measure of my unbelief/Speak your words to me before I come apart/Help me believe in what I cannot see."

Ortega has always done a beautiful job of balancing artistry and faith in his music, but he mixes the two more deftly here. With the aid of Schreiner and Rubenstein, he's emerging more and more as a songwriter willing to experiment with sounds and styles. If this is the new Fernando Ortega, I can hardly wait for him to truly let his imagination run wild with albums to come.


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