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Sounds like … a slightly more rocking version of MercyMe as influenced by Coldplay, with uncanny similarities to Vertical Horizon and Paul Colman TrioAt a glance … similar to what's been heard before, Hold You High is not a groundbreaking modern worship album, but it's still an effective workTrack ListingHold You HighOnly to YouMiraculousBeautiful OneRevealThrone of GraceGod of WondersYour BelovedIt Is WellLord Let Your Glory FallJesus Washed
This is a band that refuses to slow down. Vocalist/guitarist/songwriter Chuck Dennie started By the Tree in 1997, and after signing with Fervent in 2000, he's released an album with an ever-changing lineup every year since 2001. Whether this is prolific artistry or shrewd efficiency depends on how much you've enjoyed By the Tree's music.
The latest is Hold You High, and Fervent is touting it as a "return to the band's foundation" of worship music. Apparently burned out from extensive touring, Dennie felt a need to bring more worship back into his life and his music. Strange, I wasn't aware that By the Tree had ever strayed from worship. The group started as a worship band, and every album has been worshipful to varying measure. Root (2003) was the band's "least worshipful" album, but it still had songs that glorified God. This reveals the industry-wide disparity in defining "worship music." The so-called return to worship smacks of leaping further onto the bandwagon, and I feared this album would be full of simplistic worship clichés and a slew of overdone cover songs.
Turns out that fear was only partially true. Half of Hold You High is comprised of cover songs, but only one of them feels pointless. By the Tree has recorded a faithful and tired rendition of "God of Wonders" because it's a favorite at their concerts. When has the song ever not been a favorite at anyone's concert or worship service? Is there no better justification for re-recording a song the same way? The album's first single is a cover of a Tim Hughes song, but thankfully it's not the overused "Here I Am to Worship." Instead, it's a fair version of the lesser known "Beautiful One"—nicely done, but a little too much like countless other driving rock worship songs these days.
Those are the weakest tracks on Hold You High. Produced by Tony Palacios (toby Mac, Audio Adrenaline), the album largely succeeds because it creates a beautiful worship ambience with songs that are less clichéd than Invade My Soul, more memorable than These Days, and similar in sound to Root. With a slightly mellower approach, By the Tree now sounds a lot like MercyMe mimicking Coldplay by adding more Brit pop/rock sensibilities.
Of the originals, "Miraculous" stands out as a delightfully arty worship song, well-written with a sophisticated melody and thoughtful lyrics about Christ's suffering: "Heaven opened like a floodgate/A single drop of blood made the universe turn upside down/Deeper than the nails were driven, is the more sin was forgiven/It's Jesus' death that keeps me living now." Also beautifully done is "Jesus Washed," a simple ballad that closes the album much the same way "Wait" did on Invade My Soul. "Only to You" has a typical sound reminiscent of Paul Baloche and Vineyard, but it remains an effectively written song of praise.
Surprisingly, the album's remaining covers are just as strong. They give a magnificent rendition of Matt Redman's "Lord Let Your Glory Fall" that is the album's most clearly Coldplay-influenced cut, but it's a good match in this case. Their version of "It Is Well" is one of the best I've heard, simply using swirling keyboards and soft percussion to capture the melancholy and faith the underlies the text and melody. "Throne of Grace," a lesser-known cover that doesn't stand out musically nonetheless has a great lyric explaining our relationship with our Savior: "It's your kindness that leads to repentance/It's your blood that brings forgiveness/It's your mercy that leads me here to your throne of grace." By the Tree even remakes "Reveal," their first hit off of Invade My Soul. By softening the arrangement and lowering the key, they've made it more conducive to corporate worship without too radically altering it—to me, that's an improvement.
Though Hold You High doesn't reinvent the modern worship wheel—we've heard similar sounds many times over the least five years—it's still handled well with new arrangements, substantial originals, and a strong overall sound. But then you'd expect that of a band fully immersed in worship for the last five years. Imagine what By the Tree might come up with if they actually took their time to make the next album.