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Sounds like … a collection of timeless worship favorites performed by the master guitarist in contemporary pop instrumental arrangementsAt a Glance … Hymnsongs is an enjoyable instrumental album that displays the diversity and virtuosity of Phil's guitar skills.
Hymnsongs marks Phil Keaggy's 35th album since his beginnings with Glass Harp back in 1970. Considering the variety of projects he's recorded over the years, including several instrumental albums in recent years, it's amazing to think Phil hasn't done a hymns album in that time – especially considering his love of classical music and church history. However, Phil wanted to avoid the usual quiet, acoustic reflections you've come to expect from other hymns projects, as well as from his own albums such as Beyond Nature and Acoustic Sketches. Instead, he wanted there to be more musical variety to the tracks, while still maintaining respect and reverence for the source material, which is why he co-produced Hymnsongs with Ric Hordinski, the guitarist from Over the Rhine.
The result is a somewhat more modern sounding album than you might expect, like an instrumental Sixpence None the Richer or Over the Rhine with Phil Keaggy on lead guitar (or perhaps Jeff Beck or Pat Metheney ) playing over top. That description especially applies to Phil's treatment of "Abide with Me," which instrumentally bears resemblance to the rhythm guitars of Sixpence and an intentionally Metheney-like guitar solo by Phil. There's evidenced by his concerts and the vocal version found at the also the soulful, Jimi Hendrix inspired arrangement of "Nothing but the Blood," a regular in Phil's repertoire as end of Phil's 1993 Crimson and Blue album. The rocking rendition of "Simple Gifts" is a strong contrast to the hymn's Shaker origins, sounding more like something Trans-Siberian Orchestra would create.
Yet despite interesting arrangements such as these, much of Hymnsongs does indeed resort to the sparse acoustic arrangements of many of Phil's other instrumental albums … which I'm sure suits many of his fans just fine. There's a fairly simplistic approach to favorites such as "Fairest Lord Jesus" and "Be Still My Soul." Phil's technique on "O Sacred Head, Now Wounded" is very 16th century Renaissance, and he switches to classical stylings on Bach's brief "Chorale #198." The album's handful of new pieces feature similar sparse arrangements. Irish composer Keith Getty wrote "This Fragile Vessel" and "O for a Closer Walk with Thee," the latter featuring the well-known lyrics by William Cowper. Phil plays the first like a medieval troubadour, while the latter has a charming folk personality present in both the hymn and the arrangement. Phil's brief contributions include the extremely short "Prelude" at the beginning of the album and "Our Daily Bread," written as variations on "The Lord's Prayer" and written to honor Todd Beamer and the other victims of 9/11.
Some of Hymnsongs' best moments are the lesser-known songs – lesser known in the U.S. at least. The English Christmas hymn "In the Bleak Midwinter" is a beautiful and poetic anthem, and Phil's version of it with the band is delightful. "Jerusalem" is a well-known hymn in Great Britain, best known as the adopted anthem of the National Federation of Women's Institutes in the UK; others may recognize it from the 1981 Academy Award winning film, Chariots of Fire. Regardless, it's a terrific melody. The album closes with "The Day Thou Gavest, Lord, Has Ended," widely considered Scotland's most beloved hymn; Phil's arrangement builds nicely from solo guitar to the tranquil sound of the full trio.
If you were disappointed with last year's In the Quiet Hours and Cinemascapes, don't despair. Hymnsongs is certainly not a groundbreaking recording, but it's very accessible. I can't say this about every album, but Hymnsongs' liner notes are especially fascinating. In the booklet, you'll find historical explanations and spiritual context for each of the hymns, as well as Phil's short personal anecdotes about the inclusion of the hymn and the creation of the arrangement. I was especially surprised to learn that like Paul McCartney, Phil Keaggy doesn't read music! Hymnsongs is an enjoyable survey of the great hymns of faith, perfect for working or meditating to because of Phil Keaggy's proficient and soothing guitar solos.