- reviewed by Russ Breimeier Copyright Christianity Today International
- 2001 1 Jan
Hailing from Santa Cruz, California, Joy Williams began building an audience before her debut album was even close to being finished. You may have heard her on last year's Christmas compilation, A Christmas Reunion, on which she sang the standout track "2000 Decembers Ago." Or perhaps you heard the single "I Believe In You" from the Left Behind soundtrack. Now that her debut has released, you may wonder how she's going to distinguish herself from all the other female Christian artists who don't write their own music. The music industry is packed with pretty-voiced singers ranging from Rachael Lampa and Stacie Orrico to Natalie Grant and Jaci Velasquez, not to mention Point of Grace, half of Avalon, and a host of other similar-sounding artists. When you don't personalize your music by writing your own songs, how do you stand out among so many other similar voices? The easy answer is that you simply do this style of music better. Whether you're talking teen pop or inspirational pop (or both in this case), the three things that will attract the listener to the artist are the quality of the songs chosen for the album, the quality of the production with which those songs are recorded, and the quality of the voice that performs those songs. Fortunately for Joy, all three qualities shine on her debut.
First there are the songs, which are somewhat simple and not exactly the paragon of thoughtful songwriting … but they are nevertheless pretty good. The lyrics aren't syrupy sweet or immature; they clearly express the Christian life without making it sound trite or resorting to the same lyrics that everyone else uses. Admittedly, I cringed when I saw the opening song is called "It's All Good." I suspected the song would attempt to use the popular phrase to be cool. Instead, it's a clever play on words that serves as an excellent testimonial, sharing how Christians are able to live with joy and peace through all things: "I wouldn't try to tell you everything is perfect in my world … even when it seems that it's all bad, it's all good." Another example is the ballad "Better Than I," which expresses its message of total surrender of our lives to Christ better than most other similarly themed songs: "I've let go the need to know why, cause You know better than I." The album's closer, "Do They See Jesus?," is a tender piano ballad, appropriately matched to its soul-baring lyrics which ask if people are really seeing Christ reflected in our lives. I'm not saying these songs are brilliant or challenging, but they are indeed well-written and more introspective and inquisitive than your usual Christian pop. Though I think teens are looking for answers, I also think they appreciate knowing that most Christians don't always have it all figured out either.
Equally important is the fact that these songs sound good. Sure, the album has a fair share of power ballads and inspirational pop songs, but they're handled with more thoughtfulness than much of what's currently available in Christian pop. "I Believe In You" is your run-of-the-mill cheesy power ballad, but it's a very well-written cheesy power ballad, and it benefits from some smart production. It has the same sort of power and feel as R. Kelly's now-classic "I Believe I Can Fly." The aforementioned "Better Than I" is the same thing, a simple pop song that's made to sound a little more elegant and professional than you'd expect. Still, the best moments on the album are those where she avoids the Jaci Velasquez/Rachael Lampa sound and fully embraces the teen-pop sound. Incredibly, very few (if any) Christian artists have fully taken on that popular sound—even Stacie Orrico jumps around to Christina Aguilera's soulful teen pop sound and the occasional pop ballad. Joy captures the feel and spirit of it as well as any Christian artist I've heard, often reminding me of Jessica Simpson or Mandy Moore. The song "No Less" is especially reminiscent of Britney Spears, and it's a truly infectious and catchy song. Other songs such as "Up" and the current radio single, "Serious," have the same kind of sound. Fans of the teen-pop sound will not be disappointed thanks to the excellent production by Dan Muckala (Point of Grace, Mandy Moore) and Dennis Patton (Michael W. Smith, Bob Carlisle).
This just leaves the matter of Joy's voice, which is simply awesome. For someone so young, Joy demonstrates remarkable vocal range, character, and control—surely a gift from her mother, who has also sung professionally. Joy is able to go from aggressive and powerful to soft and tender. She can sing like Sarah McLachlan in one song, and then sound like Rachael Lampa in the next. How powerful is she? At GMA week's Provident Music showcase, Joy's microphone wasn't working. She merely stepped aside, compensated, and sang as well without a microphone. When she was finally handed a working one, she blew the roof off the place (kinda like the classic Maxell photo).
Is this debut album filled with original stuff? Absolutely not. If you're not into the pop artists mentioned above, you're probably not going to care for this. The point is, compared to music of the same genre, this is a well done album thanks to some fairly good songwriting, top-notch production, and of course, Joy Williams's incredible voice. Joy can undoubtedly expect a Dove nomination for best new artist next year, if not an additional nomination for best female vocal performance.