Sounds like … a handful of the best-loved songs from the pop
songstress, performed in an intimate concert settingAt a Glance … neither an essential nor breathtaking album, the
all too brief Live at the Door is still a welcome addition to any
fan's Nichole Nordeman collection
I for one can't say I envy the position Nichole Nordeman now finds herself in. Sure, the pop songstress has rapidly amassed a strong following with three albums in five years. Fans adore her, and critics have been consistently impressed with her work, especially her most recent effort, Woven & Spun. Though not all of us consider it her best album, enough people did to crown it Christian music's runaway success of 2002, incredibly generating Nichole six more Dove Awards in 2003.
Where does Nichole go from here? Can she possibly meet the expectations that come from such unprecedented success? She'll have plenty of time to figure that out, though that's not to say she'll be idle in the months ahead. Still exploring life as a
newlywed, soon Nichole will also be exploring motherhood with the
arrival of her first child. One probably shouldn't expect Nichole
to resurface until 2005, though time off and childbirth both seem
to have a way of stirring creativity and song ideas.
In the meantime, Nichole's fans will have to make do with Live at the Door, a concert disc that many will readily dismiss as an EP with only eight songs. It could be argued, however, that at 37 minutes in length it offers more music than some other full-length discs today. Live at the Door naturally draws comparisons to Ginny Owens's 2002 Blueprint EP: both are of similar length, and both show two intelligent female songwriters translating their heavily produced repertoire into the softer acoustic sounds of their live show. The difference is that Ginny dramatically altered her songs (with the aid of producer Margaret Becker) into more mature and jazzy arrangements for a short album recorded live in the studio. Nichole's disc, on the other hand, is far less a departure and is indeed a live concert recording pulled together from two back-to-back shows in her new hometown of Dallas, Texas.
Fortunately, this is not one of those live albums with songs that sound just like the original versions, enhanced only by the sounds of a live audience. For years, most people were only able to see Nichole in concert performing solo at a digital piano as
the opening act. It's a treat to hear her perform on Live at the
Door with a real acoustic piano and a talented backing band
comprised of acoustic guitar, upright bass, drums, and some
organic keyboard sounds (accordion, Wurlitzer, pump organ). Drum
loops and soft synthesizer pads are used sparingly. The result is
something different enough in instrumentation (not arrangement)
from her previous albums to justify its release.
Half of the disc's songs come from Woven & Spun, and, thankfully, they're among that album's best tracks. This disc wouldn't have been made were it not for the award-winning smash hit "Holy," which sounds softer here with the gentle drum loop, accordion, and acoustic guitar replacing the original's big production. Some considered the extremely gentle and moving ballad "I Am" to be the most impressive track on Woven & Spun. Expressing God's unfailing presence through all of life's stages, it loses some of its power here without the string arrangement, primarily performed by Nichole solo at the piano. The moving and meaningful mid-tempo pop of "Legacy" is also featured, as is the humble ballad "My Offering," inspired in part by the hymn "All Creatures of Our God and King." Kudos to the recording team for beautifully capturing the audience participation during the "Alleluias" at the end.
Surprisingly, there's only one song represented from Nichole's equally highly acclaimed This Mystery. "Fool for You" has been transformed into a more folksy and jazzy sounding song than the programmed pop production of the original. Considering how dark some people have come to regard Nichole's first album, Wide-Eyed, it's just as surprising that there are two songs from it on this disc. Her hit "To Know You" is performed as rich piano pop, featuring accordion and acoustic guitar on some of the melodic hooks. Then there's "Is It Any Wonder," Nichole's bluesy and jazzy meditation
on vanity and materialism, which to me sounds so much more artsy
and sophisticated than her newer material (similar to Cindy
Perhaps the one real treat on Live at the Door is Nichole's cover of Cyndi Lauper's twenty-year-old classic ballad, "Time After Time." Unlike the insipid cover of Peter Gabriel's "In Your Eyes" featured on Woven & Spun, this song is perfect for Nichole's voice and style. Because it's such a simple love song, this is a far less ambitious cover for Nichole, and that's why it works so well, rendering the 80s sound of the original with a new and timeless acoustic pop feel.
But just when you're fully settled into the concert experience, Live at the Door ends. It's too short to be enjoyed as a full concert experience and too long to be regarded as a frivolous handful of live tracks. It also doesn't really showcase Nichole's effectiveness as a live performer because the arrangements are so close to those of the original, and the improvisational skills of the musicians are kept subtle and minimal. Live at the Door is also a very "cold" live recording, with not one sentence of
banter between Nichole and the audience. One could almost view it
as a premature "live greatest hits" if it had included key songs
like "This Mystery," "Every Season," and "Wide-Eyed."
Based on the skimpy packaging and the fast timing (recorded just two months ago), Live at the Door seems to have been assembled hastily to create something to tide fans over as Nichole takes some well-deserved time off. That's a rather tall order for such an insubstantial morsel. Though it could have been a lot better, Live at the Door is not without its charm as it offers highlights of today's most popular Christian songwriter in concert.