- reviewed by Russ Breimeier Copyright Christianity Today International
- 2001 1 Jan
What is it about Selah that's so special? On paper, it would seem this inspirational band would be unoriginal and boring. Their debut album was very simple—mostly piano and vocals—and focused largely on reinterpreting classic hymns. Not exactly original stuff. But oh, what reinterpretations! Siblings Todd and Nicol Smith joined their vocal talents with that of pianist Allan Hall, and their 1999 debut Be Still My Soul went on to earn the 2000 Dove Award for inspirational album of the year. Yes, the arrangements were simple, but they were also very smart and they featured some of the most passionate singing in all of Christian music. At times, the vocal blend of these three is as stunning as classic Christian vocal groups 2nd Chapter of Acts and First Call.
Press On, Selah's follow-up album, is like a blockbuster movie sequel in many ways—more of the same with a bigger and flashier budget. This time it's not just vocals and piano. While the first album did feature the occasional light strings, the arrangements are bigger this time. The vocal arrangements are more intricate, layering vocals upon vocals, sometimes using background vocalists outside the group but just as often electing to overdub their own voices. The biggest change, which may turn off some fans, is the use of a full rock band on some tracks. Yet despite the additional instruments and musicians, the feel of Press On is not all that different from the first album. It's still worshipful and intimate, creative yet familiar. This album feels more diversified in repertoire than Selah's first effort, featuring classic hymns as well as some inspirational classics … and even a Beatles tune.
The opening cut, "Draw Me Lord," captures well what Selah is capable of. It's an incredibly simple worship song whose lyrical content is almost entirely comprised of the title. In the hands of a lesser artist, this could be a remarkably boring track, but Selah knows how to take simplicity and make it powerful and effective. They essentially take a three-word praise song, and turn it into art with gradually swelling orchestration and smart vocal arrangements. It serves as a nice bookend to the album, almost like an invocation and benediction to worship.
As for the rest of the album, the sound varies greatly from track to track. The song that really blew me away was Todd's a cappella rendition of "Were You There." Legendary vocalist Russ Taff makes a guest appearance on it, but his contribution is almost extraneous next to Todd's vocals. He offers one of the best vocal solos I've ever heard and also sings all the background vocals. The result sounds remarkably like vocal group Glad. Another highlight is "Hold On," an Evie Tornquist classic with an incredible vocal opening that evolves into the type of Gospel blues that Ashley Cleveland is known for these days (which is appropriate since Nicol sounds so much like Ashley). It's encouraging and powerful, but not the Selah you're used to hearing (this time featuring drums, bass guitar, and a choir of background singers). It almost feels like something that should have been on Nicol's solo album.
Todd and Nicol continue to display their passion for African music on Press On (they grew up in Africa, the children of missionaries). Their rendition of "How Great Thou Art" is faithful to the style of their first album, and they sing the second verse in Kituba, the African dialect Todd and Nicol learned while living in the Congo. They also perform "Yesu Azali Awa" ("Jesus Is Here With Us"), which is a Congolese hymn and a popular praise chorus in Africa. The percussion, bass, and background vocalists lend it the same feel as something from Paul Simon's Graceland album—which means it sounds great, but again it might not be what fans of the first album were expecting. Allan even steps up to the lead microphone with "In My Life," and though he's not as powerful as Todd and Nicol, he has a pleasant voice reminiscent of Wes King or Vince Gill. Still, the inclusion of this Beatles classic feels a little out of place, and only seems justified when Allan segues into "If We Never Meet Again," which serves as a Christian response to the nostalgic melancholy of John Lennon's classic.
I could go on to discuss each and every track, from the bluesy "Amazing Grace" and the beautiful cover of "There Is a Fountain" to the powerful "Wonderful, Merciful Savior" and the inspiring title track. There is much variety on Press On, and that will prove to be the subject of most debate. I'll bet many fans of the first album will be disappointed that Selah went for such a slick, produced sound for this album and will long for the simpler sound of their debut (which was part of the group's charm). On the other hand, I think most of Selah's fans will still embrace this work—and because they so deftly handle the diversity of musical styles here, they will likely attract a larger following. This easily could have been more of the same from the first album, or if it were any other artist it could have been simply some pretty voices singing inspirational songs. Selah's two major strengths are their vocal prowess and their ability to present something that is both familiar and different. Many inspirational artists can tackle the familiarity part, but few can do it with creativity and still be inspiring. Selah practically defines the word "inspirational" with Press On.