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Sounds like … generic Christian guitar pop similar to Rebecca St. James and Watermark, with splashes of Sixpence None the Richer and Kevin MaxAt a Glance … LaRue continues to grow and mature artistically, but they sound routine and have plenty of room for growth.
The last year and a half have been paved with a lot of ups and a few downs for brother-sister duo LaRue. On the plus side, Phillip and Natalie continue to enjoy growing success, with nearly 200,000 albums sold between their first two projects. Additionally, two of their videos, "Reason" and "Jaded," were added into rotation on The Disney Channel, expanding their audience into the mainstream market. The two also have spearheaded a fairly successful sexual abstinence campaign among teens, which was undoubtedly helped by their tour with Rebecca St. James and their True Love Waits rally in Texas this past February. Like anything in life, there also have been struggles for LaRue. Phillip experienced a rare severe reaction to the malaria drug Larium while on a missions trip, and the two have been asking themselves about their motivations for making music. Despite their success, one might surmise that LaRue is at some sort of artistic and spiritual crossroads, one that's challenged Phillip and Natalie to write a more mature and deeply spiritual album. The result is their third effort, Reaching, which draws its title from A. W. Tozer's Knowledge of the Holy, a book that explains that Christians can have only a limited understanding of our Creator, but we still can point others to the Light.
There's no question that LaRue has upped the maturity level of their sound on this album, which features the work of three acclaimed producers: Ken Mary (who's produced LaRue's previous albums), Monroe Jones (Third Day, Ginny Owens), and Matt Bronleewe (Rebecca St. James, Jars of Clay). Though working separately, all three manage to keep the album's sound consistent, but predictable. LaRue always has reminded me of a younger, more modern version of Watermark and Out of the Grey, but this time they also sound like one of several Christian artists who's been influenced profoundly by U2's Joshua Tree. Think about recent albums by Audio Adrenaline, Rebecca St. James, Chris Tomlin, and Kevin Max and you'll have a pretty good idea of the sound here. The Kevin Max comparison is especially appropriate because Phillip has never sounded more like him now that he's been matched to a more modern production — he's even got the Kmax warble down on "OK to Cry." Natalie, as always, is in strong voice reminiscent of Sarah McLachlan and Paula Cole.
Reaching also marks the first album on which LaRue records with their touring band. I'm not sure if this has directly improved their sound, since the musicianship on the albums has always been strong, but there are still some fine moments. The song "Unite" in particular has an atypical rhythm and an interesting backing vocal hook in the chorus. Both that and the title track sound like derivations of U2 songs such as "With or Without You," and it's a remarkably mature sound for LaRue. There's a dreamy pop quality to "Trinity" that's very reminiscent of Kevin Max with a romantic melody and a sound that's different from the usual Christian pop of the other tracks. Then there's the album's closer, "Angels and Peace," which is equally dramatic and hypnotic. It's an enchanting arty pop/rock sound that only features guitars, strings, and chimes for accompaniment. The rest of Reaching, however, sounds like the Christian pop/rock of artists such as Rebecca St. James and Audio Adrenaline — well performed, but not particularly unique.
As for the lyrical content, LaRue has tried for more thoughtful lyrics by attempting to add theology and poetry to their music; in addition to the title track, Tozer inspired the song "Trinity." Though this is indicated in the press materials, I frankly don't hear much of a difference between the quality of the lyrics on Reaching and those on Transparent and the self-titled debut. For example, Phillip and Natalie supposedly tackle the mystery of the "Trinity," but pretty much come up with a basic worship song that says we cannot describe or understand the wonder of "The Three in One" — a true statement, but they have nothing profound to offer beyond that. "Unite" treads familiar territory already covered by many artists (most recently Third Day's "Come Together") by expressing a need for Christians to cross denominational barriers. "Summertime," yet another song about waiting for true love, is thoughtful but ultimately less passionate and interesting than Rebecca's "Wait for Me" or LaRue's own "Someday" — "If God could make the stars in the sky / Then why can't he make a perfect 'you and I?'" Most of the songs on Reaching ("Tonight," "Everything," "Lift Up," the title track) deal with surrendering to God's will. Although passionate sounding, especially because of Natalie's vocals, these songs aren't nearly as poetic as similarly themed music by Sixpence None the Richer and Lifehouse.
It's hard to get too enthusiastic about Reaching, but there are still some encouraging signs. Though I don't hear any singles as strong as "Waiting Room" or "Someday," I think this is likely their best project yet. Phillip and Natalie are clearly gifted musicians and budding songwriters, so I don't think they should give up their artistic pursuits. LaRue has recorded three albums together, writing most all the songs themselves since starting in their mid-teens. After three years of music and radio play, it's easy to lose sight that Natalie is still only 18 and that Phillip recently turned 20. Both are excellent vocalists and Phillip continues to grow as a guitarist. I still can't help but wonder where these two will be ten years from now, if they can start this strongly at an early age. Perhaps on future albums, LaRue could try something more radical with their sound — nothing as extreme as changing genres, but they do need to break out of the generic pop/rock mold. They can write, but it might be wise to collaborate with a seasoned writer and producer, especially one who can produce the entire album with a singular artistic vision for the sibling duo. Phillip and Natalie might also consider singing separately more on their future albums together, or perhaps experiment with overdubbing to come up with more creative arrangements. They can only go so far with albums like Reaching, but LaRue still displays enough talent to indicate they're capable of something more.