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Sounds like … catchy and slickly produced Christian pop/rock reminiscent of Michael W. Smith and Steven Curtis Chapman, with hints of Billy Joel and Phil CollinsAt a Glance … though it's not all that different from his first album, Song Cinema is filled with smartly written pop songs and superb production from Monroe Jones, proving Mark Schultz to be one of Christian music's brightest rising stars.
It's only been a year and a half since Mark Schultz appeared on the Christian music scene with his self-titled debut, and the wild ride has never stopped for him since then. The debut sold in excess of 200,000 copies (very good for Christian music) and spawned four hit singles (three of which hit #1 on the charts). Mark has also been touring almost non-stop since the album's release - in fact, he's been headlining those tours, which is almost unheard of for an artist with just one album. This winter, Mark will be playing Joseph in the touring Christmas musical, Child of the Promise. On top of that, Mark has also toured Europe and participated in a summer missions trip to South Africa, and he continues to keep tabs on the church youth group he works with. And, oh yes, somewhere in the middle of all this, Mark has found the time to record his second CD, entitled Song Cinema.
No doubt the title comes from the storytelling so characteristic of the songs on his first album. Interestingly enough, there's considerably less storytelling on this follow-up, though many of the songs sound similar to his previous album — perhaps a little too similar in many cases. Mark justifiably earned comparisons to Michael W. Smith and Steven Curtis Chapman on his first album. His sound hasn't changed all that much for Song Cinema, but I think it's clear what Mark's signature sound is now after two albums. The album's opener, "When the Mountains Fall," is a call for us to make a bold leap of faith for Christ. It has the same loud Christian pop sound as Mark's previous hit, "I Am the Way," or "When You Give." The new songs "I Have Been There" and "Faith, Hope and Love" also have the same sound. Mark is equally known for his tearjerker ballads, especially the poignant "He's My Son" as well as "Remember Me," a song he wrote for graduating high school seniors in his youth group. Song Cinema also has a beautiful tearjerker with "The Time of My Life," written for a friend's wedding. Mark ups the ante with two high school graduation songs - the aforementioned "Faith, Hope and Love" and "Think of Me," a duet with Rachael Lampa
There are a few tracks that do stand apart from Mark's typical sound. "The Holy One" is fine storytelling from the perspective of one of Jesus' friends or disciples, and it is perhaps Mark's most beautiful and sophisticated melody to date, though the duet with Chris Rice almost feels unnecessary, as if it were done for the sake of simply doing yet another duet. The toe-tapping piano-pounder "Back to You" sounds like a cross between Chicago's "Saturday In the Park" and Billy Joel's "Allentown" - it's a different pop rock sound for Mark. There's also a faithful but modernized cover of the classic Mr. Mister hit song "Kyrie," which is perfectly suited for Mark's style and vocal range - I wonder if any other artist could incorporate it into his repertoire as well as Mark. The standout track that breaks away from Mark's usual sound is "We Are Calling You," a rhythmic African drone that recalls Rich Mullins' "I See You" or something Phil Collins or Peter Gabriel might perform. Featuring Todd and Nicol Smith of Selah on vocals, it has a terrific sound, but it feels more like an introduction rather than an album closer. Perhaps he'll begin his concerts with it in the future.
I really enjoyed Song Cinema, but I can't avoid the criticism that there's not much artistic growth between this and Mark's debut, other than the willingness to experiment with his sound on "We Are Calling You." That song, among several others, was borne out of previous experiences with friends and the youth group with which Mark works. It almost feels as though Mark is reaching into his bag of songs to get a second album out, as opposed to writing something completely new to move forward with his career. Perhaps he was just too busy to sit down, take some time off, and do some serious songwriting. There's certainly little reason for him to alter the formula that made his first album such a success, but a third album like the first two will almost certainly come across as stale.
Nevertheless, Song Cinema is one of the better Christian pop albums available these days. I'm a sucker for well-crafted pop music, and Mark Schultz clearly has a knack for catchy melodies and song lyrics that are simple yet very heartfelt and real. Equally important to the songwriting is the first-rate production by Monroe Jones (Chris Rice, Shaun Groves), a producer who seems to have the Midas touch with every artist with whom he works. There may be less artistic growth on this album than I'd like to see, but Mark Schultz is unquestionably one of Christian music's brightest rising stars, emerging as a solid songwriter and popmeister in his own right.