Sounds like … solidly performed traditional and contemporary gospel that occasionally blends some rhythm-and-blues, rock, and funk into the mixAt a Glance … though Excelsior performs the songs with much strength and spirit, they abandon the creative genre-blending of their award-winning debut in favor of a more traditional and less innovative gospel sound.
Were you paying attention when a new gospel choir called Excelsior released their 2001 debut, entitled God @ Work? Apparently it impressed quite a few people since it earned a Stellar Award (the gospel Grammys) for Best New Choir. Led by director Bobby Champion, the Minnesota choir delivered an exciting blend of gospel, rock, pop, funk, R&B, and Latin. Such versatility grabbed the attention of many music industry insiders, including fellow Minneapolis native Prince, who featured Excelsior in his 1999 pay-per-view special. Behind every great gospel choir is a great songwriter, and for Excelsior that man is F. Darnell Davis. Much like the way Kirk Franklin and Fred Hammond work with their respective choirs, Davis wrote most of the music on God @ Work and programmed a majority of the music through his studio. Less than a year after their debut release, Excelsior offers their sophomore effort, Soul Interpretations.
For their new album, Excelsior wanted to be fresh and diverse yet still embrace a more traditional gospel sound. I'm not sure it's possible to have it both ways, and it sounds as though Excelsior chose the latter. Darnell even admits that the group "started trying different styles out … but started to lose the basic elements of what gospel music is." As such, Excelsior embraces a more traditional gospel sound on Soul Interpretations, and ends up losing that eclectic spark that made them so interesting in the first place. Songs such as "I Am Grateful," "Thank You," and the lead single, "It's My Time," all sound pretty typical for gospel music. A song about encouragement and hope, "It's My Time" is catchy but very reminiscent of numerous similarly themed gospel songs that have appeared since the September 2001 terrorist attacks. With so many gospel choir recordings available today, Excelsior truly stood out as something different on their debut. On Soul Interpretations, they blend in with the majority.
But even if their follow-up lacks the innovation of their debut, it doesn't diminish the overall enjoyment of this exciting gospel project. The choir sings with great spirit and confidence, and the quality of the vocals has improved since God @ Work. And though the genre-hopping is toned down somewhat, there's still a little bit of variety in the music. There's a slight Latin feel to "I'll Trust You," though it's not nearly as pronounced as the first album's "Lift Him Higher." The beautiful pop gospel ballad "None Like You" also stands out as a powerful testimony of God's love for us. There's more of an urban/modern-gospel feel on tracks such as "Oh What a Day" and "All of My Heart," which also recalls classic Stevie Wonder. These songs all are topped by the closer, "Brand New Day," which fuses heavy rock with gospel the same way Kirk Franklin did with Toby Mac on their recent solo albums. However, "Brand New Day" feels more like a solo performance than a choral track.
Gospel purists may be a little disappointed by the hasty feel of Soul Interpretations. Unlike most gospel albums, this one is just under 50 minutes in length with 12 tracks. The longest song on the album is not quite five and a half minutes long, with most averaging around four minutes. Incredibly, some of the tracks aren't even three minutes in length; the fun and lively James Brown-inspired "The Blood (Never Lose Its Power)' is over before you know it. Other tracks, such as "Use Me" and "I'll Trust You" feel as though they end too abruptly. They sound like live tracks cut short through studio editing to make them sound like a studio recording. On top of all that, as with their debut, there are examples of second-rate keyboard effects and programming. The laser-sounds on "Oh What a Day" are somewhat annoying, and the synthetic handclaps on "All of My Heart" are too loud and fake-sounding. Would the album have been more successful in the hands of a capable producer such as Fred Hammond or Kirk Franklin? Was the project recorded too hastily as a response to their first album's success? It's hard to say. But Excelsior clearly has a lot of potential, and I do believe they earned that Stellar award. If you're looking for the eclecticism of their first album, however, you're probably going to be disappointed. Soul Interpretations is a spirit-filled leap forward for Excelsior, but an artistic step backwards.