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Sounds like … more or less every other Fernando Ortega album — thoughtful and inspirational folk-pop recalling Dan Fogelberg and Michael CardAt a Glance … sounding the same isn't a bad thing in Fernando's case, and the songwriting makes this quite possibly his most cohesive and best album yet.
You gotta hand it to Fernando Ortega — if nothing else, the guy's consistent. Storm is Fernando's 10th recording in 11 years, and his inspirational musical style hasn't really changed much in that time — though the arrangements have evolved from atmospheric keyboards to the acoustic-folk sound we're all familiar with today. His mellow folk-pop sound is instantly appealing, but I know some people who find his music a bit too homogenous. However, if you're one of the many who like Fernando's music, you'll be pleased with Storm. In subtle ways, it may be his finest work to date.
Fernando's music doesn't change very much for the new album, but why "fix" what isn't broken? Storm is a blend of gentle ballads and a few uptempo folk-pop songs, much like his last album Home, and Fernando's warm vocals shine as always. Long-time friend, co-writer, and producer John Andrew Schreiner once again lends his talents, as does long-time friend and co-writer Elaine Rubenstein. John assembled a talented roster of musicians for this album, including bass guitarist Jon Pierce (Huey Lewis & the News), bass guitarist Leland Sklar (James Taylor, Phil Collins), cellist Cameron Stone (Jewel), fiddle player Luke Bulla (Ricky Skaggs), and percussionist Michito Sanchez (Janet Jackson).
What truly elevates Fernando's music above simple folk-pop is the lyrical content, which is so poetic and reverent. Fernando was still in the writing phase of the album when September 11 gripped America in fear and sorrow. Interestingly enough, he was already inspired to write on the trials and fears of the Christian experience well before that day. The result is an album that's quite timely and comforting in its message, and it's probably Fernando's most cohesive and thematic project yet. This is sort of his own version of the popular Streams album released several years ago. The album's centerpiece and title track, a brief two-minute song filled with vivid poetry, reminds us that it sometimes takes a storm to realign our faith and focus on the Lord.
Such is the common thread to the other songs on Storm. The opening track appropriately paints a picture of a world-weary "Traveler" experiencing the perils of the journey and the kindness of friends and community, praying that the Heavenly Father will "remember the traveler and bring us safely home." Written for his father and the surgeries he has struggled with, "This Time Next Year" reminds us also to find hope and comfort in our family through times of trouble. The Latin-influenced, folk-pop "A Place on the Earth" offers a prayer of faith to God, asking him for comfort to strengthen us throughout our life. Even Fernando's much-beloved hymn selections are in step with the album theme. "Come, Ye Sinners, Poor and Needy" is an invitation for all to find solace in God's love and mercy. The arrangement features a duet with labelmate Amy Grant, who's releasing her own album of hymn covers later this year. Then there's "Let All Mortal Flesh Keep Silent," one of my personal favorites because of its beautifully haunting and melancholic melody and the portrait of holiness painted by the words. The album's two closing songs offer the greatest reasons for hope — the hymn-like "Sing to Jesus" proclaims Christ's sovereignty, and the old hymn "Jesus Paid It All" reminds us why he's sovereign. Even the album's one instrumental track, "Cristina's Dream" (written for his older sister and her trials over the years), fits the "weathering the storm" theme of the album. It's a simultaneously mournful and resilient-sounding piece.
The stand-out track is a terrific song of praise found in the middle of the album, called "Our Great God," though I have mixed feelings about its inclusion on Storm. Fernando co-wrote the song with Mac Powell (Third Day) for the upcoming sequel to the City on a Hill project. Part of me wishes this song was exclusive to the City on a Hill disc, since this version is completely sung by Fernando and we miss out on the cool duet between he and Mac. Though the hymn-like quality of the verses make "Our Great God" very at home on Storm, it's also one of Fernando's edgiest-sounding songs in years thanks to the modern quality of the guitars and drum programming.
Even the cover art of Storm is creative and inspiring — a rarity in Christian music. The stark image of a single red chair on an open plain with a violent thunderstorm rolling in conjures up so many meanings. Is it saying that storms are unavoidable in our lives, or is it perhaps a metaphor for our time of communion with God? Whatever the interpretation, Storm has a lot to say regarding the frailty of our faith in the face of adversity, and the comfort God offers us if we simply ask for it. While Fernando's music hasn't changed just much over the years, that suits his fans just fine. But even if you think you know what Fernando Ortega is capable of, I challenge you to give this album a serious listen and not come away moved or inspired by it in some way.