Sounds like … a more adult contemporary version of great UK modern worship leaders such as Matt Redman and Stuart TownendAt a Glance … the overall album could use a little more sonic variation, but Graham's worship songs are as effective and beautiful as any of today's finest worship leaders.
The Son of a Baptist pastor and educated to be a teacher, UK worship leader Graham Kendrick has been writing music since the Jesus Movement of the early '70s. He's also consistently released new albums in the last 30 years, publishing more than 300 songs with 66 of them appearing in the UK's Top 500 most licensed worship songs. Yet despite his prolific writing, Graham is probably better known outside the United States. But make no mistake that you've almost certainly heard his work. He's best known for the beautiful worship ballads "Knowing You" and "Shine Jesus Shine," that latter of which is as well known a praise song as "Shout to the Lord" and "Lord I Lift Your Name on High." With the popularity of worship music in the States since the late '90s, it's surprising Graham Kendrick hasn't been heralded more until now. Hopefully all of that will change with What Grace, Graham's latest recording.
What Grace released in 2001 to critical acclaim in the UK. People apparently believed in it enough for it to land on Furious Records (the newly formed record label from UK worship band Delirious) for American distribution. Musically, Graham sounds much like a softer, more adult contemporary version of Matt Redman – like Matt's earlier, pre-modernized albums such as The Friendship and the Fear. This isn't electric-guitar-driven modern worship geared to youth groups such as Sonicflood and David Crowder Band. Not that there's not electric guitars, drums, and keyboards on What Grace. There's simply a more mature and wider appeal to it, more befitting of Vineyard worship projects or the albums from Integrity Music's worship leaders. At times, Graham's music (like Matt Redman) can sound almost hymn-like. Rooted in traditional church hymnology, the songs are balanced with contemporary worship sensibilities. The downside is that What Grace can be somewhat mellow and low-key, making it almost sleepy after 12 tracks and nearly an hour's worth of music. With little variation in the adult contemporary sound, it's easy to lose interest around 2/3 of the way through.
Some albums just aren't meant to be a complete listening experience; but don't let that stop you from savoring What Grace as a collection of excellent worship songs. This is the album you were hoping for if you were disappointed with Matt Redman's Where Angels Fear to Tread. In fact, Matt makes a guest appearance on the opening track, "To You O Lord," a simple-yet-powerful worship anthem that ranks with "Once Again" and "Better Is One Day." The song is inspired by Psalm 25, and offers a firm scriptural foundation for trusting in the Lord: "No one whose hope is in you / Will ever be put to shame / That's why my eyes are on you, O Lord." A similar Matt Redman sound can be heard on the rhythmic "Blessed Are the Humble (The Beatitudes)," which praises God in the chorus for all of the blessings espoused by Jesus in Matthew 6. Graham's gift of arranging old hymns recalls the work of Tommy Walker or Chris Tomlin ("The Wonderful Cross") on "Rock of Ages," as he adapts the beloved text to a new melody and worship chorus and lends it an Old English/Celtic feel with the melody and the flute.
Another featured guest on What Grace is none other than Martin Smith (Delirious), who sings with Graham on "Lord You've Been Good to Me," a beautiful Delirious-like ballad. There's a similar intimacy on "I Kneel Down (On the Bloodstained Ground)," which bears strong resemblance to Martin's "What a Friend I've Found," complete with a big choir sound at the end. The title track is also a beautiful and gentle hymn, in which Graham declares, "What grace to be found in him, Heaven's glorious King / Father what grace, raising us to life / Choosing us in Christ." Delirious fans also will enjoy the glorious and exciting "To the King Eternal," inspired by Revelation and originally featured on Graham's 2000 Millennium Chorus album with Michael W. Smith handling the lead vocals. Here it sounds more like Delirious' "Shout to the North" (or perhaps Michael's "Great Is the Lord") with its 6/8 time and rhythmic percussion. The song is such a highlight, you'd think they would have saved this one for the finale. It was probably meant to vary the album's pace midway through, and as it turns out, Graham has an equally thrilling finale called "Everybody Everywhere." Though the verses meander a bit, it contrasts nicely with the joyful chorus and thrilling percussion. It must be a fantastic one to hear live.
I've made all of these comparisons to other worship leaders, but it's far more likely that Matt, Martin, and others were influenced by Graham's work. Besides, unlike popular music, worship doesn't necessarily need to sound original as much as it needs to be memorable and beautifully made in giving glory to God. There are a few tracks on What Grace that are a little too simplistic and repetitive ("The Lord Is Present Here," "The Spirit of the Lord"), but others are among the most encouraging and effective worship songs I've heard in recent months. In light of the numerous songs written as encouragement post-9/11, "Consider It Joy (Though Trials Will Come)" is an outstanding rendering of Christ's words, adapting them to a delightful blend of gospel styles and offering a solid message of hope: "Have faith, keep on believing / For God is at work in us / Molding and shaping us / Out of his love for us / Making us more like Jesus." Graham Kendrick doesn't have a big impressive voice – he's like a blend of Stuart Townend and Ringo Starr – but at least it's a good voice that doesn't sound like Matt Redman, Martin Smith, and Tim Hughes. More importantly, Graham confirms himself as a strong songwriter, worship leader, and music minister, certainly worthy of the attention of American audiences craving a meaningful expression of praise to the Lord.