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Christian Music - Reviews, News, Interviews

Atom Bomb

  • reviewed by Russ Breimeier Copyright Christianity Today International
  • 2005 1 Mar
Atom Bomb
Sounds like … the new signature sound of this legendary group, mixing up traditional gospel with elements of rock, blues, folk, and even a little bit of hip-hop.At a glance … though it's got enough to generally satisfy fans of the Blind Boys' last few albums, Atom Bomb lacks the explosive impact of their better work.Track ListingAtom BombDemonsTalk About SufferingI Know I've Been ConvertedOld Blind BarnabasSpirit in the SkyFaith & GraceNew Born SoulPresence of the LordMoses

It hasn't even been four months since another critically acclaimed veteran band unleashed their eagerly anticipated nuclear titled album. But in this context, unlike U2, the group is more interested in detonating than "dismantling." This Atom Bomb refers to a modernized cover of an old gospel tune by The Soul Stirrers that likens Christ's return on Judgment Day to the ultimate fallout. And while the song is a product from the earlier phases of the Cold War, its message is still relevant today.

Bridging generations and genres—that pretty much sums up the appeal of The Blind Boys of Alabama lately. Though they started out back in the '40s, predating the careers of Elvis Presley and Al Green, it's only recently that this progressive gospel group has enjoyed an artistic resurgence. Fronted today by the two remaining founding members—Clarence Fountain, Jimmy Carter (a third founder, George Scott, died last week)—The Blind Boys have enjoyed three consecutive wins at the Grammys, beginning with 2001's Spirit of the Century, then Higher Ground in 2002, and their Christmas project Go Tell It on the Mountain in 2003. They've also gained prominent exposure with guest spots for Peter Gabriel, Lou Reed, Disney's film Brother Bear, and Jars of Clay, not to mention an excellent collaborative recording with Ben Harper in 2004.

Atom Bomb again combines these classic voices with a more sophisticated and stylized organic sound that incorporates some of the strongest rock talent of the last fifty years, including famed keyboardist Billy Preston (The Beatles), guitarist David Hidalgo (Los Lobos), and the gritty harmonica of Charlie Musselwhite. Similarly, The Blind Boys again combine old and new with revitalized renditions of traditional gospel classics, as well as traditional styled versions of more recent rock and pop hits.

Such artistic freedom yields a standout track like their cover of "Demons" by Fatboy Slim and Macy Gray. With Preston's hypnotic use of the organ, a solid rhythm section, and the rap vocals of The Gift of Gab (from Blackalicious), it really is an intriguing clash of genres. Likewise, a standard like "Old Blind Barnabas" finds new life with a smooth piano, organ, and drums groove, straddling between gospel and classic rock. Preston's stunning organ skills also distinguish a splendid cover of Eric Clapton's "Presence of the Lord," which he popularized with the band Blind Faith.

Yet those three tracks represent the only true highlights on Atom Bomb, and they don't quite measure up to the magical mesh of artistry underlying Spirit of the Century. That beautiful interplay of gospel, rock, and folk is missing here. Spirit had a remarkable cover of "Amazing Grace" set to the tune of "House of the Rising Sun." This album, by comparison, has a new rendition of Norman Greenbaum's rock classic "Spirit in the Sky" that merely has the Blind Boys singing over a too faithful arrangement highlighted by Hidalgo's accurate reproduction of the familiar guitar riff.

As a whole, this 35-minute effort lacks the spark of the other recent Blind Boys albums, including There Will Be a Light with Ben Harper. It's too sparsely recorded and homogenous sounding, leaving performances of "Faith & Grace," "I Know I've Been Converted," and "Talk About Suffering" routine and forgettable. In contrast, the closing drone of "Moses" is uniquely mesmerizing, yet also annoyingly stagnant—the sort of thing listeners will either love or hate.

For all the talent involved, it's surprising thatAtom Bombis as comparatively lacking to Higher Ground as that album was to Spirit of the Century—the uninitiated now know which album is essential to music collections. There's enough here to satisfy those who have enjoyed the previous albums, but Atom Bomb won't blow you away like the best of The Blind Boys. Still, credit these septuagenarians as the musical pioneers they are, even today after all these years.