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Beauty Has Grace

  • reviewed by Andree Farias Copyright Christianity Today International
  • 2005 1 May
Beauty Has Grace
Sounds like … Jaci V gone the indie pop route, with scattered nods to Coldplay, Ron Sexsmith, Aimee Mann, the Flaming Lips, Sarah Masen, and Beth Gibbons.At a glance … though it's simplistic lyrically, Beauty Has Grace is still an otherwise bold sonic curveball from one known for her Latin pop and adult contemporary sound. Track Listing I'm Not Looking DownWith All My SoulPrayer to LoveLay It DownSomething BeautifulTonightWhen You Hold MeReason to BelieveSupernaturalThis Love

Jaci Velasquez has long enjoyed success on two levels—as an "adult contemporary" Christian artist, and as a Latin pop star. But the music she was making wasn't necessarily the music she loved most—like Brit pop favorites Coldplay and unpredictable innovators Radiohead. Velasquez told us last year that she wanted to make something more in line with her musical inclinations. It's not often that pop vocalists who've built their careers on pleasing the masses turn their back on the style that's given them acclaim. Dylan did it when he swapped his folk guitar for an electric one. Springsteen did it when he did the opposite. U2 did it when they gravitated toward psychedelia in the mid-'90s. None of them knew how the public would respond, but they didn't care, because they had enough clout—and money—to call the shots.

To a much lesser extent, what Velasquez attempts with Beauty Has Grace—her fifth English-language studio project—is an equally experimental reinvention. She ditches Latin pop and balladry in favor of a different kind of pop: Brit pop, indie pop, alternative pop, the pop she enjoys. Instead of turning to previous collaborators Mark Heimermann or Emilio Estefan for production assistance, she enlists the help of underdog Martin Terefe, a London-based producer who has worked with Ron Sexsmith and a myriad of little-known indie pop artists.

This in itself strips the project of the "cleanness" one usually expects from a Velasquez recording, as sumptuous Latin grooves are replaced by damp drumming and jangly guitars, hooks take a backseat to atmosphere, and vocal showmanship—Jaci's strongest suit—is absent almost completely. Opener "I'm Not Looking Down" is enough to realize this is a change of pace for the singer, as she favors the lower register of her vocal range, sounding like a more contained Cat Power or Aimee Mann than Gloria Estefan or Shakira.

The unevenly composed "This Love" and "Supernatural" also indicate that melody isn't nearly as important as ambiance or just plain uniqueness. Their lack of immediacy shouldn't be mistaken for weirdness as much as a response to tired pop convention, which is the exact aim of alternative pop. Elsewhere, "Prayer to Love" and a cover of GlassByrd's "Tonight" are almost long-lost cousins of each other, as both employ similar soft-rock dynamics yet still manage to remain highly singable, albeit in a more subtle way than past Jaci standards.

Velasquez is no stranger to lending her silky vocals to rock-inflected soundtracks, having done so in songs like "Made My World" and "You're Not There" in the past. "Something Beautiful," the only song not produced by Terefe, is the loudest and most pristine song in the set, an amped-up anthem where she asks God to be a living testimony. Beauty's stunner, though, is "When You Hold Me," a programmed track where a raspy-voiced Velasquez tries her hand at sounding like psych-rockers the Flaming Lips. And it works.

But the Velasquez we know and love isn't totally gone. If only for one track, she hints at glories past with the beautiful "Lay It Down," a prayer that recalls previous vocal gems "I Will Rest in You" and "Adore." Driven by a dusty upright piano and delicate strings (it's not hard to picture Coldplay's Chris Martin gracing the ivories during the song's fragile progression), the ballad has a melody to die for as Velasquez belts it as if this was 1999.

The musical conduit may be different, but lyrically Velasquez doesn't reinvent the wheel here. Although she co-wrote six of the album's ten cuts, the themes aren't any more personal or honest than on her own Unspoken. If anything, Beauty's lyricism is uncomplicated and simplistic, meant more for encouragement than for inspiration or introspection. At times the poetry surprises ("From dusk to dawn the sun still shines on devout pretenders / That girl is gone / Lord, touch my eyes, I will surrender," from "With All My Soul"), but those instances are more the exception rather than the rule.

All of the above make Beauty Has Grace an erratic, hit-and-miss trip, but one that's worth taking as it plays up Velasquez's personality and indulgences more than ever before. Though it's unclear whether she will stick to this style for good or is simply submitting to her flights of fancy for a season, it's likely people's response to it will largely determine her next move. If Christian pop fans fail to embrace this new direction, she always has her Latin gig to fall back on.

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