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Christian Music - Reviews, News, Interviews

Holy, Holy, Holy

  • reviewed by Russ Breimeier Copyright Christianity Today International
  • 2002 1 Oct
Holy, Holy, Holy
Sounds like … some of your favorite American hymns set to ambient electronic music, as well as a variety of other pop and gospel stylesAt a Glance … Crystal's newest hymns project is truly a mixed bag, with several fair tracks, some that sound too dated, and a few that are amazing.

I can empathize with Crystal Lewis when it comes to the inspiration behind her first studio album in two-and-a-half years. The pastor's daughter grew up in a church where they used hymnals instead of multimedia displays or simplistic songwriting to express praise and worship on Sunday mornings. As powerful, fun, and effective as so many of today's modern praise songs are, they cannot substitute for the musical legacy of our faith. Not all of the old hymns are golden, but many are beautifully written, rich in theology, and a part of our Christian heritage, connecting us with the historical Church. Crystal Lewis wants to reacquaint today's audience with yesterday's hymns. Holy, Holy, Holy is a collection of hymns most beloved to Crystal from her childhood in her father's church, (it also will release next month as a Spanish album, Santo, Santo, Santo).

Don't rush into this album expecting a follow-up to Crystal's popular 1995 album, Hymns, My Life. I know I sound like a broken record when it comes to Crystal Lewis, but I still think it's admirable she doesn't usually take the obvious route when creating pop albums. In this case, she chose to co-produce Holy, Holy, Holy with her touring band's keyboardist, Jyro Xhan; fans of his work in bands such as Fold Zandura and Juggernautz know him to be an electronic music wizard. As a result, the album benefits from an interesting blend of traditional hymns with modern, sometimes futuristic sounding ethereal production. The classic title hymn opens the album with gentle ambience that's almost new age sounding. "His Eye Is on the Sparrow" is similarly reflective and understated with the keyboard accompaniment, and "Jesus Paid it All" beautifully morphs from open electronica to gospel pop. Unfortunately, Jyro's production skills don't extend as well beyond the synthesized sounds. "Great Is Thy Faithfulness" is underscored by keyboard strings, bass, and programmed percussion, and it unfolds nicely into some powerful territory as it progresses; it's also rather plodding and the technical effects sound dated. The same is true of the "I Want to Be Like Jesus" medley, which features songs by Thomas Chisholm and Keith Green – it actually bears some resemblance to the now dated sound of Keith's latter albums.

This album succeeds best when it's not burdened by old inspirational pop arrangements. The classic "Oh Happy Day" is one of the more joyful and buoyant tracks, with Crystal displaying her soulful gospel side. She playfully reverts to some early Jesus Movement '70s pop sounds on "Oh How I Love Jesus," which also tips its hat to "Jesus Loves Me." Jyro's trademark techno pop is successfully fused to gospel and traditional hymns on "When the Roll Is Called Up Yonder," which features some excellent slide guitar by Shawn Tubbs. A real treat is found in the floating and impressionistic arrangement of "There Is a Fountain" by Steve Wright, who plays piano among the strings and woodwinds. It evokes some Gershwin, Debussy, Sondheim, and even some traditional Chinese undertones in the beginning – all very interesting when combined with the American melody of the hymn! Even more stunning is Mary Lewis' arrangement of "Were You There," as well as her piano accompaniment to Crystal's evocative singing. Mary displays strong classical sensibilities, and Crystal shows remarkable strength as an expressive storyteller; the two of them transform the beloved spiritual wonderfully by changing the mood from verse to verse, from crucifixion to resurrection.

In addition to the ten hymns featured on this album, there's also "The Wisdom of Tenderness," an inspirational ballad written by Crystal and Jyro. Recorded with Crystal's impressive touring band, the song is inspired by the Brennan Manning book of the same name and explores God's relentless tenderness: "Believing that I am beloved / Finding I'm free because of it / Unconditionally giving love is the wisdom of tenderness." It's a pretty song that has more in common with the dated sounding tracks than the creative and powerful tracks. Overall, the album is something of a mixed bag, though all of the songs offer something to enjoy. These are, after all, classic hymns set to modern arrangements that are sometimes unusual, but always reverent of the source material. What a shame it would be to not pass our hymnal legacy on to our future generations. Holy, Holy, Holy is worth checking out if you're a fan of Crystal Lewis or if you're continuously looking for some interesting takes on some old favorites. But as Crystal points out, don't be surprised if your parents or grandparents listen to this and say, "That's not how we used to sing it!" That's precisely the point, but at least they still recognize it, and at least we're still singing it.