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Hymned Again

  • reviewed by Russ Breimeier Copyright Christianity Today International
  • 2008 1 Aug
Hymned Again
Sounds like … classic Southern hymns performed with an eclectic blend of Americana—country, pop, jazz, and bluegrass—reminiscent of Harry Connick, Jr., Vince Gill, Hank Williams, Jr, and Roy OrbisonAt a glance … though the song selection on Bart Millard's Hymned Again is relatively obscure and the sound is generally derivative of the first Hymned, the joyful eclecticism and impressive musicianship freshens up these church standardsTrack Listing Stand Up, Stand Up for Jesus What a Day that Will Be I Saw the Light What a Friend We Have in Jesus I Stand Amazed Jesus Cares for Me Victory in Jesus Brethren We Have Met to Worship Leaning on the Everlasting Arms Down at the Cross Grace that Is Greater

According to the press materials, Hymned No. 1 made Bart Millard the top-selling "new artist" of 2005 in Christian music. It's kinda funny when you think about it. As the lead singer of MercyMe, Millard is hardly a rookie, but the album was nevertheless his solo debut. And it's not as if he did anything new for his side project by covering a bunch of hymns. But with the help of producer Brown Bannister, he did something new with those church standards in the arrangements while indulging his love of Americana.

The title implied that there would be more like it, and three years later, the next Hymned album is here. The source material is slightly different, in that the first album was inspired by the hymns Millard's grandmother sang, which were largely written in the 1700s and generally more vertical in lyrics, sung directly to God. This new one focuses on the songs Millard grew up singing in church, which were mostly written in the 1800s and generally more horizontal lyrically, sung to others about the greatness of God.

But perhaps most telling of Millard's second solo release is the title. One would have assumed he would have followed the pattern of the first and called it Hymned No. 2, the next in an ongoing series with no definitive end and no defined sound. Instead, he called it Hymned Again, a title that by definition is more of the same. And that's not inaccurate, considering the results.

The best example of what I'm talking about is the opening arrangement of "Stand Up, Stand Up for Jesus," fully immersed in the purely joyful and celebratory sound of Dixieland jazz, featuring banjo and clarinet. No question it's a great version and a lot of fun—but then Millard already visited the Dixieland sound on the first Hymned with his arrangement of "Have a Little Talk with Jesus." And he visits it a second time on this album with "What a Friend We Have in Jesus," though with a little more of a shuffle feel, plus some horns and a musical saw solo. The first time was imaginative, the second time acceptable, but after three, it just sounds like Millard and Bannister are repeating themselves.

I don't want to give the wrong impression, though. For what it is, Hymned Again is still excellent and one of the better hymn albums you'll find. Millard sounds great as usual, Bannister's production is typically flawless, and the recording is teeming with great musicianship.

There's also plenty of variety like the previous release, rarely settling for the same style twice. "What a Day that Will Be" recalls Harry Connick Jr.'s She album with a terrific New Orleans rock feel punctuated by a horn section. Millard sound like Hank Williams Jr. covering his daddy's song with a bluesy country-rock version of "I Saw the Light." There's an enjoyably rhythmic pop flow to "I Stand Amazed," the album's first radio single, featuring Christy Nockels (Passion). "Brethren We Have Met to Worship" probably isn't familiar to most listeners, but it connects with a celebratory bluegrass feel reminiscent of Alison Krauss and Union Station. Rounding out the album is a ukulele-driven version of "Grace that Is Greater" that's clearly inspired by Israel Kamakawiwo'ole's famed rendition of "Somewhere over the Rainbow."

As with his last album, Millard also co-wrote an original, though unlike "MawMaw's Song," this one actually sounds like it could become a timeless hymn. "Jesus Cares for Me" is a quiet country duet with Vince Gill—the two voices are perfectly matched—and though the song is a bit lyrically simplistic, there's a real sweetness to it reminiscent of Roy Orbison or Patsy Cline.

It could be that Hymned Again would be better regarded if it were the first of the series rather than the follow-up. But then I'm a little partial to the broader song selection of Hymned No. 1, whereas this one relies more heavily on Southern hymnody. Nevertheless, the new one is close enough to the old to recommend, despite its unfortunate title. Does this mean the next project will be called Hymned Once Again? Will it focus on the hymns that Millard's kids grew up with, and if so, will that lead to an album inspired by the two previous Hymned albums? I just hope it's not the last, because there are too many beloved church standards and too many creative ways to perform them for Millard to wrap up a series with so much potential, or for that matter, to repeat himself musically from one Hymned to another.

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