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Christian Music - Reviews, News, Interviews

Men and Angels Say

  • reviewed by Russ Breimeier Copyright Christianity Today International
  • 2005 1 Feb
Men and Angels Say
Sounds like … classic hymns set to Ashley Cleveland's organic approach to rock, folk, and blues, reminiscent of Shawn Colvin, Emmylou Harris, and Amy Grant.At a glance … Cleveland's voice and Americana sensibilities are put to great use for this very well performed genre-bending collection of timeless hymns.Track Listing Come Ye Sinners Surely Goodness and Mercy Nothing but the Blood Power in the Blood Christ the Lord Is Risen Today I Need Thee Every Hour All Creatures of Our God and King It Is Well with My Soul Precious Lord Take My Hand Holy Holy Holy Come Thou Fount What a Friend We Have in Jesus

Men and Angels Say is only the sixth album for Ashley Cleveland in fifteen years, so despite winning multiple Dove and Grammy awards, it's somewhat understandable why she is one of the most overlooked Christian artists. Chances are you're more familiar with her voice from projects by Rich Mullins, Jars of Clay, John Hiatt, Russ Taff, Faith Hill, and numerous other Americana artists. A busy schedule of touring and mothering have kept Cleveland from regular recording, but she now returns with an album especially close to her heart.

Hymns projects are in ample supply for early 2005, but the under-the-radar Cleveland has never been one to jump on a bandwagon and capitalize on trends. She considers hymns the music she loves most, noting their ability to unify and comfort audiences and generations in churches and bars alike. Produced with her husband, acclaimed guitarist Kenny Greenberg, Men and Angels Say has been in the works for years, with Cleveland gradually developing the right arrangements suitable for the album.

Cleveland's organic, genre-bending approach to music makes a terrific fit for these classic expressions of faith and hope. She grounds "Come Ye Sinners" and "It Is Well with My Soul" in simple, enjoyable roots rock while infusing "Holy Holy Holy" and "Surely Goodness and Mercy" with folk-country charm. She unexpectedly turns "What a Friend We Have in Jesus" into a full-on blues jam while delivering "Precious Lord Take My Hand" with gritty Southern soul. "Christ the Lord Is Risen Today" initially embraces Cleveland's Scotch-English roots with bagpipes and organ before unfolding into straight pop/rock.

This veteran has long earned acclaim for her distinctive vocal styling, and she doesn't disappoint here. Check out the passionate delivery in her medley of "Nothing but the Blood" and "Power in the Blood." She gives a more subdued and beautiful outpouring in "All Creatures of Our God and King," set to light piano accompaniment. Cleveland is often regarded for her bluesy edge, and while that's certainly her specialty, this album reminds us that her voice has considerable versatility.

Special note should also go to "I Need Thee Every Hour," which begins with some of the richest B-3 organ accompaniment in the music biz, played by none other than Steve Winwood ("Gimme Some Lovin'," "Higher Love"). It's an absolute treat to hear these two legendary voices in a duet together. Winwood actually used to play organ for a small country church in England back around the time of Spencer Davis Group and Traffic. For this classic rock artist to make a rare guest appearance on a small Christian album for hymn arrangements makes you wonder where he's at spiritually.

Essential to the success of Men and Angels Say is the way it preserves the original melody and feel of the hymns while also updating them. Several respectable artists have tried to contemporize hymns by altering the melody, but they end up sacrificing familiarity and historical connection for the sake of the profoundly affecting lyrics. Others have tried to fuse the hymns to overly modern genres that proved incompatible by overwhelming their spirit. Cleveland wisely sticks to what we all know and matches them to simple rock, folk, and blues, striking a fine balance of old and new.

One could argue that there isn't enough originality to these arrangements, but it's a fine line between adaptation and transformation. There's only so much an artist can do before changing a mere cover song into something unrecognizable. Cleveland would have benefited from just a little more sonic variation, but she has certainly done far better than most at creatively adapting the hymns without transforming or overproducing them. Men and Angels Say is familiar-but-fresh, successfully connecting fans of Americana to the rich musical heritage of the Christian church.