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Christian Music - Reviews, News, Interviews


  • reviewed by LaTonya Taylor Copyright Christianity Today International
  • 2007 1 Jul
Sounds like … modern praise and worship music meets classic 1970s R&B and soul. The resulting project is a funky, energetic, and compelling worship experienceAt a Glance … Real is a fresh and energetic approach to worship music, incorporating the sounds of '70s soul into something new.

Praise and worship music has been an integral part of the 30-year history of contemporary Christian music, but it's never been more significant or popular than it's become in recent years. This music, which tends to combine the best elements of hymns and praise choruses, has become one of the most popular genres for worship services since the 1980s. Israel Houghton is one of the leaders of this movement. Houghton, a former member of Fred Hammond's innovative group Radical for Christ, has written more than 150 praise and worship songs. Houghton is the featured worship leader for the Promise Keepers' national tour and National Director of Worship for Champions for Christ. He has received a gospel music Excellence Award nomination for "Male Vocalist of the Year Contemporary." This singer, songwriter, producer, and musician's recent projects include co-production credit on We Speak to Nations, production of Shout Praises! (a gospel album for children), and an appearance on Sing for Joy: A Songwriter's Heart. Houghton's music intentionally defies categorization. Unapologetically cross-cultural, cross-denominational, and cross-generational, it's written for a "New Breed" of worshiper, Houghton says.

Real, which debuted at a very respectable number 15 in Christian retail sales the week it was released, follows the Dove-nominated album New Season, which was released in 2001. But while New Season was primarily a live, gospel-infused collection of praise choruses (with a nod to the 1980s with the energetic cut "You Are Good"), there's no mistaking the funky, soulful shift Houghton and the vocalists and musicians who comprise New Breed make on this album. Here Houghton (aided by Tommy Sims, a producer/singer/songwriter/guitarist/keyboardist/drummer with some serious credits in all of the above areas for CCM, gospel, and mainstream artists) pays homage to some of the most influential musicians of the 1970s. The fact is, there's not really a category for this sound. Rhythm-n-praise? Gospo-funk? Praise-a-delic? Imagine walking into church and discovering that Earth Wind & Fire has replaced the praise and worship team, and you've got a handle on it. In any case, one thing is clear: Houghton and Sims have an impressive collection of gospel, funk, and soul LPs in their basements … and those records haven't been sitting around collecting dust.

The album begins with a short prelude that sounds like a classical music recording. The popping sound of a needle along the grooves of a record and an orchestral arrangement of strings is the listener's first indication that this album will draw heavily from "classical" music. Then, Houghton growls the first verse of "Better" with a smooth intensity reminiscent of EWF frontman Maurice White in the 1975 hit "Sing a Song." The lyrics include: "Love is everlasting / It's an everlasting love / Mercy new as every rising sun / Your loving kindness is better than life." This brassy, string-and-guitar-driven song is followed by the equally danceable "Get Up," a reminder to Christians to let go of their shroud of fear and "Put your praise on / Put on the garment of praise for the spirit of heaviness." And as classic R&B singers such as Marvin Gaye occasionally used their music as a form of social commentary, "'Bout It 'Bout It" is a reminder that Christians are to carry on God's work in the world.

In the title track, Houghton's smoky vocals slip easily through an autobiographical song of thanks to God for saving his life when he and his mother were "hopeless and abandoned, fatherless and afraid." Here, he sounds a bit like blue-eyed-soul singer Michael McDonald. The song includes a sweet flute interlude and a couple of lines from the 1970 Sly and the Family Stone hit "Thank You (Falettin Me Be Mice Elf Agin)." Gospel fans will recognize Houghton's song "Nothing Else Matters" from Marvin Sapp's 1999 album of the same name, and it's nice to hear the song from the voice of its writer. Here Houghton is backed by a strong corps of singers and the "big band" feel of bold brass and prominent strings. Aaron Lindsey on Hammond organ adds a nice warmth and flavor, too. "Taste and See" has an Andrae Crouch flavor, from the clean vocals to it's upbeat, "gathered around the piano" feel. Following Houghton's lilting lead in " Weight of Your Glory," the repetition of the prelude serves as a transition to a different movement in the album. With "Weight," the album segues into songs that are softer, slower, and have a more pensive, intimate quality. It's almost like the praise party has risen beyond the good times to the true focus: basking in the glory of God. Most of these songs feature simpler, more measured support from background vocals and instruments. "Magnificent and Holy," a standout song, builds gently from a verse sung in unison to harmony, then to strong, dramatic guitar-driven interludes. This is one for church praise teams: "Oh Lord magnificent and holy is your name / How excellent and worthy to be praised / Hallelujah hallelujah to you Lord / Magnificent and Holy is your name." The final song, "Don't Want to Leave/I Still Love You," brings the album to a sweet, reflective close.

The fascinating thing about the first several tracks on this album is that Houghton and Sims haven't merely sanctified R&B sounds and brought them back to church. As true musicians, they've melded them into something that manages to give props to the '70s greats, but they've also created a sound that's new, fun, funky, and lyrically compelling in its own right. And although this is a studio album, the lush orchestral arrangements (featuring the Nashville String Machine) and occasional instrumental passages give it the live energy that marked New Season (and EWF, for that matter). The transition to the slower songs, though somewhat abrupt, is logical and not unlike many worship services. If you'd like to hear a fresh, energetic approach to a classic sound replete with satisfying lyrics, give Real a listen.