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Christian Music - Reviews, News, Interviews

Still the Cross

  • reviewed by Russ Breimeier Copyright Christianity Today International
  • 2004 1 Sep
Still the Cross
Sounds like … AC pop/rock with some strong hooks and retro influences that recall Michael W. Smith, Steven Curtis Chapman, Mark Schultz, Casting Crowns, and The BeatlesAt a glance … despite a few moments of saccharine Christian pop sentiment,Still the Cross represents a considerable leap forward for FFH in their songwriting and soundTrack ListingYou Drive, I'll RideYou Love Me AnywayWithout YouStill the CrossYou and Only YouThe Long HaulIn This MomentCover MeAll Part of the WalkAnother Day with You

Still the Crossis the fifth album in just six years for FFH since their national debut, I Want to Be Like You. This prolific release schedule has undoubtedly earned them a strong fan base, evidenced by a slew of radio hits and more than 1 million album sales. And yet FFH also remains one of the most criticized groups in Christian music, depending on whom you talk to.

I've heard three different types of criticisms: First, despite FFH's terrifically tight harmonies, some just don't like the vocal quality of lead singers Jeromy and Jennifer Deibler. There's not much they can do about that, though I submit that Jeromy is no more "nasal" than Michael W. Smith. The other two critiques pertain to content. Some have said FFH's songs are too trite and routine-an example of what's wrong with Christian AC radio. And some have said that the band's sound has quickly become predictable and formulaic, to the point where it obviously spilled over into Jeromy Deibler-produced debuts from Big Daddy Weave and Palisade.

It's in these last two points that FFH deserves some newfound praise and recognition. Having already taken a step in the right direction with 2003's Ready to Fly, they've now come to an artistic crossroads with what some are calling FFH's "coming of age" album. The foursome sounds more and more like their own band, able to play all their own instruments (except drums). Jeromy also claims that there's a new confidence in their music, and it clearly shows.

This album sounds less like they're writing for Christian radio and more as if they're creating music with greater freedom and a broader sonic canvas. Produced by longtime collaborator Scott Williamson (Point of Grace, Lincoln Brewster) and a few by Mark Miller (Sawyer Brown, Casting Crowns), the album better reflects their live concert sound than before. The songs are distinct from each other, playing with vocal effects on each to add character and color. The songwriting has improved too, with more straightforward and introspective lyrics that rely slightly less on pop clichés and regurgitated Scripture. In more than a few of the tracks, believe it or not, FFH now resembles Mark Schultz and the late '80s sound of Michael W. Smith.

I can understand skepticism at this point, but check out "All Part of the Walk," which features a bouncy Beatle-esque beat driven by an irresistible boogie-woogie bar piano, some fun harmonies, and a jarringly different bridge. Jeromy claims that Huey Lewis was the inspiration for the catchy pop shuffle of "You and Only You," written for the Deiblers' new baby boy, but it actually sounds like a lost track from Smith's Go West Young Man. The Romans 12 inspired "You Love Me Anyway" has an almost soulful retro pop sound to it with the bass-heavy opening and the addition of horns later, reminiscent of '80s pop by Smith, Steve Winwood, and Paul McCartney.

Now that three of the members are parents, it's no surprise that some of the songs have focused on love and loss pertaining to familial relationships. "The Long Haul" is a simple love song about lifelong commitment that makes its point well with a terrific power ballad sound, while "Another Day with You" offers the same quirky from-the-heart delivery that characterizes Steven Curtis Chapman's songs: "Maybe it's the way you smell/A dream come true from a wishing well/A millions things so I can't tell/Just another day with you." Written as a response to the death of a close friend's little boy, "Cover Me" pairs melancholic-yet-hopeful lyrics with a dark guitar pop sound reminiscent of Smith's i 2 (eye).

Still the Cross is not without fluff. It's odd that they've included two catchy songs about driving with the top down—the spiritual metaphor underlying "You Drive I'll Ride" is far superior to the more frivolous "Without You." The meaningful title track is more like the predictable FFH we've known for the last five years, though I must admit I am a sucker for the entrance of a big backing choir two-thirds of the way into a power ballad. And there remains some examples of lightweight lyricism, like "In This Moment," which sounds like something Jump5 would cover: "Even though it's midnight/And I'm lying in the dark/I think of You up in Heaven/Yet You are in my heart." Still, I've got to hand it to FFH. The new album goes down easy and is their most interesting by far. It suggests that this band is finally starting down the right path.