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Christian Music - Reviews, News, Interviews

The Blood

  • reviewed by Russ Breimeier Copyright Christianity Today International
  • 2007 1 Dec
The Blood
Sounds like … the dc Talk vocalist singing gospel standards (and more recent gospel-ish songs), blending styles in a manner reminiscent of Mike Farris, Johnny Cash, and The Blind Boys of AlabamaAt a glance … Kevin Max may have been going for "stylized adaptations" of gospel classics on The Blood, but the arrangements are derivative of similar projects and too predictable to be considered innovative or creativeTrack Listing The Old Rugged Cross The Cross Run On for a Long Time Trouble of the World I Know His Blood Can Make Me Whole Up Above My Head I Hear Music in the Air They Won't Go When I Go The Blood Will Never Lose Its Power People Get Ready One Way-One Blood

Whether expressing himself personally, spiritually, or musically, Kevin Max has long been something of an enigma in Christian music. Though he's brought freshness and creativity to the scene, he's never comfortably settled into a solo career with an identifiable sound for more than one album. Some would cite that as proof that Max can't be bound by conventions, but others would counter that he's yet to figure himself out as an artist. Revisiting his previous solo projects (beginning with 2001's Stereotype Be), there's evidence for both sides—a singer/songwriter who strives for innovation, but often compromises it by relying too heavily on his varied influences.

That's exactly what happens again on The Blood. Max is quick to point out that this is not a hymns project or a worship album. But it is still an album of cover songs—namely, "stylized adaptations" of the gospel classics that influenced pop and rock. (Never mind that 4 of the 10 tracks were written in the last 40 years, and thus couldn't have influenced the pop/rock pioneers of the '40s and '50s.)

There's no question that Max has gathered an amazingly diverse list of talent for this project—starting with producer Will Owsley (Amy Grant's guitarist and a talented solo artist in his own right). Along with a number of prominent session musicians (including B3 master Phil Madeira and multi-instrumentalist John Painter), there are enough guest artists here to credit the album as "Kevin Max and Friends."

Unfortunately, the adaptations are more routine than stylized. The album begins with a throwaway cover of "The Old Rugged Cross," with Max doing his best Johnny Cash impersonation to tinny EQ and record scratches, reproducing old-time production values. Other than shortening the hymn to a one-verse prologue, he's done nothing with the song that's different from classic recordings … and that's pretty much the case throughout.

Much is being made of this album's rendition of Prince's "The Cross" because it reunites dc Talk. Of course, the three members have already reconvened for a 2004 remix of tobyMac's "Atmosphere" and their 2002 song "Let's Roll" (a tribute to Todd Beamer). Once you get past the novelty of the reunion, the cover's not all that interesting—Michael Tait is featured for a verse, tobyMac yowls in the background, and it ultimately become repetitive. The Blind Boys of Alabama did a similar but superior (and less repetitive) adaptation of the song for their 2002 album Higher Ground. Max seems to be a Blind Boys fan, since he also covers the group's cover of "Run On for a Long Time" (from 2001's Spirit of the Century) with American Idol finalist Chris Sligh—again, with lesser results.

Thing is, those Blind Boys in their 70's sounded creative and innovative in their gospel-rock blend, uniquely bridging old with new. Max, however, seems content to deliver the songs as they've been performed before, whether by the Blind Boys or other artists. Hey, there's a rockabilly cover of "Up Above My Head" with Grant and Vince Gill—just like Elvis did it years ago! And how about that haunting rendition of Stevie Wonder's "They Won't Go When I Go"—you know, the one that echoes George Michael's version from 1990?

Sometimes the covers are so faithful, they're just plain dull. The arrangement of Mahalia Jackson's "Trouble of the World" is indeed soulful, but also plodding. And embracing pure gospel-blues, Max sounds out of his element with a repetitive and meandering rendition of Blind Willie Johnson's "I Know His Blood Can Make Me Whole," accompanied only by bluesy acoustic guitar and handclaps. And again, what's so innovative about performing a song as it was originally performed?

The Blood does have some stronger tracks toward the end, including a likeably straightforward rendition of "The Blood Will Never Lose Its Power" (with Ashley Cleveland hiding among the backing vocalists). The gospel classic doesn't sound overly forced like some of the other tracks. Then there's Max's cover of Curtis Mayfield's "People Get Ready." There have been plenty of strong arrangements of the beloved classic over the years, to the point where it's become cliché, but Max does it justice with a fine vocal performance (along with Erica Campbell of Mary Mary). And "One Way-One Blood" is an effective original by Max, who is joined by Joanne Cash in homage to her brother Johnny.

It's not so much that The Blood is a bad effort, but the unimaginative arrangements prevent it from ranking with better, similar-styled efforts from The Blind Boys, Mike Farris, Mavis Staples, Johnny Cash, and many others. What a shame that Max didn't shape his love of gospel music through his own filter of Euro-pop and alt-rock—now that could have been interesting and unique. Instead, The Blood too often sounds predictable and derivative, portraying Kevin Max more as a cover artist than an original creative force.