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Turn Around

  • reviewed by Russ Breimeier Copyright Christianity Today International
  • 2006 1 Sep
Turn Around
Sounds like … gospel and blues flavored pop/rock in the ballpark of John Mayer and Robert Randolph, with hints of Stevie Wonder, Lenny Kravitz, Eric Clapton, and Glenn KaiserAt a glance … some songs come off sounding a little hackneyed and trite, and the testimonial style of songwriting gets a little tiresome by album's end, but Turn Around is overall a fun, eclectic romp from the seriously talented LangTrack Listing Intro Bump in the Road One Person at a Time The Other Side of the Fence Turn Around My Love Remains Thankful Only a Man Don't Stop (For Anything) Anything's Possible (Don't Let 'em) Last Goodbye On My Feet Again That Great Day It's Not Over Outro

Two things are indisputable about Jonny Lang—the dude can play and he loves the Lord. The first fact we've known since 1997, when the insanely gifted blues guitarist burst onto the scene with Lie to Me at just 15 years old and topped Billboard's New Artist chart. The faith component is still relatively new, with Lang accepting Christ a little over five years ago after struggling with drug and alcohol addiction.

Disagreement arises concerning what Lang should be playing and singing about. Two years ago, Long Time Coming, his fourth album and first after embracing Christianity, earned mixed reactions among fans and critics; some praised it for being more personalized and varied, while others complained that he abandoned blues for forgettable middle-of-the-road rock with sappy lyrics. Yet lest we forget, Lie to Me earned similarly mixed responses, some complaining about the album's poor pacing and calling Lang a Stevie Ray Vaughn copycat, others gleefully enjoying his remarkably seasoned blues sound for what it is.

Since he seems to draw praise and criticism no matter which direction he takes, I for one applaud Lang's decision to try and broaden his artistic horizons beyond the familiar confines of blues-rock. Surprisingly, it was A&M president and producer Ron Fair who suggested to Lang a couple years ago that he should make a gospel record. The guitarist readily agreed, teaming up with Grammy-winning producer Shannon Sanders (India.Arie) and Drew Ramsey to record Turn Around.

It's probably not the album that hardcore blues purists are hoping for. Lang's stellar guitar playing and soul-soaked vocals are intact, but the production is intentionally cleaner and more produced, not as gritty and hard-hitting. Turn Around has a lot in common with John Mayer's recent forays into fusion blues—at nearly the same age, both demonstrate fancy fingerwork and both dabble with a variety of styles. After all, there's more than one shade of blue(s).

The title track is closest to what Lang's longtime fans might be expecting, building on a bluesy hook that sounds like a prison chain gang, while Lang uses his own testimony and that of a friend serving a lifelong prison sentence as examples of making smart life changes. "Don't Stop for Anything," a similar redemption testimonial from a prodigal mindset, offers a killer modern blues groove resembling Lenny Kravitz's cover of "American Woman." And "The Other Side of the Fence" lays down some awesome funk to accompany a message about coveting our neighbor's blessings. There's also some soulful rock to be found in "Bump in the Road," about weathering the tough times, while "On My Feet Again" provides a Memphis pop backdrop to the power of prayer.

But the rest of Turn Around takes Lang into some new musical territory sure to polarize fans further. He's well matched in a duet with the ever-soulful Michael McDonald for the pure gospel groove of "Thankful." Despite some fuzz to the stompin' verses of "One Person at a Time," the chorus is Motown-styled gospel more reminiscent of Smokie Norful or Fred Hammond, and Lang lets loose a frenetic solo over the gospel rock finale "It's Not Over."

Another curveball is "My Love Remains," an acoustic pop ballad co-written with Steven Curtis Chapman, as Lang delivers a soft falsetto that recalls Stevie Wonder or Babyface. The similarly gentle and poignant "Only a Man," featuring Sara Watkins (Nickel Creek) on harmony and fiddle, treads into AC pop territory, while "On That Great Day" enlists the assistance of Buddy Miller and Sam Bush for a Southern gospel styled ballad.

I can see some fans getting into a huff because this is such a departure from blues. I happen to like the eclecticism, and Lang manages to keep the album coherent by weaving his bluesy sensibilities through most of the songs. If Clapton can get away with "Change the World" and "Tears in Heaven" alongside "After Midnight" and "I Shot the Sheriff," why not Lang?

The real question is whether the songs are a match to Lang's skills and varied styles. These are easily some of his most intensely personal songs to date, although the gospel testimonials seem to repeat themselves over the course of thirteen songs. Some of it is admittedly a little hackneyed and overly sentimental, but then again a lot of blues lyrics can also be clichéd yet overlooked.

Which keeps bringing us back to the undeniable talent of Jonny Lang, with his scorching guitar and impressive pipes that sound nothing like a white 25-year-old from Fargo, North Dakota. Assuming you're open to him expressing his beliefs through a variety of blues-inflected styles, it's all too easy to get caught up in the passion and proficiency with which Lang delivers his latest effort.

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