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Christian Music - Reviews, News, Interviews

What Light Is All About

  • reviewed by Russ Breimeier Copyright Christianity Today International
  • 2003 1 Mar
What Light Is All About
Sounds like … country flavored folk pop, most reminiscent of Shawn Colvin, Allison Krauss, Susan Ashton, and Rich MullinsAt a Glance … the charming sound and simple-but-meaningful lyrics make this a strong start for the next phase of the trio's rapidly blooming career

Based on some of the preliminary buzz surrounding Alathea (pronounced "uh-LAY-thee-uh," the greek word for truth), you might believe this female trio is Christian music's answer to the Dixie Chicks, or a country/bluegrass version of Point of Grace. It's understandable that someone could pigeonhole them that way, but it inaccurately implies shallow twang and cliché, of which Alathea has neither. The album sticker describes the style as "Roots-Hybrid music" for fans of the O Brother, Where Art Thou? soundtrack, which is a little closer in style to the music found on their national debut, What Light Is All About.

Alathea's music could best be described as folk pop, very earthy, with touches of country and bluegrass — they like to call it "PopAlachian". It recalls elements of Shawn Colvin, Allison Krauss (Union Station), Jill Phillips, Nickel Creek, Andrew Peterson, Susan Ashton (especially the acclaimed Ashton, Becker, Denté project, Along the Road), Rich Mullins, and yes, even a hint of Dixie Chicks meets Point of Grace. The Rich Mullins comparison is especially appropriate since this album was produced by independent artist Michael Aukofer, who was a close friend and bandmate of the late great songwriter (much like Mitch McVicker). While there is a very folksy country sound to the instrumentation of this album, it is tempered with a healthy dose of pop songwriting, and the results are delightful.

The three young women who make up Alathea met as college students (two from Milligan College, one from East Tennessee State University) where they spent much of their time ministering to local teens through Young Life. They became fast friends, eventually rooming together in a cabin in Eastern Tennessee and sharing their common love of music. Discovering they could connect with teens and college students via their songwriting, they formed the band and took to the road. Mandee Radford is the lead singer, guitarist, and primary songwriter. She is joined by the backing vocals of Carrie Theobald (accordion, flutes, harmonica) and Cristi Johnson (mandolin, percussion). After five years together, Alathea had already released two independent projects before signing with Rocketown Records.

What's most charming about this album is the combination of the Americana sound with the thoughtful and poetic lyrics. Colored with acoustic guitar, dobro, banjo, cello, and B-3 organ, the opening track, "Indian Creek," draws on the girls' home environment as an example of God revealing his presence through nature: "I saw the stars tonight for the first time in weeks … It's not like they haven't been shining, it's just that I didn't see … I feel what light is all about when it cuts through my dark / I feel what light is all about when I hand Him my heart." Similarly, the very folksy "Hike to Maine" uses the Appalachian Trail (which runs near their cabin from Georgia to Maine) as a metaphor for life and our daily spiritual walk. The roots pop of "My Family" praises the kindness of friends and strangers that make up our extended family: "I know we need each other like the trees need the rain / Our Father brought us together to love in his name / I will thank my God every time I remember you."

For more of the country pop sound, there's "Faithful One," which turns to God for his steady and unfailing presence: "Oh, me of little faith, I can't make mountains move / But with each little step, I get closer to the truth / So I won't walk, I'll run, to the faithful one." The upbeat pop of both "Runaway Heart" and "Smiled on Me" brings to mind the countrified Point of Grace sound because of the girls' tight harmonies. As Sandra McCracken has done for Caedmon's Call, Alathea contemporizes the 19th-century hymn "O Love That Will Not Let Me Go" to a bright country pop sound while still preserving thoughtful text such as: "O Light that followest all my way / I yield my flickering torch to thee / My heart restores its borrowed ray / That in thine shunshine's blaze its day may brighter, fairer be." The trio takes a stab at writing their own contemporary hymn with the prayerful "Always," which is reminiscent of the songwriting of Andrew Peterson, Rich Mullins, and Allison Krauss.

These folk/country tunes are nicely balanced with some less downhome pop songs. "Emmanuel" is a beautiful and earthy little Christmas ballad (orchestrated with strings, guitars, piano, and recorders) that may be one of the best new holiday anthems since Chris Rice's "Welcome to Our World." On the tender folk song "I Will Walk," which explains all that God requires of us, Mandee's fragile voice almost sounds like Kate Bush or Tori Amos in the chorus. Especially poignant is the mellow folk pop of "Broken Down," a song of humility and how we should demonstrate faith by making our brokenness known to Christ so that he will heal us: "I will rise and go to Jesus — he won't mind my mess."

Alathea is sure to become a favorite for many in the coming year, thanks to the simple, but meaningful lyrics and the wonderfully charming folk pop sound. The production by Michael Aukofer is refreshingly different from the Nashville norm, and he has surrounded Alathea with a very talented team of studio musicians. Veteran session player, Phil Madeira, has a field day coloring the sound with an array of country blues instruments.

Everyone involved did a great job of avoiding sounding too much like the Dixie Chicks, though it would have been nice if they had taken the sound into some more distinct territory. A taste of hardcore country or bluegrass might have been a welcome change of pace to the somewhat understated folk-pop that comprises this album.

Nevertheless, Alathea certainly ranks among the best additions to the Rocketown roster in recent years, and they hit the ground running with the very enjoyable What Light Is All About.