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Where the Past Meets Today

  • reviewed by Russ Breimeier Copyright Christianity Today International
  • 2006 1 Aug
Where the Past Meets Today
Sounds like … classic rock ballads with a voice that's part Janis Joplin and Grace Slick, part Alanis Morissette and Jennifer Knapp, and part Rita SpringerAt a glance … Sarah Kelly has a great rock vocal and an appealing classic rock style with honest lyrics, but most all of the songs are saddled with generic encouragement and the same slow rock ballad styleTrack Listing The Beauty of It All Still Breathing Hold on Love About Midnight Between the Lines Out of Reach What You Leave Behind Fall Into You In Your Eyes Believe Again Remember Me Well

Debuting in 2004 with Take Me Away, Sarah Kelly sang and the Christian music biz snapped to attention. Most would say it's the voice—that wonderfully passionate rock vocal that was strangely bold yet fragile, comparable to Janis Joplin for many. Others would cite the honesty with which she approached worship in her songwriting, though with a lot of mid-tempo songs, some felt she needed to do better at varying herself stylistically

All these qualities helped make Kelly a breakout artist two years ago, and most of them are back for her sophomore effort. The only significant difference is the lyrical focus. Instead of worship, most of these songs were inspired by Kelly's personal life struggles—including a history of abusive relationships. It's led her to become even more emotionally honest, making Where the Past Meets Today something of a prayer journal where she lays herself bare.

One of the key themes is finding beauty in the broken and strength in weakness, as heard in "Between the Lines." Fearfully and wonderfully made, our "flaws" help shape and define us. And as referenced in "The Beauty of It All," there's always grace for the fallen. "About Midnight," one of the album's stronger tracks, uses Psalm 23 imagery to cope with dark times and fears during a late-night hour of prayer. "Out of Reach" reflects the album's title as an example of one who has left her past behind and changed her life through the strength of Jesus. Such change isn't easy ("What You Leave Behind"), but it's through surrender ("Fall Into You") that we're able to move on from pain ("Remember Me Well").

Though the album reveals an emotional journey, the problem is that much of it is generically hopeful. "Still Breathing," for example, doesn't offer much depth beyond "The best part is coming" and "It's never too late." Similar all-encompassing encouragement is found in "Hold on Love"—"It's all on the line, but you'll be alright/Lift up your head, you must be strong." Such comforting words can serve as the perfect balm under the right circumstances, but they don't demonstrate creative or poetic songwriting. How much stronger a testimonial it might have been if Kelly gone a little deeper or more distinctive with the lyrics.

Of course, most are drawn to Kelly's delivery more than her song craft. Bearing a similar classic rock influence, Kelly describes her sound as the place "where Keith Green meets Led Zeppelin," and that's not far off. Indeed, there are tracks like "Still Breathing" and "Believe Again" where you can imagine her stepping in for Robert Plant in a way that only Janis Joplin, Grace Slick, or Alanis Morissette could. Though this album doesn't sound any more produced than the last, it was helmed by Mike Clink, a Christian best known for overseeing Guns N' Roses' 1988 breakthrough Appetite for Destruction. And in fact, GN'R guitarist Slash lends his skill to a couple of tracks, as does bassist Chris Chaney (Jane's Addiction, Morissette).

Here again we're left with mixed results. On the one hand, "Hold on Love" has some soulful rock grit that benefits from a choir toward the end, and "The Beauty of It All" appealingly resembles Morissette's hit "Hand in My Pocket." But ultimately, Where the Past Meets Today ends up as a succession of slow rock ballads that rarely go beyond 80 bpm. And with one after another, barely altering the instrumentation, this can be a boring listen for some. It's the same problem that Take Me Away had, but magnified—it's all homogenous. I'd love to hear Kelly mix it up with fast rock or heavy metal, throw in an acoustic track, and considering her talent, why not a song where she sings alone at the piano? The closest she comes to this is with the soft richness in the orchestration of "Remember Me Well."

For that matter, there's nothing here quite as catchy as last album's "Take Me Away" or "Living Hallelujah"—no melodies that instantly grab the ear. Still, with rawness in both Kelly's vocal and her lyrical honesty, there's much to admire in her overall style. I only wish she knew how to vary it more, though most people don't seem to mind. As noted before, it's that voice—that strangely bold yet fragile rock vocal. With her passionate delivery, Kelly leaves no doubt that she believes what she's singing, and in the end she may have you believing it too.

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