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Christian Music - Reviews, News, Interviews

Wide Wide World

  • reviewed by Russ Breimeier Copyright Christianity Today International
  • 2003 1 Oct
Wide Wide World
Sounds like … sometimes thoughtful and sometimes clichéd adult contemporary pop, resembling Cindy Morgan, Nichole Nordeman, and Michelle BranchAt a glance … a few relatively bland songs are balanced with some strong ones, with much credit due to O'Donnell's collaboration with Cindy Morgan

Erin O'Donnell has had an up-and-down career, coming close to breaking big on multiple occasions. Her first two albums (1996 and '98) were released on Cadence Records, which folded just when things were going well for her. She received a second chance with Word Records in 2001, but No Place So Far was a disappointment, critically and commercially, and O'Donnell was one of several artists released from the label. Yet in a business where you usually get just one shot, the 32-year-old wife and mother is trying for the third time, thanks to a new deal with Inpop Records. Her fourth album is entitled Wide Wide World.

In some ways, it's surprising that O'Donnell hasn't enjoyed more success. She has an impressive and expressive voice capable of handling a wide range of genres—as edgy as Alanis Morrissette on one song, as soft-spoken as Amy Grant on the next. Makes sense, as she is a trained jazz vocalist from University of Miami. That's where she met her husband, Brad O'Donnell, who is a prominent record label executive in Nashville—formerly with Word, he's now the senior director of Sparrow's A&R staff.

O'Donnell's husband has always been involved in writing her music, and sadly, that's a weakness in some of her songs. Brad adequately captures Erin's thoughts and ideas through music, and the melodies are pleasant enough. But some of his songs are just more typical Christian AC—serviceable radio singles, sure, but memorable? "Thank You (Get It Right)" is a well-intentioned but overly simplistic pop song of gratefulness for all of God's blessings. "You Knew" wrestles with experiencing pain in light of God's plans, but many artists have done better on the subject. To be fair, though, "You Knew" nicely expresses doubt and faith: "Something's tearing open the atmosphere/A hurting that can never come undone/Someone who was here is now gone for good/And I am wondering how to carry on."

It's not that Brad O'Donnell can't write a good song. The title track, undoubtedly one of many to come from the industry inspired by Rick Warren's best-selling The Purpose-Driven Life, is a well-written pop/rock song. Strangely reminiscent of Michelle Branch and former Word labelmate Paige Lewis, it's about doing the right thing for the Lord's sake: "It's adventure that we want/And it's what we'll finally get/There's nothing safe about You/But sometimes I forget." The energetic "You Were the One" contrasts how we focus on ourselves with how we simply need to focus on Christ.

Another album highlight is the Nathan Lee-penned "I Love How You Love Me," which bears strong resemblance to Faith Hill or Patty Smythe ("Sometimes Love Just Ain't Enough"). It's a formulaic country-pop song saved by honest and straightforward lyrics, combined with Erin's fine vocal delivery. The album's closer, "You Give," is a beautiful hymn-like piano ballad that especially allows O'Donnell to give a stirring and convincing performance.

But the album's real ace in the hole is a handful of tracks collaboratively written by O'Donnell and Cindy Morgan (another one-time Word labelmate). These three songs strongly bear Morgan's fingerprints, with a power and intelligence that neatly fit O'Donnell's passionate vocals (which often resemble Morgan's). "And So I Am" is playfully creative and catchy piano pop, challenging women to be more than "just" moms, wives, or employees, but to be faithful and loving servants of God. "Golden" cleverly illustrates how God can make trial and tragedy work for good: "Two left feet trying to walk the narrow/In this world full of twists and turns/Where You will lead my heart wants to follow/So every day begins and ends with hope." Parents will especially enjoy "This Is My Prayer," a wonderful blessing that wishes children the best as they grow in the Lord.

Wide Wide World reunites O'Donnell with producer Alain Mallet (Jonatha Brooke), who previously helmed her 1998 project, Scratching the Surface—generally considered her best to date. The disc also features some production by Mark Hammond, best known for his work with Nichole Nordeman. Bearing all that in mind, Wide Wide World is not as cerebral as Nordeman's work, but I imagine the songs will still appeal to Nordeman's fans as AC pop expressions of honesty, faith, and doubt. Similarly, the album is better than No Place So Far, balancing the blander tracks with some strong ones. It should be enough to keep Erin O'Donnell with a label for more than an album or two.