Brian McSweeney: Love Me Down

Release Date: July 20, 2015

I may have a tendency of over-selling records by artists that I’m really committed to – especially when it’s something that I’ve been waiting years to hear. But in the case of Brian McSweeney’s latest release, Love Me Down, I promise you that every word of praise is well-earned.

For the uninitiated, the ever-youthful McSweeney boasts a two-decade-long, critically-acclaimed career. Unfortunately, most of that acclaim came in the first quarter of his career fronting the bands Seven Day Jesus and Matthew. For the last few years, however, McSweeney has spent most of his time behind the scenes, working as road crew for other artists and playing gigs here and there. In the last 5 years, he released an EP and several videos and clips on YouTube – just enough to whet the appetite for something more substantial.

I spoke with Brian a year and a half ago and got a fantastic play by play of the last 15 years of life for him and the promise of something great coming down the pike. He told me of how he had discovered the music of Ray Charles and then gone out and written and recorded a soul record complete with strings and horns – a far cry from the post-alternative rock he had built his career around at the turn of the millenium. The wait for this record has been unreal.. but oh, so worth it.

The album-opener “Black Diamond” sets the stage well by leaning on classic instrumentation – keys, violins, and John Mayer-esque guitar riffs give way to a verse carried simply by the drum and bass. The composition of “Turning Pages”, juxtaposing major/minor chords against one another, makes it perhaps the most reminiscent of the artist’s previous ballads. “Pillowfight” is probably the most upbeat track and calls to mind shades of Stevie Wonder, especially on its super-hooky outro tag of “Something feels like summertime/Children laughing all the time.” While it doesn’t completely drop the soul-vibe, “Wildfire” has the most singer-songwriter feel of the whole album.

In a previous conversation, Brian mentioned his move to Nashville in the aftermath of a long, unhealthy relationship. The stains of those experiences are all over this record. “She Says #1” – which boasts an intro that brings to mind The Temptations’ classic “Papa Was a Rolling Stone” – deals with the after-effects of infidelity. The almost-cinematic “Black Friday” draws the listener into the uncomfortable scene of breakup in-progress as it builds through sweeping vocals without offering a chorus to break the tension. As rough as it is to experience, it is perhaps the best track on the album.

A conversation from many years ago about making great records often comes to mind. A producer friend was discussing his desire to make “timeless” records – albums that sound like they could have come out yesterday or thirty years ago and still be relevant. I feel like that is exactly what Brian McSweeney has done here. It’s eclectic in all the right ways pulling in sounds as varied as Sam Cooke, The Beatles, and Richard Marx, yet not a single note feels out of place. Generally speaking, I prefer to hear acoustic versions of songs, but nearly all of these tracks demand full instrumentation as though that is as integral to the piece as the melody and lyrics – that to me is the sign of an album truly transcending music and becoming art.

You can stream Love Me Down on Brian’s site and Spotify, but do yourself a favor and actually purchase it.

Also, stay tuned for a new interview with Brian coming next week.

Audio Adrenaline: Sound of the Saints

Release Date: March 4, 2015

Bands change. It’s been hard for me to accept that, but the more I’ve thought about it, the more I’ve realized it’s true. From Dio-era Black Sabbath to Van Hagar, bands not only change their personnel, but also their sound. I was both excited and intrigued when the band reformed a few years back with one of the greatest vocalists ever (Kevin Max) as their frontman. I was much more skeptical this time around as a whole new group of musicians took up the banner of a group with over two decades of history.

If you were to hand me a copy of Sound of the Saints and tell me, “name that band,” there’s no way that I could do it. This does not sound like any of the previous iterations of the group. And though we are aware that bands change, it’s only fair to go into this record eyes and ears open to the fact that you’re going to be getting something else. What you’re getting is a really solid, radio-ready record full of great hooks and fantastic melodies.

The album opener, “Move”, has gotten my 6 year old amped for soccer practice and inspired him to showcase his ninja skills against the mighty foe of our living room couch. No wonder it’s being used by NFL network, MLB network, and WWE. It’s fantastically well-crafted and is one of the band’s favorite songs on the record. The lead single, “Love Was Stronger”, is straight forward if not heavy handed but it does a great job of drawing the listener in and inviting them to sing along. “Miracles” and “World Changers”are also among the top tracks on the record.

The title track, “Sound of the Saints”, is notable as it was co-written by founding lead-singer Mark Stewart. What’s interesting is that this track represent the farthest deviation from the band’s original sound. Its folksy, camp-fire sound is echoed on “Spirit Burn.” “Saved My Soul” sounds like something that would have been well-suited for former vocalist Max.

This band means a lot to me, personally. As I told new lead singer, Adam Agee, the band’s bloom record really introduced me to “Christian Rock” music – and in going back and listening today, that album holds up surprisingly well. That’s the kind of record I want to hear when the name Audio Adrenaline comes to mind. But even the sound of that version of the band went through stages. bloom (in my opinion) was a great example of that trial-and-error finding its perfect spot. They repeated that sound, in large part, on the follow-up Some Kind of Zombie. But after that, their sound leaned a lot more toward the center and away from the edginess they had once offered.

One thing, however, that has continued to bother me, I think is worth mentioning. The original band never shied away from their Christian message, but their songs were rarely “on the nose.” They took more of the teen angst and uncertainty and inserted a Christian worldview into it. This record, however, is nothing if not explicitly evangelical… and that’s fine, I just think that it really shrinks the potential audience – especially folks like Agee and myself who discovered Christian rock music through the band.

Still, this record is perhaps the logical next step of melding mainstream CCM with a rock edge. As I mentioned, this record is well-suited for Christian radio, especially the likes of Air1. In fact, I would say that it is better than the vast majority of what is out there in this category – but it’s still hard for me to call it Audio Adrenaline, and it probably always will be.

P.S. listening back through the band’s catalog and hearing Mark Stewart’s voice get weaker and weaker with each record is so thoroughly heart-breaking and makes his brief appearance on their previous record all the more sweet.

Shane & Shane: The Worship Initiative

Release Date: April 28, 2015

Two years ago I wrote a history-filled, non-review of Shane & Shane’s Bring Your Nothing record outlining my deep love for these guys and their music alongside its far-reaching impact on me. I mention it because, in this case, my personal history with the artist drastically impacts my evaluation of the record.

Back in February of last year, I saw that Shane & Shane had set up a Kickstarter campaign for a project called The Worship Initiative, a website and resource for local church worship leaders. The site would feature song tutorials, videos, Bible studies, and more. It sounded really cool. In addition, Shane and Shane revealed that they had already recorded 100 songs for the project which would also be built into their proprietary system, but would also be available in album format to project backers. They made their goal of $150,000 and the site is live – check it out.

Last year, I noticed that the Worship Initiative “albums” were being released on Spotify and Amazon. In total, the band put out 10 albums totaling 100 songs – most of them familiar worship songs from the last 20 years, but a few were more obscure. The production quality was really basic, which was at points a turn off, but understandable given the context.

So, when I saw the announcement of this record from their label, I figured that they had culled together their favorites from that project and decided to promote it as an official release. From listening to the record, it seems like I was maybe 50% right. The songs on the official The Worship Initiative album are not found on the previous independent releases, save for two “radio edits” at the end of the record. The songs here seem like they may have been favorites that were not featured previously. The production is similar, but definitely enhanced from what we’ve heard over the last year – but it’s still not the same as the tone and style of their previous major releases.

The song choice for the album is a good mix of familiar and more obscure selections originally recorded by a variety of artists. Only one original song, “God of Ages Past,” is included. I was surprised and excited to hear a couple of my favorite songs from Hillsong bands make the cut, “Scandal of Grace” and “Man of Sorrows.” This recording was my first exposure to “Forever” (originally by Kari Jobe) – which, oddly enough, seemed to be everywhere just a couple of weeks ago. While I’m not a huge fan of the song lyrically, I really like the inclusion of “You Make Me Brave” simply because it provides a welcomed and much needed change in the tone of the record. In my opinion, the best is saved for last with “All the Poor and Powerless.”

Many of the tracks on this album sound very much the same in tone, pacing, arrangement, and even lyrical content. This makes it hard for me to sit and listen to the record as a whole – but for someone who is looking to learn these songs, each individual track is a phenomenal reference tool. Still, their previous record of worship cover songs (Dare 2 Share) felt like it had a much better flow and the songs sounded far more unique.

As a complete work, it’s hard for me to call this an album. The best descriptor that I came up with is that it is more of a “resource.” While the individual songs are great, the collection of songs does not offer the same type of flow or continuity that I would like to hear in what I would describe as an album. I’m certain that the songs hold up well in the context of the overall Worship Initiative project and fans of the band will want to hear their take on these songs. I, for one, would like to hear a live recording of a setlist like this, so that I can feel more a part of the experience.

Kevin Max: Broken Temples

[Legacy Content]

Release Date: March 10, 2015

I’ve been a fan of Kevin (Smith) Max since I first heard dcTalk’s Jesus Freak back in high school. His has been one of my favorite voices in all of music for nearly two decades now. For whatever reason, however, I lost track of his work for the better part of those years. When he signed on to helm the re-formed Audio Adrenaline a couple of years ago I was somewhat shocked and took notice of what was going on. The subsequent album that Audio A released (Kings and Queens) was pretty solid and Max’ vocals were on point. I was rather disappointed, when late last year I learned that the band had broken up because I felt that they could have come back with an even better album after having toured together for two years. [“Audio Adrenaline” still exists. No founding members are present. Max was replaced in mid-2014 and the slate was wiped clean earlier this year and re-started with 4 all new members (wha??)]

Broken Temples is Max’ twelfth studio album. The album opener “Good Kings Highway” sounds like the inevitable continuation of the Audio Adrenaline sound that was teased at the end of Kings and Queens. There’s a U2-ness to the guitar riff and Max channels his inner Bono as he did on tracks like “I Climb the Mountain.” The doubled, octave vocals create a fantastic effect and the song has a fantastically catchy melody. It is followed by “Light Me Up” which tends a bit more toward typically CCM rock – that’s not a knock, though. This track is probably more catchy than its predecessor, just not quite as inventive.

Three songs into the record, though, he loses me. “Just as I am” has a very “now” sound, it’s just not a sound that I like. There’s some electronic action going on that I find distracting and there’s something with the syncopated beat that has a ska vibe about it. “Clear” has a very 80’s tone and I think I would like it on its own, but in context it is kind of a downer sonically. But these two songs are only a blip on the radar.

The later tracks on the record return to the mainstream-ready alt-rock style that boosted the first two tracks. “That Was Then This is Now” is a slower ballad that again oozes U2 vibes all over the place. “White Horse” may be my favorite track on the record. It builds well and has a great anthemic feel. The final track “Infinite” feels a little “on the nose” to me. It’s a throwback to Max’ earlier work and has a radio-ready CCM feel – which is fine, but just doesn’t feel like what I expect from this artist.

The album also includes two remixes, sandwiched in before the final track. The remixes are by none other than Derek Webb and definitely have a feel of his previous work, specifically his Stockholm Syndrome album. Oddly, the two tracks chosen are the two that liked least on this record and the remixes didn’t do much more to endear them to me.

In the end, I think that this is a watershed record for Kevin Max. It shows that he can release a record that is mainstream approachable and still CCM friendly without losing his trademark style and edge. The songs stand on their own and could be toured with a simple acoustic setup or he could recruit any of his numerous old friends from the industry to put together a touring band and make a big production of it and he would succeed.

The Audio Adrenaline experiment brought Max back into the mainstream of “Christian music” – a hyper-selective subculture that had not readily embraced him during his post-dcTalk solo years. Now, without a record contract, Max funded the album through a PledgeMusic campaign. While he was clear about his faith in describing the record,

Lyrically, I wanted to reflect the changes I had experienced
of God working on me throughout the years. Redemption is not a foreign
word to me, it is something I have lived out and at a great cost. God has
met me in the valley of my own temptations, failures, inadequacies and
doubts. I have been tempered by defeat as well as by great success. My
legacy is the story that God is continuing to author and finish in my own
personal journey of the soul.

the Christian music industry is not one to embrace those they haven’t been hand-picked for stardom. With that in mind, it’s exciting to see the trajectory of his career from this point forward

Copeland :: Ixora

[Legacy Content]

Release Date: Oct. 24, 2014

I discovered and fell in love with the band Copeland on their last album, 2008’s You Are My Sunshine. If it had been a cassette tape, I would have worn through that record multiple times over. I started most every morning during the spring of 2009 with a complete listen. It was perfect “start the day” music for me. I reached back into their catalog and listened to some of their previous albums, but they almost felt like a different band. Needless to say, I was a bit disappointed hearing of their breakup.

That disappointment was relieved earlier this year when the band made the announcement that they would be releasing a new album, Ixora, after a 6 year hiatus. The first sample song that was released via YouTube showed the band picking up exactly where they left off. “Ordinary”

I would like to say more about this album. I almost feel like I’m phoning it in to say what I’m going to say… but it bears saying. There is some music that just fits in a certain “groove”. It’s so melodic and simple that you can’t lift a single song out of context and dissect it fairly. If you ask me for my top 10 Copeland songs, I’m not going to be able to give them to you. If you ask me about my favorite song on the record, I really can’t tell you. I put the album on and I can take my critical shoes off and just stretch my legs out and relax. And that’s the biggest part of what I love about it. I won’t call it “background music,” because I think that would be a harsh dismissal. It’s more like a well-crafted movie score for life. And there’s a place for that nearly every day.

Damien Rice: My Favorite Faded Fantasy

[Legacy Content]

Release Date: November 10, 2014

It’s hard to be very critical when one of your favorite artists only releases 3 albums in 11 years – this one after an 8-year hiatus. So, basically, Damien Rice is the Justin Timberlake of Irish singer-songwriters.

I first discovered Damien Rice while working at Starbucks back when O was released. We had “The Blower’s Daughter,” “Cannonball,” “Delicate,” and “Volcano” all in heavy rotation. Of course, I was only vaguely aware of this until a co-worker specifically called it out. Once I got my hands on that record, though, I was a huge fan. It would be another 3 years before he would release 2006’s 9 Crimes, which at times surpassed while at other points was far inferior to its predecessor. Beyond these two records, however, we’ve had little more than some B-sides, singles, and live recordings to hold us over.

So, after an extended, self-imposed exile Rice returns with eight new tracks produced by the legendary Rick Rubin (who has guided many a beloved artist back to the studio after years of silence). And while eight tracks doesn’t seem like much, I was pleased to see all of them clock in at over 4 minutes, with an 8:09 and 9:33 in there for good measure.

My Favourite Faded Fantasy opens hauntingly enough with the title-track, though it is a gentler introduction than Rice’s previous efforts. Moving into It Takes a Lot to Know a Man,” it become clear that we are listening to the character development of the protagonist whose story began all those years ago on O: older, wiser, more forlorn and less emphatic than he was on 9 Crimes.

“I Don’t Want to Change You” is a seemingly sweet (and thankfully more upbeat) change of pace; however, tucked within its sentimentality is a strong dose of navel-gazing self-pity. It isn’t until “Trusty and True” that things seem to look up for our hero. On it, Rice seems to lift himself up from his pit of despair on the angelic wings of choir. In fact, it is one of the few uses of additional vocalists on the entire album. The track itself begins to feel like a gasp of air for the listener, as well, as the singer finally realizes that “you can’t take back / what is done, what is passed” and finally invites us to “come, come alone / come with fear / come with love / come however you are / just come.”

Rubin’s production on this record is unimpeachable. While he’s never distanced himself too far from the hip hop that he cut his teeth on, he’s one-of-a-kind in what he has offered artists like Johnny Cash, Neil Diamond, and what he offers here to Damien Rice. It’s an unadulterated presentation of the artist for who he is, without the pomp and circumstance commonly found in today’s market. In fact, somewhat ironically, Rubin puts his stamp on a record like this by intentionally not putting his stamp on anything.

While there are a few moments of typical Damien Rice tropes (i.e. layered vocals, pianos, and strings), the album is noticeably missing the balancing vocals previously provided by Rice’s former partner Lisa Hannigan. The smaller number of songs helps to hide this, but Hannigan’s vocals were so much a part of “Damien Rice” the artist that it almost feels like Rice is “going solo” here for the first time in his career. That doesn’t make for a bad record, it’s just not quite the same – in the same way that Glen Hansard’s work sans Marketa Irglova lacks a certain something.

Finally, for such a well-liked and critically heralded artist, I must say that this album is not for everyone. In fact, much like the third act in a movie trilogy, it might be hard to come in here without deeply knowing parts one and two (O and 9 Crimes, respectively). Long time fans may feel a bit let down as the record starts, but will end the album filled up and hopeful… Hopeful that it won’t be another 8 years before we hear from Damien Rice again.

Bethan: Time Gone By

Release Date: Oct. 7, 2014

One of the best surprises last year came in the form of Dallas-based Bethan’s Christmas EP. I was excited to get my hands on their new full-length Time Gone By, to hear their luxuries sounds on original material. I wasn’t disappointed.

The record opens with “Low Expectations”, a track that resonated so deeply as a personal life motto: “The secret to happiness is low expectations.” The lilting pace of the melody is brilliantly off-set by singer Jessi Hall’s syncopated delivery. The low-fi guitar tones are counter-balanced by sweeping strings. While it’s hard to compare Bethan to anyone else out there, the band sites influences as varied as Tom Waits and Gershwin. I, for one, hear shades of modern Charlotte Church fused with the smokiness of jazz songstress Diana Krall.

I’m often nervous about artists who deviate too much in their sound from track to track. While the variance between these songs is not jarring, there is an interesting feeling that the listener is being taken on a journey as much through style as through melody or lyric. There are hints of jazz and even cabaret, but a thoroughly modern thread weaves the tracks together. Hall’s voice has an old-soul quality about it that is strong when it needs to be (“Beside Me”) and breezy when the song demands it (“Honeymoon”).

As a whole, this is a great record – though I would say it is “moody” and requires a bit more attention than just being something that you put on in the car during your commute. The first half is fantastic, but with a bar set so high, the second half doesn’t maintain the same momentum. Check out a live performance below, then go buy it.

Hillsong Worship: No Other Name

First thing out of the gate, as previously reported, the band formerly known as Hillsong Live is now Hillsong Worship.

While I’ve been aware of the work of Hillsong for many years, it wasn’t until last year’s Glorious Ruins that I had a proper introduction to them. That album was great, but likely overshadowed by Hillsong United’s Zion record and the massive hit “Oceans.”

The group’s latest album, No Other Name, is a solid addition to their catalog, though time will tell as to its staying power. The set list starts strong, though excitement seems to wane toward the back half of the record. Several songs are “keepers,” but most took some time to grow on me — as opposed to the immediate connection I had with their previous release.

It’s often hard to critique a worship record because there is a lot at play beyond just production values, artistic choices, and listening experience. With that in mind, I will try to be as holistic as possible with my review.

The album opens with the mellow and melodic “This I Believe,” a nice, contemporary take on the Apostle’s Creed. While far from a new concept, the structure here is really engaging. “Heaven and Earth” is a great follow up, further developing the creedal theology and introducing the album theme. The high point of the album comes on track 3, “Broken Vessels.” The nine-and-a-half minute epic weaves together new lyrics and a new tune with the classic hymn “Amazing Grace.”

With how strong Glorious Ruins and Zion were, it’s hard to not hold this record up against them. For me, Ruins was immediately engaging despite being new material. I think that a large part of the effectiveness of that record was that the LIVE aspect was really ramped up.

The crowd volume was high and the songs were melodically engaging. That made it easy to feel like I was part of an experience. On No Other Name, the crowd voices are present, but are buried in the mix — sometimes to the point that I had to really pay close attention in order to hear them.

United’s Zion was not as captivating to me right off the bat. In fact I think I turned it off after about 30 seconds. I did, however, give the Zion Acoustic Sessions more opportunity and it has become one of my favorite records of the last year. Track by track, the songs have grown on me. That style of song-writing, especially the moodier melodies, are readily present here. While there are some anthemic moments, the entire presentation just seems muted — not that that is bad thing, just not what I was expecting.

Beyond the listening experience, an album that presents itself as a worship record should be able to provide resources to the church – that is, it should be “transferrable.” (It should be said that I think this is where Live and United have served different functions in the past, with United being more artistic, and Live being more corporate-worship-oriented.)

With that in mind, I think that church leaders will be pleased with “No Other Name” because it does offer several great songs that can be immediately picked up and used in corporate settings.

All things considered, this is a good record and definitely worth the listen. I would highly recommend it to worship leaders who are looking for something to add to their Sunday morning set list.

If this record suffers it is only due to the high expectations set by its predecessors in the Hillsong catalog.

Crowder: Neon Steeple

[Legacy Content]

How many “favorite bands” have been cursed by their fans upon release of a new “experimental” album? With that in mind, the debut release by Crowder, Neon Steeple, may have the deck stacked against it from the outset.

I remember picking up David Crowder’s first independent record (billed as University Baptist Church) my first weekend at college and feeling like it was something I had never heard before. It was part of the growing “worship” music subgenre, but it was artistic, introspective and advanced. Over the years, Crowder and his Band honed their craft of great melodies, solid guitars, electronic elements, DJ samples, occasional violins and southern gospel influences. While firmly planted within their genre, they definitely expanded its definition.

Their final record, 2011’s Give Us Rest, was—in a word—dichotomous. Blazing, electronic-heavy tracks were juxtaposed against acoustic guitar-only ballads and bluegrass oriented revival hymns. Shortly thereafter, the Band re-formed after the breakup under the moniker “The Digital Age” and released an incredible EP, Rehearsals, and the man himself put out a sparse solo video for the song “After All (Holy).” These two movements made the gaps in Give Us Rest all the more apparent.

David would go on to form a band of bluegrass musicians that would operate under the name “Crowder.” The played a few gigs, released a live iTunes session, and hosted a hoedown at Passion 2013. All signs pointed to a full-on nu-grass record, perhaps in the vein of Chris Carrabba’s Twin Forks project. A full-length record was announced, with Crowder himself coining the term “folk-tronica” to describe it.

I tell you all this, because this is how expectation is built.

So, it took about a month of listening for me to overcome my own expectations. What I was looking for was something more decidedly folk. What I found was a much heavier (elec)tronica influence. At first I was asking, “How is this any different than what he has done before?” But, eventually, I found the nuance and grew to appreciate the record for what it is, not what I had wanted it to be.

The bluegrass influences are there, and they aren’t subtle. Songs like “My Beloved” and “Hands of Love” don’t shy away from their use of the banjo. “Jesus is Calling” is suited for a Sunday afternoon church-grounds potluck. And “Lift Your Head Weary Sinner” has a dark, roadhouse flair about it. But then there are tracks like “I Am,” “Come Alive” and “You Are” that sound like they may have been lifted straight out of the DCB catalog with new instrumentation added.

There don’t seem to be as many immediately catchy, “singalong” songs here as Crowder (the man) has offered in his previous work. With that in mind, I don’t know if this album easily fits into the “worship” subgenre—and maybe that’s a good thing.

David Crowder is a standout among his peers and always has been. He has always been willing to play with sound and take risks that others may not be willing to take. That should be applauded. This group together has a lot to offer as evidenced by their unofficial work (that iTunes session is definitely worth a listen).

It seems, however, that when they hit the studio they weren’t quite able to reign themselves in enough to cultivate a single sound/message/identity. This is a good record, but I would just encourage you to leave your expectations at the door.

NEEDTOBREATHE: Rivers in the Wasteland

[Legacy Content]

Growing as an artist is a hard thing. To be true to yourself you have to keep making art from where you are in life. The trick is, however, sometimes where you are in life today is a different place from where you have been in the past. As a fan of the artists, you want the people to have those experiences and have the chance to grow and change. As a fan of the music, though, it is sometimes hard to grow along with that artist.

If you’ve journeyed with NEEDTOBREATHE over the course of their first four albums, you’ve experienced some of that growth. Hitting their stride with 2009’s The Outsiders and solidifying their position on 2011’s The Reckoning, the band claimed their space as the purveyors of solid southern rock. Their previous records had tip-toed around this territory without owning the identity, and their latest effort, Rivers in the Wasteland, seems to return to those origins.

In speaking with the band, it’s clear that they have gone through a tremendous growth period. They have fought through internal strife and professional pressures and have come out on the other side with a renewed sense of purpose. As I mentioned at the beginning, I’m glad for them as individuals to be in a better place. However, in my experience, tension makes for more compelling art — maybe that’s just me.

The album opens with great promise on the slow-burn, acoustic track “Wasteland.” Then, we immediately turn west out of South Carolina and start cruising down the 5 along the coast with Brian Wilson on “State I’m In.” To be fair, A) I love the Beach Boys, B) the similarity really stops once the verse starts, and C) it’s a great song; it just doesn’t feel like a NEEDTOBREATHE song.

And this is the story of much of Rivers in the Wasteland: lots of great songs, but they just don’t feel very cohesive and don’t sound like what we’ve come to expect from the band. They hit home runs on tracks like “Oh, Carolina,” perhaps the most similar to the southern rock sound we’ve come to expect. The heartfelt and mellow “Difference Maker” also has the downhome honesty that’s easy to love, but then we’re stuck by the unexpected 80’s flavor of “Where the Money Is.”

It’s worth noting that lyrically this album plays into a greater faith context than their last couple of records, again hearkening back to their earlier days. While the band has never been shy about their faith, this one waves the banner a bit more explicitly than either Outsiders or, especially, The Reckoning did. As one of the few “Christian” bands to achieve mainstream acceptance in recent years, it will be interesting to see the general public’s reception of this album. Certainly, it will endear them to a wider Christian audience who may have been only marginally aware of them up to this point.

As such, Rivers in the Wasteland will serve as a solid introduction for new fans to get to know the band. It will showcase their versatility and will likely make for a great live experience. As the years pass, however, it will be interesting to see the place that the album and its individual songs take in the band’s history and ever-growing catalog.