Newsong: Swallow the Ocean

Release Date: Feb 26, 2013

Newsong is a curious case study. They were founded in 1981 as vocal group that would most likely dwell in the Phillips, Craig, and Dean or 4Him domain. Over the last 32 years, founding members Eddie Carswell and Billy Goodwin have welcomed a variety of partners into their musical legacy and weathered the changing tides of the music industry by adapting their sound to fit the times.

Over the decades, they have launched solo careers (Russ Lee and Charles Billingsley), provided a home for floundering solo artists (Michael O’Brien) and passed their musicians on to greater success (Scotty Wilbanks to Third Day). They’ve gone from four vocal members to groups of seven or eight including musicians. And they’ve adapted from the sounds of early 80’s CCM to playing their own instruments on stage and leading their own brand of worship concerts. It’s a system that is rarely employed, but occasionally works to great advantage (see also Gaither Vocal Band).

I fell in love with the group when they were fronted by vocalist Russ Lee in the mid-90’s. Lee has one of the most unique voices in Christian music and when he left to pursue his solo career, I lost interest in the group. Even though they did add the aforementioned Michael O’Brien (whose solo work I loved) and achieved their biggest hit, “The Christmas Shoes” with him on the team, I just never latched on. Since Russ Lee’s return two albums ago, I’ve found my interest renewed.

Sharing in the vocal duties are Goodwin, Carswell, and Matt Butler who kicks things off on the album’s lead single, “Swallow the Ocean.” It’s rare that you find a group that is able to deliver the vocal chops of a traditional quartet along with solid musicianship. “Ocean” allows Butler the opportunity to showcase what he can do while the other vocalists play their respective parts seamlessly. Viewing the music video for the song, the group appears completely credible as a “rock band” while delivering vocally in a way that most rock bands simply can’t.

The record drives hard with straight forward, up-beat music and intentional, direct lyrics. As with any band with multiple lead vocalists, everyone is going to have their favorite. Butler handles the bulk of the lead vocal duties throughout the record with Lee and Goodwin taking turns throughout. The extended digital version includes an additional three songs not found on the CD. One of those bonus tracks, “Furious,” features Russ Lee’s best performance on the record.

When I noticed “In Christ Alone” on the tracklist, I was desperately hoping for a Lee-led cover of the Michael English classic. Rather, what we get is the Stuart Townend worship song of the same name (equally a classic) led by Goodwin. While he is the right choice for the track, once I had imagined the former, I just couldn’t give up the dream. Other standout tracks include Lee’s “As it is in Heaven” and Butler’s “Creator” (bonus track).

Listening to this album, you would not imagine that it came from a band that has been around for 30 plus years. The entire package is utterly (to borrow and over-used term) relevant; musically, lyrically, and vocally. While they may not be an A-list group whose records people are waiting for with bated breath, all of those A-listers would be lucky to have a career half as long as Newsong.

While doing research, I stumbled across this phenomenal video of Russ playing a needtobreathe song all alone with his Alvarez.