A new artist for me! my first impression was how accurate his vocal was. Strange comment I guess, but it just hit me – his soulful vocal over delightful piano. Well that’s is for the first 47 seconds! Then, in comes the orchestrations and gospel harmonies. The hooks in the choruses of ‘Brighter Days’ and ‘Your Love’ had me singing along. (This doesn’t happen often). The production is really good, with just enough reverb, for me. Listening to ‘Feel Good’ it reminded me of Stevie Wonder, and then he brings in the phrase “Songs in the key of life!” Cross that with Lionel Richie and you are not far off in sound and feel. Pain and struggle appear in ‘Believe,’ but even this brings out positivity. The next track had me going again ‘Rollin’ has a blues guitar behind the vocals too. ‘Won’t Be Long Now’ is anthemic. There’s a gentle cry in the verse. Then, the choir and band proclaim change is going to come. Magnificent! The title track is a modern sounding song, reminding us of family and belonging. Musically this continues for ‘I’ll Take It.’ ‘Look at Love’ exposes Blessings vocal talent due to the sparse acoustic guitar backing augmented with electric and drums. The song made a nice change of pace to the album. ‘Last for Now’ has interesting instrumentation, including trombones and honkytonk piano. I spent more time pulling the instrumentation apart on this one, than listening to the lyrics, yet still noticing the intricate backing vocals. ‘My Tribe’ is a well put together album, with good production (as you would expect) from Sparrow Records. Blessing has very good vocals. Reminiscent of so many artists from my life, and yet individual enough to be unique. 9/10 Noel Donaldson.
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NFN Music Review – KRISTIAN STANFILL : Make It Out Alive . (Capitol CMG)
Looking a little into Kristians story, I find he went through difficult personal times in the past few years, and this recording comes as he was starting to recover and discovered a deeper meaning for his life. His website says “Somewhere along the way, I started writing songs. I wasn’t writing for a record. I wrote for survival. I wrote to heal. I needed to process the moment. At some point I started to think maybe these songs could help someone else find hope at a low point”. I got half way through the title track before pausing and finding out more about Kristian and the background for the recording, as I’d been been challenged within moments of the previous song ‘Show Me Who You Really Are.’ It didn’t feel as this was going to be yet another album by someone who just releases regularly to continue their career. The title of the CD reminded me of Pilgrims Progress and, if I can use After The Fire’s Pilgrim lyrics which paraphrases the book, “Through the “Valley of Humiliation” Was there I fought for my life with the one that I used to serve, Then the “Valley of the Shadow of Death” it hung over me. I never thought that I’d see the light of day again”. But, I digress! Back to the album. Musically, it’s very comfortable pop, I guess, with guitar and keyboard leading the way. There are good arrangements, and the songs have a very uplifting feel, as his message clings onto you mind and heads for your heart. The music builds gently and before you realise it starts to be anthemic. I like the simplicity of ‘We Need People.’ Maybe there’s too much reverb in places but as I look past that, again, his message is so true, we need people! It’s a beautiful song, and followed by another called ‘Grace.’ Here, we have nice musical pads over the acoustic sounds, plus well composed percussion enhance the message. I found it nice to hear Kristian’s version of Keith Green’s ‘My Eyes Are Dry.’ Simply done, with just guitar and vocals. It’s rather special and fits in well with the overall CD. Overall I enjoyed this album. There’s nothing loud, no guitar solos, just gentle songs which flow from his heart and experiences of a life growing closer to his maker. The final track ‘Change You’ plots his life, family, relationships. Looking back to look forward. 10/10 Noel Donaldson.
NFN Review – EVVIE McKINNEY : Love. (Capitol CMG)
Record of the Month
I usually listen to a release without any research and then dip into the internet as I go through, if I want a bit more detail. This review is on that basis, Evvie is not an artist that I was aware of, so I had no knowledge of her history which (for me) is a good way to listen. Therefore, I can focus on therelease in question, and not a person’s history of reputation. I listened to ‘Church’ and my thoughts were, this is pop/modern Gospel mixture. Then I got to the bridge. As someone who doesn’t really settle when I am out, if I go to a concert I am watching what is happening with the sound, the crowd and the reaction of others. This is due to me putting on so many concerts and tours. I look for things going wrong. The bridge spoke directly to me ‘When the bells start ringing, when the choir starts singing, the preacher starts preaching I know I’m home’. Home for me is special, any song about going home gets to me (Paul Poulton’s Fire tonight or Lindesfarne’s Run for home being the best examples that come to mind). So, when Evvie sang that I felt comfortable knowing she felt the same. Sorry I digress! Is this a review or a book!! Listening to the backing tracks I enjoyed the construction, a full sound. I love the brass arrangement on ‘This House’, as well as the breakdown before the final verse and chorus, that brings back the vocals and the message being put across. ‘Look No Further, has a slight change of direction which is absolutely right for radio. Evvie’s amazing voice really shines out of this song, I was singing along – which is not like me. ‘Satisfied’ is a duet with Dante Bowe which is really good. There’s a clear message, and as a musician, I really wanted to play along with this one! The guitar work on ‘I Can Do All Things,’ ‘Just Like God’ ans ‘Do It Again’ is just stunning! This release is really good. The production and arrangements are well balanced, the vocals superb and the lyrics well written. Consisting of gospel, soul, funk, there’s also a touch of blues here and there. Listening to this album, the title of track 9 sums me up perfectly – I’m ‘Feelin’ Good.’ 10/10. Noel Donaldson.
NFN Review – TOBY MAC : Life After Death. (Capitol CMG).
First I must copy the comments from his website to put context to the album. “As a long-standing staple in the Christian music industry since for over 30 years and recovering from the tragic loss of his firstborn son in late 2019, TobyMac’s eighth full-length studio album shares a story that has built anticipation for several reasons. The album encapsulates the entire two-and-a-half-year journey from Truett’s passing to the release of Life After Death” I really didn’t know what to expect from this album, especially the subject with other events here in the UK. Truett’s death (Toby’s son) was due to an accidental overdose, a 21 year old. As a parent where do you go with this? Singer/rapper Tobymac went to his Lord and, of course, God was waiting.
Track 1 & 2 let you know ‘Help is on the way’ and ‘The Goodness’. Both arepositive reactions to Gods presence in the circumstances. The goodness is such a good song a bit of jazz and blues mixed with regular rap backing featuring anthemic powerful backing vocals. Love the sentiment and the song construction. ‘Deeper’ has a nice line in it: “Deeper, I’m getting tired of the surface.” I love that line. ‘Show up choose love’ is another upbeat song with a gospel feel. Very listenable which draws you into the lyrics. I noticed in the running list that ‘Promised Land’ featured Sheryl Crow and I looked forward with anticipation to this. The overall sound is fantastic, a duet. And, then, Sheryl lifts it to another level, on this country rock song with a crossover beat. It’s the best track yet and I am enjoying this album! The first sad song on the album is ‘Everything about you.’ The song in context is a parents love pouring out for the loss of a child, I miss everything about you. As with everything on the album so far, the production and instrumentation is really good and this track is a reflective viewing, with an acceptance through time, of the tragic loss suffered. You do hear the hope in the vocals particularly in the next song. It would be human to question God in these circumstances yet the trust and commitment to God seems to strengthen the artist. ‘Faithfully’ confirms this. The album continues with ‘21 years,’ ‘I’m sorry (a Lament) and Rest’. Reflections and grateful thanks for a life lived and a God who knows what He is doing. A very touching recording I feel blessed to have heard. Tobymac is a singer/rapper and honestly it is not a musical direction I would normally listen to. So, Toby, I can only say thank you for sharing this. I hope your message is what I heard and my comments respectful to you and your family. Noel Donaldson 10/10
NFN Review – NAOMI RAINE : Journey. (Tribl Records)
Naomi is an artist that I have not heard before, so I was not sure what to expect. Looking at the running order of the album, it has 22 tracks, some as short as half a minute. The title track has a keyboard and harp backing amongst sound effects. It does sound a little like a ‘free’ song worship. Perhaps an off the cuff, spirit lead piece which you could expect in a ministry time. As yet, I cannot see the purpose of it on the album, though the message could be relevant to the listener. Track 2 brings in Sparkies magic piano, which is all I remember. That, and the vocal ‘I’ve got pending emotions’ – all 49 seconds of it. Naomi has a great voice and the songs are well put together, with good backing voices and interesting backings. You are waiting for the “but”! For me, a more conventional backing band on the first few songs would have helped concentrate on the message I believe Naomi is wanting to share. Included in the track listing are what are called Car Chats. These are short one way conversations which are giving spoken advice or comments. Again I’ve no problem with the chats’ content, but why put them on an album? I wondered if Naomi was presenting these in documentary style, linking the songs together. ‘Not Ready’ is the first conventional contribution, more of what I was looking for. The style is Jazz gospel. It’s very well done, with nice nice guitar work, and I love the bass lines. I really like this song! ‘Safe’ follows in similar style and I could listen to this over and over again. (I also liked the unusual backing vocals in this song, too). As the album went on, I found myself enjoying it more. ‘Choosing Myself’ has some really interesting pads on the backing track. Of the lyrics, I guess Naomi is right, she is who she is, and that is how she is made. The message; We all need to make the right choices. At this point, I thought “maybe I am getting the concept, it could be a documentary about her to herself?” We seem to be looking into a person’s life, doubts, positive messages spoken to herself, yet open to let others walk in the shoes she has worn to lift them too. The album ends with 3 more good songs which are full of positivity. You know Naomi is ok and going to be an influence to those she ministers to. So after a bumpy start, I finally quite like this album. For me, maybe better as a documentary, but still an interesting listen. Noel Donaldson 7/10.
CITIZENS : A Thousand Shores. (Integrity Music)
Having not heard anything by Citizens previously, I listened to this EP of 5 tracks with complete freshness. The title track had me wondering who they were singing about? I could easily guess from the reasonably standard Christian speak we all use in the church, but someone unaware could hear it as a love song to their other half. It’s not until after 3 minutes they sing the name of Jesus. I only mention this as many years ago we had a song we sang in church, which was a favourite of mine. Someone, then, pointed out it could be to anyone as no name was in the lyrics. Musically, I really like it. The stereo keyboard patch that bounces left to right throughout made me listen more to the instrumentation as I tried to pick out the various parts. It’s a very dance culture based track and put together well. ‘Hide No More’ has, again, many keyboard layers and the modern reverb atmospheric overload filling a large tonal range soundscape. I like the sentiment and the vocal style which is right for the song to me. The drum track is interesting in itself, as it dominates the early stages and is absorbed by the aforementioned keyboard pads. I didn’t like the start of ‘Lovelight,’ with its backward keyboard sounding loops, moving into a drum break before the beat is established. Then, it progresses with a pleasant vocal and almost traditional band track. There’s a nice bass and balance of sounds which then goes into the chorus – which for me lets it down. A minor moan here. There appears to be no attention to diction on ‘I’m waiting for the Light, as it sounds like ‘I’m waiting for the lie’ which for the none lyrics reader puts the song in a different light (no pun intended). The number, then, moves into glorious reggae and what a guitar solo! Magnificent!.It’s the best song by for so far for me despite of previous remarks. ‘Imagination’ is a mix of sounds which shouldn’t work yet they seem to pull it through. Must be a youth thing! Finally, we come to ‘Everything And More,’ which is mixture of sound patches knitted together. The chorus which is the title repeated is a great sentiment and a lasting memory of a well produced EP. 8/10 Noel Donaldson.
NFN Review – KATY WEIRICH : Out of the Blue. (https://katyweirich.com)
A six song offering from Katy, begins with an in your face, wall of sound worship song, which I couldn’t help but like. As I pulled the arrangement of ‘Majestic One’ to bits. to look at the construction. There, I found partially hidden gems, such as the backing vocals which punctuate, sounding like plucked violin or harp strings “prince of peace.” The arrangement does seem a little heavy for Katy’s voice, but I found it endearing. It reminded me a little of the UK band Phatfish vocally, where Lou Fellingham’s audial smile is always heard. ‘More’ is a change of pace, which is simplified for the final track as a piano version. Guess I like the piano version, which is stripped back but includes the orchestration – which is worth examining on its own. Well written and well produced. Lyrically, the EP is very Christian-phrased, full of church language but fits perfectly in the context of a personal worship album. Katy shares her faith within the worship and is drawing you in to a closer place. ‘Fear Not’ is a prime example of this, plus it is just a beautiful song. ‘Blue Jay’ hits so many buttons on my list of likes. Again, when it builds, the backing vocals are superb, as well as the orchestral arrangement. I could listen to this again and again! After listening to this release, it left me wanting to find out more about Katy and her music. This collection contains well written songs and a great voice. Just one fault…….it ends too soon! 10/10 Noel Donaldson.
NFN Review – CASPAR McCLOUD BAND : Walking in Authority. (https://www.casparmccloudmusic.com)
I remembered reviewing an earlier release by Casper McCloud and his band, and I REALLY liked it. Being a classic rock/prog rock fan, the sound was right where I wanted to be. So, when I was asked to review this new release, I quickly found time to listen. Just for the uninitiated, Caspar McCloud is an accomplished portrait artist, an equestrian, a virtuoso guitarist, singer, and songwriter, as well as an ordained minister, and author. Caspar presently pastors a church called, “The Upper Room” in Roswell, GA, when he is not out traveling as a musician and a guest speaker. Instantly, I was hooked by this 24 track, 2 disc release. My immediate thought was it is reminiscent of Dave Flett (Manfred Manns Earth Band) and Thin Lizzy, among other bands and his style of guitar playing – plus occasional touches of Eddie Van Halen, too. Throughout the album, the listener is treat to driving beats, loud guitars, guitar soloing and spiritual lyrics. Not necessarily songs to have on in the car driving through a slow-down zone, but windows down, singing top of your voice! So, to the song themselves. ‘Up to Something’ has direct lyrics that challenge the devil on his actions and crimes against humanity. Alongside Caspar’s vocals, are thundering guitar riffs and drum breats, before his trademark solo sound appears during a short break. Then, we mustn’t forget the Rene Truex’s electric fiddle playing! The following ‘Gather’ is a slightly lighter tune that is calling us to gather around Jesus and the simple truths; ‘He is willing to deliver and receive us’ ‘Knowing the truth makes you free.’ Track 5 is a change of feeling. There’s a more positive set of riffs, a brighter sound, and great bass lines. If that’s not enough, there’s some great, vocal harmonies, as Caspar asks if you are ‘Unredeemable?’ The song is a reminder that no-one is beyond redemption. It’s a simple gospel message, with a violin rock solo, which then makes away for more screaming guitar licks. As I write, I’m not a quarter of the way through the CD and I already want to start it again, as it is so good! I would love to comment on each track but the review would be just too long. Just an acoustic guitar and strings are used on ‘No Eye Has Seen.’ The feel is almost McCartneyish, yet distinctly Caspar. Lyrically, you could imagine it being pulled from scripture as it is portrayed as a psalm. Yet these are Caspar’s own words. ‘What You’re looking For’ has a touch of The Travelling Wilberys about it. Close my eyes, and I could visualise the likes of Tom Petty and Bob Dylan singing this one! I try not to find group styles when describing tracks here and there. But, I guess, we have similar musical roots and it brings so many memories of great bands, and this band is no exception! The second disc continues with a mix of Rock, Country rock and, now and again, good pop songs such as ‘Darker and Lighter.’ Lyrically, the song tells of the darkness of this world, but also offers the light of the world in the shape of our Saviour. Another highlight of the track listing is ‘Watch and Pray.’ It’s back to pure rock with a great arrangement. Once again, those violin sounds flow over grungy guitars, while Caspar reminds us to watch and pray. There are so many great tracks, and even an instrumental or two! Joined by his musical comrades, Carlos Merced on drums, Donovan SL on keyboards, the previously mentioned Rene on violin, Caspar’s band are unique, yet so familiar at times. As well as during the sung lyrics, you can feel the joy of being able to convey God’s love in such a way. I would love to see the band live. In the meantime, I look forward to listening this again and again. 10/10 Noel Donaldson
NFN Review – IAN YATES : Between The Joy And The Sorrow (Part 1). (www.7coremusic.co.uk)
I was aware of Ian Yates through Elim Sound, but this is the first time I have listened to his solo music It is a 2 part recording, with part 2 to be released in September. Starting with a song of less than a minute, (The Way) it shows me Ian is not afraid of conformity when it comes to recording. It would seem to be a very introverted album, not the praise and worship I would normally associate with him. He moves from reviewing his life so far, the need to grow even closer to God, to walking with God, as on ‘Orange Skies.’ ‘40 Years’ starts off with acoustic guitar, before it moves into an almost spatially haunting soundscape. These sounds compliment the softly sung lyrics, leading you to listen and look at your own life. I love ‘Don’t Leave Me Here.’ I like the guitar start, and when the piano arrives there, maybe, a touch too much reverb. But, it’s still very effective. I also enjoyed how the 1234 strumming gets picked up by the piano. It some respects, it’s a very empty song musically, yet filled by the heartfelt vocals. ‘Without Love I Am Nothing’ is based entirely on 1 Corinthians 13. My initial listen found me liking the first wo minutes. Then, I was waiting for it to develop into fresh lyrics and music, giving the song a more personalised content from the man himself. There’s a more upbeat feel about ‘God You’ve Never Failed Me.’ Musically, the track builds really well, with the drums/percussion only appearing towards the end. With them comes more instruments. Ian’s vocals on “God You’ve never failed me” certainly calls for the crescendo of sound and are very fitting. Previously the drums are either very well hidden or just absent. I did listen carefully throughout and their absence was refreshing. The final track Sit At My Feet’ is sung from God’s point of view. We have been busy, preoccupied etc and Ian sings; “And I know you don’t mean to be far away.” It reminds me of how life gets crowded and we lose sight of God, whether we are doing good things or not. God is saying spend time at my feet. I, simply, love how the music, then, continues without vocals giving the listener time to sit at Gods feet. Ian’s wish for the album is honesty – his and ours. With this collection of songs, he’s got it right for me. 10/10 Noel Donaldson
NFN Review – BRANDON HEATH : Enough Already. (Centricity Music)
As I start this review, it may help the reader to know that I am old. This album would probably be better suited for my children, but, I will continue with my thoughts. The release has a very contemporary sounding start, with lots of repeated vocal lines. And, that is how it grows on you! There are nice harmonised vocals throughout – just enough, not overbearing. I quite like. For me, by track 3 (‘This Changes Eveything’), the reverb is bugging me. There’s just too much. It seems to be an attempt to give a slightly live feel, but I wasn’t keen. Pleasingly it disappears as the album goes on. ‘That’s Enough’ is the best track so far. The hook on the chorus works very well, and the lyrics are good, with a simple message: “God is good and that’s enough.” I would have liked a little more guitar coming through but the arrangement is full and well- constructed. ‘See Me Through It’ has a jazz/gospel feel and works quite well, while ‘Another Song About Love’ reminded me of Sparky’s Magic Piano on the chorus! The backing vocals appear to be through a processer giving a Fender Rhodes sound. ‘He is Not Worried’ is more of a ballad and I really liked this one. No, it’s than that. I really, really liked it! It’s a song which encourages and strengthens you through a few different scenarios. Good arrangement and, bearing my earlier comments re age, it speaks to all generations. Great song. The title track reminds us that God takes us as we are. We are enough already and don’t have to try impress Him. Finally, ‘Human Nature’ is an acoustic version of the first track and more in line with my tastes. Overall a good album, with interesting songs – and I like the non-cliché lyrics. A good, honest release, which will speak to many people. 7/10. Noel Donaldson.