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April 2002 Pick of the Month

City on a Hill -  Sing Alleluia
Artist: Various Artists
Label: Essential Records (2002)
Length: 13 Tracks (44:15 minutes)

To say that Songs of Worship and Praise, the debut album in the City on a Hill worship series, cut a fairly imposing swath across the Christian music landscape would probably be something of an understatement.  Collecting a Dove Award for Special Event Album of the Year, placing the debut single, "God of Wonders," simultaneously into the Top Ten on the Adult Contemporary, Christian Hit and Inspirational charts, and selling over 300,000 copies, the critically-lauded release stationed itself as a decidedly daunting benchmark for all that would follow in its wake.  Happily enough, producer Steve Hindalong, who netted a Dove nomination for his work on the first project, has more than risen to the challenge this time around.

For Sing Alleluia, the sophomore volume in the City on a Hill set, Hindalong recruits Common Children front man Marc Byrd to help with production and songwriting tasks and, together with the stable of artists assembled, their work is nothing short of stellar.   Mac Powell and Jennifer Knapp offer up a gritty, heartfelt vocal delivery for the lead-off track, "Sing Alleluia," knitting their vocals seamlessly into the song's shimmering pop textures. In the same way, the splendid musical and vocal sections drafted by Jars of Clay to accompany the text of Frank Bottome's classic hymn, "The Comforter Has Come," are both intricate and magnificently sublime.  Nicole Nordeman and Christine Byrd blend their sparkling voices into a synergistic whole for the beautifully restrained "You Are Holy."  And Bebo Norman's breathy, semi-droning singing style forms the perfect foil for the soaring instrumental portion of "Holy Is Your Name," vaulting the lively track to a place alongside Alleluia's best entries.

Perhaps the album's strongest section, though, comes with its closing three-song trio.  While thoroughly distinctive, "Hallowed," "Lift up Your Hearts" and "Communion" possess an endearing and familiar character that causes the listener feel as though they're listening to long-forgotten favorites rather than hearing the compositions for the first time, which is perhaps one of the highest compliments to be bestowed upon any artist's work.  If Alleluia possesses a slightly muted sense of the indie spirit that sprinkled Hindalong's previous forays into modern worship music, it nonetheless carries with it a greater accessibility and forfeits virtually none of the originality and artistic merit that have long stamped Hindalong's and Byrd's previous efforts.  Besting the admirable Songs of Worship and Praise project is, needless to say, no mean feat.  But Hindalong, Byrd and Company have done so, almost, it seems, without trying. An absolutely superb outing.  Sing "alleluia," indeed!

Bert Gangl 3/19/2002 

In the mood for a worship service at any time?  City on a Hill: Sing Alleluia is arranged in the pattern of a service.  Various recording artists have put together 13 tracks of music including opening with a church bell and familiar hymn ("All Creatures of Our God and King" with pipe organ.), then we go to the start of the service ("Sing Alleluia"), a serious opening ("Holy Is Your Name"), praise ("Our Great God"), the sermon ("The Comforter Has Come", "Shine Your Light," and "Hide Me In Your Heart"), The Lord's Prayer ("Hallowed"), the blessing ("Life Up Your Hearts"), the Eucharist ("Communion") and benediction (reprisal of "All Creatures" complete with church bell and morning birds). 

The songs are contemporary with easy listening appeal.  An example is "Sing Alleluia," which inspires the listener to, indeed, sing alleluia, but segues into a phrase of  "All creatures of our God and King."  Then there is "Our Great God" that goes from major to minor and back with dramatic words, "Bright seraphim in ceaseless flight around your glorious throne."  Singers Mac Powell and Fernando Ortega emphasize the fact that all creation "Sing praises to the living God." "Hallowed" is a paraphrase of The Lord's Prayer with the word "hallowed" being sung as a refrain.  Communion combines formal lyrics "Now before the cross of Jesus may our hearts be unified" with vocals and pipe organ for a completion of the service, "in His mercy, justified us."

"Shine Your Light," for which the album is named, entreats the listener to go forth and tell the good news "why you're tryin' to keep it for your own/go and bring them water from a different well runnin' with your candle into blackest night." Vocalist Nichole Nordeman's enthusiastic delivery is a highlight of the CD. Communion, as in a sanctuary with the Eucharist being the high point of the service, is the longest track with a refrain of "Let us break the bread of life together take the cup of salvation."  Here, vocalists Cliff Young, Danielle Young and Phil Keaggy gain momentum until we heard the prophetic words, "Now before the cross of Jesus may our hearts be unified."

Instrumentation is varied including bass, guitar, the Nashville String Machine, cello, drums, glockenspiel, acoustic guitar and woodwinds. There is a nice touch on several of the selections that bridge contemporary and traditional.  The song will be in an easy listening, contemporary style, but the very end phrase is of a traditional hymn.  Examples are "You Are Holy (Be Thou My Vision)" and "Our Great God (Doxology)."  What particularly pleases me is the use of a pipe organ and church bell on a CD that clearly identifies them as such.   Therefore, you are actually hearing the pipe organ at West End United Methodist Church and church bell at Saint Bartholomew's Episcopal Church, both in Nashville, TN. This CD is the proverbial breath of fresh air.  Arranging the songs in the pattern of a church service brings us full circle from formal hymn to worship and praise to the completion of a rite and the realization that life begins anew and will continue..

Copyright 2002 Marie Asner 3/19/2002

Sequels are sitting ducks for criticism.  Their very existence is substantiated by its predecessor’s success.  To judge it based on the original seems harsh and unfair, yet it cannot stand without the original.  And so, it comes as no surprise that City On a Hill: Sing Alleluia faced some big expectations long before producer Steve Hindalong put the final touches on the album. 

City On a Hill: Songs of Worship and Praise, with its unique collaboration efforts and contributions from various artists, received overwhelming critical acclaim following its release in August 2000.  Headlined by artists such as Third Day, Jars of Clay, and Sixpence None the Richer, the album boasted some big names who lived up to their billing with an excellent album that highlighted each artists strengths and musical styles, yet pulled their efforts into a communal effort. 

A year and a half later, the same communal worship apparatus surrounds Sing Alleluia and several of the original artists (if you will) have returned to lend their talents to the project.  The end project, pleasantly enough, is another creative endeavor that more than fulfills its roles as a sequel.  Notably absent from Sing Alleluia is the presence of the currently “MIA” Sixpence None the Richer, which colored much of the first album.  But offerings from the likes of new additions Jennifer Knapp, Nichole Nordeman, Phil Keaggy, and a host of others make up for Sixpence’s absence. 

St. Francis of Assisi’s timeless hymn “All Creatures of Our God and King,” sung by Knapp, Danielle Young of Caedmon’s Call, and a choir of female artists, provides the backdrop for Sing Alleluia and gives the album a liturgical introduction.  Knapp and Mac Powell of Third Day then take the heritage of “All Creatures” and put a contemporary spin on the hymn in the title track.  Somewhat reminiscent of “God of Wonders” from the first City on a Hill project, the song uses some orchestral elements and light acoustic work to complement the vocals of Knapp and Powell.  The song’s lyrics loosely follow those of St. Francis, but the message remains entrenched in the Scriptures.

The gem of Sing Alleluia would have to be the collaboration of Powell and Fernando Ortega on “Our Great God.”  Both men’s vocals complement each remarkably well and the two joined together to write some of the most moving lyrics on the album as well.  The song admits the Christian’s small stature and strength, but does so in the shadow of God’s greatness. "Eternal God, unchanging, mysterious and unknown/ Your boundless love, unfailing, in grace and mercy shown/ Bright seraphim in ceaseless light around Your glorious throne/ They raise their voices day and night in praise to You alone."  Ortega’s smooth, unassuming vocal delivery speaks volumes of the person of God and Powell voice was simply made to howl the chorus “Hallelujah! Glory to our great God.”

FFH makes a return appearance with the pleading “Hide Me in Your Heart,”  Derek Webb of Caedmon’s Call and Sandra McCracken offer a continuation of The Choir’s “Marvelous Light” from the first album, and Jars of Clay reworks another hymn (“O Spread the Tidings Round”) on “The Comforter Has Come.”  And there are too many other great collaborations to mention.

Overall, Sing Alleluia succeeds because it closely follows the first City on a Hill recording, yet doesn’t simply regurgitate what’s been presented before.  The many artists’ efforts weave together to create a remarkably unified piece that serves the purpose of a sequel well, yet stands on its accord, as well. 

Matt Williams 4/3/2002


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