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Without Looking Down
Artist: Mitch McVicker
Label: Spindust Records
Time: 12 tracks/43:53 min.

Without Looking Down is far more produced than Mitch McVicker’s earlier projects, Chasing the Horizon and Mitch McVicker If you prefer that sparse sound featuring prominent acoustic guitars, you may not appreciate this CD as much as the others. Topically, it's the same McVicker all over again. McVicker’s writing isn't particularly poetic or deep, but he is amazingly gifted in writing with vulnerability and expressing basic truths encountered by Christians and it’s hard not to be moved by his music.

As with his other albums, Mitch has a knack for creating completely infectious musical hooks. "You Have Everything," "Take the Wheel," "Stargazer," and "Midnight in Madison" are all songs that provide evidence of Mitch's intuitive sense for great hooks. Let's hope radio agrees.

If you listen close you will hear shades of the Beatles, especially in the way they used strings in later years. If you have a copy of Without Looking Down, listen for these Beatle strings on "Stargazer" and "Midnight In Madison." I like it. It works very nicely. You might also notice some additional 60s pop influence, especially in the chorus of "Stargazer." I can't cite any particular 60s song or group - it just has that perky, joyful 60s feel.

McVicker even raps. It actually sounds pretty cool, because producer Mark Robertson highlights McVicker’s rap with a technique that could be called phasing (listen for this treatment in "Stargazer" and "Camelsong" too). It's an audio production trick that merges two similar sounds which are slightly out of synch. When invoked with a vocalist, it makes the singer sound as if he's singing in at the bottom of a deep barrel, calling to mind an old-time radio sound. While we can’t be sure the rapping is really done by McVicker because the audio treatment disguises the vocal tone, McVicker’s Tom Petty like phrasings are unique enough – that we can probably assume it really is him.

The vocals are by a large margin, tighter and fuller than earlier projects. Indeed, the entire portfolio is crisper and more buttoned down thanMcVicker’s other work. The songs sound especially sweet when Mitch serves as his own background vocalist, although Jeff Weiss, Brad Layher do a nice job on background vocals too. When an artist records the same supporting talent that he tours with, it often infuses the songs with a striking composure and intensity. Performing the same songs night after night usually engenders a relaxed confidence which is easily transferred into the recording studio. Without Looking Down clearly illustrates this. McVicker's road warriors - Jeff Weiss, Brad Layher and Joe Curet - all participated in the new recording endeavor.

It’s refreshing that McVicker makes absolutely no attempt to frame his lyrics as crossover fare. When he's singing to Jesus, either he says the name Jesus or he makes it obvious that's what he means. While we can’t blame an artist for trying to expand his audience, there is something a little slimy and contrived about trying to have it both ways. I appreciate a good love song as much as the next guy, but a songwriter that attempts to straddle the fence of romantic love and love for God makes me a little nauseous. McVicker doesn’t play that musical crap game and I admire that kind of integrity. 

My heart caves in; I'm far from rustproof. My soul is collapsin' but I trust you. You put me together again. 
This line from "Midnight In Madison" embodies McVicker’s tendency toward writing vulnerable songs that emphasize his gracious appreciation and need for God’s love and restoration. This is a theme that is present, though sometimes implicitly, in nearly all of McVicker’s songs. It’s one thing to write with honesty. It’s quite another thing to write with candor. McVicker does both.

"I Need You Jesus" and "Midnight In Madison" are musical cousins to "Only Love Will" (from Mitch McVicker) and "Watch Over Me" (from Chasing the Horizon). They are all songs which emphasize the passionate intense need of broken, contrite singer; something we can all identify with sooner or later – or maybe sooner and later. 

I just hope McVicker doesn't stray too far from his acoustic roots. Without Looking Down still features acoustic guitars, but rather than featured performers, the acoustic guitars are just part of the instrumental team. If McVicker someday retires his acoustic guitar, at least we have some great acoustic efforts that didn’t share space with so many other instruments. It's a little bit of a sad thing that songs have to be so "busy" before radio will often consider them for airplay. I understand it, but I don't like it.

Overall, this project is slicker than his previous projects. While it does sound more radio ready, I much prefer McVicker’s sparse arrangements and I’m looking forward to hearing these new songs in concert where he doesn't have the benefit of multiple instruments and over dubs. Check out a McVicker show sometime. He’s a master tweaker, often embellishing and modifying his tunes into joyful, ad-libbed versions of his studio work. He never does the same show twice.

Curt McLey  12/2/2002

Five years later and Mitch McVicker still has Rich Mullins’ legacy hanging over him.  Being associated with Rich would be an honor for any performer, but McVicker continues to forge into new territory with Without Looking Down.  This is the first project without a Mullins song credit, and it shows that McVicker is a brilliant songwriter in his own right.

This album is dominated by themes of depending on God for everything, and the constant fight to be submissive to His will.  The radio-friendly “You Have Everything” opens the disc, speaking of the subject’s desire to get God’s attention, then realizing there is no need:

 ’Cause you have everything
  There’s nothing you could ever need
  There’s only one thing I can give to you and that’s me
  You have everything but what you want is me.
“Take the Wheel” is a Beck-like song about submission that shows how well the players here mesh as a band.  Brad Layher, “Cobra” Joe Curet, Mark Robertson, Jordan Richter, and Steve Latanation are all featured here.  With Curet, Robertson, and Richter all present, why not a tour featuring Layher’s solo work, This Train, and McVicker?

“I Need You Jesus” is a simple plea.  “Nowhere Else” is about life on the road, and finding God in the midst of it.  “Don’t Let Your Heart Be Troubled” reveals Christ’s promise of John 14, and a hope of peace.  “The Lion Lays Down” deals with the fears we all face.  “Deeper in Love” is a I Corinthians 13-inspired appreciation of grace.

“Turning Tables” describes Christ at the temple, and also the change He brings in eliminating sin:

 Consumed with the truth,
  You are turning tables
  Your love for your Father
  Has got You turning tables.

  Everything in life turned upside down
  The darkest night has been flipped over and over
  Sin is disappearin’, somehow.
  You have turned the table and I’m overwhelmed by You.

“Stargazer” could be a companion to “The Lemonade Song” from McVicker’s first solo work.  It portrays an innocent young woman with a simple faith that gives her a childlike quality, trusting in God.  It offers the hope that that quality can be maintained, and not lost or tarnished.

Add McVicker to my ever-growing list of artists that deserve wider audiences.   His style may doom him to the coffeehouse circuit, but his talent could fill arenas and stadiums.  Without Looking Down is a wonderful album.

Brian A. Smith 5 December 2002


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