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Various Artists
CompassionArt
Survivor Records (11-24-2008 UK, 01-27-2008 US)
15 tracks / 61:49 minutes

Music lovers and critics alike have often contended that the most praiseworthy trait any artist can possess is a willingness to try something new. Perhaps this is true because such intrepidity also carries along with it the risk of alienating the performer in question from the better portion of their existing fan base. One could apply the axiom to the members of KISS, whose forays into pseudo-progressive rock on 1981’s Music from the Elder and post-grunge for 1997’s Carnival of Souls netted the characteristically hard-rocking band their only two non-RIAA certified studio albums. Bob Dylan’s decision to don an electric guitar and play with a blues band for the first time left more than a few members of the 1965 Newport Folk Festival audience – most of whom were accustomed to seeing him perform solo with only an acoustic guitar and harmonica – likewise less than elated. And it’s probably a given that country music megastar Garth Brooks would just as soon forget that Chris Gaines ever existed. 

Fortunately for Martin Smith, his latest musical sidestep wasn’t born out of any longing for artistic growth or reinvention, but rather from a simple desire to choose the most effective platform from which to battle the overwhelming poverty he witnessed firsthand as he toured the world with British rockers, Delirious?. An offshoot of the CompassionArt charity which Smith started with his wife, Anna, the tracks for the project of the same name were written by Smith, band mate Stu Garrard and ten other Christian artists from the United States, England and Australia during a retreat held in January of 2008 in Perthshire, Scotland. All proceeds generated by the release, which was recorded at Abbey Road Studios in London the following month, will go to the charitable organizations chosen by the members of the CompassionArt team. 

As is the case with many multiple-artist outings, the results vary from superb to so-so. “King of Wonders” finds Matt Redman, Tim Hughes and Joel Houston turning in a pleasant soft pop/modern worship hybrid. The Leeland Mooring/Andy Park collaboration, “Friend of the Poor,” is a similarly agreeable – and, unfortunately, unexceptional – Top 40-friendly pop/rock number. “There is Always a Song,” from Smith, Steven Curtis Chapman and the Watoto Children’s Choir (from Uganda) will either delight or repel listeners, depending on how much they look forward to hearing the latest American Idol coronation song. And the arpeggio-laden, minor key-based melody of Paul Baloche’s “Lead Me to the Rock” sounds as if it could have been inspired by “Carol of the Bells,” although the sluggish tempo and overly repetitive construction of “Lead” render it a decidedly poor cousin to the mesmerizing Christmas classic. 

On the other end of the spectrum, “Come to the Water,” by Chris Tomlin, Smith and Kirk Franklin, lands squarely on the bull’s-eye, thanks to its sprightly neo-psychedelic groove, generous use of fuzz-toned guitars and infectious “woo woo” backing vocals. Smith, CeCe Winans and the Lakewood Choir join forces for “Fill My Cup,” a superbly languishing blues/gospel hybrid (think the Brooklyn Tabernacle Choir covering a slower version of U2’s “Desire”) that proves music doesn’t have to time in at 140 beats per minute to stir listeners from their slumber. Darlene Zschech’s towering, heartfelt singing on “King of the Broken” walks arm in arm with the best works from pioneering female Christian vocalists such as Susan Ashton and Twila Paris. And hearing Amy Grant’s voice on “Highly Favored” is like receiving a visit from a far-away friend. Indeed, few artists, past or present, are able to deliver spiritually-based material with such refreshingly austere reverence and sincerity. 

Perhaps not surprisingly, the most invigorating entries are those on which tobyMac is involved. One of McKeehan’s greatest strengths has always been his ability to draw inspiration from the music of the past without allowing himself to become entrenched in it. He pulls off that magnificent feat twice here. If “Fill My Cup” was the BTC taking on U2, then “Shout Praise” – on which Mac and Israel Houghton raise absolutely jubilant shouts of “What you want? What you know? We got to make His kingdom grow!” – is the sound of them positively nailing Prince’s “Baby, I’m a Star.” The all-too-short “Let It Glow” makes a likewise dazzling nod to the last three decades, as McKeehan and Kirk Franklin manage to channel Led Zeppelin, early Switchfoot and the platinum-selling ‘70s/’80s R&B outfit, Cameo, (“Word Up!,” anyone?) in just under two and a half minutes. 

That said, McKeehan’s contributions alone are hardly sufficient to elevate the album to must-have status, especially in light of the fact that the remainder of its cuts hardly add up to a slam dunk. Even so, followers of the artists represented will almost surely be pleased with the record as a whole. Likewise, the non-converts in the crowd would still do well to sift through the tracks online and download the ones that pique their curiosity, since there’s plenty here that merits a closer look. Of course, one could make the case that the songs themselves take a back seat to the motivation for creating them in the first place. Indeed, to Smith, who will disband Delirious? at the end of this year to turn his attention to family and charity-related matters, the tracks on CompassionArt are merely means to an end, and not the end themselves. And it is that perspective, more than anything else, that ultimately qualifies his latest effort as a success. 

Bert Gangl, The Phantom Tollbooth (01.27.2009) 


 

 
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