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In Feast or Fallow
Artist: Sandra McCracken
Label: Towhee Records
Times: 15 tracks / 53:35 minutes

As someone who grew up with hymns, I enjoy hearing collected works of hymns. Ashley Cleveland's 2004 Men and Angels Say was one of The Phantom Tollbooth writers' favorites. Sandra McCracken is no newcomer to hymns, having recorded one such compilation (The Builder and the Architect, 2005). In Feast or Fallow is a natural flow from The Builder. . .  and a nifty follow-up to her 2008 Red Balloons CD.

The most fascinating part of In Feast or Fallow is McCracken's choice of material. There are original compositions that are new hymns, there are some very familiar hymns, and she goes waayyy back before Wesley--try Martin Luther--for "This is the Christ," a Christmas hymn with a new melody from McCracken. I heartily recommend reading the information behind each track, specifically from her newly launched It shows how much thought she put into--and absolutely loves--this mode of worship music. It also expertly explains the song sequence behind In Feast or Fallow, most interestingly between the very personal song psalms, "Hidden Place" and "Eighty-Eight."

The latter is perhaps the most musically intricate and intriguing piece of In Feast or Fallow. It is the only piece (save for two short instrumental interludes) that is not a sing-along hymn. I would recommend that the first-time listener not just pop on the album and let it play but zip to "Hidden Place" and "Eighty-Eight" and let them flow into the title track. Only then can the listener go back and play this project from track one through track 15.

This exercise would guard against the casual listener getting lost. The sole weakness of In Feast or Fallow is that the pace of the sequence is indeed very relaxed--perhaps too much--after the excellent title track. "I Glory in Christ," "980 Anne Steele," and "Sweet Sorrow" are beautiful but may put the listener to sleep. What may have put another artistic (and perhaps worship) arc into the ending hymns is one upbeat (not necessarily familiar) psalm hymn.

In Feast or Fallow is a musical feast in hymnal worship, as Sandra McCracken's voice is strong and beautiful. And it didn't take me long to do a little math, as from producer Derek Webb (listen to "Petition" for elements from the Caedmon's days), I hear some elements of Bob Dylan and The Band, guitar of George Harrison, and a rhythm section akin to Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers or ELO's Jeff Lynne. Okay, the "math" is that there's a Traveling Wilburys treatment added to a standout track, "Justice Will Roll Down," as well as "Faith's Review & Expectation" ("Amazing Grace"). McCracken's reading of the latter is my absolute favorite contemporary recording of "Amazing Grace," as the original lyrics and upbeat arrangement give new life to this fantastic hymn, reminding me, "Everything old is made new again!" Or simply: Great stuff!!

In short, In Feast or Fallow is not a praise and worship record to play for the youth group, nor is it a hymn-sing. Specifically, there are the most keen of both elements, developed from hymns and new work from Sandra McCracken. Perhaps the best illustration is "Can't Help Myself," which lends its lyrics from Psalm 121 and the singer's earnest chant of the song title. It's a cry from the person who absolutely loves the Lord. The title track is another superb representation--a trust-in-the-Lord theme that listeners need to heed and sing every day in every age--with lead vocals from McCracken, Webb and Thad Cockrell.

It is very apparent that Sandra McCracken enjoyed working on and completing In Feast or Fallow. And I, for one, hope this hymn project is not her last.

Olin Jenkins 

On In Feast or Fallow, Sandra McCracken makes hymns sound old and new. The lyrics could come out of any hymnbook, though all but one, “Faith’s Review and Expectation (Amazing Grace),” are not the familiar ones so often covered. The production and electronic sounds (particularly various keyboards) give the basic acoustic instrumentation an alternative feel that is rooted in the past but also has a modern sensibility. It’s a taste of Americana with a contemporary flavor.
It’s a masterful and unique blend that combines the talents of McCracken and husband Derek Webb. The latter makes his presence known as producer and provider of back-up support without ever being intrusive. This is one of their finest moments both individually and as a couple.
This overflows with creativity. Listeners may scratch their heads wondering how a particular sound was produced. Webb’s studio wizardry provides a quirky blend of retro and slightly off-kilter sounds. Diverse notes take their place without jostling each other or thinking it strange that they occupy the same place. They harmonize to create a sound that is both earthy and spiritual. 
The music is both sparse and richly textured. It’s a tapestry of sound worthy for such eloquent compositions. 
This is not a run-of-the-mill hymns recording. It’s probably not for those who just want conservative, straightforward renderings. However, those who appreciate the way an artist can create as she sees it will want to give this a try.  
The opening “Petition” is a precursor of things to come.  It starts with an intro, a common element on this CD, consisting of spindly synthesized sounds that seemingly bounce off the walls. Simple piano chords kick-in as McCracken begins to sing. It builds with layers of sound. 
As she sings, “You raise your hand to still the storms / that rage inside my head /Revive my heart with gratitude /Love quell my doubt and dread,” the only music you hear are the warm tones of an electric guitar. The rest of the music returns like a welcome friend on the chorus. 
The layers go beyond the music. The words here and throughout this release plumb the depths of theology in a way seldom heard outside of hymns.
One of the more driving songs, “Justice Will Roll Down,” with its memorable chorus and vision of equity will most likely be a favorite of many. The title song, another standout, is a folk anthem with multiple vocalists. 
This is one of the best and most artistic hymn recordings ever conceived. McCracken’s previous hymn effort, The Builder and the Architect, is also excellent and worth having. 
Michael Dalton
July 3, 2010


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