The Phantom Tollbooth

Artist: Various Artists
Produced by Michael W. Smith
Label: Rocketown Records 1998
Time: 10 Tracks/47 Min.
I think most modern "praise and worship" music is a tacky American cultural thing. I was raised a snob, you see, in the highest of high church environments. Ours was not a church where one waved one's hands in the air during Sunday Service, singing "Our God Reigns," and it was our business as youngsters to scoff at those that did so.
I'm over that, mostly. I must admit, however, (with the sincerest of  apologies) that I still get my own private yucks when certain individuals in my church get what I consider to be entirely too animated during our weekly rendition of "Hosanna" or some other danceable tune. A few years in and out of evangelical circles has taught me to appreciate different forms of worship. However, in the interest of full disclosure, when I saw this latest project from the capable Michael W. Smith, what attracted me was the very cool Jimmy A. penned illustration on its cover (his artistic renditions inside, of each band on the project are priceless).
Despite all my big talk, I must admit to being a closet Smitty (don't you  just gag when people call him that) fan, so the opening track, "Exodus" immediately caught my ears, it's in the vein of a lot of the instrumentals on his most recent record, Live the Life. By mid number, I was overwhelmed with emotion at the beauty of his keyboard work and the haunting accompaniments. In other words, it got, and kept my attention. I kept listening and was pleasantly surprised by the new DC Talk cut which came up next. Entitled "My Will," the lyrics hit me right where it hurts: Jars of Clay unfortunately left me with a bad taste in my mouth - how could a new band with such promise fall so flat, and yet people be so oblivious? The track is so-so, kind of sappy. I guess not every tune on a various artists album is going to be exceptional. The next one, however, most definitely fits that description. Leigh Bingham-Nash's vocals ring out clearly, in Sixpence None the Richer's adaptation of an old Celtic prayer:  Oh, people! Talk about a word picture! Can't you just see the beauty of  Ireland? It's simple and childlike, and I love that in a worship song.
Now, you'd never have told me I'd sit bolt upright and go "Wow!" over a  Cindy Morgan tune, but her very ethereal "Make Us One" is breathtaking,  if not overly musically complex. Chris Rice chips in with an adaptation of a popular hymn I used to know ("What can wash my sins away? Nothing but the blood of Jesus"), setting it in his trademark acoustically based vein. The relatively new "guy-group" The Katinas also do a great job of a favorite of mine "Draw Us Close."   I feel like I'm sitting in the cavernous Willow Creek auditorium, watching those very words up on the screen. The thought amuses me.
Third Day hikes up the intensity level, with the MWS-penned version of the "Agnus Dei," which certainly inspires. I respect this band a lot, I find them to be very straightforward, simple and satisfying, like a meal at your favorite diner. Hearing them speak at the Cornerstone festival this year really impressed me. Crystal Lewis's rendition of the Sunday Morning Special "Salvation Belongs to our God" is fine. Very nice. And, if Michael W. Smith (I can't bring myself to use that awful nickname again) hadn't just put out a fabulous project with lots of new material, I might have been disappointed that his entry on the record was a cover of the Rich Mullins classic "I See You." But, hey - it's a nice gesture to the late songwriter, and he does it well.
So if I've left you a tad perplexed with my ramblings, and are unsure exactly what my feelings are on the project, let's recap: I like it a lot, almost without exception. I think it's one of the best modern worship compilations I've heard. Artistically, it stands head and shoulders above  the recent Maranatha/Integrity Music type offerings,  it's genuine, it pleases me and actually points me to God, which is the intention, I suppose.
By Dave Landsel (9/10/98)