Some voices are what you might call cookie-cutter voices—if you’ve heard one, you’ve heard them all. Not George Younce. You could peg that voice a mile off. Why? Because even when George wasn’t talking to you, he was talking to you. His voice was like that of an old friend—warm and welcoming. In the words of Statler Brothers bass Harold Reid, “It said hello to you.” And once you heard it, you never forgot it.
I wish that I had George’s original arrangements handy so that I could compare them with these new ones, but from what I can hear after scouring around for samples, Signature Sound has preserved the flavor of the originals without directly copying them—which no doubt is exactly what they were aiming to do. And what arrangements! Dear readers, here is my assignment for you: Read my review, then buy this album as soon as it comes out. Once you have heard it all the way through, taking time to appreciate each nuance, I want you to say out loud to yourself three times, “Wayne Haun is a genius. Wayne Haun is a genius. Wayne Haun is a genius.”
Got it? All right then. On to the review.
Lyrically, this song has always reminded me of, interestingly enough, a Keith Green song called “Your Love Broke Through.” They both use the metaphor of the stone being rolled away to describe the act of God’s love reaching a sinner. It’s certainly a striking and effective image.
(Oh yes, and my keyboard is happy now because I went and found the piano intro on this cut. Insert contented sigh here.)
At the Cross: The excellence continues with this haunting take on a classic hymn. I was immediately struck by the spareness of the acoustic guitar here as it fingers its way over some dark, rich chords. There is one surprising twist in particular that I do know was not on the original: Basically (for any music theory geeks who might be reading) imagine that you’re in the key of A, and you’re walking down the melody for the line, “And did my Sovereign die?” However, instead of landing on the V7 right away, you suddenly change key and play a G major on the word “die.” If you play an instrument, try it out. I’m actually starting to play this arrangement on my keyboard too. It sounds so good that I would recommend Wayne adapt this for solo piano and play it at Signature Sound concerts. It would make a beautiful, quiet moment in the vein of what Roy Webb used to do with “Softly and Tenderly.”
George’s voice aches with sad beauty. Also worth noting is the fact that Ian Owens’ voice comes through particularly clearly here, and his upper register is so smooth that you might briefly mistake him for George in places.
Beyond the Sunset: Because George’s only appearance on this track is a poetic recitation, Signature Sound carries all the vocals. If you had any doubts as to how well the new lineup would gel, they should vanish away once you hear this cut. The group sounds as good as ever. This would be a natural for inclusion in live concerts.
I Know Who Holds Tomorrow: This track begins with an answering machine message from George to Ernie—a priceless little bit of history, and a great way to set up this song as George tells Ernie, “Don’t worry about nothin’.” This message returns at the end.
Room At the Cross: This has always been one of my favorite “harmony hymns.” It was one of the first hymns for which I learned the alto part when I was developing an ear for harmony as a little girl. So of course the harmonies are very rich on this one, with some lovely and surprising chord shifts. Listening to this arrangement, it’s difficult to imagine how it could possibly get by with nothing but generic BGVs. What the full quartet sound adds can’t even really be described: It must be experienced.
Suppertime: This song holds a special significance for Signature Sound, because it was the song they sang with George for his final NQC appearance. Obviously George’s voice sounds much stronger and more confident here. I never get tired of hearing him sing this. Also, he’s pretty much the only singer from whom I can tolerate a mid-song recitation. Anyone else just leaves me impatient to get on with the music, but George compels me to listen, like he’s having a conversation with me.
You’ll Get Your Reward Some Day: This was the only upbeat song chosen for the project. Literally every other track is low-key. So naturally, it’s the project’s first radio single. It’s also probably one of the few new soundtracks that really gives away its age. It sounds great, but you can tell that it’s been given a modern update. A driving electric guitar works to smashing effect with a growling b-3 hammond and some irresistible piano licks. The end result is hard-hitting, gritty, and oh, so catchy. Once again, you might do a double take as Ian’s voice falls on the ear like a young Younce himself.
This song is so moving that I vote the guys just start singing it in concert. They don’t even need to try to bring in George’s voice—just introduce it as a song George used to sing and have Ian carry it. As with “At the Cross,” this is another example of an arrangement that’s simply too good not to be incorporated into live concerts. It is also a song that deserves to be revived.
Sometimes This is Heaven To Me: This is the only track on the project that was not given a brand-new instrumental and BGV treatment. It was lifted directly from Signature Sound’s debut album Stand By Me. It was the last song George recorded. Ernie and Joel Lindsay beautifully captured the bittersweet emotions of a man in the sunset of his life, longing for heaven, yet humbly asking for “just a little more time” to linger with the beauties of this world. I once heard of a great analogy to this which used the image of a mother and son in prison, where all the little boy has known is the inside of the prison cell. His mother paints beautiful pictures of the world outside on the walls where they are imprisoned, and the little boy literally can’t imagine what real trees, grass, or sky looks like. His mother’s paintings are so beautiful that he can’t believe her when she tells him that the real world is so much more beautiful than what she can paint for him. It’s the same for us: Like George, we think, “This world is beautiful in its own way, and the fellowship I have with the ones I love is so sweet it almost feels like heaven to me.” And yet we know that heaven is beyond our comprehension. But in the meanwhile, we should receive the blessings God has for us here, with a thankful heart. In the immortal words of Rich Mullins, “There’s so much beauty around us for just two eyes to see/That everywhere I go, I’m looking.”
Mannheim Steamroller will evermore hold the definitive version of this carol in my mind, but I must say that Wayne’s new arrangement is simply superb. The piano is simple, yet subtly haunting. Its interplay with the strings is just gobsmackingly gorgeous. The chords at the end are almost goosebump-inducing, as the arrangement ends on a vibrant, unresolved fadeout. Curiously, George makes a small lyrical slip in one verse (singing the line “glory streams” as “glorious streams”), but he communicates the lyric in his classically memorable, inimitable style.
I may not be a producer, but I sure do think like one, and I get warm fuzzies just lapping this stuff up. The three tracks that most inspire me as a musician are “Love Was In the Room,” “At the Cross” and “Journey’s End,” but really the whole thing is a masterpiece. Some may have a few quibbles with the song selection, e.g. the inclusion of a Christmas carol like “Silent Night,” or the inclusion of “Sometimes This is Heaven To Me” instead of another rare track from a solo project. I really don’t mind, because it’s good music any way you slice it (and besides, “Heaven To Me” is a logical choice since it was recorded as George’s farewell song).
I hereby raise my glass to Wayne, to Ernie, and to StowTown—long life to it, and may much more fine music be made! *clink*