After signing a batch of family acts, it was natural for fast-growing StowTown Records to add a soloist to their already impressive roster. It’s probably safe to say that they picked out the most naturally gifted one in southern gospel: Taranda Greene. Her debut album Stronger plays like a triumphant personal testimony to the griefs she’s experienced and overcome after losing her husband, Tony. She lends her flexible voice to a wide variety of sounds here, with a heavier urban emphasis than one might expect from an SG record. (Translation: White girl got soul!) The result may sometimes veer into over-the-top theatrics, but it’s a solid, entertaining piece of work, arriving just in time to land on everyone’s “Best of 2014” lists.
* “Awake My Soul” is my favorite of the new cuts on here. It was penned by Randy Phillips of Phillips, Craig & Dean. Setting aside for the moment the fact that they’re heretics (I love ya guys, but modalism is totes heresy, sorry), this is a really well-written song, both lyrically and musically.
* “Shackles (Praise You)” may put off some fans by pulling from pure Christian R & B for this Mary Mary cover. But this fan is grooving right along with that funk!
* “Deepest Praise”: This lush piano ballad boasts an exceptionally thoughtful, vulnerable lyric about finding the ability to praise God through brokenness. Obviously, perfectly suited to Taranda. Worship leader Meredith Andrews has a co-credit on the writing. I’ve always thought she was one of the better writers in CCM. Throw in Tony Wood and Ronnie Freeman, and you have a recipe for success.
Maybe the deepest praise is born of darkest days
From a painful place, a greater depth of grace
We come to know and trust the Lord
In a way we never have before
The rocky road we’re on becomes the way
To the deepest praise
Full lyrics here.
* I love songs that start in one key, then change key for the chorus. “All I Need” is an especially lovely example. Very classy and worshipful, though hardly an audience singalong candidate (at least not Taranda’s version!)
*There are several smart cover choices here. “If I Could” is one of them. Through the years, this mother’s prayer standard has been tackled by a parade of divas, from Regina Belle, to Barbara Streisand, to Celine Dion. Production-wise, it’s most similar to the Celine Dion cover. In my humble opinion, Taranda’s version tops them all. It’s the best track I’ve heard, the best vocal I’ve heard… the best.
* “Blue Eyes Crying in the Rain” is one of my favorite classic country songs and easily the best overall song on the album. Taranda slows it down for a reflective feel and switches the gender of the original pronoun from “her” to “him.” I would guess it’s dedicated to the memory of her late husband, although the lyric is pretty clearly about a breakup, not a death. The production is kept tastefully simple. Just two acoustic guitars, plus harmony vocals from Sonya Isaacs and Jason Crabb.
* William Murphy cover “The Sound” is an exciting, power-packed closer to wake the listener up. The Brooklyn Tabernacle Choir is essentially carrying the song behind Taranda while she improvises. Another soloist shares the spotlight with her for a verse. I like it when Taranda gets her Whitney Houston on. Once she locks onto the tune, you’re just along for the ride.
Dislikes* There’s no question Taranda has a Big voice. You could call her the female David Phelps. Many of these selections end by highlighting her impossible vocal gymnastics, knocking glory notes galore out of the park. That’s a lot of fun to listen to, but on some of them, I found myself enjoying it more when she was just singing the melody in a comfortable range, allowing me to focus on the song. Then when the arrangement would balloon into yet another Epic Finish, it felt, paradoxically, like the impact was lost. “Blue Eyes Crying in the Rain” demonstrates the opposite of that feel, and I wish this album had more of it.
* Opening title track “Stronger” has an inspirational message, but it doesn’t convey it in a particularly fresh way, with stock sentiments like “It’s not about how many times you stumble, but how many times ya get back up.”
* “A Little More Jesus” is one of those free-wheeling gospel vehicles that fish-tails on the line between “annoyingly repetitive” and kind of cool. Part of me enjoys hearing Taranda breaking out that over-the-top screech, with the piano just riffing along underneath her. But then after the first couple minutes, when I realize that yes, that really is all there is to the melody, my ears are ready to move on to something else. Perhaps this is the point where black gospel and I part ways, with the utmost of respect.
* “Promise” re-works Jesus’ departing words to his disciples. It’s fine, but am I the only one who finds it odd to hear a female singer delivering words in Jesus’ voice?
Closing thoughts: Taranda’s voice is a supple instrument that can mold itself to many styles and do them all equally well. She can tear the house down one moment and tug at your heart-strings the next. Although she is at her very best when singing a simple, pure melody, and although I wish she did a bit more of that on this album, this is solid, well-produced music that any fan of popspel (or is it gospop? whatever) should pick up. I think that in terms of vocals and production, it holds its own next to anything the mainstream world can offer in this stylistic vein. That’s a distinction not a whole lot of southern gospel releases can boast, but it’s one more example of how StowTown is paving the way for the future.