Amber Nelon Thompson is one of gospel music’s most talented, consistent, and consistently pleasing singers. Her versatile voice can evoke female greats from Sandi Patti to Alison Krauss to Carrie Underwood as needed. Just Sing is her first
full-length non-independent ADULT solo album. (Thanks to David for catching my forgotten first-draft error that it was her first, then informing me that another album from 2000 actually was put out by Daywind as well.) A 4-song EP was released ahead of time and previewed four tracks for this project, which have now been combined with six more. I did not listen to the 4-song EP, so these are my first impressions of all ten songs.
- Just Sing: I suppose I’ve heard worse icebreakers. This one is relatively cute, although Bill Gaither’s stuttering cameo and the heavily computerized spoken-word exhortations to “Sing along” were a tad annoying.
- He’s Making Me: I like this lyric’s play on the phrase “making me.” The word “making” means pushing or demanding, but it also means forming, creating. This song explores where those two meanings find their union in God’s firm, yet formative work in us.
- Another Time, Another Place: A classic old CCM duet. Amber nailed her Sandi Patti impression. As for Michael English on the Wayne Watson part… I’m trying really hard not to be snarky here, but suffice it to say Amber is so much clearer and more listenable that it just becomes distracting at a certain point. While Michael is breathing his way around the melody, Amber is just, well, singing it. I have to wonder what this would have sounded like with Riley Clark, Andrew Goldman, Wes Hampton, or any number of other talented young singers. For that matter, Wayne Watson himself is still sounding good pretty good these days by comparison.
- Be Thou My Vision: Amber is joined by her family here, so it’s been suggested that this should have been reserved for another Nelons hymns album. But I can’t complain about its inclusion on this project. The arrangement is tasteful, richly layered and haunting.
- What Do You Say?: This song has a weak melody, and the bridge doesn’t show off the most pleasing aspects of Amber’s voice. She leaps up an octave and begins belting out the lyrics, but the high range combined with the choppy tune gives her voice a strained, shouty sound. This distracts from the meaning. Bluntly put, heart-tugging stories about cancer patients need to be complemented by melodies that keep you listening long enough to get invested in them.
- Without Your Love: Ah, now this is a duet I can get into: Amber plus Joseph Habedank. Joel Lindsey’s golden songwriting touch is apparent on this tune. He can write a perfect inspirational pop ballad. He’s the king of “Good Schmaltz”: songs like a chocolate cheesecake, on the sweet side, but melodies so rich you want to sink your teeth into them again and again.
- Grateful: This is the Keith Urban-ish single. Country instruments, pop vocals. Nothing too deep here.
- God is Always Good: Really nice MOR with a classy 90s feel. Sort of like something Scott Krippayne might have written and recorded back in the day. One thing I like about it is that the arrangement isn’t pushed to overblown heights. It reaches a nice little peak, then quietly draws to its conclusion without muscling its way through a bridge and two key changes to get there.
- Give it to Jesus: A power ballad that wouldn’t feel out of place on American Idol, but in a nice way. While Amber does get to show off her chops and her range on this one, the melody actually goes somewhere, and she stays in vocal control the whole way. This track gives us a sense of what Amber might have gone on to do had she capitalized on that golden ticket. (For those of you who are unfamiliar with the story of what happened there, click here.)
- Falling: A lengthy string quartet intro gives way to a series of single piano notes. The complex arrangement and carefully crafted lyrics actually reminded me of some of David Phelps’s solo work. The lyrical theme is the juxtaposition of our perspective with God’s: “We see… you see…” The “falling” hook concludes the chorus: “But even when we see life falling apart, you see life falling in place.” The strongest line is “We see our Savior forsaken, you see Easter’s dawn.” The force of this line is accompanied by an unexpected twist and lift in the melody. There was only one bit that needed work, and it actually comes right before that last line: “We read a story so tragic, seem too far gone.” The phrase “seem too far gone” doesn’t really make sense. The only possible antecedent is “we,” yet the lyric has shifted from talking about our story to our reading Jesus’ story.
Final thoughts: This album could be divided into radio-friendly contemporary country on the one hand and nostalgic MOR material on the other. The country tunes include some of the album’s biggest highlights, packing a good Carrie Underwood-like punch. At the same time, they include the album’s weakest moments. The MOR material makes up the solid, consistent center. Throw in “Be Thou My Vision,” which is neither but stands out on its own, and the album as a whole tips toward my good side. I want to hear Amber wrap her voice around more good songs some time soon.
Prime cuts: “Be Thou My Vision,” “Give it to Jesus,” “Falling”
Rating: 4 stars