This project finds southern gospel’s most inventive quartet trying on yet another hat: Broadway. They are aided in their efforts by acclaimed tenor singer J. Mark McVey, who is best known for his performance as Jean Valjean in Les Miserables. It’s been available from their site for a while, but it was only recently released to retail. I’m choosing to feature the album cover they designed while Doug Anderson was still with the group, because (thankfully!) his vocals have been preserved even though the cover has been re-done for retail with his replacement, Dustin Doyle.
*I’ll jump right to the crown jewel of the project, which is Paul Harkey’s basso profundo rendition of “Old Man River.” I actually can’t remember if I’d heard this one before. If not, shame on me. Many singers have left their mark on it, but I think this is my favorite version, particularly because this arrangement gives the lyric time to unfold where some of the older arrangements feel rushed. Channeling his inner Paul Robeson, Harkey delivers a rich, evocative performance that is sure to become a signature song for him. I especially like the way the rest of the group holds back until the very end, only coming in on the line “I’m tired of living and scared of dying.” A perfect marriage of great songwriting and great singing.
*There are large gaps in my Broadway knowledge, so believe it or not, I’ve never actually gotten around to seeing Guys and Dolls. This made Signature Sound’s take on “Sit Down, You’re Rockin’ the Boat” my personal introduction to the standard. Now, I will have no other. J. Mark takes the lead and gives an appropriately hammy performance. But the best moment is the breakdown at the end, where Paul lays down a walking “Down, down, down, down” bass line, while the other guys gradually layer in their parts and the band turns up the heat. I’ve now compared this with several cast renditions of the song, and nobody else breaks it down like this. It appears to be one of Wayne’s own strokes of genius.
*Speaking of McVey, this album wouldn’t be complete without his signature song, “Bring Him Home.” I confess that I find his tenor a little “squeaky” for my taste, but that last high note on the word “home” is so, so pure.
*With big voices like McVey, Harkey, and Ernie Haase himself vying for attention, it’s nice to see hear Doug Anderson’s smooth, easy tones on “I Got the Sun in the Morning.” I’ve always thought he had some Bing Crosby in him. Putting him on a jazzy Irving Berlin number evokes that classically simple sound that singers like Bing and the Andrews Sisters brought to the table. Of course, now he’s gone. Sniff.
*Several of the older selections are smartly chosen for their resemblance to classic uptempo gospel. My personal favorite is “Blow, Gabriel Blow.”
*Monster ballads “The Impossible Dream,” “Climb Ev’ry Mountain” and “You’ll Never Walk Alone” are all sure to become show-stopping favorites. Ernie Haase especially impresses on these numbers, belting it out like he’s 30-some again and holding his own alongside McVey. Still, I’m reminded that only writers like Rodgers & Hammerstein could get away with lines like “Follow ev’ry rainbow ’til you find your dream” or “Walk on through the rain, though your dreams be tossed and blown.” (Seriously, even if your name is Hammerstein, don’t push it.) Here’s video of the group singing “Climb Ev’ry Mountain.” Enjoy, and don’t ask me why J. Mark is wearing an earring. I don’t know why J. Mark is wearing an earring.
*At 13 songs, this album is more generously packed than usual. However, a little fat could probably have been trimmed off. My candidates would be “Together (Wherever We Go)” and especially “Any Dream Will Do,” which I hate with the passion of a thousand burning suns. When Andrew Lloyd Webber is good, he’s transcendent. (See “Pie Jesu.”) When he’s bad, well, we get this. Yes, I’m a heretic and a snob. You can stop throwing tomatoes now.
*I wanted to hear more of J. Mark McVey. He takes his place as one among the group and seems to have no more features than any other member. This is nice in a way, but it leaves the listener feeling that he’s underused.
*Devin McGlamery blends well in the ensemble, but his more contemporary stylings and the way he plays around the note stick out a bit obviously when he gets a solo, especially with this kind of music. He’s at his best when he sings with a deliberately clean, full sound on a number like “Blow, Gabriel Blow.” Basically, as long as he’s trying to imitate J. Mark McVey, he’s doing good.
*I’ve saved my longest and strongest criticism for last. I strongly disagree with Signature Sound’s choice to include the song “Seasons of Love,” from the musical Rent. I wasn’t familiar with this musical before, and neither, I would guess, are many of you, which is just as well. It’s based on a French play called La boheme, which is fitting since the tone is very, shall we say, bohemian. Plainly, this musical celebrates the most perverse kinds of sexuality and invites the viewer to celebrate along.
Kind of makes you reconsider what the songwriters were really on about when they made “love” the central theme of this song, doesn’t it?
This doesn’t mean that I endorse every plot element of every other musical from which other songs on this album were drawn. The musical Gypsy is about a girl who decides to become a strip tease artist, but I didn’t use that against the group’s cover of “Together, Wherever We Go,” because the lyrics to that song are wholly disconnected from the objectionable elements of the play. “Seasons of Love” is different, because as innocuous as it sounds, it’s making a statement that can’t be divorced from its source material. It’s most certainly not a coincidence that when SCOTUS redefined marriage, fans of the song were leaving “Love wins!” in its music video’s comments section.
The tragic irony is that anyone who dares offer a Christian sexual ethic to our culture will be hissed out of the public square as an unloving bigot, when in reality, this twisted definition of “love” is the lie that steals, kills and destroys. It is killing and destroying the very people who profess it. To call them back from the brink of this death is not hate. It is love. And no, I’m not talking about fringe cults who picket everything in sight with profane signs. I’m talking about people who simply refuse to bow to the beast, for the sake of truth and for the sake of eternal souls.
Final thoughts: As I said at the beginning, this is not an easy concept album to pull off. But Wayne and the group picked songs that perfectly fit each member’s voice and stretched them to their limits as a vocal ensemble. I’ve often said that the group’s biggest strength is their vocals, whereas their songs can sometimes be on the thin side. But when their vocals connect with a great song, it’s a sight to behold. Well, this album connects them with a whole bunch of great songs. That Berlin, that Rodgers & Hammerstein, those guys knew what they were doing, and they crafted their lyrics and melodies for great singers to wrap their voices around them. The wealth of good material here makes it all the more sad that I had to come down so hard on their most contemporary selection. Still, as a music critic, I must evaluate the album based on its merits as a whole. And as a whole, it leaves me little to complain about.
Rating: 4.5 stars