The Essential Fred Hammond
The Essential Hezekiah Walker
The Essential John P. Kee
Perhaps I was hoping for too much, but I'm pretty disappointed with these albums. I've never listened closely to any contemporary gospel, so I had high hopes for these two CD collections from three of the bigger names in modern gospel. I've particularly heard Fred Hammond's name around. He's apparently considered one of the main architects of modern gospel, and has a big ol' bunch of Dove and Grammy awards and such. So I've been listening to this stuff off and on for a couple of months, trying to get something out of it.
But all this stuff pretty much sounds like indistinct goop with little real soul. I don't mean to question these gentlemen's faith or sincerity, but this altogether sounds like hour after hour of assembly line corporate gospel. It all runs together. It sounds homogenized, and I can't tell one from another without looking at the info in my media player. It's all real slick, and lacking any kind of eccentricity or personal touch.
It reminds me of modern "country music" quite a bit. Black folks who would think Fred Hammond is great gospel music seem about equivalent to white folk who think that Garth Brooks is outstanding "country music." Whereas, to me they both sound like safe, lowest common denominator musical cheese food product. Walker, Hammond and Kee turn on huge choirs and melisma about the way that Garth turns on a twang. They seem to do it correctly, but as an affectation rather than as any expression of anything personal in their souls. It takes more than twang to make good country music, and more than melisma to make gospel.
Perhaps it's partly bad timing for me and these gospel singers, in that I've spent a lot of the last couple of years immersed in classic black gospel. 1930s and 40s gospel has some of the most beautiful and meaningful musical sounds ever recorded, being a hugely important inspiration for rock and roll and soul music. After Sister Rosetta Tharpe, The Trumpeteers, the Dixie Hummingbirds and the Soul Stirrers, well maybe any new thing was going to sound weak. But why?
For one thing, the older generation had far more interesting and personal lyrics. Sister Ernestine Washington would make a heartfelt warning about Sunday Christians on "I'm Going to Live the Life I Sing About in My Songs" and the Jordinaires would wax apocalyptic with "Time's Winding Up." Whereas pretty much every John P Kee, Fred Hammond and Hezekiah Walker lyric was in a very narrow range of the safest MOR Touched by an Angel type sentiments about needing God and looking forward to heaven.
There was also a lot more interesting variety in the arrangements of the older generation. Rosetta Tharpe had a strong personal style as a guitar picker. The classic singers had great individual personality. Sister Ernestine Washington sounded like she was somebody, by gummy.
Most of all, much of the best stuff there was often by male vocal harmony groups with totally unique styles where every part counted. The Golden Gate Jubilee Quartet, every individual note sung by each of the four members went together, like "chamber music" under the Walt Rimmler definition. If one of the Soul Stirrers was out with the flu, you'd know they were gone. Their stuff was tight.
Whereas by contrast, these modern records substitute muscle for personality or nuance. If half of Hezekiah Walker's choir were out sick, you'd probably never notice. Or they could pick up some temps from whatever local neighborhood church they were playing.
But they probably wouldn't be playing in little neighborhood churches. I wouldn't imagine Fred Hammond could fit some 50 piece choir and band and equipment into the kind of little churches in the wildwoods where the Dixie Hummingbirds made their living. They seem to be just throwing a whole bunch of voices singing the same big, dumbed down harmonies in unison. Then Mssrs. Kee, Hammond and Walker turn on the dramatics. But those dramatics often seem as rote as a hooker hollering and thrashing and looking out the corner of her eye at the clock.
To put it another way, these modern guys are reminding me of the Talking Heads song about "Heaven," where the band is perfect and they play the same perfect song all night long. I've listened to six hours+ of these three guys, at least a couple of times apiece - and I cannot point to even one memorable song that sounds the list bit different from any other one.
To put it in a more positive light, if you're a big fan of Garth Brooks and you want to reach out for some gospel music, these guys will likely do you solid.
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