Monday, July 04, 2005

The Songs of Zion

Steven Stewart – Balance

This CD is on par with some of the best Contemporary Christian pop I’ve heard out of Nashville. It’s got flawless arrangements, clear vocals, and the strongest writing I’ve heard in a long time. And even though it’s keyboard driven pop, it even appeals to this hardened rocker.

The writing and the arrangements (even in the more LDS-ish ballads) are so strong and unique that they’re breathing new life into old themes. The sounds and the vocals are captivating. “Searching For a Sign” is one of my favorites. “Only My Soul” and “Promise of Spring” are also amazing.

In the first half of the CD, the ballads are mixed in with some smokin’ hot dance tracks, too. “Surrounded” can match grooves with the most stellar of CCM, and “Balance” is great as well.

There’s some excellent mid-tempo pop, like “Leave Me in the Rain”. “The True Messiah” is smooth and easy, but not a slow ballad (I love how the chorus leaves you suspended in the air). Some electronic percussion gives the song more motion.

See, there’s a lot of stuff on this CD that people have been doing in mainstream pop and CCM for a long time. So why am I raging about how unique and fresh it is? Because I haven’t heard anyone doing these things in LDS music. We get too trapped into our own little niche and we forget that we’re in a bigger ball park. It’s exciting to hear someone step up to the plate and take a serious swing at a big-league sound.

My only real problem is this CD is a bit too long for my taste. With the “Bonus Tracks” it’s 22 full-length songs. And it’s not like there’s filler, here. It’s all THAT good. But it would’ve been much stronger to pick the 12 or 13 BEST, and go with those. The pacing starts out strong, with a great variety between up tempo and slower ballads, but then, along about song ten or so, we get a longer string of slower ballads that tends to bog the CD down for me. So, trim a few and mix it up more would be my two cents worth of unsolicited advice. Take it for what it cost ya, Steven! :-)

The songs (with the exception of the bonus tracks, available only on the pre-release version), are all in some way about the Savior, and I think Steven’s handled those themes very sensitively, even in the up-tempo tunes. That’s not always easy to do.

It’s kinda funny, in a sad sorta way, but I wouldn’t be surprised if this CD doesn’t do well in the LDS market. I wish it would, but I’m a little nervous that our (mostly) conservative LDS ears won’t take so readily to sounds that are primarily found in the CCM market. Especially since there is almost nothing to distinguish it as a “mormon” CD. It shouldn’t be that way. This CD should be getting played at stake dances all over mormondom. But I wonder if the same people that proclaim just how bored they are with LDS music will be willing to risk the exploration of something like “Balance”. I hope they do! Because I think it’s incredible, and I don’t think they’ll be disappointed.

Mark Hansen

PS. Thomas Baggaley's instrumental compositions are featured at Latter-Day Songs, along with more from Rick Reeve and LDS rapper TJ Fredette.

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