Thursday, November 17, 2005

The Songs of Zion

Lead Kindly Light
Sharon Hopkins

When I first got this CD, I was deceived!

Now that I have your attention, let me explain. The cover of the CD has the face of a pretty blonde girl, in pastel tones, with that misted-over sort of look to the photograph. The back has the same girl, in a white dress, with her hand clasped over her heart. The songs listed on the back were the titles of familiar hymns, and the text description contained words like, “uplift and inspire”, “ethereal tapestry”, “spiritual hymn arrangements”, and I found myself rolling my eyes.

I mean, how many covers like that have you seen in Deseret Book already? How many CD’s have you heard of “Spiritual Hymn Arrangements”? Do we really need yet another one?

Well, it turns out the answer to that last question is, “Yes, we do. And the one we need is this one.”

As I spun the CD and listened to the songs, I was amazed to be taken to places I’d never imagined in the context of hymns before. There were songs on this CD that were unique, surprising, and even a bit shocking. Not in content, mind you, but in sound and creation. Chord progressions that went off on turns that I’d never imagined, sudden changes in instrumentation, juxtapositions of elements and textures that made me relearn the messages of the hymns. This is fresh, new stuff.

The overall sound left me with the impression of a sort of Enya-esque ethereality mixed with the sound of an old Disney soundtrack. Lots of high, lilting soprano, with cathedral-like choirs. String and wind orchestral instruments blended with pianos and organs for the instrumental accompaniments.

“If You Could Hie to Kolob” was one of the more innovative tracks. Constant shifts and changes in the textures of the arrangement and the layers of vocals made this track a fascinating one to follow. In “Onward Christian Soldiers” she inserted a segment of a male voice singing verses derived from Joseph Smith’s tribulations in D&C 120 & 121. That juxtaposition next to the non-traditional rendering of the march feel of the chorus was very powerful. And the way she shifted the piano and melody of the latter verses of “A Poor Wayfaring Man of Grief” into a Chopin-esqe dirge was incredible, resolving up into the major key change when the free spirit cries!

And I have never before heard, nor probably ever will again hear “Carry On” done this way! No spoilers, you'll just have to hear it yourself.

Another thing that amazed me was that she did all her arrangements, even conducted the orchestra. This is not where a singer or a record label hires a producer to make all kinds of sweetness for the voice to rest on. She’s the creative heart and mind behind it all.

I have to admit, though, that in spite of the surprises and the innovation, the light, ethereal, airy, “Mormon girl” voices got a little old. That’s just me, though. The vocals were incredibly executed, and her high countermelodies were beautiful. I just like the voices to have a little more body some times. There were a few songs, like “Beautiful Savior”, and “Lead Kindly Light”, which didn’t have so much originality in the arrangement to distract me from the oh-so-traditional LDS "light spiritual" voice.

So, I’ll give it 4 stars, and I’ll actually listen to it on Sundays, because there is more musical substance to it that most of the “Sounds of the Sabbath” stuff I hear.

Mark Hansen

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