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Checking the Playlists: Gospel, its value and its aural limits

posted February 7, 2014, 8:13 am by Nathaniel Lathy | Filed Under Checking the Playlists, Editorial | comment Leave a Comment

Johnny Cash had the market cornered on gospel, but like other great artists he wasn’t pigeonholed into one genre.

He was truly a country legend. And the gospel music, he sang fit in with the singer’s life experiences and his abilities.

Johnny Cash

His version of “Just As I Am” is my favorite version of the hymn. You can find other good renditions of hymns by Hank Williams, Tennessee Ernie Ford, Elvis Presley and others.

Presley is an artist, who’s music interests me most, when it is Gospel. For 1950s rock ‘n’ roll I’d just as soon listen to Chuck Berry, Fats Domino even Bill Haley (his contribution to the music is underrated by historians, critics and fans alike). But a collection of Presley gospel songs makes for a remarkably solid album.

Sometimes gospel from great artists leaves me wanting something better. When I hear Bing Crosby singing hymns with background singers, I’d just as soon hear him croon “Pennies from Heaven” sans vocal accompaniment.

I tried listening to an Aretha Franklin gospel music, and I found myself losing interest fast. I hear her outreach to the listener better on secular music. Her version of “Long and Winding Road” tops the Beatles’ versions. It’s more about passion and vision, a thing called “heart.” See Frank Sinatra and Jimmy Durante in the musical “It Happened in Brooklyn” for further explanation.

Perusing contemporary Christian music, there’s room for improvement. There seems little need for the praise and worship group at Mass to keep playing the same songs, which dominated Christian radio and church services in the 90s. I’d rather hear more organ playing of Catholic standards.

Mogwai is a band, which impresses me with its spiritual views. “What are They Doing in Heaven Today,?” a track from a soundtrack for a French TV series. “Repelish” keeps my interest off the band’s latest album.

But on the latter track, it seems like there are better ways the band’s creative vision and philosophy can be channeled than analyzing backwards playing and hidden lyrical meanings of a Led Zeppelin track. There’s a time to lighten up, too. A more positive vision will reach more rockers without having to water down the theological message.

Listening to Ella
Ella Fitzgerald
It’s hard to come across a more lovely voice than Ella Fitzgerald’s. It seems evident to me when I find myself switching to the next song sometimes when Diana Krall is on. It’s hard not to compare when I hear both singers perform the same song. With Fitzgerald it’s hard to come across songs, I don’t like.

The movie, The Master, didn’t do much for me. But the director Paul Thomas Anderson has a knack for good soundtracks in his movies. And the use of Ella was a plus. It led me to explore some tracks from Fitzgerald from a collection of Harold Arlen songs. Even songs Judy Garland made legendary (“The Man That Got Away” and “Over the Rainbow”) have Fitzgerald’s unique stamp on them from her  voice, which rivals Billie Holiday’s.

I do prefer the power and vulnerability of Holiday’s vocals however. But great is still great.


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