Portable Sounds

File Under:  Pop/Rock/Funk/Hip-Hop
Grade: A-

Always one to embrace what’s new technologically speaking, tobyMac gives the iPod generation exactly what it wants on his third solo outing, Portable Sounds: plenty of radio-friendly singles that warrant repeated listens.

Instead of going for the whole cohesive album vibe that’s largely unappreciated these days anyway, it’s apparent that tobyMac invested his creative energy in recording highly listenable songs that reflect his musical tastes of the moment — classic funk, reggae, R&B and, of course, hip-hop.

But in the spirit of keeping the audience guessing what’s up his proverbial sleeve, there are also a few surprises on Portable Sounds. Most notably, it’s the use of live instrumentation rather than the programmed sounds and extraneous samples of albums past that really stands out. Whether it’s on the energetic opener “One World” where Joanna Valencia (who also performed on Momentum and Welcome to Diverse City) ultimately steals the show with her powerhouse chops or the laidback groove of his irresistibly catchy first single, “Made to Love,” the live strings and horns add a new vibrancy and potency to his sound.

Another key element that separates Portable Sounds from its predecessors is the more pop-friendly nature of songs such as “I’m For You” and “Suddenly” where tobyMac sings more than he rhymes, which is a pleasant change of pace. Although he’s been a Gold-selling solo artist for the better part of this decade, these tracks are a nice homage to the dcTalk era. It’s such a logical progression, in fact, that one half expects Michael Tait and Kevin Max to crash the party.

Aside from all the cosmetic changes from a sonic perspective, however, there seems to be a marked shift in tobyMac’s songwriting strategy. While there’s still plenty of unabashed fun to be had on the horn-driven “No Ordinary Love,” which highlights the spectacular singing of Nirva Dorsaint, a member of his “Diverse City” touring band and the funky “Feelin’ So Fly,” there’s far more lyrical depth on Portable Sounds.

With “No Signal,” a sweet ode to his family, tobyMac reaffirms his life’s priorities in a song that’ll likely generate a collective “awwh” when anyone  listens. One-upping it, though, is “Lose My Soul,” which, in the vein of “Burn For You” from Welcome to Diverse City, is an introspective prayer that gives listeners a rare glimpse of the man behind the artist. While he’s always talked candidly about what he cares about in terms of social commentary, revealing moments like these have been few and far between. Now, here’s hoping for a few more of those next time around.

In the meantime, Portable Sounds should do the trick for longtime and new fans alike.
Relient K
Five Score
and Seven Years Ago
File Under: Power-Pop/Pop-Punk
Grade: A-
A New Car!

They say Relient K named itself after the cheap car that everybody made fun of in the ’80s. After recording Five Score and Seven Years Ago, the band should probably change its name to Corvette or Lamborghini. Relient K is well known for its quirky sense of humor and the fact that these guys never took themselves too seriously. Now they will be known for writing amazingly artistic songs — epic songs about death, forgiveness, loss and hope. This is the band’s fifth album in seven years and the novelty is all but gone, and that’s OK. If you put aside the dorky album title and the unnecessary (albeit short) novelty track “Crayons Can Melt On Us For All I Care,” you are left with a brilliant and compelling album full of wonderful power-pop and alternative pop-punk songs.Lead vocalist and multi-instrumentalist Matt Thiessen and the band have matured by leaps and bounds in every possible way. The beautiful Brian Wilson influenced a cappella opening track, “Plead The Fifth,” has a mind-blowing vocal arrangement with a hook that will leave you breathless. It’s like audio candy for power-pop fans. From there, they quickly give the rock and pop-punk enthusiasts something to get excited about with the fast and fun “I Need You,” and the stunning “The Best Thing,” with its pop pianos and quick rock chorus. The commercial hit of the record has to be “Must Have Done Something Right” with one of the best hooks in recent memory.

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Complimenting the fantastic songwriting is the stellar sound. The majority of the production, this time around, is handled by the renowned Howard Benson (My Chemical Romance, All-American Rejects), and the result is a sonic treat.

What makes this a truly great record, though, is the final track,”Deathbed.” Over 11 minutes long and with more than 100 tracks used to record it, this is an artistic tour de force with Jon Foreman of Switchfoot on guest vocals. This is not art for art’s sake, however, or hard to listen to — this is a powerful and moving story of a man dying of lung cancer, his final thoughts of his past life and his journey into the next. The lyrics are straight forward: “Then Jesus showed up/Said before we go up I thought we might reminisce/See one night in your life when you turned out the lights/You asked for and prayed for my forgiveness.” Not since Terry Scott Taylor’s A Briefing For the Ascent or Rich Mullins’ A Liturgy, A Legacy? have we heard something this beautiful or emotive. This is how you effectively put the message of Christ, forgiveness and eternity into a song without making it sound like a witnessing track. Honestly, you may not recall the last time you were this moved by a song. “Deathbed” is the powerful engine in this really cool car that everyone will want to drive.
Tooth & Nail
File Under: Rock
Grade: B

Following a lengthy tour in support of its breakthrough second album Never Take Friendship Personal, Anberlin returned to the studio to emerge with Cities — an album that, for lack of a better term, just sounds big. With tighter playing and stronger writing, Cities displays Anberlin’s growth as a band, as the songwriting team of singer Stephen Christian and guitarist Joseph Milligan lead the Florida quintet to focus on not just creating a collection of rocking songs (which they do), but creating a solid album.

It quickly kicks into gear with the frantic anthem”Godspeed,” followed by the upbeat and radio-ready “Adelaide.” As one would expect from Anberlin, Cities is packed with plenty of numbers that bring the rock, such as “A Whisper and a Clamor” and “Alexithymia.” This doesn’t mean that the band has to hide behind amps at full gain, though — the ballad “The Unwinding Cable Car” displays Anberlin’s skill in stripping its material down to a couple of acoustic guitars with minimal drum and bass to produce one of the strongest songs on the record.

There is a fine art to creating closing tracks, and Anberlin manages to pull this off pretty well by saving some of its best songs for last. The heavy, yet slightly downbeat “Dismantle Repair” fades nicely into the appropriately-titled “Fin,” which begins with mostly acoustics, then transitions into the entire band playing at full volume, before finally adding in a full children’s choir; the result of which is near-epic. If the grandeur of “Fin” could be captured earlier throughout the album, it might be what Cities needs to not just be a good album, but to be a great album.

Lyrically, Cities seems to move from enthusiasm in taking on the world (“they lied when they said the good die young”) to disappointment and loneliness (“is anybody out there?”), followed by a bittersweet nostalgia that leads to hopeful possibility (“things are going to change now for the better”), suggesting the sense of struggle that comes with growing older and going forward in life. Cities, if anything, evokes a hope for the future.


Copyright © 2007 CCM Magazine, Used by Permission

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