In a recent discussion in the comments, NewSoGoFan offered to take an item off my to-do list, reviewing Ernie Haase and Signature Sound’s latest CD. Once someone has proven that they can write and have insight to offer, I’m all for giving them a shot to be heard. Plus, the deal includes a day off! So, here’s this site’s first ever guest CD review. ~Daniel
The first thing I noticed when I got home and opened my copy of Influenced: Spirituals and Southern Classics was the design of the CD. They’d literally designed it to look like an old-fashioned record—handsome black grooves and all. It put a smile on my face—just a nice, classy touch. The liner notes are nicely put together as well. There’s a classy new group shot on the back cover with a note from Wayne Haun, then musician and songwriter info on the inside. Lyrics would have been a nice addition, but musician info was certainly a must for this sort of project, so I’m glad they included it. It’s just a cool thing to know exactly who had those sweet banjo licks or that killer fiddle solo, even if I don’t know the name from Adam.
Now without further ado…on to the songs!
- The Bible Told Me So (featuring Devin): This is a cute, up-tempo way to get the project going. They always open their concerts with this song, so anybody reading this who’s seen the group recently knows that it’s an Ecclesiastes paraphrase: “There’s a time to laugh and a time to cry/A time to live and there’s a time to die, etc.” Nothing heavy, but it does its job as a nice intro to the record and to Devin’s voice. Tight, polished harmonies as usual.
- Who’ll Be a Witness? (featuring Tim): I love how this begins with just a creeping bass and finger-snapping. I do think the whispered “witneeeeess” is a bit distracting. But I like the sudden switch from the initial lean rhythm backbone and unison singing to full instrumentation and harmony. This song isn’t my favorite spiritual—it doesn’t have much of a tune and drags somewhat. But the guys do a good job with it. You can tell they’re having a lot of fun, and for me as a listener, that enhances my own enjoyment of it. Tracey Phillips’s piano work is impeccable and easily steals the show.
- If God Didn’t Care (featuring Devin): I just really like how this one flows. It’s a slow, swaying piece with a bit of a Cathedrals sound. I like the precision of the vocals. Devin delivers a very smooth, rich performance. All the guys sound great on this track as a matter of fact. Ernie handles some very high harmony with his usual ease and confidence, Timmy provides some great “basement work,” and Doug and Devin flesh out the sound beautifully.
- That’s How Rhythm Was Born (featuring Ernie): This was the probably the most unusual cover choice for the record. For a change, the guys picked something originally done by a female group—the Boswell Sisters. But astonishingly, they make it sound like it was written for them. Just one more piece of evidence that these guys can literally pick anything they like and make it their own. Appropriately, the production on this song has a very strong 40′s feel. The classic, tight-knit band sound and the various instrumental improvisations make me feel like I’m sitting in on the Boswell Sisters’ own recording session. But that’s the idea, of course. The highlight of the song is when Glen Duncan cuts loose on the fiddle during the musical bridge. I was immediately reminded of Joe Venuti, a popular studio violinist in the era this song was pulled from. What with one thing and another, this song literally inspired me to go pull out my collection of Bing Crosby & Andrews Sisters duets—it sounds that authentic. Of course, the lyric makes reference to banjos, so the production wouldn’t be complete without some dexterous pickin’ in the mix—listen closely at the end for some sweet descending licks. Interestingly, I feel like this song actually loses some of its flavor done live, mainly because they’re working with a limited live band, so the more colorful bits of production (banjo, fiddle) get lost in the process.
- It’s Good to See the Sun (featuring Ernie): Nothing ground-breaking here, just a nice, slow, mellow piece about enjoying the sunshine of life while you have it. Although it’s arranged to sound like an old song, the lyrics suggest that it’s something newer. It is in fact co-penned by Haase, Haun, and Lindsey. Once again, Tracey Phillips provides the glue that holds the band together, expertly setting the mood with some delicious chords at the intro and closing with a lovely, tumbling waterfall of notes. Recommended listening on a lazy summer’s day.
- Walk Over God’s Heaven (featuring Doug): I guessed from the samples that this was going to be a favorite before I ever heard it. I was right. The main instrument is (I believe) an electric guitar, and man, it just takes it away. I love how it never plays the same lick twice—it’s tweaked a little each time to keep things interesting. And then I love when the upright bass takes over at the end—too sweet! And the b-3 organ spices things up beautifully throughout. Doug is obviously having a ball (as are all the guys) and does a great job. So I think I’ve got this straight now…we’re gonna walk in the shoes, shout in the robe, and dance in the crown. Sounds good. Let’s crank up the volume and hit the road! If this ain’t driving music, I don’t know what is. Roll down the windows? Sure, who’s gonna stop me? I mean the guy next to me is blaring his heavy metal or whatever at 200 decibels, why not blare some good gospel back at him?
- My Brother’s Keeper (featuring Devin): Another smooth ballad. I like the acapella “ooooos” to kick it off—bit schmaltzy, but what the heck, I’m a sucker for schmaltz. Lyrically, it’s your typical “my brother is every man” lyric, but I like how it turns around at the end: “Today I’m my brother’s keeper/But tomorrow he may be mine.” Makes you think a little bit. Oh yes, and I’d say this is definitely Devin’s strongest feature on the project. He’s comfortably within his range and sounds very natural and confident, with a nice, full-bodied tone.
- Old-Fashioned Love (featuring Ernie): Well, even good projects deserve a little filler…honestly, this is the only track I didn’t import into my iTunes library when I got the CD. This features the famous kazoo solo, which has become the centerpiece of a comedy routine so popular that it’s literally spawned a new product in the EHSS store—plastic kazoos! But let’s be honest…while the routine is very funny done live, the song itself is rather forgettable. And the kazoo…well let’s just say it doesn’t help. Again, makes a good comedy routine, but once you remove the live element, the end product leaves something to be desired.
- Let It Go (featuring Tim): I just love songs I can relate to with my own personal life experiences. I love songs that meet me where I am. Case in point, this irresistible little number reminding us to let go of our grudges before we blow our tops. I fondly recall an incident from my early driving years…like a good citizen, I was making a right turn into the nearest available lane. I couldn’t possibly be in anybody’s way—or so I thought. That thought went right out the window when some idiot turned left into the exact same lane, forcing me to practice my defensive driving skills (read: slam the brakes) to avoid an unfortunate scene for all concerned. So you can imagine how moved I was when the following lyric from this song caught my ear: “Somebody at the traffic light/Was turning left as you turned right/They cut you off and drove from sight/So where’s that golden rule?” I couldn’t believe it—God surely must have inspired the writer to write this just for me. It just spoke to my heart. I’m getting a little teary-eyed just thinking about it. Excuse me while I go grab a tissue or two… Okay, just kidding. But let’s just say it struck a little close to home!
- It’s My Desire (featuring Devin): This is the “listen to our new lead” number that Ernie’s taken to having Devin sing at each concert. I like the song—though it does come off as a slightly inferior version of “I’d Rather Have Jesus.” But Devin does a nice job with it. Interestingly, they leave off the key change after the first verse when they do this one live. Listening to the studio cut, I can see why—Devin does sound a little strained after the key change. But he finishes strong, and the backup harmonies are just right—they accentuate and complement Devin’s work without being overpowering.
- His Name is Wonderful: I pronounce this the gem of the project. It’s completely acapella, which accentuates the harmonic interplay of the vocals. It starts in B flat, which happens to be the same key in which the group has taken to doing “Wonderful Grace of Jesus.” They throw in an unexpected chord shift at the end of the first “almighty God is he”—they hold out a four-three suspension, but instead of immediately resolving to the one, everybody else holds his place while the baritone steps down from a B flat to an A flat for a momentary key change to D flat. Only then do they collapse back to the one for the rest of the chorus. I’m not sure if I’m entirely on board with it yet, but it’s a neat twist. There’s some great moving harmony second time through the chorus, and this time they all change key to D flat together and stay there for the rest of the song. The ending is just gorgeous—wonderfully lush, intricate chords. I can’t say enough good things about this arrangement. I hope they do more acapella work of this caliber on future projects. As of yet, they’ve only begun to dip their toes into it, but here’s hoping they continue to explore this sound. Frankly, I’d like to see them do an entire record acapella one of these days—perhaps an all-hymns project reminiscent of the Cathedrals’ Worship His Glory.
Conclusion: Comparing this project to something like Get Away Jordan or Dream On is like comparing soft chalk to bright marker. As with Influenced I, the guys obviously worked hard to create a deliberately vintage sound. Though the production is crisp and full, there’s a down-to-earth, spontaneous feel to the instrumentation (and the vocals for that matter). It’s precise without being glossy. It doesn’t feel “slick” or “packaged.” I haven’t yet figured out whether they recorded their vocals on only two microphones like they did for Influenced I. Cover art aside, I suspect they may not have, but even if they didn’t, they did an excellent job capturing that same style they were aiming for with I1. However, I think this project is a little tighter since they dropped the whole radio show concept from the first volume (which was cute, but disrupted the flow of the songs somewhat). Plus, if you don’t count the intro, outro, and “poetry corner” track from I1, you’re getting one more song for your money—11 versus 10. So for those reasons, I might give this sequel the edge over the first project, but I’d have to listen to more songs from the first one to be sure.
Ultimately, if you’re looking for big ballads with powerful, deeply moving lyrics, you won’t find them here. This is a pretty light, easy-listening album. But that’s exactly what it was intended to be. It’s not a landmark project, but it’s a solid, enjoyable collection of songs that not only serves as Devin’s major debut, but also showcases the group’s maturing sound. This album is further proof that all “boy band” comparisons are yesterday’s news. It’s the work of a seasoned quartet who’s discovering that sometimes less is more. Until their next big project (which is of course the Cathedrals tribute CD/DVD combo), fans of the group will find plenty to keep them satisfied here in the meanwhile.