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The Graham Weekly Album Review #1476

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Susan Werner: The Gospel Truth
by George Graham

(Sleeve Dog Records As broadcast on WVIA-FM 3/14/2007)

Church music has been the inspiration to generations of musicians and performers, some of whom have made music rather far apart from the message that religious music was supposed to convey, like blues performers down through the years, and the rock and roll pioneers. These days, there is a thriving scene of pop-style religious music, mostly from Christians, though there is some in the Jewish tradition. And American Gospel music has always been part of the bluegrass scene, and to some extent country music. The style of Gospel music has also provided inspiration to many who have absorbed its influences, everyone from classical composer Aaron Copeland to today's roots rockers to singer-songwriters like Lyle Lovett, to energetic rockers like Robert Randolph.

This week, we have a fascinating album by one of today's finest and brightest singer-songwriters that draws heavily on the style of church music, but feature lyrics that examine faith in an often skeptical manner. The CD is called The Gospel Truth and it's the seventh release by Susan Werner.

Susan Werner grew up in a big Catholic family in Iowa, where church provided her first performance venue at the age of five. She began piano at age 11, and pursued music in her academic career, graduating from the University of Iowa with a music degree in voice, and then attended Temple University in Philadelphia where she got her graduate degree in classical voice, and seemed headed to the opera stage. But she also was drawn by the new folk scene, and was soon attracting audiences with her remarkable voice and her intelligent, often witty songs.

In recent years, Ms. Werner has gravitated toward the old fashioned 1960s genre of concept albums, collections of songs on a theme or style. Her last CD, I Can't Be New, released 2004, was a wonderful exercise in recreating the sound and style of the great Tin Pan Alley composers like Jerome Kern and Cole Porter, with romantic lyrics, clever rhymes and sophisticated jazzy accompaniment, though with a more laid-back, relaxed sound than the music of the day.

This time, Ms. Werner decided to create an album in the style of Gospel music of various flavors, from African American Gospel to bluegrass-influenced. Ms. Werner used the project as an opportunity to examine her own faith, and religion in general in the way it is practiced. The result is music that is likely to raise eyebrows in certain circles, but is ultimately affirming and positive. But she pulls no punches in castigating those who wrap themselves hypocritically in religion for their own, less than altruistic purposes, while she celebrates those who live by principles, have a conscience -- if not formal religion -- she also recalls fondly childhood memories of going to church with her family on Sunday morning. And she also pens what I suppose could be called a Gospel song for agnostics.

This would be a hard act to pull off without sounding strident, preachy or both, but Ms. Werner, in her 15 year recording career has proven herself to be one of the brightest lights on the so-called New Folk scene, combining her superbly controlled voice, with exceptionally tasteful musicianship, and lyrical sense that often mixes wit with profound insight. Every one of her albums features real gems of songwriting, whether it's love songs or humorously addressing her generation. In preparation for this recording, Ms. Werner visited and attended churches around the country, sampling the music.

Ms. Werner produced The Gospel Truth in Philadelphia with Glenn Barrett, and the musical setting is always tasteful, usually running toward the understated. But given the subject matter and style, there is also a Gospel styled backing chorus who makes an appearance. The instrumental cast is somewhat varied, including among others Jef Lee Johnson and producer Barrett on guitars, Joel Bryant, John Conahan and Michael Frank on keyboards, and jazz bassist Charles Fambrough, and previous Werner colleague Chico Huff among those holding down the bottom end.

Ms. Werner starts off leaving no doubt about her intent on the song called (Why Is Your) Heaven So Small, taking aim at those who practice the religion of exclusion. The musical composition takes on the sound of an old-time Gospel tune with its open harmonies. But of course there lots of interesting twists like the Dobro and the oddly appropriate sitar. <<>>

Somewhat less skeptical is Help Somebody which draws musically on the African American Gospel tradition, in its message of generosity and service to others. <<>>

One of the more introspective songs is Did Trouble Me whose central premise is feeling the pangs of conscience. The folk-influenced musical setting is particularly pleasing. <<>>

There is something of a love song on the album, Don't Explain It Away, which has a more sultry musical mood than rest of the album. The lyrics are an interesting mix of the romantic and the metaphysical. <<>>

With one of the more interesting sets of lyrics on this philosophically complex album is Forgiveness. The song simultaneously singles out those Ms. Werner feels have gone down the wrong path, and at the time seeks forgiveness, rather than the punishment that some religions would mete out. <<>>

There are two songs on the CD likely to raise some controversy, especially among those she targets. Our Father (New Revised Edition), re-writes the prayer with definite change of direction, done with an upbeat-sounding country backing. <<>>

Perhaps the lyrics most likely to be called heretical come on Probably Not, a kind of happy-go-lucky sounding agnostic's hymn. But Ms. Werner leaves the door open to faith toward the end. <<>>

The last formal track on the CD, is called Together, which full of 1960s hippy idealism, sounding both quaint and very appropriate for the times. <<>>

Susan Werner's new CD The Gospel Truth is another outstanding and memorable album from arguably one of today's finest singer-songwriters. It's another in a series of concept albums from her. In the i-Pod era of musical deconstruction it seems all the more welcome. Of course, her skepticism of organized religion and the characters who practice it, will likely bring the mighty wrath of just those whose peccadillos she addresses. While she approaches the subject with a degree of uncertainty, in the end, she leaves herself open to faith, and in a way, celebrates the goodness that it can bring. And she does all of that with an especially tasteful musical backing, that celebrates the various styles of American Gospel music.

My grade for sound quality is a definite "A." The mix is nicely done, the recording gives Ms. Werner's vocals a warm, intimate and very pleasing sound, and the dynamic range is respectable, capturing the ebb and flow of the music.

A folkie doing a concept album about religion that doesn't have a religious message -- that's not the sort of CD that comes down the pike every day. Obviously, one's religious viewpoint is may likely sway one's opinion about this CD, and indeed Ms. Werner, may find herself blackballed in certain circles. But in her skepticism, he gives no disrespect, and makes a lot of excellent, and one might say, thought-provoking music.

(c) Copyright 2007 George D. Graham. All rights reseved.
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