Tuesday, February 25, 2014


LITTLE BLACK SHEEP is the memoir of Ashley Cleveland and was published in 2013 by David C Cook.  Ashley is a singer-songwriter and author who has won three Grammys and two Dove Awards.

This is a great read!  It details how she grew up in a broken family with a homosexual father and how that impacted her.  Anyone who has experienced bouncing around from one parent to the other in different cities, provinces, or states, will find this part of her story interesting.

The overarching subject of the book is Ashley’s deep struggle with alcohol and drugs.  Anyone who has been, or is, addicted to anything in their lives should give this book a read.  Ashley’s story is not one where she was delivered instantaneously.  She did not quit cold turkey once and for all. 

Ashley speaks openly about her feelings of insecurity and not belonging with people and her promiscuity.  She deeply desired a meaningful relationship with a man, but it was a long road for her to see that come to pass.

Anyone who is a fan of music should open up this book. Ashley chronicles her long path to becoming an established solo artist.  Along the way she became friends with Pam Tillis, daughter of Mel, and eventually signed to Atlantic Records for her debut album in the early 1990s.  Ashley talks about her relationship with the Christian music industry and her fans here as well.

Mothers will particularly enjoy her musings about her three children, Rebecca, Henry, and Lily. 

She talks about her relationship with churches over the years.  More importantly she talks about her relationship with God before, during, and after her sobriety.  She always expected God was just waiting upstairs to punish her, but what she eventually came to find was a tender, loving God who had a plan for her life.  Praise God for His redeeming love!

Ashley’s faith journey has not been picture perfect and still is not.  She admits she finds it hard to surrender ALL to God.  Who of us doesn’t?  Surrender is a daily struggle for sure!

I value Ashley’s honesty throughout this book. There are a lot of lessons we can learn from her journey and we are the better for her sharing it with us. For more info visit: www.ashleycleveland.com.



Tuesday, February 11, 2014


The News originally formed in Mooloolaba, Queensland in 1985.  Peter Furler and George Perdikis were joined by John James and Sean Taylor.  When they came to the U.S. they changed their name to The Newsboys so as not to be confused with Huey Lewis and the News.  In 1988 they released their debut READ ALL ABOUT IT.  Their 1992 album NOT ASHAMED, which included a cover of DeGarmo and Key’s ‘Boycott Hell’, put them on the map in the CCM market.  1994’s GOING PUBLIC won a Dove Award for Rock Album of the Year and included the fan favorite ‘Shine’.  In 2009 former DC TALK vocalist Michael Tait became lead singer when Peter Furler stepped aside.  Tait’s first album at the helm was 2010’s BORN AGAIN.  RESTART (2013, Sparrow Records) is the group’s 16th studio album!  The current roster is: Michael Tait (lead vocals), Duncan Phillips (drums), Jody Davis (guitars, background vocals), and Jeff Frankenstein (keys, background vocals).

‘That’s How You Change The World’ is a dandy techno dance song with Pete Stewart on guitars.  It encourages us to truly make a difference: “It’s the kind words/A simple smile/More than showing up/Going the extra mile/It’s giving everything/When you’ve got nothing left/Sharing a little hope/With a single breath/That’s how you change the world (2X)”.  ‘Restart’ was written by Joshua Silverberg, Kipp Williams, Jonathan D. White, and Michael Tait.  It is another great techno dance song.  It testifies that God can redeem even today: “Oh Lord, I’m a different man/You gave me a second chance/I was lost/I was fallin’ apart/But You came along/You hit the restart/You, You, You, hit the restart”.

Tony Lucido plays bass on ‘Love Like I Mean It’.  On this song the group longs for a faith that is more than just head knowledge: “I have good intentions/Don’t always turn them into action/I speak love, it’s easy enough/But words are not what love is made of/I wanna do more than that/Yeah, I gotta do more than that/I want you to see it/And believe it”.  ‘Live With Abandon’ is a pretty pop song written by Joshua Silverberg, Kipp Williams, and Jonathan D. White.  It is the song of a band that wants to partner with God: “I’ll drop everything and follow You/It’s only Your hands I hold onto/There’s gotta be so much more to life than this/A higher calling that I missed/I want my life to count, every breath.../I’m not looking back/I’m done with that/Wanna give You all I have.../I wanna live with abandon”.

‘Go Glow’ sounds like Peter Furler era Newsboys musically.  These lyrics reveal a desire for a more Christ-like nature: “Let the old you fade away/You ignite and light the day/Let the old you fade, old you fade/Old you fade away”.  ‘That Home’ was penned by Juan Otero and Eric Arjes.  This ballad quiets things down.  It reflects with fondness on one’s deceased mother: “Momma always had the music on/Sometimes loud, sometimes soft/When I asked about her favorite song/She opened the Bible to the book of Psalms/She always found a way to talk about grace”.

‘Disaster’ is a catchy pop song that portrays God as our Great Physician and Healer: “I had to fall, had to fall apart/To find that You/Love me even after/I am a disaster/Everything is shattered/On the floor/You pick me up and hold me/God, You are the only/Remedy my heart’s been looking for/You’re the cure”.  ‘Fishers of Men’ finds the Newsboys rocking out!  This one encourages personal evangelism: “God, I’ve gotten good at being comfortable/It’s time to leave my comfort zone/Cause You said/Go...Go, and I will make you fishers of men/Go...Go, I don’t care who or where you’ve been/So don’t you be afraid to show the world your faith/Cause you’re never alone/Just Go...Go, and I will make you fishers of men”.

‘One Word’ was penned by Seth Mosley, Nick de Partee, and Phillip LaRue.  It reminds us of the amazing power of our God: “At Your voice the blind begin to see/And the lame can walk, the captives are set free/A hardened heart can finally start to feel/Will You speak that same voice to me?.../With just one word/The stone rolled away/With just one word/You conquered the grave/Cause when You speak/The dead are raised/So here I am, on my face”.  ‘Enemy’ is a moving song both musically and vocally.  It is ultimately a song of surrender to God: “Never thought You heard a word I was prayin’/I stood in the way/When I needed to run to You/But I was too proud to say/Take away the blindness/Lead me through the dark/Don’t let me fall apart/Save me from my bitterness/Show me who I am/Make me who You want me to be”.  ‘We Believe’ features The World Outreach Church Worship Choir.  This song is a powerful adult contemporary declaration of faith: “We believe in God the Father/We believe in Jesus Christ/We believe in the Holy Spirit/And He’s given us new life/We believe in the crucifixion/We believe that He conquered death/We believe in the resurrection/And He’s coming back again/We believe”. 

The Deluxe Edition of RESTART includes five bonus tracks!  ‘Overflow’ is a pop/dance number that finds the band very passionate about their faith: “The love that I’m filled with, I can’t help but give it/I wanna see joy flood this world/Watch all the nations/Return to their Savior/Bringing Heaven down to earth.../It’s over the top/Your love never stops/Rushin’ through my heart/I can’t contain/I get carried away/In all that You are”.  ‘Man on Fire’ features another DC TALK vocalist, Kevin Max!  It speaks of God’s transforming power: “Don’t care-what people say/They stare/But I’m not ashamed/I used to act like everybody told me/I tried to just fit in/But then I met my Savior and He showed me/A new way to live.../God is a consuming fire/He burns away the dark inside/He pulled my heart into the light, the light”.  ‘God is Movin’’ is pop/rock with an edge.  Pete Stewart and Christopher Stevens play guitars.  This song reminds us of the importance of being alert to the realities of the spiritual realm: “I’m the king of complacent/Always waiting for the right time/Just a permanent fixture/In the picture of a charmed life/I’ve been oblivious and unaware/That there’s a war raging on out there/Between the good, the bad/Every day’s a battle”.

Next up is a cover of ‘The Living Years’ penned by Michael Rutherford and B.A. Robertson.  Mike and the Mechanics hit No 1 with this one in Australia, Canada, and Ireland, and it hit No 1 on the U.S. Billboard otHot 100.  The Newsboys version finds Michael Tait, Chanel Campbell, Kevin Max, and Seth Mosley contributing vocals.  It is written from the perspective of a son mourning his late father and speaks of how generations often clash: “Crumpled bits of paper/Filled with imperfect thoughts/Stilted conversations/I’m afraid that’s all we’ve got/You say you just don’t see it/He says it’s perfect sense/You just can’t get agreement/In this present tense/We all talk a different language/Talking in defense/Say it loud, say it clear/You can listen as well as you hear/It’s too late when we die/To admit we don’t see eye to eye”.  ‘Stronger’ is a worship song written by Reuben Morgan and Fen Fielding.  It shares the Gospel message: “There is love that came for us/Humbled to a sinner’s cross/You broke my shame and sinfulness/You rose again victorious/Faithfulness none can deny/Through the storm and through the fire/There is truth that sets me free/Jesus Christ lives in me”.

RESTART is a fascinating contemporary Christian pop album.  The vocals are strong and the music is fresh, youthful, exuberant, and creative.  The Newsboys are a band still unashamed to share their faith with the world.  They want all to know that Jesus Christ is Lord!  Fans of the new Audio Adrenaline should give this Deluxe Edition of RESTART a listen.  I’m rating it 98%.  For more info visit: www.newsboys.com and www.sparrowrecords.com.


Saturday, February 08, 2014


Brian Douglas Wilson was born on June 20, 1942 in Inglewood, California and grew up in Hawthorne.  At ages seven and eight he sang solos in church accompanied by a choir.  As a young guy he played football, baseball, and was a cross-country runner.  His musical influences include George Gershwin and The Four Freshmen.  He lists ‘Be My Baby’ by The Ronettes as his favorite song by another artist.

In 1966 Brian and lyricist Van Dyke Parks began working on the SMILE album.  It was shelved the next year.  Various reasons floated around for years.  There were disagreements among The Beach Boys about the project’s relevance.  There were legal battles with Capitol Records.  Carl Wilson had a draft battle.  Brian had drug and mental problems.  Whatever the reasons writer/producer David Leaf notes SMILE “became the most legendary, unfinished, unreleased album in history”.  Fast forward to February 20, 2004 and Brian and his new band premiered SMILE live in concert to great ovation at London’s Royal Festival Hall.  In September 2004 SMILE, actually called BRIAN WILSON PRESENTS SMILE, came out on CD and double vinyl (Nonesuch Records).  It was nominated for Best Pop Vocal Album at the Grammy`s.

SMILE is divided into three movements.  The first begins with ‘Our Prayer/Gee’.  ‘Our Prayer’ was on The Beach Boys 20/20 album in 1969.  It features voices harmonizing acappella.  ‘Gee’ was released in June 1953 by The Crows and was the first 1950’s doo-wop record to sell over one million records.  One of the lyrics is “How I love my girl”.  A version of ‘Heroes and Villains’ appeared on 1967’s Beach Boys album SMILEY SMILE.  The version on SMILE is the album’s longest track at 4:53.  This bouncy pop song is a story song that begins with these words: “I been in this town so long that back in the city I been taken for lost and gone and unknown for a long, long time/Fell in love years ago with an innocent girl from/The Spanish and Indian home of the Heroes and Villains”.

‘Roll Plymouth Rock’ is also known as ‘Do You Like Worms?’  It is a song that makes a strong point: “Waving from the ocean liners/Beaded cheering Indians behind them/Rock, rock, roll Plymouth Rock roll over (2X)/Ribbon of concrete/Just see what you done/Done to the church of the American Indian!/.../Bicycle rider/Just see what you’ve done/To the church of the American Indian”.  ‘Barnyard’ is SMILE’s shortest track at 58 seconds.  This unique song uses animal noises and has some funny lyrics: “Out in the barnyard, the chickens do their number/Out in the barnyard, the cook is choppin’ lumber/Jump in the pig pen/Next time I’ll take my shoes off”.  Next up is ‘Old Master Painter/You Are My Sunshine’.  The latter is subdued and has a very familiar chorus: “You are my sunshine/My only sunshine/You made me happy when skies were gray/You’ll never know dear/How much I love you/How could you take my sunshine away?”

‘Cabin Essence’ was originally on 20/20.  At times it is mellow musically and at other times it races.  Brian Wilson has said it is written from the perspective of a railroad spike.  Here are some of the mysterious lyrics: “Who ran the iron horse?/Who ran the iron horse?/Have you seen the Grand Coulee workin’ on the railroad?/Over and over, the crow cries uncover the cornfield/Over and over, the thresher and hover the wheat field”.  No wonder The Beach Boys objected to the lyrics back in the day!

The second movement of SMILE begins with a pretty, light pop song called ‘Wonderful’.  It has been said to touch on a young gal losing her virginity: “She knew how to gather the forest/When God reached softly and moved her body/One golden locket,/Quite young and loving her mother and father/Further down the path was a mystery/Through the recess, the chalk and numbers/A boy bumped into her one, one, wonderful”.  Earlier versions of ‘Song For Children’ were known as ‘Look’ and ‘I Ran’.  Here it uses happy carnival like sounds.  Here are some of the words: “Tho I know I’m wont to wonderin’, nevermind wonderful you/I can’t stop a-wonderin’/Never you mind, wonderful you!”  ‘Child is the Father of the Man’ speaks of one’s potential: “Easy my child/It’s just enough to believe/Out of the wild/Into what you can conceive/You’ll achieve/Child-the child/Father of the man”.  ‘Surf’s Up’, a mellow song, was the title track on The Beach Boys 22nd album in 1971.  The song includes these words: “Surf’s Up!/Aboard a tidal wave/Come about hard and join the young and often Spring you gave/I heard the word/Wonderful thing!/A children’s song/A children’s song/Have you listened as they play?/Their song is love and the children know the way”.

The third movement of SMILE begins with three songs pieced together.  ‘I’m in Great Shape’ has humorous lyrics: “Fresh clean air around my head/Morning tumble out of bed/Eggs and grits and lickety split/Look at me jump/I’m in the great shape of the agriculture!”  ‘I Wanna Be Around’ is a Johnny Mercer/Sadie Vimmerstedt composition.  ‘Workshop’ contains lyrics that could either be sarcastic or compassionate: “I wanna be around to pick up the pieces/When somebody breaks your heart/Yes when somebody breaks your heart in two”.  Hammer and drill sounds are used!

‘Vega-Tables’ has been said to have been influenced by Brian Wilson’s health obsession.  It is a carefree sounding song with ridiculously clever lyrics: “I’m gonna be ‘round my vegetables/I’m gonna chow down my vegetables/I love you most of all, my favorite vegetable/If you brought a big brown bag of them home/I’d jump up and down and hope you’d toss me a carrot.../I threw away my candy bar and I ate the wrapper/And when they told me what I did/I burst into laughter”.  Jan and Dean covered the song as ‘Laughing Gravy’ in 1968 and Terry Scott Taylor of Daniel Amos covered it in 2002.  ‘On a Holiday’ has pirate-friendly lyrics: “Abaft and forth, a star board course with north abeam/Sherry of course/The men will share some sport ah-now me hearty!/Not the rum of Carib scum/It’s Port tonight, drink up and come/Un-weigh the anchor yank and we will party!”

‘Wind Chimes’ has overly sentimental lyrics: “Hanging down from my window/Those are my wind chimes/On the warm breeze/The little bells tinkle like wind chimes/Though it’s hard, I try not to look at my wind chimes/Now and then a tear rolls off my cheek”.  Next up is ‘Mrs. O’Leary’s Cow’, also known as ‘Fire’.  It won Brian Wilson a Grammy for Best Rock Instrumental Performance.  It was his first Grammy Award!  The song has an urgent, driven feel to it and uses whistles and animal noises.  Catherine O’Leary was an Irish immigrant living in Chicago, Illinois in the 1870’s.  Legend has it that her cow knocked over a lantern when she was milking it and that that started The Great Chicago Fire of 1871.  Catherine said she was in bed when the fire started.

‘In Blue Hawaii’ mixes monastery type sounds and voices with pop ones.  It contains these first person lyrics: “Oh I could use a drop to drink right now/In a waterfall, back there in Hawaii/Take me to a luau now and lay before me/Wholly Holy Cow!/Down in blue Hawaii/So far away from blue Hawaii/Aloha nui means goodbye”.  ‘Good Vibrations’ was penned by Brian Wilson, Michael Love, and Tony Asher.  It was The Beach Boys’ third U.S. No 1 hit.  The song is quirky musically and describes a guy being attracted to a gal: “I, I love the colorful clothes she wears/And she’s already workin’ on my brain/I, I only looked in her eyes/But I picked up something/I just can’t explain/I’m pickin’ up good vibrations/She’s giving me excitations/Good, good, good/Good vibrations”.

SMILE has been classified as orchestral and psychedelic pop.  It is ambitious, experimental, boundary breaking music.  It is a fine follow-up to PET SOUNDS.  Given the very abstract lyrics though, it is easy to see why some of The Beach Boys didn’t want to release these songs!  On BRIAN WILSON PRESENTS SMILE, Brian is accompanied by a ten member backing band, seven of whom contribute vocals.  The Stockholm Strings and Horns add their talents as well.  Brian sings and plays keyboards.  I’m rating this project 88%.  For more info visit: www.brianwilson.com.


Friday, February 07, 2014


Rebecca St. James was born Rebecca Jean Smallbone on July 26, 1977 in Sydney, Australia.  In 1994 she put out her self-titled major label debut.  aLive IN FLORIDA (2007, ForeFront Records) is her second live album.  This CD/DVD combo hit No 43 on Billboard’s Top Christian Albums chart.  It was recorded at First Assembly of God in Fort Myers, Florida on March 31, 2006.  Rebecca’s backing band is: Kevin Holvig (drums), David Childress (bass), Gregory Everett and Scott Murray (guitars), Frederick Williams (piano/keys), and three of her siblings, Joel, Luke, and Libby Smallbone (backing vocals).

The live concert CD begins with ‘God Help Me’.  This heavy rocker speaks of total life transformation: “I don’t care who stares/Never want to be what I have been again/Grace has taken over and drawn me in and I am embracing it/’Cause now I see Your light drawing me close/Overwhelming love I don’t deserve/But I’ll take the hope You bring/You hold it out to me”.  ‘Lamb of God’ is another great Christian rock song.  This one makes me think of what eternity will be like in Heaven: “I hear a voice of many people/I hear a voice like mighty thunder/Singing Alleluia for the Lord He reigns (2X)/Lamb of God/Holy/Lord You are/Holy/Lamb of God/Holy/You are/Holy”.

‘Wait for Me’ is Rebecca’s signature song.  She encourages her future husband, whom she has not yet met, to stay sexually pure: “Darling did you know that I dream about you/Waiting for the look in your eyes/When we meet for the first time/Darling did you know that I pray about you/Praying that you will hold on/Keep your loving eyes only for me/I am waiting for/Praying for you darling/Wait for me too/Wait for me as I wait for you”.  Next up is a stripped down acoustic version of ‘You are Loved’.  It encourages us to extend grace and mercy to others rather than judging them: “This is what I want to say to you/If I had one chance to speak to your heart/You are loved/More than you could ever know/This is what I want to say to you/If I had one chance to tell you something/You are loved/More than you can imagine/Imagine”.

‘Beautiful Stranger’ is a great melodic pop song.  It reminds us to look for Jesus in everyone we meet: “Won’t you tell me now when did I see You in need of water?/Oh, and tell me now, when did I see You hungry on the street?/God, I hear You calling out to me/In the voices of the least of these/Calling me to reach beyond my world/To the beautiful stranger/Beautiful stranger”.  ‘Reborn’ is one of Rebecca’s best songs ever!  Matt Bronleewe co-wrote it with her.  Musically, it is a Madonna style dance number.  The lyrics are ones of joyful testimony: “If you see a change in me don’t wonder/There’s Someone in my life/And peace I can’t describe/For I’ve been reborn/If you see a change in me don’t wonder/I’ve found a whole new life/And hope that I can’t hide/For I’ve been reborn”.

Rebecca describes ‘Thank You’ as having a funky feel to it.  It is catchy.  Her brother Joel performs the rap break that Toby Mac delivered on the studio recording.  This is a song of genuine gratitude towards God: “I’ve got so much to thank You for/You opened the door/Turned my sorrow to joy/In this world that I am in/Your wonders never end/You define hope/Thinking of all that You have in store for me/I am in awe/I have got to stop/And thank You for the love I have found in You”.  Next, Rebecca’s brothers Joel and Luke, who would later form for King&Country, perform one of their originals.  ‘Without Love’ has a brooding feel to it musically.  Here are some of the words to this decent rock song: “We’re falling into a darker grey/We’re walking through the rain/Don’t act like everything is okay/Can’t you see and feel the pain?/When the future becomes the past/You will see that it is never gonna last/I’ve got some things to tell you/Cause I can’t stay the same/Without love, we’ve got nothing at all/Now it’s time to change/Without love, we’ve got nothing at all”.

‘Lion’ is a pleasant rock ballad penned by Rebecca, Cary Barlowe, Jamie Moore, and Shaun Shankel.  It is from The Chronicles of Narnia soundtrack and finds one reflecting candidly on their relationship with the Lord: “Mysterious/That’s what I call You/I’m curious about You/I’m scared and I’m not sure that You are safe/But Your eyes seem to say that You are good.../Wise eyes, You see the core of me/Your gentleness melts me/And now I know that words cannot describe/The power that I feel when I’m with You”.  ‘Take all of Me’ testifies to God’s goodness: “You stand on mountain tops with me/With You I walk through the valleys/You gave Your only Son for me/Your grace is all I rely on/Love that’s stronger/Love that covers sin/And takes the weight of the world”.

Matt and Beth Redman’s popular ‘Blessed Be Your Name’ follows.  It reminds us that we should praise the Lord regardless of our circumstances: “Blessed be Your Name/In the land that is plentiful/Where Your streams of abundance flow/Blessed be Your Name/And blessed be Your Name/When I’m found in the desert place/Though I walk through the wilderness/Blessed be Your Name”.  ‘Forgive Me’ is a quiet, confessional, worshipful track.  It starts with these words we should really pray daily truth be told: “For all the times I’ve failed You Lord/Forgive me/For all the ways I’ve fallen short/Lord, forgive me now/God, I’m so in need of grace/I fall upon my face/Forgive me/Take my fear, Lord take my shame/Lord, forgive me now/Purify me, make me new/Like only You can do/Forgive me now”.

‘Alive’ is an energetic pop/rock song that contains the following words of wisdom: “You make me come alive/You make me come alive/I found the secret/It’s only when I let go of what I want in this life/You make me come alive/I used to think that me, myself, and I/Were all that mattered/But You’ve shown me all this world can give/Cannot compare to the joy that comes from/Giving away”.  As a bonus track on the CD fans are treated to ‘You are Loved (hisboytroy’s funk house mix)’.  It is ready for a Christian dance floor.

The accompanying DVD of the concert is awesome!  Rebecca is dressed stylishly and makes good use of the stage.  There is good crowd participation and applause.  The DVD is shot well, making good use of lighting and camera angles.  During the concert Rebecca shares about a spiritual makeover she got in the Swiss Alps, and about Compassion International, and the child she sponsors.  The concert includes an altar call.  She encourages new believers to read their Bibles, engage in prayer, stay close to Christian friends, get rid of the junk in their lives, and to get involved in a church and grow.  The DVD also includes a couple of concept music videos.

Rebecca St. James is truly passionate about her Lord Jesus Christ!  She is a good role model for young Christian ladies.  She does not compromise her beliefs.  She is also an ambassador for God’s love for all people.  I’m rating the CD 87% and the DVD 95%.  For more info visit: www.rsjames.com and www.forefrontrecords.com.


Wednesday, February 05, 2014


Mark Mitchell Schultz was born on September 16, 1970.  He was adopted when he was two weeks old.  Around the age of eight he started to teach himself piano by ear.  He was also involved in various sports as time went on, including basketball, track, and football.  He earned a BA in Marketing in 1994 and while in college he was part of the touring Kansas State Singers.  Mark was a youth director at First Presbyterian Church in Nashville, TN for eight years.  His self-titled debut album came out in 2000.  STORIES AND SONGS (2003, Word/Curb/Warner Bros.) was his third album and was produced by Brown Bannister.  In the CD booklet Schultz writes: “I have spent so much of my time like most people living as the main character of my own small story.  Through the struggles of growing and maturing over the last two years God has allowed me to see that He is inviting me to take part in His larger story.  One where He is the main character and the focus and where I play a smaller, yet crucial role that He wrote specifically for me”.

The album opener ‘You are a Child of Mine’ was penned by Mark and Chris Eaton.  Mark says: “This is a song about the voice of God breaking through and defeating the other voices reminding us that we are His children and that He made us in His image and that He rejoices in us”.  Jerry McPherson and Gordon Kennedy play electric guitar on this rousing adult contemporary song.  Here are some of the words: “You are a child of Mine/Born of My own design/And you bear the heart of life/No matter where you go/Oh, you will always know/You have been made free in Christ/You are a child of Mine”.  ‘Everywhere’ was penned by Mark and Brown Bannister.  Dan Needham plays drums and Jimmie Lee Sloas plays bass.  This one was inspired by Mark’s reading of John Eldredge’s book ‘Wild at Heart’.  It is about experiencing God’s presence: “You’re every/Time I turn around/In every sound/You’re in the very air I breathe/You’re up above/And now I know/You’re in my soul/You’re in the very depths of me.../I was looking for truth in my life/I even tried/To psychoanalyze me/Now I’m seeing that right from the start/You were there/In my heart”.

The London Session Orchestra performs on the Mark Schultz/Cindy Morgan co-write ‘Letters from War’.  It is one of the best CCM ballads of the millennium so far.  It is an emotional song about a soldier returning home from active duty: “Then two years later/Autumn leaves all around/A car pulled in the driveway/And she fell to the ground/And out stepped a captain/Where her boy used to stand/He said ‘Mom, I’m following orders/From all of your letters/And I’ve come home again’/He ran in to hold her/And dropped all his bags on the floor/Holding all of her letters from war”.  ‘Do You Even Know Me’ is one of five songs on here that Schultz alone composed.  This touching, piano based ballad includes these straight forward words from a neglected wife: “You go to work/You pay the bills/I stay at home/And I make the meals/But you don’t even know who I am anymore/You’re a million miles away/Though I see you every day/And I’ve been waiting right here/Oh, for all these years/And sometimes I get so lonely/I need to know you love me/But do you even know me anymore?”

‘Time That is Left’ finds Ellie Bannister and Schultz on background vocals.  This song was inspired by the life of one of the youth Mark led as a youth director.  He died young but lived life to the fullest.  The song asks some great questions that provoke thought: “What will you do with the time that’s left?/Will you live it all with no regret?/Will they say that you loved ‘til your final breath?/What will you do with the time that’s left?/.../What will He say when your time has come?/When He takes you in to His arms of love?/With tears in His eyes will He say ‘Well done’/What will He say when your time has come?”  ‘Running Just to Catch Myself’ is fast pop akin to some of Billy Joel’s stuff.  This song is a humorous commentary on how we allow our lives to become way too busy: “I can’t stand still/Can I get a witness?/Can you hear me/Anybody, anybody?/I think I am running just to catch myself/Maybe someday I could fly away/Go to Key Largo or Montego Bay/Sport my Speedo/Maybe grab a tan/A dream vacation, wild elation/Now I’m running straight into my boss/And he’s angry/Oh and he calls me Ross/Which is funny/Cause that ain’t my name/And that’s lame/I’m still running/Running very late/For a meeting/Wait, that was yesterday”.

Of ‘It’s Been a Long Time’ Schultz writes: “Finally, this year, I stopped getting my worth from others and started getting it from God.  I took a look and discovered something for the very first time...who I really am!”  Shane Keister plays piano, Blair Masters plays keyboards, Eric Darken plays percussion, and John Catchings adds cello.  The song begins with these great words of vulnerability: “I know there’s a hole inside of me that’s nine foot wide/I know cause I’ve tried to fill it up with foolish pride/And You go and You take my trophies off the ledges/Idols I had kept instead of wanting what was real/I know that I’ve worn a thousand costumes in my life/I know so that no one else could see me deep inside/And You go and peel away the perfect faces/Dust me off and then You say it’s/Time to be yourself”.  ‘He Will Carry Me’ was written by Dennis Kurtilla, Sampson Brueher, and Mark Schultz.  Mark says: “This song is a clear picture of what God will do if you call out to Him”.  This one finds Schultz in inspirational territory musically and vocally.  It really is a testimony: “And even though I’m walkin’ through/The valley of the shadow/I will hold tight to the hand of Him/Whose love will comfort me/And when all hope is gone/And I’ve been wounded in the battle/He is all the strength that I will ever need/He will carry me/I know I’m broken/But You alone/Can mend this heart of mine/You’re always with me”.

‘Just to Know You’ is a majestic song of praise that uses horns.  This one reflects on Jesus’ great love for us: “Oh Christ/Had the choice/Oh, to set us free/And He broke through the darkness/And came with a passion/Gave up the Heavens/To take up the fight/He poured out His heart/And He fought for our freedom/Hung on a cross/And then gave up His life”.  ‘Closer to You’ is a heartfelt ballad inspired by the death of Mark’s friend Lacy Yowell Oud (31) due to cancer.  Mark shares: “Lacy walked through her cancer with her eyes focused on the promise of Heaven knowing that she could withstand each day of the trial because it was leading her one day closer to God”.  The words to the song show great faith: “So let the rain start falling where it will/And I will run through this valley/Just to climb that hill/And if they ask why I’m smiling/After all I’ve been through/It’s cause I’m just a day closer to You”.  The album ends with a short reprise of ‘Time That is Left’.

STORIES AND SONGS allows us a glimpse into the heart, mind, and priorities of Mark Schultz.  The use of The London Session Orchestra, recorded at Abbey Road Studio One in London, England, really adds a nice touch to this album.  That being said, although there are some quite memorable songs here, most are average.  I’m rating this one 83% and recommending it to fans of Michael W. Smith and Scott Wesley Brown.  For more info visit: www.markschultzmusic.com and www.wordlabelgroup.com.


Tuesday, February 04, 2014


Francesca Battistelli was born on May 18, 1985 in New York City.  Both of her parents were involved in musical theater.  She put out the independent album JUST A BREATH in 2004.  She later signed with Fervent Records and released MY PAPER HEART in 2008.  It debuted at No 1 on iTunes and included the hits ‘I’m Letting Go’ and ‘Free to be Me’.  She followed this with 2011’s HUNDRED MORE YEARS which featured ‘This is the Stuff’ and ‘Motion of Mercy’.  On October 16, 2012 she released CHRISTMAS (Fervent/Curb) produced by Ian Eskelin.

The album opens with a snappy jazz version of ‘The Christmas Song’ which is highly popular and sentimental: “Chestnuts roasting on an open fire/Jack Frost nipping at your nose/Yuletide carols being sung by a choir/And folks dressed up like Eskimos/Everybody knows a turkey and some mistletoe/Will help to make the season bright/Tiny tots with their eyes all aglow/Will find it hard to sleep tonight/They know that Santa’s on his way”.  Violins, viola, cello, trumpet, and tenor sax are some of the instruments used.  Battistelli and Ben Glover penned the good adult contemporary song ‘Heaven Everywhere’.  It speaks of transforming power: “It’s the smile on a man who has finally found hope/It’s the tears of a mother whose child has come home/It’s the joy that we feel and the love that we share/There’s a little bit of heaven everywhere (2X)/It’s funny how it takes a holiday/To show us how the world could truly change/If we all took the time to really care/There’d be a little more of heaven everywhere”.

Another original, ‘Christmas Is’, was written by Francesca, Ian Eskelin, and Tony Wood.  This peppy pop song uses trumpet, trumphet, and piccolo trumphet, among other instruments.  It has very down to earth lyrics which I appreciate: “Christmas is music and family in town/Christmas is Snoopy and Charlie Brown/It’s anticipating that snow’s gonna fall and/Praying for someplace to park at the mall/It’s Mom going crazy ‘cause the turkey got burned/It’s saying thanks for some gift you’ll return/Christmas is caroling kids at your door/It’s paper and ribbon all over the floor”.  ‘What Child is This? (First Noel Prelude)’ reveres the Christ child: “This, this is Christ the King/Whom shepherds guard and angels sing/Haste, haste to bring Him laud/The babe, the Son of Mary/So bring Him incense, gold, and myrrh/Come peasant king to own Him/The King of Kings salvation brings/Let loving hearts enthrone Him”.

‘Marshmallow World’ dates back to 1949 and is credited to Peter DeRose and Carl Sigman.  Bing Crosby recorded it in 1950 and did well with it.  Francesca’s cover is fun and carefree and has lots of musical energy!  Here are some of the lyrics: “It’s a marshmallow world in the winter/When the snow comes to cover the ground/It’s the time for play, it’s a whipped cream day/I wait for it the whole year round.../It’s a yum-yummy world made for sweethearts/Take a walk with your favorite girl/It’s a sugar date, what if spring is late/In winter it’s a marshmallow world”.  ‘O Come, O Come Emmanuel’ is here given a quiet, traditional treatment.  Mike Payne plays guitar and Tim Lauer plays keyboards.  The song cries out for a Savior: “O come, Thou rod of Jesse, free/Thine own from Satan’s tyranny/From depths of hell Thy people save/And give them victory over the grave/Rejoice, Rejoice/Emmanuel shall come to thee, O Israel”.

‘Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas’ was written by Ralph Blane and Hugh Martin.  Tony Lucido plays bass on Francesca’s upbeat pop cover of it.  It paints a picture of utopia: “Have yourself a merry little Christmas/Let your heart be light/From now on/Our troubles will be out of sight/Have yourself a merry little Christmas/Make the Yule-tide gay/From now on our troubles will be miles away/Here we are as in olden days/Happy golden days of yore/Faithful friends who are dear to us/Gather near to us once more...”  ‘You’re Here’ is a nice adult contemporary ballad written by Francesca and Ben Glover.  It comes from the perspective of Mary, Jesus’ mother: “Hold on now, gotta take a deep breath/I don’t know what to say when I look in Your eyes/You made the world before I was born/But here I am holding You in my arms tonight/Noel, Noel, Jesus, our Emmanuel.../I don’t know how long I’m gonna have You for/But I’ll be watching when You change the world/But look at Your hands, they’re still so small/Someday You’re gonna stretch them out and save us all”. 

On ‘Joy to the World’ Ben Phillips plays drums, Mike Payne plays guitar, and Tim Lauer is responsible for keyboards and melodica.  The words are, well, full of joy: “Joy to the world, the Lord is come/Let earth receive her King/Let every heart prepare Him room/And heaven and nature sing (2X)/And heaven and heaven and nature sing”.  ‘Christmas Dreams’ is a creation of Francesca, Ian Eskelin, and Tony Wood.  It is appropriately sleepy musically given the song’s title.  It tells how Christmas can genuinely fill both children and adults with anticipation and excitement: “I smile as I kiss them ‘cause under that tree are/Surprises that they’re not expecting to see, we’re just/Hours away from their giggles and screams the/Answers to all of their Christmas dreams.../The thought comes to mind that I may be the one/Who’s most excited by what’s yet to come/As I crawl into bed, I laugh ‘cause it seems guess you’re/Never too old for Christmas dreams”.  ‘Go Tell it on the Mountain’ is given a slow R&B treatment.  The message reminds me of the Great Commission given us by Jesus.

On CHRISTMAS Francesca Battistelli delivers a very strong vocal performance.  She breathes new life into several classics and gives us four splendid new holiday songs that should become favorites in the years to come.  Jesus Christ is central to this album’s message.  I’m rating CHRISTMAS 90%.  In 2013 a two-disc version of the album was released.  Disc Two is a DVD entitled CHRISTMAS LIVE IN NASHVILLE.  This concert was recorded at the Pepsi Studio Gallery on the grounds of the historic Fontanel Mansion in Nashville, TN.  The concert includes all of the songs from the CD plus one called ‘December 25’ written by Francesca and Jason Walker.  Francesca is backed by a string section and horn ensemble.  During the concert she smiles and has good rapport with the audience.  She shares some of her Christmas traditions and remembrances.  The only way the concert could have been improved is if she took the microphone off of its stand once in a while and moved around the stage more.  For more info visit: www.francescamusic.com and www.wordlabelgroup.com.