Various Artists: Gospel Music

[21 April 2006]

By Matt Cibula

This is a good compilation CD that could have been great. In fact, musically, it is great, one of the better things to come out this year. But the people involved obviously didn’t give much of a damn about it, or much of a chance to succeed, or something, I don’t know. It’s definitely a missed opportunity, but if you don’t care about the peripheral stuff, and can just listen to the beautiful music on the disc, it’s worth your time.

These are all pretty great gospel vocal sides from some of the greatest names in the genre, including Mahalia Jackson, Reverand James Cleveland the original Five Blind Boys of Alabama, and the Soul Stirrers featuring a very young Sam Cooke, among others. The songs include such classics as “Motherless Child”, sung impeccably by the impeccably-named Harmonizing Four, “Oh Mary, Don’t You Weep” (nailed down by the Swan Silvertones), and two different—and equally beautiful—versions of “This May Be the Last Time”, a song that was later adapted by James Brown and many others.

So this should be a slam-dunk OMG MUST HAVE album, right? Well, not so much. Compilers Joel Dorn and Lee Friedlander have fallen down on the job by including no information here other than song titles and artist names. No history of gospel music, no artist notes, nothing except some smug liner notes from Dorn about (I am not making this up) how he loves liner notes, but he doesn’t think this music needs any, but if there is another volume, then he promises to tell us about once seeing Mahalia Jackson.

That shit is just lazy and condescending, and I think it almost ruins the project. Because, come on; how much trouble would it have been to find out something about the people whose stuff you are licensing? Where do artists like the Trumpeteers and the Consolers and Dorothy Love Coates fit into the overall scene? Why were these particular tracks selected? What about some basic nod, however perfunctory, to how gospel music invented jazz and country and rock and roll and rhythm and blues? Geez, throw us a bone, Joel, it’s not that hard. Because otherwise it doesn’t look like you’re as big a gospel fan as your website says you are. Instead, it just looks like you thought, “Screw all that, let’s just put the product out on the street and have done with it.”

And yet, when it comes down to it, this is a fine-sounding (if a little homogenous) disc with many beautiful songs on it. And all my vitriol can’t spoil the taste of angel-food cake.

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