Gospel is a wide-ranging genre that rolls up enthusiasm, populism, energy, sweat, and joy into a rich choral form that sets butterflies loose in even the most secular mind. Gospel’s calloused feet are dug into the soil and its huge arms are always reaching to heaven. No matter how thoroughly commerce corrupts the genre its participants smile and shout with the faith that Jesus will always storm in to overturn the money changers’ tables. Hell, gospel will never cross over completely because it requires a degree of patience and faith that the average late-capitalist music producer will never possess. But gospel still feeds commerce by training brilliant singers in the verities of the church, and no matter what you think of Aretha’s genius or Whitney’s counterfeit poses, you gotta remember they’d be nowhere without their origins as singers for the Lord. And so the phenomenon of Mary Mary should come as no surprise. They’ve damn near invented a funky, uplifting, sexy, and pious form of crossover gospel that provides a happy antidote to the tedious carnal cartoons that scatter the charts today. Their latest album, Incredible is a wonderful batch of tunes sure to augment their reputation, and generate a whole new audience for the sublime verities of gospel.
Tina and Erica Atkins (a.k.a. Mary Mary) come from a California gospel family, and they grew up steeped in the traditions and demands of the form. After struggling for years as backup singers (including a popular stint on BET’s Bobby Jones Gospel show) and providers of soundtrack filler (their early tunes appeared in Dr. Dolittle and The Prince of Egypt), they finally quit their day jobs and signed to Columbia to record the critically acclaimed album Thankful in 2000. The album’s single, “Shackles”, became a minor international hit, and the disc itself won a Grammy for Best Contemporary Gospel Album. Then it went platinum. Not bad considering they were only one of Columbia’s experimental signings in the “contemporary gospel” genre.
Well, it’s two years later, and the heady success of their debut kinda seems like a distant memory. When their sophomore effort Incredible was announced a few months ago, I really thought they were just one-hit wonders who would be dropped as soon as Columbia figured out that gospel just doesn’t generate profits. I was wrong. Incredible is an impressive album, much more cohesive and uplifting than Thankful, and it’s sure to secure Mary Mary’s reputation as genre-busting crossover artists who might even refuse to sell out (spiritually, anyway). They still haven’t figured out how to make their voices distinct from each other, and they continue to rely on that formal gospel-derived “melisma effect” to generate the “soul” that their tunes require. But they ain’t Destiny’s Child either, and maybe if they stick to their faith (rather than let success tug them away from it), they’ll hit upon the vein of genius that could give their talented voices a more unique style. It’s been a long, long time since that California sun has infected the nation with such a heavenly batch of hooks.
The disc begins with the wonderful title track, in which the Atkins sisters stand back in awe of their own success to thank God with all the joyous melodies and busy beats they can cram into tune. Yeah, sure, gospel used to be all about mutual suffering, a way to wash away the sins and setbacks of the week with a bracing cry of faith. So to hear Mary Mary hollering about the happy and prosperous life they now lead might sound like too much vanity and not enough tradition. But believe me, if you’ve had a single good day in a miserable week — a day where the bus gets you home on time, or you won $20 in the lottery — “Incredible” sounds like the breath of God heating you up from the inside out. Even to a resolutely secular guy like me.
Resident svengali Warryn “Baby Dubb” Campbell (who was also the mastermind behind Thankful) not only knows how to cook up a tune, but how to program it for maximum effect. After the title track cooks you up, he forces the next three tracks to flow moistly out your brainpan, down into your heart, slipping right past your backbone to your funky feet before your rational mind can register the full effect. “God Bless” is a spine-tingler that starts off in a mall (!) and quickly turns to a series of homely and sublime exhortations to a friend who’s just gotten out of prison: “God bless / And I’m glad you didn’t break under the pressure.” The relentless rhythms of “God Bless” — which you never really want to end — flow right into the robotic syncopations of “He Said”, a relatively fierce-sounding slice of street gospel that even has a rap where Christ’s heart is as “big as Texas”. After you’ve lost all control and enslaved yourself to that rhythm (and its Creator) you get pummeled by the album’s inevitable hit, “In the Morning”, a busy prayer for a single day without darkness and pain. Sure, it sounds kinda like their hit “Shackles (Praise You)” from a couple years ago, but you’ll still be singing the chorus every time you hit the alarm and jump out of bed for work.
The rest of the album is a grab bag of tempos and beats. Some will knock you down, and others will lift you up. It never gets completely dull, though there are some moments where you wish Campbell cut out the lethargic fat of two-bit balladry in favor of his trademark phat radiant beats. In the spare, bright “Little Girl”, the Atkins sisters channel their younger selves and deliver an upbeat message of self esteem for an awkward thirteen-year-old girl. Then they twist their voices languorously around each other for the slow jam “This Love”, which could be a musky Quiet Storm ballad if it weren’t praising the “only love that comes down from the heavens”. On the other hand, the oddball track “Hold On” delivers a near cacophony of squawks and beats that seem to channel the powers of the Lord into a carnal profession of faith that goes “Keep on, keep on don’t ever stop . . .” Well, at least they do return to their roots with two tracks toward the end of the disc. “Thank You” is a Walter Hawkins cover (complete with lively choir samples) that abruptly returns you to church just when you’ve been seduced by the previous tracks. And their cover of Stevie Wonder’s uplifting late-’80s MOR hit “You Will Know” does little to distance itself from its source, though you do get a glimpse into how high-grade spirituality and optimism can infect even the schlockiest source material.
To me, the album’s standout track is “Trouble Ain’t”, a sneaky groove that proves the Atkins-Campbell-Atkins songwriting team is capable of genius when it gets rolling. “Trouble ain’t gon’ be here everyday / Even though sometimes it seems like it won’t go away.” Sure, it looks like a bromide on the printed page (what gospel tune doesn’t?), but something about the eternal melody and the stoic sentiment will keep you listening. And it’s the one track that shows the Atkins sisters are in love with the pure energizing powers of melody. Yep, it’s destined to become a standard, and heck it’s reason enough to buy the album. All the other songs just augment, exaggerate, and reconfigure its sentiments in all sorts of appealing ways.
As far as gospel goes, Incredible is more “Just Another Day” than “I’m a Soldier in the Army of the Lord”. In other words, they try to make their professions of faith as secular-sounding as possible, and they stick to the themes of daily suffering, however far removed they are from it now. They’re still shocked by their own success, and as soon as they get over singing about it (though “Incredible” is a brilliant song) they will hopefully return to measuring how far they are from Canaan. Genuinely uplifting albums are hard to come by these days, and Incredible is definitely one of the best I’ve heard since Sleater-Kinney last dug us out from a shit day with just their words-and-guitar.