Tuesday, August 4, 2015

Two different evangelical album efforts in the early 1970s

We love to pigeonhole people, and as a result artists such as U2 and Bob Marley are generally considered to be "secular" artists, while artists such as Amy Grant are generally considered to be "religious" artists. The truth is much more complex - as complex as people themselves, as a matter of fact.

In the early 1970s, two musical acts straddled this imaginary divided. Both Johnny Cash and the Osmonds were considered to be secular artists, but both were known for their religious beliefs. And in the early 1970s, both released ambitious musical efforts on the "religious" side of the spectrum.

Cash's effort, "The Gospel Road," was the more ambitious of the two in some ways - "The Gospel Road" was a soundtrack to a movie of the same name, filmed in Israel no less. And in those pre-Camp David days, filming in Israel was about as daring an effort as filming in Israel in 2015. Add the fact that Cash had never produced a movie before, and you can see the difficulty involved.

Rather than look at the movie, I'm going to concentrate on the soundtrack. This is part of what Raise my Glass to the B-Side said:

Despite the endless number of tracks (76 on the CD issue, 77 on my LP), there are really only ten songs on here, several of which are drawn from Johnny’s back catalogue. Motifs from the tunes are used as background music throughout the film as well. Overall the music is what you would expect of Cash approaching gospel music in the early 70s. The Statler Brothers and Carter Family are featured frequently, providing a wall of harmonies. The backing is simple acoustic guitars on the quieter moments, and the tic-tock, boom-chicka-boom of the [Tennessee] Three (still with Carl Perkins) on the upbeat numbers.

While the reviewer praised certain songs, the final verdict was not so good.

Despite some excellent music, as a whole, the album doesn’t work. I find the mood changes too abrupt – the first LP is light and buoyant, gurgling along with Perkins guitar through the Gospel Road. The second LP is heavy with narrative of Jesus’ death, bogged down by overwrought musical backing. Listening to the full set in one listen is a long haul. What would have worked far better would be a true soundtrack: “Songs from The Gospel Road.” An abridged narration by Johnny (similar to Ride This Train or America) could have tied the songs together and told the story in a far more efficient manner than simply handing over the entire film’s dialogue. It would also allow us to hear each song in their entirety rather than chopped up verse by verse.

While the Osmonds didn't try to make a movie with their effort, it had ambitions of its own. Remember that the Osmonds music evolved over time; they started as a barbershop quartet (before Donny joined), and eventually evolved into a bubblegum pop act. But after a couple of albums, they began to branch out more, recording my favorite Osmonds song, "Crazy Horses." I always thought it was a reference to the Apocalypse, but the brothers claim that it's about evolution.

After "Crazy Horses," however, they did decide to cover the apocalypse - and just about everything else in Latter Day Saint theology - in "The Plan." But this was not only an ambitious lyrical effort. While Cash pretty much stuck with a Tennessee Three type sound, the Osmonds decided to go all White Album on the public.

The end result is a testament to the group's versatility and skills as musical craftsmen but The Plan ultimately doesn't work for a few important reasons. The first is that the songs are too serious and overblown for their own good: "Are You up There?" and "The Last Days" have solid melodies, but their preachy lyrics are too awkward and diffuse to convey the group's beliefs with any real power. The other big problem with The Plan is that it is overwhelmed by its own musical ambition: the abrupt jumps from fuzzy acid rock ("Traffic in My Mind") to orchestrated show tune-styled arias ("Before the Beginning") to frenetically bopping big band soul ("It's Alright") result in more genre-hopping than a single album can handle.

Well, except for the aforementioned White Album - and there are people who hate that album too.
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