CD Review: Valor (What It Took)

RATING: 5 Stars

Producers: Paul David Kennamer and John Laws
Website: www.valormusic.net

Song Titles: “My Hope Is Built,” “Lead Me To The Rock,” “Over The Moon,” “What It Took,” “Temporary Home,” “20 Months Old,” “How Great Thou Art,” “Water Came Walkin’,” “Beulah Land,” “When He Calls My Name,” “Lead Me To The Rock – Reprise,” “Jesus He Will Fix It,” “It’s Almost Over,” “My Hope Is Built – Reprise,” “What It Took” (alternate version), and “It’s Almost Over” (alternate version)

Valor‘s latest CD includes eleven songs. There’s actually sixteen tracks on What It Took, but two of those are short “reprise” tracks, and two others are alternate “inspirational” versions of the project’s most memorable ballads. One added track serves as an intro to “How Great Thou Art.” It’s a childhood recording of Valor’s bass singer, Paul David Kennamer.

The sound of wind and a piano open What It Took with reverb-heavy unison vocals singing “The Solid Rock,” a traditional hymn. (The CD lists the song title as “My Hope Is Built.”) This track is fairly short…a verse, a chorus, and then some extended vocal “ooos” that give us our first inkling of Kennamer’s lower range. The track segues into a mid-tempo “Lead Me To The Rock,” featuring Kennamer and Benjamin Dixon. Next up is a Vep Ellis classic, “Over The Moon,” featuring both Dixon and John Laws. This track is introduced with a chorus that has been processed to sound like it’s coming from an old LP. The title track is a ballad that begins with only a piano and some light strings for accompaniment. The song gradually builds to a huge climax. When you think it’s all over, an extended ending is tagged on before it finally fades out. “Temporary Home” is the only true up-tempo cut on the CD, providing a sudden contrast to “What It Took” This track sounds a bit too derivative of the Gaither Vocal Band in the first few moments, but by the second verse, Valor has clearly put their mark on the tune. You’d never mistake one arrangement for the other.

The 20-month old version of Kennamer from 1968 can’t sing all the words to “How Great Thou Art,” but he knows the tune and hits the C above middle C. When the adult version of Kennamer completes the song three minutes later, he’s sitting on the C five octaves lower…yes, that’s off the piano. To my ears, it sounds like he’s doubled the final passage an octave higher, so I think we’re hearing the C at the bottom of the piano as well as the one an octave lower. The upper voices are also singing more than one part. I THINK we’re hearing six-part harmony at the end (with a progression of Fmin, to Gmin7, to C, to be precise), but I’d love to get my hands on the masters, strip off the reverb, and find out for certain.

There’s a statement in the CD jacket that reads, “Valor uses no pitch correction.” I wonder if that literally means no digital doubling at an adjacent octave, since that wouldn’t TECHNICALLY be a “correction” of pitch. Speaking of the CD jacket, the list of “studios” includes locations like “Various Church Auditoriums” and “Super8 Parking Lot In The Back Of An SUV.” I love reading little tidbits like that!

By the way, I could easily compose several paragraphs bragging on the CD packaging, but I’ll merely say that all CD artwork and written content should be of this caliber. Now, back to the music…

The mid-tempo “Water Came Walkin'” is next, featuring Dixon and Laws…lots of cool chords and synchronized vocal slides on this one. The classic “Beulah Land” follows with a guest vocal performance by Daniel Johnson. Kennamer sings the second verse, drenched in reverb. “When He Calls My Name” is slow number contrasting Kennamer’s low range with Dixon’s upper register. The 39-second reprise of “Lead Me To The Rock” sounds like it was recorded on a street corner. “Jesus, He Will Fix It” is another fun, mid-tempo track…it kicks into an upbeat, black gospel tag before fading out. Larry Ford joins Dixon for “It’s Almost Over,” another big ballad. The reprise of “My Hope Is Built” is similar to the CD opening, complete with wind sound effects and “ooo” vocals that take a long time to fade out. The inspirational “bonus track” of “What It Took” is similar to the earlier track, with some extra vocal ad libs in the coda. The bonus track of “It’s Almost Over” is a Ford-less arrangement with the group taking more vocal liberties this time around. A 30-second string section bit has also been tacked onto the end.

Look into the past or present of Southern Gospel, Inspirational, “CCM,” or even secular pop music, but you’re not going to find a group that sounds quite like Valor. You will likely form a strong opinion of this group (be it favorable or “not my cup of tea”) right away. Comparisons are difficult to make, but let’s say we start with a modern vocal duo like Aaron/Jeoffrey. Send them to the Stamps-Baxter School Of Music for a crash course in traditional Southern Gospel. Add Isaac Freeman of the Fairfield Four and drop his vocal range by two octaves. Finally, learn a few songs from the Gaither Vocal Band songbook, but make a point not to mimic their arrangements. At that point you MIGHT have a group that sounds a bit like Valor.

Sounding unique in a market with so much competition is not an easy task. Maybe I’m the sort of reviewer who’s inclined to give a bonus star to a group that pulls it off, but given the difficultly of creating a defining sound while keeping the quality palatable for a general listening audience, I think it’s well deserved. Now in terms of my own personal tastes, Valor uses too much reverb, but regardless of my tastes in music, five-star projects should be those few and far between CDs that really stand out from the pack. What It Took stands out in a big way. Hearing Valor’s recording for the first time was just as singular an experience for me as the first time I heard music by Johnny Cash, Bruce Hornsby, Michael English, or Take 6. I knew from the moment I heard them that my only source for hearing that same sort of music again in the future would be the original artist.

Category CD Reviews

David Bruce Murray

David Bruce Murray is a church music director in Ellenboro, NC. He is the author of Murray's Encyclopedia Of Southern Gospel Music and the owner of both SGHistory.com and MusicScribe.com. David plays piano for Southern Sounds Quartet and the Foothills Community Choir.

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3 Comments

  1. Daniel J. Mount
    Reply October 27, 06:27 #1 Daniel J. Mount

    Fascinating review…the sort that would make me want to go out and purchase it immediately if I had the money. :)




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  2. Ed Martin
    Reply December 04, 11:21 #2 Ed Martin

    David, I have always been as much of a “Standard SGM Quartet” guy as anyone, until here recently. The first group that started me in a slightly different direction was EHSS, then I heard about Valor and ordered their CD from them, then I helped Gold City drive some during their July extended Canada trip, heard the first four cuts of their project “Revival” and you know, “I have found I have developed some new taste in SGM Quartet music and I am 55 years old.




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  3. Exclude hot key on import
    Reply February 15, 16:26 #3 Exclude hot key on import

    I’d have to agree that Valor is unlike any other group out there in Southern Gospel. I think part of their sound vocally both in recording and arranging comes from John Laws’ days as a vocalist and engineer with the Acappella Company and their group the Vocal Union.

    I have to make sure and get my hands on this latest CD. I had their first CD and loved it from start to finish. I wish they would find a baritone and hit the road more.




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