Rating: 2.5 stars (out of 5)
SONG TITLES: He Was Wounded for Our Transgressions (Thomas Chisholm/Merrill Dunlop) – There is a Hill (Bethel McGrew/Traditional Irish Tune) – Like a River Glorious (Bethel McGrew/Frances Havergal) – Deep River (Traditional) – There’ll Be No Dark Valley (Ira Sankey) – There Is A Fountain [instrumental] (Traditional) – The Battle Will Be Won (Bethel McGrew) – Must Jesus Bear the Cross Alone? (George Allen/Thomas Shepherd/unknown) – Were You There (Traditional) – Somebody Say Amen (Bethel McGrew)
I received an email from Bethel McGrew recently asking me to review a project she had just completed. Bethel is a talented singer/songwriter with influences that span multiple genres both sacred and secular. This is her debut album, entirely self-recorded with nothing but piano and vocals.
The title of the album, Having Church, is in reference to (as she puts it), “a love letter to church music.” The song selection is a mix of older hymns and new material. In some instances, Bethel adds her own work to existing material (such as with “There Is A Hill” and “Like A River Glorious”), while others are entirely new compositions.
McGrew’s voice is a strong, confident, classically-trained soprano, which is backed by her own piano playing. The majority of the piano tracks were done using a digital keyboard, while a couple cuts are done with an acoustic piano. I like the artistic approach of the acoustic piano; I just wish it was a bit more in tune, as it became a bit of a distraction at times. Bethel’s singing is solid, but a bit too stiff at times. She is what I would call a “legalistic singer,” in that the written melody takes precedence over individual interpretation, which is most likely by design, given her classical training. I found myself really enjoying the couple instances where she actually ad-libbed some notes, as it felt much more organic than the note-for-note takes.
Stylistically, Having Church feels like it originated in a VERY traditional church background. The songs, both old and new, are arranged in such a way that there is little variety. I perhaps would’ve at least reshuffled the song order a bit, as a couple of the a cappella songs are back-to-back at the end. By dropping them in between a couple piano-backed numbers, a little variety is introduced to keep the listener interested.
That’s not to say there isn’t at least SOME variety here. The slow opening a cappella chorale arrangement of “He Was Wounded For Our Transgressions” doesn’t sound like sweeping “Deep River” or the more upbeat “There’ll Be No Dark Valley.” The project would’ve probably benefited from some additional instrumentation, however. “Somebody Say Amen,” for example, has an old-time spiritual feel to it (and is one of the few times where she seems to “let loose” a bit), but it’s almost completely lost in the a cappella recording. As I listened, I could hear in my head what a full-band arrangement of this song would sound like.
As this is essentially a home recording, there are some technical flaws here and there. There are instances where I could hear background noise and/or extraneous breaths. When you have full insrumentation, these are much easier to hide, but on an album that is backed with nothing but piano (or, in some instances, entirely a cappella), it stands out a bit more. To be fair, though, I chalk this up to the fact that, again, this was done entirely McGrew herself. These are very minor gripes, and given that this is her first effort, something that could easily be fixed with future recordings.
(FULL DISCLOSURE: My first few albums had the same technical flaws and many more, so I am not slamming anyone else for something that I haven’t done myself. The overall quality of this debut recording far surpasses my own initial efforts.)
While this is a more than acceptable first effort for someone who recorded it entirely on their own, I have to be honest and say that I believe the audience for this project is going to be limited. If you prefer straight-ahead, liturgy style church services and strict, by-the-note singing, then you will enjoy this project. For me personally, I found myself wishing there were a bit more here.