In Brief: The DCB’s major-label debut is flawed. It’s worthwhile for completists and for nostalgia. But pretty much everything they did here, they did better later in their career.
It seems like this week’s theme for me, as I slowly go through my entire CD collection and zero in on a few nostalgic favorites, is running into favorite bands who are now defunct, and who I didn’t appreciate all that much when I first heard them, only to be proven wrong later. This was quite notably the case for the David Crowder Band, who I’ve gushed about at length in many reviews over the years, but who didn’t manage to truly capture my attention with their first major label release back in 2002. The Christian music market at the time was primed for new “worship bands” to chew up and spit out, leaving only the occasional covers of Hillsongs and Matt Redman material in their wake, at least as far as radio was concerned. It was a landscape that seemed like it would enable almost any aspiring worship leader to record the same sort of stuff he or she did with a band on Sunday mornings and possibly make a full-time career out of doing it. At least until too many tried. That seemed to go double for the eponymous bands with their worship leader’s name right there in the band name, leading to all-too-obvious jokes about the market being “Overcrowdered” when the DCB first debuted. At the time, I was still excited to find good bands in this genre, with my cynicism about how flooded the market was not really setting in for another year or two. Still, I couldn’t understand what all the fuss was about when Can You Hear Us? first dropped. I listened a few times, found a couple catchy songs and a really good Delirious? cover (they were sort of my template for how to get it right as a big-name worship band at the time), decided the rest was either too boring or too strange, and forgot about them. Only when I was asked to review their follow-up project, Illuminate, the following year did I really start to get into the band. Even then, as the DCB morphed and changed in fascinating ways over the years to come, I would occasionally go back to Can You Hear Us? and find it to be a disappointment. It’s like the red-headed step-child of their discography. Even on their recent farewell tour, which had a few song selections stretching back to their independent days, nothing from this album was even acknowledged. So I know it’s not just me.
Now to be fair, Can You Hear Us? is decent enough as a way to get introduced to the band’s approach, and a lot of my disappointment at the time was due to poor marketing. Any band with a violin and an acoustic guitar in those days lent itself to press materials comparing them to the Dave Matthews Band (plus, you kind of expect it from the band name), and that’s a comparison that’s pretty much always doomed to set you up for disappointment. Likewise, any band with a DJ got compared to Linkin Park and other rap/rock hybrid acts of the day… and yeah, not even close. (I didn’t really want this from a worship band anyway.) The truth is that most of this album, despite incorporating those elements, just doesn’t find the group playing to their strengths, even in the early days before they really started to go buck wild with bluegrass and electronica and whatever other genres tickled their fancy. Just as a simple, no-frills, contemporary worship album with its rockin’ songs, its reflective songs, and its spiritually significant cover choices, it fails roughly half of the time. These are all things that the DCB would get right later in their career, but here, a lot of the ideas are half-formed and make certain songs a real chore to get through.
Still, Can You Hear Us? is a neat little time capsule to go back to, knowing what the band would go on to achieve. Simple words that might not amount to much profundity in several songs here remind me that even in the later days when some of their work would strike me as profound, the phrasing was often still very basic and accessible. I had no idea at the time that Crowder was such a clever man with such a gift for expounding at great length and with great whimsy on various matters of theological complexitude in his blog entries and liner notes. I had no idea that the violin guy was also the DJ guy, and that pretty much everyone in this band would later play roughly three to five different instrumental roles in the creation of an album. Listening to some of the little segues between songs, a call-back that one song makes to another, and even a failed hymn cover reminds me that they would make beautiful things from all of these ideas in the future. It’s sort of like going back to the pilot episode of a show that has become your favorite over the years, and realizing that one of your favorite characters hadn’t debuted yet, or they were still working out that the show was more of a comedy than a drama, or there was a joke that you couldn’t have known at the time would escalate into an epic running gag that the series would eventually become famous for. But still, it’s a charming little show even in its infancy, and you remember why it managed to get you hooked in the first pace. Can You Hear Us? is that pilot episode, an album which sows the seeds… and pretty much everything from Illuminate onward seems to reap the benefits tenfold.
1. I Need Words
If you know anything about Crowder, then you know not to expect too much from the opening track on most of their albums. With the exception of Remedy‘s “The Wonder of It All”, the DCB always opened with a little fragment, an invocation of sorts, leading into the first “true” song of the album. This delicate acoustic piece, which only runs for a minute and change before being taken over by strange electronic noise, sets the template. It describes a man at a loss for words, trying to explain his need for God. It doesn’t have a whole lot to say by itself, but then, that’s kind of the point.
2. Our Love Is Loud
The little electronic “bing” that transitions from the first track into this one, as it immediately launches into a highly electrified beat with a not-too-shabby guitar riff, makes me think I’ve achieved some sort of power-up in a video game. This was an early signature song for the DCB (getting to be the title track on one of those Passion live worship albums certainly didn’t hurt), though if you listen to later songs like “O Praise Him (All This for a King)” and “Here Is Our King” that follow the same template, you’ll realize why it was so easily supplanted. The lyrics are fun enough to sing when you’ve got a big group of people looking to worship and work out at the same time, since they’re about as basic as it gets: “When we sing/Hear our songs to You/When we dance/Feel us move to You/When we laugh/Fill our smiles with You.” The second verse just repeats these words, while interjecting these little shouts – “When we sing, LOUD!/Hear our songs to you”, and so forth, in a way that makes me cringe a little as I think of youth group leaders try to teach corresponding hand motions. And the chorus is as basic as it gets: “We love you Lord, we love you, we love you”. The way it’s sung is admittedly pretty catchy, and the drum programming and little 8-bit chirpy noises provided by DJ Mike Hogan are certainly fun, so I wouldn’t gripe if it randomly came across the airwaves for old times’ sake. But still, it’s not quite the Crowder classic that its reputation might suggest.
3. You’re Everything
The album quite nearly comes to a dead stop with the bone-dry and painfully slow guitar strumming that opens this song. On my first listen through Can You Hear Us?, this six-minute albatross of a song quite nearly convinced me to tune out for the rest of the record, due to its illogical placement so early in the track listing. This is the kind of glacial epic that worship leaders normally have the good sense to place at or near the end of an album, or at least in the closing slot of side A. And on top of that, the whole darn thing is two chords. TWO CHORDS! There’s no way I could play it all the way through at this speed without getting some serious hand cramps from all those C’s and G’s. The kicker is that it’s actually a pretty decent song, once you get into it. While it seems downright nondescript at first, as Crowder draws out several lines of lyrics at a frustratingly measured pace, the song slowly begins to fill in its own gaps, cramming in more words as the verse escalates toward the chorus, and finally achieving a state of near euphoria as Hogan’s violin chimes in during the bridge. (It’s one of the few places on the album where I remember that violin being used for anything worth a darn.) The folks at Hillsongs have made an entire career out of dragging out power worship ballads to ridiculous lengths in order to achieve this sort of a crescendo, and since that’s such an expected formula for worship music, I’m surprised that it actually still works for me here. However, I maintain that this song has a potential which far exceeds its actual recording. It just needs a few more chords and some creative versatility to really set it free.
4. God of Creation
This one’s more of a textured, slightly syncopated, mid-tempo acoustic anthem. For a song about creation, it’s actually refreshingly verbose compared to some of the songs around it. A fascination with light and the sheer size of the universe permeates most of Crowder’s albums, and those familiar with Illuminate will probably hear echoes of “Open Sky” in this one. Unfortunately it’s hampered by a rather dull chorus melody and an overall sense of mild-manneredness that keeps it from really getting the album back up to speed where it could use a good boost. The song seems like it wants to open up and be a little more “jammy” toward the end, when the drums get slightly livelier and the female backing vocals get a bit more layered. I can almost see the cautious hand of a concerned producer holding them back, and ultimately, that prevents this one from being terribly memorable.
5. Wonderful King
Wow, seriously? Another six-minute ballad? This one feels even more lethargic than “You’re Everything” at the beginning, though it might technically have a slightly faster tempo. The dull percussion and unimaginative guitar chords (both acoustic and electric) don’t do it any favors, and Crowder’s back to dragging out seemingly every syllable again. Compare this to later songs that started off very sparse and measured, but gradually developed into something lifelike and memorable, and it’s plain to see that Crowder hadn’t really worked out how to set the mood in a song like this just yet. He doesn’t seem to want to put more than three or four words into a single line, resulting in a bunch of plain vanilla, Sunday school phrasings such as “We are here/Because of grace/Because of love/We are here/Because of You/Because of You.” It’s quite possibly the blandest song in the Crowder discography (though to be fair, I haven’t heard the majority of their early independent recordings).
6. All Creatures of Our God and King
Now if you’re familiar with the Illuminate album and you were wondering why that one has a lovely little rendition of a classic hymn that got titled “All Creatures #2”, then well, this is why. That’s right folks, they covered the same hymn for two albums in a row. Why? Well, probably because this version was such a spectacular failure that they had to completely rethink their approach in order to make fans of contemporary worship music not hate the hymn. Now to be fair, I could see some people liking this version and hating the other one for its slow measuredness, smoothing out the majestic cadences of the way we all sing it in church to make it fit an even 4/4. I’m really partial to that version, though, and while I can see what they were going for here, with Hogan pretty much taking over the song with his samples of organ music and other ambient sounds, the result is a jarring departure from everything else that Crowder has ever done (and certainly from the color-inside-the-lines approach that most of this album takes). It just feels detached from itself and hard to follow, and if you listen closely, there’s these faint bass beat that’s supposed to be keeping time even though the way Crowder sings the song doesn’t follow that rhythm. Ugh, it’s just so baffling and aggravating that I wish we could all just pretend version #2 was the only version that ever saw the light of day.
7. God of Wrath
Now that’s an odd name for a song. It’s one aspect of God’s character, I suppose, but not really something you want to advertise unless you can discuss it with enough theological depth to not make it sound like really bad PR for Christianity. Given that the DCB was adhering to the Delirious? school of song titling here and the words “God of wrath” are only ever heard in the first line of the song, I honestly don’t know what they were thinking. The song goes on, in rather mind-numbingly simplistic terms, to describe a bunch of other things that God is the God of, mostly stuff that rhymes like “light” and “night”, or “love” and “above”. (Then it gets worse – in a song which addresses God in the second person, i.e. “You”, Crowder has the nerve to rhyme “God of the strong, God of the weak” with “God of you and God of me”. Oy vey.) You know what’s crazy, though? A slick, almost sinister-sounding guitar riff and a laid-back, trip-hop sort of beat drive most of the song, allowing Jason Solley and B-Wack to pretty much singlehandedly (OK, double-handedly) save it from the scrap heap. The chorus breaks from this rhythm for more of a conventional melody and more simple sentence fragments: “My love for You/My heart for You/My life for You/All I am for You.” This will become more meaningful in just a few minutes, but first, the song’s going to slowly grow noisier, and Crowder’s going to spontaneously vamp on those lyrics for a bit before the whole thing just suddenly collapses. Weird, but at least it doesn’t sound like the typical worship band of the early 2000’s.
Mentioning Delirious? in the preceding paragraph was quite intentional, since the highlight of the album turns out to be an exceedingly well-chosen cover of one of D?’s best songs. It’s hard to beat the inherent coolness of the slow, crawling bass and the gradual, controlled explosion that set apart the original version, but Crowder’s more acoustic take on the song really gives it some room to breathe, bringing in the electric elements slowly, and ultimately building up to an equally beautiful crescendo. It was a very personal song for Martin Smith, trying to capture the essence of a relationship with a God that he knew he couldn’t see, hear, taste, touch, or feel. Those unfamiliar with Smith’s lyrical style may be bothered that things don’t always rhyme or that the lyrics don’t flow with stubborn, even-metered precision like so many of Crowder’s do. I think it’s a welcome change at this point. The chorus, which simply repeats “And my heart burns for You”, ascending to more passionate heights as the song grows and changes, might as well be vintage Crowder due to how well it fits his personal style. And just to keep this from simply being a case of, “We heard a cool song and covered it just for fun”, Crowder does add a bit of his own creative spark as the crescendo finally collapses into a heartfelt coda, during which he repeats that simplistic chorus from “God of Wrath”, in hushed acoustic format, and it totally works. For me, that’s become such an integral part of the song that it’s weird now to hear it in its original context.
9. My Hope
Another vaguely up-tempo, acoustic-driven track shows up here, though it tries to have more of a rock-oriented chorus. I’m not convinced that there’s enough oomph behind it for it to really work, so this is another one of those songs that tends to fade into the background despite the band’s best intentions. Everything about it just feels half-hearted. There’s this little sample of a man shouting “All aboard!” which is barely audible, as if Hogan wanted to do more of a DJ/sample-driven thing with it but got vetoed. So the song’s hinting at some sort of an off-kilter sense of fun that it doesn’t really live up to. I can also actually hear a bit of Hogan’s violin here and there, but nothing that really stands out (especially when compared to some of the band’s later bluegrassy stuff, or even mellow ballads like “Stars” where the instrument really added something to the mood). Most annoying is the chorus, which has another go-nowhere melody and awkward, unnatural phrasing: “And I’ll put my hope/And I’ll put my trust/And I’ll put myself in you.” Granted, I was predicting “my faith” for that last line, so at least they dodged one cliche there. But how do you put yourself in someone? I know what it means – giving all of oneself over to God. But the song needs better nouns, verbs, and/or prepositions to really flesh out what’s being said there. It’s such a little nitpick and I don’t mean for it to override what might otherwise be a pleasant song, but stuff like that reminds me how Crowder at this stage was apparently more concerned with the words fitting some sort of stiff rhythm than with them actually working in either an artistic sense or more of a down-to-earth, conversational sense.
10. Thank You for Hearing Me
This is one of those songs where, if you hear its ridiculously redundant verses which each repeat the same line four times, only changing one word each time through the loop, and you just assume it’s another example of hack songwriting on an album that’s largely full of it, then the joke’s on you. Sort of. See, this is a cover, and its source is an unlikely one as far as Christian music is concerned, because it was originally a Sinéad O’Connor song. (Who is actually a Christian, my research tells me, but given that she’s been the object of some controversy and her music doesn’t carry a specific religious message, most CCM fans would probably still classify her as “secular”.) Personally, I think an unimaginatively repetitive song is an unimaginatively repetitive song no matter who’s singing it, and this one would get on my last nerve if that last nerve wasn’t busy being tickled by Mike Dodson‘s fun bass line (which closely follows the original, I’ve come to discover). The band is clearly going for more of a rocked-out take on this song, though the mid-tempo pacing doesn’t really allow them to get there. I’m also not sure that re-contextualizing from a song about friendship to a song about God by changing a verse to “Thank You for saving me” and tacking on a snippet from the hymn “My Jesus, I Love Thee” at the end is entirely fair to the spirit of the original, but then again, some of the verses from the original (which thankfully aren’t repeated here) are pretty corny. Ultimately this is one of those covers that seems thrown in because the few in church who recognize it will think that’s a cool, post-modern way to approach worship. Given the band’s later success with covering everyone from Sarah Brightman to Sufjan Stevens to Flyleaf, I guess I should at least appreciate the intent behind this one, since a lot of folks who listened to this sort of stuff at the time probably tended to be pretty walled off to “secular music” and couldn’t see a way to find God in any of it.
And we close with… another cover song? Man, they really didn’t have a lot of original ideas for this album, did they? To be fair, it’s a reasonably good cover choice – one of the livelier tunes from Matt Redman‘s repertoire (and it seemed like every worship leader and their uncle were covering Redman at the time). It’s an upbeat, danceable song based on a Biblical account of David dancing before the Lord and being unashamed. (Thankfully there are no mentions of nudity.) It’s got a strong bass line and the kind of bouncy chorus that you can jump up and down to, though surprisingly, it seems a bit mannered, like they pulled back a bit on the rock factor for fear of alienating a record label that wanted marketable singles. (I’ve heard “God Almighty, None Compares”. I know what this band can do with two or three guitars.) It also falls into the trap of having only one verse and chorus, so each of those gets repeated at least twice, which would be fine if this were just the odd cover track thrown in for fun, but lyrical minimalism has plagued so much of the album that it’s difficult to tolerate more of it at this point. (Shouting “Na na na na na na, HEY! at the end of the song does not count as extra lyrics, I might add.) I guess this was supposed to be a bonus track or something, because it’s separated from the rest of the album by thirty seconds of silence (which are quite annoyingly at the beginning of this track rather than the end of track 10), but then there’s another hidden track buried several minutes after this, so I don’t know what the logic was for this one. It’s kind of fun, but also kind of disappointing.
12. You Alone
And after all that silence, we get… roughly a third of the song that originally put Crowder on the map. Seriously, it cuts in out of nowhere with the bridge of one of his oldest worship songs (which, unsurprisingly, is just the words “I’m alive” repeated a mind-numbing amount of times), and then the final chorus, and then it just ends after a minute or so. I would ask where the rest of it is, but some astute Crowder fans sprinkled across the Internet would point out that I should have been observant enough to catch the clues hidden in the liner notes of Illuminate and A Collision in order to figure that out. So… let me get this straight. You hid one third of it as album audio (which is great fun when someone puts the album on shuffle) but then the rest of it was part of an Internet scavenger hunt and the links are now dead? And just to add insult to injury, this song never got a proper studio recording? (The Lime CD and the extremely rare Pour Over Me had live versions, as I’m sure at least one Passion album did, but still. BAD idea.) Hopefully, if a greatest hits album ever materializes, they’ll have the forethought to rectify this dilemma, because the full version of “You Alone” is actually a pretty darn good song.
WHAT’S IT WORTH TO ME?
I Need Words $.25
Our Love Is Loud $.75
You’re Everything $1
God of Creation $.50
Wonderful King -$.25
All Creatures of Our God and King -$.25
God of Wrath $1
My Hope $.50
Thank You for Hearing Me $.25
You Alone $0
David Crowder: Lead vocals, acoustic and electric guitars, piano
Jason Solley: Electric guitar, backing vocals, mandolin
Mike Hogan: Turntables, violin/strings
Jack Parker: Keyboards, electric guitar, backing vocals
Mike Dodson: Bass, programming
Jeremy Bush (aka B-Wack): Drums, percussion, programming
LISTEN FOR YOURSELF:
Originally published on Epinions.com.